Insane Dive Into Jiu Jitsu Principles For Unstoppable Momentum (With Free Guide)

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Why Jiu Jitsu Principles?

When I first started Jiu Jitsu, I wanted to learn submissions and techniques. That was all I wanted to learn. Along the way, however, I learned something much more important. I learned about the process.

The process is the science of setting — and achieving — goals. The process is focusing on the principles, small steps, that build unstoppable momentum. Everything gets broken down into smaller and smaller steps: small wins. Too small to fail is the idea behind the Jiu Jitsu principles we use at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu. 

The steps of the process are accomplished by focusing on four key areas: Mindset, Teamwork, Performance and Technique. These four combined together provide a complete framework to achieving your goals. 

Understanding how to apply the process can give you a way to improve every aspect of your life. Process is the path to success. Moment by moment, you can win the process. Creating these small wins pays big dividends. 

As You Think, So You Become: Principle 1

The most important concept —  in Jiu Jitsu and in life — is to believe in yourself. To believe that you can do what you want to do, that you are capable and learn well, and that you can improve quickly and be successful. Staying optimistic and believing that your work will pay off is the surest path to success. 

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore Training

Philosophers, poets, and priests have espoused the power of positive thought for thousands of years. Epictetus, a Stoic Greek philosopher, is famous for the quote, “As you think, so you become.” Now science is able to study how our thoughts influence the structure of our brains, and influence the world we live in. 

Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor writes about the science behind success in a great book — The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. His research discovered that happiness creates success, not the other way around. The biggest predictor he found for happiness is our belief system. 

If we believe good things will happen to us, they are more likely to happen. If we are optimistic and believe that we will succeed at Jiu Jitsu, or any other pursuit, we will greatly increase our chances just by our belief. 


The more your brain picks up on the positive, the more you will expect this trend to continue, and so the more optimistic you will be. And optimism, it turns out is a tremendously powerful predictor of performance.

– Shawn Achor

Creating Your Reality

Our thoughts are our reality. We see the things we want. The more optimistic we are and the more we believe that good things are likely to happen to us, the more they actually do happen. 

“Studies have shown that optimists set more goals (and more difficult goals) than pessimists, and put more effort into attaining those goals, stay more engaged in the face of difficulty, and rise above obstacles more easily. Optimists also cope better in high stress situations and are better able to maintain high levels of well-being during times of hardship,” Achor writes. 

In The Happiness Advantage, Achor details a study where participants were selected on the basis of whether they considered themselves lucky or unlucky. They were given a task to complete—read a newspaper and count the number of photos in it. The group that identified themselves as unlucky took almost two minutes to complete the task; the group that self-identified as lucky took two seconds. In those couple of seconds, the lucky group also grew $250 richer, while the unlucky group won nothing. 

How did this happen? 

Inside the newspaper were two very large messages. One read, “Stop counting, there are 43 photos in this newspaper.” The other read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” 

Those who considered themselves unlucky never saw the messages. The groups’ different beliefs created different realities. 

Those who believed good things would happen, had good things happen. Those who did not believe, did not have the same experience, even though they were presented with the exact same circumstances. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Training your brain to believe that you can create your reality is called predictive encoding. “Priming yourself to expect a favorable outcome actually encodes your brain to recognize the outcome when it does in fact arise,” Achor writes. 

This is the secret to success: belief. This is the most important concept for creating success in life. 

Not “I think I can,” but “I know I can.” 

The great news is that we can train and improve our thoughts and beliefs. The brain is always capable not just of learning but of changing throughout the entirety of life. Scientists call this “neuroplasticity” — the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. 

“Just as our brains can be wired in ways that hold us back, we can retrain them to scan for the good things in life — to help us see more possibility, to feel more energy, and to succeed at higher levels,” writes Achor.

At Zenyo Jiu Jitsu, we teach that every single thing we do in life is a skill — and all skills are learned through practice. Change is possible, growth is possible, success is possible. 

You just have to believe in yourself.

How To

DAILY THANK YOU: Creating a positive belief system takes daily practice. One way to do this is to create daily “Thank You” times. Before bed and when you wake up, take a moment to note the things you are thankful for. 

GRATITUDE LIST: You can also create a daily gratitude list to write down the things you are grateful for. 

Some might think these things are silly (like I did in the past), but they are powerful tools to rewire your brain to scan the world through a positive perspective. When you do this, you will start to see positive things everywhere you look. 

Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow: Principle 2

The most important ability in Jiu Jitsu is the skill of focusing your mind on the right task. Focus might seem easy, but it is actually quite difficult—your brain does not want to focus intently on one thing because focus comes at a cost. That cost is energy, which your brain is designed to save.

The Two Systems

Our brains are infinitely sophisticated systems that operate on both a conscious and unconscious level. The ability to distinguish the ways in which your brain responds to challenges makes learning Jiu Jitsu easier and more productive. 

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman details what he calls the two operating systems of the brain. Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize, has created a framework to explain how the brain relies on these systems he calls fast and slow. 

The fast system, or System 1, “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control,” Kahneman writes. 

