Frustration and Plateaus – A Theory (Short)

I receive a lot of comments regarding frustration from students. Usually it is always about the same thing, the feeling that they are not improving, or even, going backwards. It is the same across the BJJ spectrum, and something I came across regularly in my own progression till I started to muse what it actually meant.

Now, it seems almost bizarre that someone who trains regularly and consistently feels like this, that no matter the effort, that it is possible to “stall”. What helped me is to stop seeing plateaus as a “stop”, but instead as a “transition”.

As a newbie to Jiu-Jitsu, you’re completely uninitiated in to how to use your body. You’ve just been born, you don’t know how to walk or what these fingers or toes do. So everything that you’re shown is absolutely mind blowing. Guard, Mount, Chokes, Locks, these are all incredible things and we get stuck into seeing the big picture. When you’re new, Guard is just closing your legs around someone, seems pretty simple.

You eventually make a game out of these techniques, a system, and due to the progressive and sporting nature of BJJ, you spar and start to see improvement against people, both against those who trash you, and newer folk who you start to smash to bits. But then it feels like it’s halting, that you’re no longer gaining any ground. The plateau.

“The Devil is in the Details”

There has never been a truer thing said than the above about Jiu-Jitsu. The plateau isn’t you stalling, it’s instead you transitioning to a higher plain of understanding. There is probably less than a hundred core techniques in Jiu-Jitsu, which isn’t a lot and pretty quick to learn. What is deeply enthralling is the continually descending level of details to these techniques.

First come the different entries. Then the different grips. Set ups. Unbalances. Posture destruction. Eventually you’re looking at physics and anatomy. What was just a “triangle” in the beginning, is now a huge mesh of all the above. But you can only start to understand the above once you have mastered the level above it. Explaining the deep anatomical parts of attacking the triangle to someone who doesn’t know how to coordinate their legs is practically pointless.


What separates each belt is the attention they all have to the individual details. You may, as a White Belt, be attempting a sweep but getting no where, then get air time from the Brown Belt doing the same technique, making it look effortless. There’s no sorcery going on here. This person has learnt the same core technique as you. But their attention to each of the details and understanding is much much deeper. As you can see though, it’s not that there is a different technique, just a different way of looking at it.

When you feel a plateau in your ability, don’t try and hunt down the next big guard or insane submission, instead evaluate what you already know. Ask different people about what their understanding of a technique is and see if there’s something you’re missing. Then sit there and ponder about life and the universe for a bit.

What I would say is embrace the plateaus. They aren’t what you think they are. They are you painfully breaking through a barrier of understanding, getting better, seeing things in a whole new light.

First you learn to stand, then to walk, then run, jump and dance. To a baby lying on the floor, there is no difference between those last 4.


Published by Chris Paines

Grappling Coach

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