Jiu-Jitsu Letter


One of my favorite books on how to learn is Mastery, by George Leonard1. He’s an Aikido master, but the book’s lessons apply to learning anything. I’m lucky to have read it early in my jiu-jitsu adventure. (I wish I had it as a child, or any time before I read it. Then again, sometimes we’re not ready to hear a message, so in that sense, it arrived in my life at the right time.)

While there are many lessons in the book, the one I repeat to others most often is the chapter on the plateau. If we were to graph our path to mastery, we’d see peaks and valleys. And we tend to focus on those. But if we zoom out, we’d see several flat lines. The plateaus dominate the graph, and there are a few spikes and dips. It’s not usually not a flat line going left to right, but the climb is so gradual, that’s what it feels like.

In the beginning, it feels like there are upward spikes after every class. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last. And I think that’s a major source of frustration and why many students quit in their first 1-3 years of starting jiu-jitsu. They got used to the highs, and weren’t prepared for the mediums, not to mention the lows.

We go through weeks, months, even whole years where we feel we’re not improving. These plateaus are long. We feel we’re not getting any better, but of course we are. We’re just too close to it, so feels like a flat line. It’s hard to notice your improvement when you’re getting smashed, or not meeting your expectations. (Expecting anything is a path to unhappiness. Read Happiness is a Serious Problem, by Denis Prager.2)

There is no shortcut or secret. You cannot shorten the time spent on the plateau. It’s life. Our lives in genearl are spent mostly on the plateaus. Whether it’s school, career, (long term) relationships, anything, we spent most of our time on the plateau.

Leonard’s example was the football team that wins the Super Bowl. Wining that Super Bowl is the peak of that team’s season. And it lasts one day. It’s just a moment. The next day, it’s over. So in jiu-jitsu, and in life, we cannot live for the peaks. They don’t last. We have to live in the moment and enjoy the process.

Fall in love with the routine. I train and teach in the morning. I pack my bag the night before for a couple reasons. One, I don’t want to wake up the family so early. But more importantly, two, I actually enjoy folding my gi, filling my water bottle, packing my journal, and making sure everything is squared away for tomorrow’s class. I enjoy the drive to the academy. I enjoy sitting in the car in the parking lot for ten minutes before getting out. And of course, I love my time on the mat. If I only focused on the peaks, which could be tapping someone or figuring out a technique, then I’m not going to love every single class I attend or teach.

If I get smashed or just have a frustrating time on the mat (plateaus or valleys), and focus strictly on that, I’m going to let it ruin my day. And I think if you asked the BJJ quitters/formers, the honest answer for most to why they stopped training is frustration or a feeling of stagnation. They didn’t know the next peak was coming. They focused too much on the peaks and valleys, not knowing that it’s normal to be on the plateau.

If you showed me someone whose graph is a constant climb to the upper right, it’s likely that they’re not pushing themselves. We all know there are students that cherry pick sparring rounds to make sure they leave on a high. That’s an OK way to train, but it’s not optimal. Avoid the reckless, dangerous ones so you don’t get injured physically, but be OK with having your ego injured. It’s not supposed to be easy.

It’s impossible not to have long stretches of what feels like no improvement. It’s life. Nature. So we need to take a Zen Buddhism (or similar) approach to our training. Be in the moment. That’s all we really have anyway. Enjoy the process. We hear all the time about how it’s all about the journey, not the destination. It’s cliche, but it’s true. I think one of the reasons people say things like, “jiu-jitsu is life,” is because it can be a teacher of this idea.

Love the plateaus. If we don’t, jiu-jitsu will eventually become a chore. If we’re constantly judging our progress on “performance” each class, we’re looking at the wrong thing. Showing up to class is the goal. Just go to class. And trust the process. And enjoy the process. Jim Rohn says when you set a goal to become a millionaire, it’s not the million dollars that’s the reward. The reward is becoming a man or woman that is worthy of the million. So set the goal of black belt, not for the belt, but for becoming a black belt. Or better yet, set the goal of training forever, to become someone who trains forever.

Don’t be the one that says, “I used to do jiu-jitsu.” One of the keys to lifelong training is falling in love with the plateau.

  1. Mastery, George Leonard ↩︎

  2. Happiness is a Serious Problem, Denis Prager ↩︎

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