Mistakes you don’t know you’re making… and how to fix 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.


Consistency


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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