I decided recently, in Feb 2022, to go all-in on Jiu-Jitsu, also known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or just BJJ (or JJB in French).
For me, going all-in, means always making sure there's a gym nearby that has lots of high-level practitioners and lots of classes, attending them 5-6 times a week, and taking a serious approach to studying the discipline.
For anyone not getting an earful about BJJ from me (I try to hold back!), Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a grappling martial art. The focus is on taking your opponent down and then stopping shy of choking them unconscious or injuring a limb or joint — called "getting a tap", when they tap out.
The focus of BJJ is usually technique first, then stamina, strength, mobility, and speed, in some order. You can usually overcome technique with one of the others (especially strength), but for fans of the art, technique is always first.
BJJ incorporates a lot of ground fighting, and over time is absorbing parts of Judo and wrestling.
My priorities in starting BJJ were: 1. to stay fit and get fitter, and 2. connect with people all over the world. It's a bit like many competitive sports that have global communities, but I just liked the sound of the Jiu-Jitsu crowd.
As I got into BJJ though, I quickly fell in love with it, and am dedicating the next few years of my life ot it.
I originally wrote this as a declaration that I wanted to get to Black Belt quickly, but I've also realised that over-obsessing about belts is likely to lead to dissatisfaction. I'll just let them come as a surprise.
Still, I'm going to act in the way that lets me progress as quickly as possible.
How do people progress quickly in BJJ?
The short answer is: A lot of practise, understanding your weaknesses, and focusing on them without getting hung up in egos.
Advice given to a lot of newbies is to focus on positions and retaining your guard before you focus on submissions. Submissions are fun, but they're easy to get once you have done all the hard bits of getting into the right position.
People often measure progress in martial arts by belts. But there are pitfalls in this.
Firstly, belts are a semi-objective indicator of proficiency in Jiu-Jitsu. They're not easy to get.
For example, most BJJ practitioners never reach black belt. It takes a long time. So the main reason people never reach black belt is that life happens and they peter off in training or stop.
For those who persist, getting to black belt typically takes anywhere from 10-15 years of fairly consistent training. Yes, that sounds like a long time... it is! Consistent training means training 3-4 times a week and generally trying to improve.
In many other martial arts (the ones that have belts, anyway), getting to black belt can be trivial. At an extreme level, in kids classes in some schools, if a child shows up every week and the parents pay the tuition on time, the child will be awarded a black belt.
Of course, belts only mean whatever you want them to mean.
In Jiu-Jitsu, at least half the training you do (even in the early years) is 1-1 grappling. In class, we go at roughly 70% of a full intensity competitive roll. As people progress through belts, they spend less time learning from instructors (though there's always something new to learn — I see the older black belts even listening to the newer instructors), and more time grappling.
But we really spend a lot of time doing live rolling against resisting opponents.
This means that to get to black belt in Jiu Jitsu, we have to have demonstrated prowess against a lot of opponents. You can't just show up and get it!
Why not focus on getting a Black Belt
I want to address some reasons why I shouldn't set a goal for getting to black belt. Many of these are things I normally tell myself in other disciplines, and which I commonly hear in Jiu-Jitsu.
There are many obvious counterpoints to setting this goal of getting to BB* within five years.
- Enjoy the process, not the destination. If I am too obsessed with getting a belt, then it might hamper how much I'm enjoying just showing up.
- Nothing makes me some special snowflake. The vast majority of people take a long time to get there, and I'm not some special snowflake.
- There's no substitute for mat time. I can't accelerate spending time on the mats. Over-training will lead to injury and then just slow me down.
- There's no point being a hobbyist black belt if I can be dominated by a competitive purple belt. This is a different and good point, but I will probably compete, too, if I find a comp I like.
- Live in the moment, man.
** BB often is used to refer to "black belt" in spite of the fact that "B" could mean "blue" or "brown". Go figure!
All of these points are valid.
The better approach for progressing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the same one that I use for learning languages and other things, is to enjoy the process of doing it and not get too hung up on goals.
Why Decide to Focus on BJJ?
