5 Patterns That Made Me a World Jiu-Jitsu Champion
It's more than just hard work.
Originally published July 19, 2021, in Better Humans
When I started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 2015, I was a child.
I was 17, kind of afraid of violence (but obsessed with fighting), and a terribly slow learner. Growing up with ADHD only further ingrained the thought in my mind that I was a stupid, slow learner who had to work twice as hard as anyone else to develop the same amount of skill.
In a sport where many athletes train for 4–6 hours per day (sometimes more) and literally live in gyms to focus on training, everyone is working hard. There has to be something else besides grit that separates the top athletes from each other.
In 2016, with just 11 months of training, I took bronze in the IBJJF No-Gi world championships. In 2017, I took bronze again. I took 2018 off due to knee surgery, but in 2019 I became a world champion. I had just about four years of training, where some of my opponents had more than a decade of experience under their belt.
These are the five patterns that contributed toward rapidly increasing my progression in martial arts, without having daily access to world-class training partners, famous coaches, or steroids. And yes, they can be applied to any other skill.
1. Constant Environmental Changes
The first realization that I made in Jiu-Jitsu was that though my instructor was incredibly knowledgeable and skilled, he didn’t know everything. He told me so himself.
He also said that I should seek other sources of knowledge besides him. This amount of humility is very uncommon in the Jiu-Jitsu world, where elitism and tradition have held back the development of athletes for decades now.
Having an instructor who encouraged me to seek external knowledge instilled a desire in me to learn from as many people as possible. What started as a weekend hobby of visiting other martial arts academies near me grew to an obsession with traveling the country — and the world — pursuing knowledge from as many sources as possible.
I don’t have one “sensei”; the world is my sensei. I’m not the karate kid; I’m a rogue ninja who’s obsessed with learning.
2. Constant Testing of Skills
Tests are scary, and I’m anxious all the time. There, I said it.
For me, tests are the most difficult part of developing a skill because they require me to face my fears — every single time.
As a writer, this means constantly publishing work and submitting it to publications. As a martial artist, this means testing myself against the toughest opposition in the most diverse range of circumstances possible. It means having challenging rounds in training when I’m exhausted or competing in tournaments against the toughest opposition in the world, regardless of how I feel.
Though it’s scary and even kind of unpleasant at times, these evaluations are well worth the skill development. Psychology backs this up as well: tests can boost learning.
After a tournament or a weekend of training with world-class Jiu-Jitsu athletes, it feels as if my normal opposition is moving in slow motion. My game is tighter, my technique is cleaner, and my mind is functioning at a step above its normal capacity.
If you’re the best in the room at something, leave the room for a while. It’s easy to understand that being a small fish in a big ocean is much better for growth than the opposite. If you have the humility to not be the best, you might just stumble your way to the top.
3. Periodic Total Immersion Camps
The difference between travel and “total immersion” is that total immersion can be done anywhere. You don’t need to train with world-class opposition every day to become competent at Jiu-Jitsu. You don’t need to write 10,000 words every day to become a great writer.
You do, however, need to practice your skill a lot.
When preparing for Jiu-Jitsu events, I often go through these immersion camps unconsciously because I’m so obsessed with the preparation. Without even realizing it, I’ll spend an entire day training, teaching private lessons, and lifting weights. Because I love Jiu-Jitsu so much, it’s easy for me to spend six hours on the mat without even noticing the time going by.
This time constantly focused on my skill also rapidly increases my skill development.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but you can’t learn via osmosis. To learn, you need to practice. To become world-class, you need to practice a lot.
I’m not encouraging anyone to work 12–14 hour days on anything, but I am saying that periods of total immersion in your desired skill can only help you develop quicker. For me, these intense periods of long work don’t feel like work — at least for a while. When I start to feel burnt out, I try to stop working so hard.
If you’re going to immerse yourself in something, you also need to decide when you’re going to take a break.
I’ve done a lot of work to find my physical and mental limitations for work, both athletically and professionally. Instead of partying, I used college as a testing ground for how hard I could work so that when I began my professional life, I was aware of my limits. The occasional testing of limits through immersion camps is a great way to kickstart rapid improvement.
4. Accepting Criticism
I used to despise the idea of having mentors. It sounded like some BS, startup guru crap that was a complete waste of time.
I was very wrong.
I’m stubborn, and at 19 I thought I knew everything there was to know about the world. I definitely didn’t need advice from my parents, friends, or even Jiu-Jitsu instructors to become great. My ego was inflated by the fact that people would tell me I was “wise for my age,” and I used this to build a protective shell around my ego.
I mean, my Jiu-Jitsu instructor literally told me that he didn’t know everything. Why would I trust the future of my skill development in anyone’s hands but my own? Why would I give anyone power over me?
I was looking at the situation all wrong, and it was holding me back.
The purpose of mentors, coaches, or any other type of guide on the journey of skill development isn’t to tell you what to do or how to do it, it’s to tell you a story. Great coaches are often also great storytellers. If you don't believe me, I highly recommend you check out former Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable’s book, “A Wrestling Life: The Inspiring Stories of Dan Gable,” or former UCLA basketball coach John Gooden’s book, “The Pyramid of Success: Championship Philosophies and Techniques on Winning.”
By telling their students a story, top-class teachers are able to instill lessons that can propel them beyond the limits the teachers were able to reach. The power of becoming coachable is that by learning the story of others, you can avoid making the same mistakes as your mentors and develop their positive habits as your own.
Becoming more coachable was the best quality I’ve adapted in my entire athletic career.
5. Regular Breaks
Just a few weeks ago, I was working beyond my physical limit and my body was shutting down. I had all the classic symptoms of overtraining: elevated heart rate, mild-moderate depression symptoms, physical exhaustion, and of course, a constant state of brain fog. I was absolutely miserable.
Luckily, I also had been planning for this for months.
Back in March, I was beginning to feel the early signs of burnout, and I knew I was going to need a break at some point to prevent utter collapse. Because I work remotely, I was able to take a week and visit friends in Colorado to go camping and soul searching in the mountains. I came back feeling motivated to improve for the first time in months.
Between the immersion camps, following Coach’s orders, endless tests, and travel, I need to also schedule break time to make sure I don’t lose my mind in the pursuit of a high level of skill.
In my experience, the greatest leaps in progress and growth occur after a long break. It’s not enough to take a rest day or a day off of writing, sometimes you need to really make yourself crave the labor again. For me, intense periods of extended effort prolonged by intense breaks have led to the greatest leaps and bounds in skill.
I’m not “always trying to get better”; I’m listening to my mind and body. That’s what helps me get better. It’s not about “never stopping”; it’s about never quitting.
If you’re reading this and you’re overwhelmed by all of the different ways you can get better, you should be. There are a lot of options when it comes to skill development, and some will resonate with you more than others.
I have friends for example who love training Jiu-Jitsu and traveling to visit new places, but they hate listening to coaches. This limits them in some aspects of their journey but propels them forward in other ways. However, they’re also happy with the way they're doing things, and happiness is very important when it comes to skill acquisition.
I attribute a lot of my athletic success to my ability to combine hard work with smart work. These habits are what I’ve used to go from a random newbie at a Jiu-Jitsu academy to a world champion in just a few years, and they can be replicated across domains. I’m also attempting to do it right now in writing.
“If you know the way broadly you will see it in everything.”― Miyamoto Musashi
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Wishing you the best,