When the feedback says you're getting worse

I recently wrote an article about a phenomenon that happens in jiu-jitsu (and most things in life); plateauing.  Akin to the law of diminishing returns, at various points in your training you will not experience improvements.  Although a common phenomenon that everyone experiences, because novices typically experience constant and relatively large improvements in their game, stalling can seem problematic.

While writing that piece I was reminded of another phenomenon that I, and presumably others, because I am not special, deal with; the time when the feedback gets worse.  Basically we use a variety of things to give us feedback on our performance--anything from completing the warm-ups without stopping, to testing, to hitting your 'A' game on particular belt levels, etc.  One of the more common, and problematic, forms of feedback is our performance while rolling.  There are a host of reasons why this feedback is problematic, and we can probably find a common thread among all of them, but I want to focus on the situation when feedback starts to tell us we are getting worse.  Allow me to continue the lifting analogy . . . 

I love lifting because it comports with the way my brain works; it is a controllable and objectively measured activity.  It is so easily quantifiable (with some subjectivity regarding form, depth, etc.) because you use weights and reps to track our progress.  45 pounds one day is 45 pounds the next.  The weight does not vary, but rather our ability to handle it does, so the feedback is straightforward.  Let's say you squat 200 pounds for one rep one week.  The next week you might try to do more more weight, or do the same weight for more reps.  Based on that feedback, you can determine whether you've gotten stronger or not.  If you can lift 210 pounds for one rep, or 200 for two reps, then you've gotten stronger.  If you cannot lift 200 pounds for one rep, the same weight you did the previous week, then you've gotten weaker (and now the trick is to figure out why).  This is a pretty simplistic example, but it highlights how feedback is so easily quantifiable in lifting, and sets the back-drop for why it can be problematic in jiu-jitsu. 

In jiu-jitsu people often look at various training partners as weights.  That guy is like trying to lift 100 pounds, she is like trying to lift 200 pounds, Jay is like trying to lift infinity pounds, and so on.  When I say 'lifting' in terms of jiu-jitsu, I am not necessarily talking about "winning", but rather being able to do something against a particular training partner, achieve some goal (i.e., sweep, pass, submit, or maybe just not allow the training partner to advance past a certain point on the ladder).  Let's say passing the guard of a particular training partner is like lifting 200 pounds, but you can only lift 100 pounds.  You get better, and eventually you can lift those 200 pounds (i.e., pass their guard).  The problem comes because people tend to lock a training partner into a particular weight; that a particular training partner is always like lifting X pounds.  Why's that a problem?  Let's continue with this scenario to highlight why.

You are able lift 100 pounds in terms of passing guard, and you roll with a brown belt, and during those rolls trying to pass guard feels like trying to lift 200 pounds.  In your mind, that brown belt is like trying to lift 200 pounds.  As you improve you move from being able to lift 100 pounds to lifting 200 pounds; in other words, you can now 'lift' that brown belt; or pass their guard to continue our analogy.  Then the next time you roll with that brown belt you cannot 'lift' him.  If we used feedback the same way we did for lifting up above, you've gotten worse.  You were able to lift 200 pounds, and then you weren't.  What happened?

Simple; you're 200 pound training partner became a 300 pound training partner, but you didn't realize it.  Here's what happened to eager, little four stripe white belt, me.  Like most people, I started out in jiu-jitsu getting my ass handed to me nightly.  After many, many, many, many, many, many such nights, I stopped getting my ass handed to me as frequently, or as badly.  Then around the time I striped out on my white belt, the frequency and severity of those ass handings started to increase again.   Someone explained it to me, but it still didn't quite click.  Being on the other side of the phenomenon helped me better understand what's happening in this situation. 

Because your training partner is trying to help the both of you, they are, usually, going to let you work rather than just crush you.  They might play bottom/negative positions, let you work high up the ladder, work on their 'B' and 'C' games, etc.. As you get better, they won't let you climb as far up the ladder as they had been, or won't accept a negative position at all.  To go back to our lifting analogy, if they can feel that you can lift 100 pounds, they might make themselves 125 pounds, or 150 pounds, or 200 pounds, or [insert arbitrary number here].  They are going to stay just out of your 'strength range' (again, this is speaking generally).  As they feel you get 'stronger', and go from being able to 'lift' 100 pounds to 150 pounds and so on, they are going to make themselves a heavier weight.  That 200 pound brown belt can actually feel like 400 at their best, and are just being heavy enough to keep you working; so now you are able to lift 200 pounds, but they're now 250 pounds or 300 pounds or whatever.  

The issues starts with thinking our partner is weight A, when in fact they are weight B.  You go from being able to 'lift' them (i.e., pass, sweep, submit, etc.) to not being able to.  But there's no outward, objective measure for you to know whether you're trying to lift weight A or weight B.  As a result, you fall back on the default assumption that a particular training partner is weight A, you were able to 'lift' weight A, and now you can't.  Logically, you would conclude you have gotten worse, and this is the problem you can have in this scenario by assuming partners are a particular weight.  In reality the feedback is telling you that you are improving, but it's hard to decipher the feedback for the reasons noted. 

And while I think white belts deal with this more often, it's still problematic for higher ranks . . . well, at least I still had to deal with it even after getting promoted and training for close to 6 years.  Part of the reason I like lifting so much is because of that objectivity to it.  It's easily measurable and it's not going to bullshit you.  Jiu-jitsu is different.  Again, it's difficult to know what you're partner is weighing during a particular roll--is it 200 and I am getting worse, are they 300, etc.?.  This was, and still is somewhat, a huge mind fuck for me.  I've gotten smashed during rolls, and had a training partner tell me I am getting better.  I'm getting smashed as bad as when I was new, yet I am somehow getting better.  That makes zero fucking sense to me.  Again, I like lifting for the reasons noted above, and being told I am getting better after getting smashed is like trying to deadlift X weight, not being able to move the bar, and having someone say, 'man, you're getting stronger.'   It just doesn't compute.

Regardless, it's important for newer people to be aware of this phenomenon so that when it happens, and it will happen, they're not surprised by it and subsequently make some drastic change to their training regimen.  What should you do when it happens?  Specifically, I don't know.  Generally, though,  you need to accept it is part of the progression, that you are improving, and continue to train.

 - John Haskell