System 2, or the slow system, “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.” 

Kahneman writes that most of our life is spent using System 1. We are hardwired to act first, think second. Life depends on the ability to fight or flight. Overthinking is not only slow, but also tiring. Being overly fatigued from mental effort is dangerous, in the real world and on the mat. Effortful thinking comes at a cost of mental energy that the body is reluctant to spend. “The defining feature of System 2 … is that its operations are effortful … a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary.” 

System 2, however, is where most of learning occurs. To learn a new skill, you need to slow down, take your time, deliberately process complex information, then practice with patience. The new skills you build through System 2 transfer to System 1 thinking. You go slow so you can go fast later. The better you integrate new skills through slow, deliberate practice, the more accurate your predictions and responses will be when you transition to fast mode in sparring. 

“You believe you know what goes on in your mind, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, nor indeed is that the typical way. Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. The mental work … goes on in silence in our mind.”

– Daniel Kahneman

Fast And Slow

Most of our life is spent in System 1 thinking. Humans are designed for action. The primary goal of evolution is survival and if you are in immediate threat, there is no time for slow thinking. You have to go. 

Sparring in Jiu Jitsu is like this. You have to be alert, ready to react and quick in your thoughts and actions. Most of your work is done in System 1. Jiu Jitsu demands quick solutions to immediate problems and slow thinking is ineffective and counter-productive in this case. Slow thinking in sparring leads to slow death. 

Rolling is only one method of training in Jiu Jitsu, however. Another method is technical practice, working on new skills that you have not yet integrated. Trying to apply fast, easy thinking to this form of practice will lead to errors and erratic progress. You have to learn to shift your focus and go slow to avoid the errors inherent in System 1 thinking. 

 “System 1 registers the cognitive ease with which it processes information, but it does not generate a warning signal when it becomes unreliable. Intuitive answers come to mind quickly,” Kahneman writes. 

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman uses several tasks to illustrate the nature of the two systems. 

Thinking of 2+2 draws on System 1. The answer comes to mind immediately without effort. 

Thinking of 17×24 draws on System 2. The answer does not come to mind easily and likely will take effort to solve. 

Another puzzle used in the book is an easy calculation of costs. Do not try to solve it but listen to your intuition: 

A bat and ball cost $1.10. 

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. 

How much does the ball cost? 

Was the easy answer right? (The correct answer is $1.05.) 

Learning new techniques in Jiu Jitsu is much more like algebra than simple addition. The task requires you to spend much of your time in the effortful System 2. 

Slow: Simple In Principle

Jiu Jitsu requires fast and slow thinking. The need to switch between the two methods is challenged every class. This is part of the fun of Jiu Jitsu; it is mentally stimulating. Unlike jogging on a treadmill, which allows you to disengage your conscious brain, relax and zone out, Jiu Jitsu requires focus when you are developing skills and quick responses when you are applying skills. 

Here’s a simple challenge to see if you are able to switch between the two modes of thought. Try a takedown—a single leg or double leg. Where do you place your head? Now, after a few tries, put your head somewhere else. 

It will feel different. It takes some effort. You’ll need to slow down. 

I coach all beginners to execute the single or double leg takedown with the head on the inside. Most students instinctively place the head on the outside. The only way to overcome this instinct is to slow down, switch your focus to System 2, and make the correction. 

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1,” Kahneman writes, “is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down and ask for reinforcement from System 2.” 

Jiu Jitsu is simple in principle. Kahneman clarifies “simple in principle” because it is effortful to switch from System 1 to System 2. Simple does not mean easy. Mental focus is a skill and like all skills, it takes practice. 

Developing this ability is key to advancing your Jiu Jitsu. When you encounter challenges in understanding and executing techniques, you must make the switch, slow down, and don’t get ahead of yourself.  

Fast: Mostly Right

Learning new skills requires us to slow down as real learning is effortful and requires discipline. The challenge in Jiu Jitsu is not physical but mental when it comes to figuring out a new move. 

Focus is demanding and uses mental resources. The faster you try to work, the more you will probably struggle. If you have ever seen world-class black belts work on new skills, they go very slow. This is the process. 

The process changes when the speed picks up. You have to switch gears. You have to move and think fast in rolling—you don’t have a choice. 

Kahneman relates his perception in terms of daily walks. “Accelerating beyond my strolling speed completely changes the experience of walking because the sharp transition to a faster walk brings about a sharp deterioration in my ability to think coherently,” he writes. 

Now, imagine a big blue belt trying to crush you during training. You are forced into System 1 response. The brain is challenged to think quickly but also needs to hold onto more than one thing. You can’t just rely on instincts, at least not until you have developed a deep level of knowledge and skill. 

The key to success during sparring is using System 2 to establish a single task to focus on when training. Usually, I coach students to focus on their grip. Once a good grip is established, you can achieve both physical and mental control. I encourage students to consider their grip in every part of the rolling process. Focusing on that singular skill allows the brain to let go and trust System 1 to do the right thing at the right time. 

Your ability to direct your focus between the brain’s two thinking systems is vital to your development in Jiu Jitsu. It builds confidence, ease, and precision in your Jiu Jitsu game.

