I’ve been thinking about this a bit. The answer of course is ” It depends?” BJJ has a built in process of belt progression to help but largely the process of gauging process is a deeply personal one. I firmly think that establishing your own personal way of measuring your progress in BJJ is essential to long term enjoyment. We naturally move towards measuring, categorizing, testing, and labeling as human beings. It’s how we are built. Here are some ways I’ve measured my progress at different times at the gym:
This is an external measure. It lets you know that your instructor has measured your skills against a belt level standard and decided that you have the appropriate level of skills. The advantages of using this system is that it leaves your judgment out of the equation. You don’t have to decide if you are blue belt level etc. Your isntructor lets you know. It’s a nice measure and a reassuring way to know you are making progress.
The downside of this measure is that you don’t get it often enough to gauge day to day progress. If you are lucky you can move up in rank every few years. This is a good way to look at the overall fitness of someone’s game but not the nitty gritty details such as “Does he have a good butterfly guard?” There is a wide range of skill levels at each belt and it’s hard to say that every blue belt does this certain skill set well.
How is this a measure? It depends on why you are training I guess. If I had to make a list of my top 5 training goals enjoyment would always be in my top 5. One thing I’ve found over the years is that will power alone can get you about a year of training if you are lucky. After that you’d better be enjoying it. The training can be really tough and exhausting so it makes sense that the more you enjoy it the more you are likely to subject yourself to it’s rigors. For me personally when I can’t wait to get into the gym. When I’m thinking of moves and counters and what to teach on my off time, that’s when I know I’m really enjoying it. I’m not interested in making a living from BJJ. Nor do I want to be a world champion. I don’t care to tap out Marcello Garcia. If I wasn’t enjoying it there’d be little real reason for me to do it besides maybe self defense and exercise. The enjoyment factor is a quality of life issue for me. Finding a way to gauge your enjoyment. Or, more importantly finding a way to increase it in your training is vital.
Who Taps Who
This can be a measure. I know that there are guys in the gym that I used to be able to tap easily and at will. Now they are very tough. Some of them I can still tap. Some I can tap rarely. Some not at all anymore. This is certainly a testament to their skill improvement. It’s a valid measure. It shows that the skill gap between them and me has closed in a significant way.
It’s not the best or only measure though. As you gain skill and experience in BJJ the learning curve levels out more. That means it won’t be a quick rise like it was at white belt. This can make it appear that people around you are passing you up. Or that new guys are rapidly making progress towards your game and you are sitting still. If you only use who taps who as a measure it’s easy to draw those kinds of conclusions.
As a blue belt I actually tapped out my instructor a couple of times. As a brown belt I have not. Not even close. If I had used that as a measure then I might conclude that I’m worse as a brown belt than I was as a blue. The other issue is that submissions are only a part of BJJ. In my personal game I’m not too fond of submissions. I’m way more interested in positional work. Sweeps, reversals, hold down positions- those are the things I’m really fond of. It probably means that my sub game isn’t as refined as someone who focuses more on that part of their game.
Who You Don’t Tap To
Not only can you use who you tap as a measure but you can use who you work with and managed to avoid the tap. This is also a good measure. Although I don’t tap out my instructor when we roll I have managed to increase the amount of time I stay alive.
If you think about it the students who have been there longer than you are also getting better. If you can last longer rolling with them consistently then you are making some progress. With higher belts that may be the only way to measure your progress as you aren’t as likely to get a sub.
There are times when I roll with a guy and totally dominate position and somehow get subbed in the end. Or, I roll with guys who always beat me but I find myself wrestling in a dominant position more. My instructor taps me out only every time we roll, but I find myself passing his guard more often. I hold top position longer when I get it. A small mistake in rolling can result in a sub but consistent dominating position is the result of skill and not luck. This is a measure that I consistently use to gauge my game. I appreciate it more than I do the who subbed who method.
This one is important to me because I teach classes at my gym. I gauge progress personally not just based on performance but also on my understanding of the game. It’s progress for me when I can conceptualize, categorize, name, organize, or otherwise break down the game in a way I couldn’t before. If I can teach it better it’s a measure of progress. Some people don’t care about this and only care about performance on the mat. I appreciate the ability to look at a position and know the pressures, problems, and possibilities that go with it. It helps me to be a better coach and adds to my overall enjoyment of the game.
I don’t use this method. I don’t like competitions. They aren’t fun for me, and I don’t need them as a measure of progress. Some people use them that way though. Instructors have been known to award a rank promotion to a student after he does well in a tournament. How you perform under pressure is a good measure of your game. If you do well in a tournament in a room full of your peers you can feel pretty good about your game at that level.
Where this measure falls down is that some people are more game ready than others. Some guys roll great in the gym and not so great under pressure at a tourney. Some guys actually work better at a competitive tourney than at the gym. Also, your game is not consistent from day to day. You can have a brilliant day on the mat and the next time you go in nothing is working at all. I think you have to take tournament wins and losses with a grain of salt. If you consistently win tournaments and are having lots of success then it’s probably a good sign that your game is rocking. One or two tournaments may not be enough to draw broad conclusions however.
In the end I use a combination of these. I find that using one measure exclusively can result in not getting a clear picture of how your game is progressing. Some advice my instructor always gives that I think is golden is to never measure your game by one session at the gym. Everybody has a bad day. It really has to be measured over time with a variety of measures. That’s the only way to really know where your game is.
How much you measure and how often is a personal choice. I think the key is to make the measurement a positive tool and not a negative one. If the measurement tool that you are using is causing you to not enjoy your training or to feel like you aren’t making progress, or makes you train less and with less enthusiasm, then maybe you need to look again at how you measure and when.
Frankly I use the measurement tools that gauge what I value most more than I use the ones that don’t. Who I tapped is not very important. How much I enjoy BJJ is very important. Positional dominance and overall understanding of the game are also important to me personally. I don’t care at all about winning Mundials or any other competition. Rank does matter to me. It’s not paramount but having the external validation of my progress is something that I value. If I were still white belt at this point in my game then I think it would bother me a lot. Moving on to black belt is not something I worry a lot about though because the other measure I use are quite sustaining for me.