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A huge thank you to the readers of Washington City Paper for voting Groundworks BJJ as the best martial arts classes in the DC!

Many academies, Groundworks included, have rules that set behavioral standards. While rules are helpful because they create clarity on what behaviors are expected and acceptable, they tend to focus on what to do and not do. In addition to a few rules, Groundworks has a set of principles that define our gym’s culture. Rather than telling students what to DO or not DO, our principles provide our students and instructors with a north star that guides them on how to BE in various situations they’ll find themselves in. It’s up to each student to interpret the principles and how to apply them in their training and in their lives.

Clean - We respect our training partners by showing up to practice with our body and gear washed and smelling good. We prevent skin infections by not letting anything that touches the floor touch the mat and by sanitizing the mat after every training session.

Tough - Jiu-Jitsu is a fighting art and in order to excel at it you must have hard sparring rounds where you are pushed slightly beyond the limits of what you thought you could handle. Doing so builds physical, mental, and emotional toughness.

Gentle - Learning happens more effectively when we feel respected and cared about. We look out for one another’s well being, give one another the benefit of the doubt and assume ignorance over maliciousness when there’s ambiguity in someone's actions.

Responsible - There is a hierarchy in Jiu-Jitsu based on ability, knowledge, and belt rank. The higher we are in the hierarchy, the more responsibility we have to help newer students and champion Groundwork’s culture.

Technical - We strive to use leverage and position over our physical attributes: weight, strength, and speed. In tough, competitive sparring it’s necessary to use our physical attributes, but when not engaged in competitive rounds, we focus on using our technique. This has the added benefit of allowing athletes with very different physical attributes to train with and learn from each other.

Safe - We respect the tap. When training with a less knowledgeable opponent, we let them know when they’re in danger and don’t recognize it. When training with a smaller or weaker opponent we moderate our use of weight and strength. When socializing off the mat, we avoid words and actions that might cause a teammate to be uncomfortable coming to class.

Growth Oriented - Jiu-Jitsu is a skill that can be learned and improved over the course of our lifetimes. We improve a little bit each training session and strive to always be a little better than we were the previous day, week, month, year.

Competitive - We regularly have tough, competitive sparring rounds with our similarly skilled teammates. We improve our confidence in our Jiu-Jitsu by competing in tournaments outside of the academy.

Inquisitive - We ask questions of ourselves, our teammates, and our coaches. We experiment and try new techniques and training methods. We actively seek out the gaps in our knowledge and ability and look for answers on how to close them.

Ugh… not again! That’s what I say to myself when this one particular teammate starts passing my guard with the same freaking São Paulo pass for what seems like the millionth time. I’ve tried everything I know to stop him: avoiding it, defending it, changing guards, I’ve asked other teammates and my coach how to stop it, but no matter what I try, I can’t seem to stop him and it’s so freaking demoralizing.

To make matters worse, I’m probably better at most other aspects of Jiu-Jitsu than this teammate. I just can’t use any of my other skills because I spend most of every round we have working my way out from under his side control.

Question: Why is he able to pass my guard so consistently even though I know the pass is coming?

Answer: Because I’m consistently making the same few mistakes that allow him to do it.

The problem is these few mistakes are far enough beyond the limits of my knowledge of Jiu-Jitsu that I can’t identify them. Because I can’t identify the mistakes, I don’t realize when I’m making them. I call these types of elusive mistakes “invisible mistakes.”

How to find your invisible mistakes

We’ve all got our version of the scenario above:

  • Someone near our skill level continually beats us with the same technique

  • We don’t know what went wrong

  • We try everything we know and it doesn’t work

In the past, my reaction was to get annoyed with these people every time I rolled with them. However, I eventually learned that this was a foolish reaction because the people who exploit my mistakes are also my best source of information on how to correct them.

Consider that the guy passing my guard knows what grips and positions he needs and at some point notices when I make them available. Consider that other people likely stop his São Paulo pass and he can explain what they do to cause him trouble.

So, to find those invisible mistakes you have to ask the person who’s exploiting them what’s happening. Ask him:

  • What am I doing that lets you keep setting up the technique?

  • What can I do to fix those things?

  • What do people who give you a hard time do when you try this technique?

You’ll often be surprised by the insightful answers you get and how helpful your teammates are willing to be in teaching you how to do better against them. Your teammate benefits from sharing this information too — by giving you a solution, he’ll now have someone better to train with in the future.

Now that your invisible mistakes have become visible, how do you go about ensuring you don’t keep repeating them?

100 Mental Reps

Our mistakes are usually incorrect reactions to situations we’ve recognized from previous sparring sessions. For these types of mistakes, it’s important to train ourselves to react in the new, more effective way our teammate has shown us whenever we find ourselves in that situation. But how do we do that?

Multiple studies have shown that mentally rehearsing physical skills improves our performance of those skills. In my own training, I've found this to be particularly true when it comes to fixing technical mistakes. To do so, pick a time when you won’t have distractions — my preferred time is usually in bed before falling asleep. Imagine yourself in the situation where you’ve made the mistake and visualize yourself performing the new action. Make the visualization as vivid as possible, feel what each limb is doing, the strength of your grips, the weight or movement of your opponent, etc. You don’t need to actually move your body, just imagine what it feels like for your body to take the new action as you visualize it.

This doesn’t take long, maybe a few seconds each rep. Do 100 reps and you’ll have programmed your mind and body to take the new action the next time you’re in the situation.

What happens when you do this as a regular part of your training? You quickly get a lot tougher to beat.

Leveling Up

Most BJJ athletes tend to chase shiny new techniques. Early in our Jiu-Jitsu careers, the right new technique can provide a massive level-up, so it makes sense that we’d build a habit of looking for new techniques in order to get better. However, adding new techniques won’t level us up as fast as fixing our mistakes. As an example, who do you think is tougher to submit from mount?:

  • A guy who knows a half-dozen escapes, but consistently gives up his back and lets his elbows drift away from his ribs (mistakes) or

  • A guy who knows one escape, but never gives up his back and whose elbows stay glued to his ribs

Clearly the guy who’s making fewer mistakes is harder to tap even though he knows fewer techniques. While having a toolbox of techniques to choose from is important, constantly adding to that toolbox won’t level you up as fast as identifying and correcting your mistakes.


The process I outline above will make you a much more effective BJJ athlete if you do it consistently. If you’re training twice per week and you find and fix one invisible mistake per training session, in 6 months your teammates and opponents will have 52 fewer ways to submit and score on you.

How much better will you be if you fix 52 mistakes you’re making over and over again? How much harder will it be to tap you out? All you have to do is stop getting annoyed by your “São Paulo Pass Guy” and ask him how to stop giving him what he needs to beat you… then put in the mental reps.

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