Firstly, I'm making this decision because I've fallen hard in love with BJJ. I like to stay physically active and to do it socially, and martial arts and sports are a great way of doing this.
The second reason is that focusing on BJJ encourages me to be creative with my training.
You can't really fake your way through BJJ. To advance, I'll have to really be systematic — showing up to class primarily, but also always addressing weaknesses and learning new things as I can.
There's little question that the BJJ pedagogical process is chaotic. At most gyms it's something like: show up to class, do some drills, then roll. People are expected to experiment and incorporate things they've learned into rolls, but the reality is that often, BJJ practitioners feel "stuck" doing the same thing over and over, and getting trapped the same way.
Many classes have a large range of experience levels. This means that you can easily spend too much time doing something that won't help you.
It's not just the BJJ group educational system that's inefficient. The same could be said of many disciplines, including language learning, or higher education. Many people will tell you, for example, that they learned everything they needed for their job on the job from a good boss, not from school.
How I'll do it
My main approach to learning Jiu Jitsu quickly is going to be the same one I use for learning sports and languages.
This will include:
- Consistency: I'll show up to class at least three times a week — five, if I can. Depends on the gym. Many are only open a few times a week, after all. As we travel, I'll always choose locations where there's a gym.
- Low ego (or no ego if I can). A big part of my self-education process is to focus on myself, not on others. It doesn't matter if someone "beats" me. It just matters if I'm trying to get better and if I try something new.
- Asking questions: I am always shocked at how few people ask questions. I'm always the guy saying "I have a newbie question..."
- Trying new things. I won't get stuck in patterns that work for me, but experiment and improve.
- Training weaknesses. I always know I have particular weaknesses I want to drill and can work on them. For example, these days it's takedowns, guard retention, and guard passing. I think that'll be my life for the next three months.
- Research and study. I have a few resources available, and I'll go read or watch videos every time I need to learn something in detail. It can be really dangerous feeling like watching videos is akin to training. But I tend to do research on a technique just when I really need to learn one specific thing better (e.g. "mount position tips"). YouTube is a giant marketing black hole, but there are many paid resources (like the Grapplers Guide) which are high value.
This is a similar approach to that which I've used for learning languages. My general approach is
- Talk to someone in the target language, trying to say new things every time
- Learn the phrases I didn't know how to say — ask the teacher, don't be shy
- Make flashcards and drill those structures
- Study the grammar points I didn't understand
- Go to 1.
It has worked for me for a while. In fact, most of my BJJ study is going to be in other languages, so it'll continue to work for a while.
In a nutshell: because I'm good at learning things quickly, I'm physically fit, and I have a lot of time (this is important!).
There's a few reasons I think this approach will work.
- I do learn things quickly. I speak eight languages well, six of them being languages I learned myself (and with private teachers). I've got a couple more on the boil. Aside from languages, I've learned coding, weightlifting, and the art and science of building an online content business (our company, Disco Media), all relatively quickly. So far, my progression through BJJ has been evidence that I can progress relatively quickly.
- I'm fit. I spent a lot of years getting fit, mostly via CrossFit. I got to the point where I could do everything and lift a lot of weight, and I generally thought — OK, I'm good enough at this; now I want to apply this fitness and strength elsewhere.
- I have time. Because we work for ourselves, I have a lot of flexibility. Every day I manage a portfolio of websites, managing content creation and the revenue streams. We don't make a ton of money but we also live in low-cost places and have ample savings.
So I can train five days a week.
Let's see how this works out!
Caveats — Ways this play may get derailed
The main thing that's working against me in focusing on BJJ is that I'm old (I'm 41 already), and so my body will surprise me with aches and pains.
The second thing that age does is it changes life more quickly. My parents might get sick and need help. Or my partner might, or maybe her parents might. All those things will mean moving around and interrupting my training.
Another factor is that I change gym a lot. Because I tend to move around, I'm often with new coaches who don't know my strengths and may have different standards.
I'll keep going back to Sassom MMA in Brisbane, Australia, because that's where I started and my family live there. It'll be good to put my level to the test...
Of course, people go through many changes in their years of training.
I'll keep putting down updates on my BJJ plans and achievements as they occur.