The 4 Stages of Athletic Development in BJJ

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Everyone who starts BJJ (or any other sport) will go through the four stages. Knowing about them will make your journey as an athlete easier. It will give you some context of what you are going through and it will give you an idea of what you should focus on.

If you are a coach, you can use this information to help your students. Instead of giving out generic advice, you can first recognize what stage they are in and then tailor your advice to the student and where they are currently at.

Not everyone who has the same belt or the same amount of training will be at the same stage. Everyone’s journey is different and you can’t rush through the stages. You will only stifle your long-term development if you neglect one and try to jump ahead.

Of course the stages are somewhat fluid, you don’t just change stages from one day to the next. Recognize when you are ready for the next stage and then slowly make the transition.

Building the foundation

In the beginning, you have to get better body awareness and learn how to move your body. Agility, balance and coordination have to be developed to serve as a foundation for further learning. If you have played other sports before BJJ, this will probably be easy for you. If BJJ is your first sport, it will take a little time to develop those qualities

In addition to the physical skills, you also have to learn how to train. Learning new skills is a skill in itself. You have to be able to see a movement, understand it, translate it to your own body and then execute it.

Sometimes it can feel devastating in the beginning when you see other people pick things up much faster than you, especially if they just started. If that is the case, keep in mind that they probably built their foundation in other sports. Not everyone starts with the same foundation.

Some people can skip this phase, some might only need a short amount of time here and for others it takes a lot longer. Either way, don’t worry about it. This is only the very beginning of your BJJ journey and soon the playing field will level out during the following phases.

Train to train

After building the foundation, the focus is on learning the sport of jiu jitsu. Before you can really “play” BJJ, you need to get an understanding of all the positions and how they are connected. From every position, you should know what your primary goals are and what your opponent is trying to do.

During this time you should also learn the basic concepts, like keeping your elbows tight, both arms in or both arms out, not giving up top position etc. Learn the fundamentals from all the main positions.

If you compete during this phase, try not to focus on winning too much. Instead, focus on having fun and increase your knowledge about jiu jitsu.

At the end of this phase, even if you only know a limited amount of techniques, you will be ready to start playing jiu jitsu. You play the same game as the top guys in the sport, just on a different level.

Train to compete

It doesn’t matter whether you want to become a competitor or if you just want to train for life, this is the stage where you focus on getting better at jiu jitsu.

It’s now time to really explore the sport. Get a deeper understanding of the fundamentals, learn all the advanced techniques and positions and have fun. Check out what the top competitors are doing and try to add some of those things to your game.

On the physical side of things, you should build your aerobic conditioning and strength during this phase as well. This will help with injury prevention and longevity, makes it easier to recover from your training and will provide a good base level of fitness if you ever decide to compete.

If you want to become a competitor, it’s a good idea to start competing regularly during this phase. Don’t focus on winning too much yet, but instead focus on your long term progress. Get comfortable and learn to deal with the competition nerves, analyze your matches and fix the holes in your game.

Most BJJ practitioners have no interest in becoming a competitor. Even if they compete a few times every year, it’s not their main focus. If that is you, you will stay in this phase. Don’t feel like there is anything wrong with that. Enjoy the sport and help others to enjoy it too, whether you choose to become a coach or whether you just want to train.

Train to win

By the time that you get to this stage, you should have a solid foundation in both technique and physical development. You will have plenty of competitions under your belt already and now it’s time to take training serious.

In this phase, you should meticulously plan your own training. You should have a tournament calendar and your training should be periodized. I will write more about this in a follow up post.

You should know the rules in and out. This will help you to play tactically and will often give you an edge against someone at the same level.

Technique-wise, you focus only on the things that work at the highest level. You build out your own game and try to enforce it on your opponents. Beat them on your home turf. Analyze your opponents and look for holes in their game that you can exploit.

When winning is the focus, just knowing technique is not enough. You have to be strong, athletic and well-conditioned too. Combine your techniques with your physical attributes to make them work even better. Tire out your opponents and surprise them with explosive movements to gain the edge to take the win.

No one can stay at this stage forever. It takes its toll on the body and injuries will accumulate over the years. At some point you will have to transition to the train for life stage, which often is seen as a step back for athletes. You have to find a new goal to keep training fun. Often this can be becoming a coach, but for others it might just be about rediscovering that training and learning jiu jitsu can be a lot of fun if there is no pressure to perform.

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