Slow-Motion Training: Principle 3

The best way to progress quickly in Jiu Jitsu is to go slow. Going slow sounds easy, but we are programmed to act fast and think fast. Going slow goes against our nature, but slow-motion training pays off in rapid improvement. That’s because practicing slow builds more than just “muscle memory.” Training slow builds a better brain. 

Building Your Brain

How do you get good at Jiu Jitsu — or anything else you wish to pursue? Practice? Hard work? Talent? Good genes? 

Author Daniel Coyle answers that questions in his fascinating book — The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown, Here’s How. In writing The Talent Code, Coyle visited some of the best academies in the world for education, music, and athletics. His research took him deep into the world of neurology. Coyle found that excellence is not something we are born with, but something we develop through work. 

Not just any kind of work. Not just any kind of practice. But what he calls “deep practice.” Deep — or deliberate — practice is slow, effortful and focused. This kind of practice changes the internal structure of the brain. Practicing in slow motion is the best method to make quick progress. 

“Super-slow practice works because practice is about construction,” Coyle writes in his blog. (Read the blog)

“We are literally building a neural circuit — connection by connection. Slowing down lets us pay deeper attention to those connections; it lets us fire the circuit more accurately. Super-slow practice allows us to not only perform the action, but to also simultaneously observe that performance; to coach ourselves. When we go fast, on the other hand, we are only performing.” 


It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.

– Coach Daniel Martinez in The Talent Code

Unnaturally Slow

If the fast path to success is to slow down, why don’t more people practice that way naturally? The answer is that going slow is not easy. Our brains are wired to respond quickly, with little conscious thought. Our brains do not wait for feedback, and then evaluate best options and make a choice. The brain makes predictions about the future, before feedback has time to arrive, and then sends signals to act. If the brain guesses wrong, it’s called a prediction error.

Going slow goes against the grain. 

“New students are surprised at the seemingly glacial pace — three or five times slower than they’ve ever gone,” Coyle writes of deliberate practice. The effort in deliberate practice for Jiu Jitsu is not one of physical effort but of mental effort. 

Coyle describes students practicing music at a prestigious academy. One teacher, he writes, has a rule of thumb, “If a passerby can recognize the song being played, it’s not being practiced correctly.” 

“Going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision,” Coyle writes. “Going slow helps the practicer to develop … a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints — the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skills circuits.” 

Aha Moments!

The best moments in Jiu Jitsu are the aha moments. You’ve been working and working on a skill or problem over and over. At times, it seemed like you would never get it. Then, as if magic, aha!  

My experience coaching is that the aha moment is not magic. I see them all the time. Students see them when they are ready. Students start to see them when they learn to tap into the power of slow motion practice. Going slow is a skill and must be worked on just like any skill. At first, students move in regular speed. Instructions to slow down are usually instantly forgotten. With time, they slow down a little. The aha moment comes when they realize what they think is slow is not slow at all. 

Once they figure out how to go slow, the real learning starts. Slow motion practice builds more than skill. Slow motion practice builds insight and knowledge. 

Going slow gets you there faster. 

“Through (slow) practice,” Coyle writes, “students had developed something more important than mere skill; they’d grown a detailed conceptual understanding that allowed them to control and adapt their performance, to fix problems, and to customize their circuits (neural) to new situations.”

Test Your Recall: Principle 4

You have the power to speed up your learning of Jiu Jitsu by a staggering percentage. You don’t have to spend more time on the mat; add extra training days; watch videos non-stop in your free time. You don’t have to do anything extra—you just have to change the way you practice. 

By changing the way you approach learning, you can speed up your progress by nearly 1.5 times. 

Illusion Of Mastery

The best way to learn anything was probably never taught to you. The way most schools approach learning—demonstration, repetition, concentration —  has been empirically shown to be less than effective. 

Learning, real learning, is not a passive activity. Learning is active. You do learning. Think of the most significant things you have learned in your life, like walking and talking. No one taught you those things. You learned them by trying, struggling and trying some more. 

While teachers mean well in their attempts to help, that approach might not be helpful at all. 

“The uncomfortable reality is this,” Peter Brown writes in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. “The most effective learning strategies do not feel productive, whereas the less effective strategies we often favor create illusions of mastery.”

“Mastery requires understanding of the concepts behind a (subject), connecting them to what you already know and elaborating on them in your own (way). For memory to be durable, you need to periodically practice retrieving it.”


Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. 

– Peter Brown

Active Retrieval

The best way to learn anything, Brown writes, is by practicing active retrieval — also referred to as forced recall. 

In active retrieval, you try to bring information out of your brain, not put it in. You work to remember what you previously studied. 

Active retrieval has been shown to be significantly more effective as a learning strategy compared to other passive methods. 

Make It Stick details a study where participants learned vocabulary from a foreign language.  

Active retrieval practice took performance from nearly total forgetting to extremely good retention (about 80 percent correct) one week after an initial learning experience. Other studies have shown an improvement of over 50% compared to standard learning methods like rereading, memorizing, or group study. 

“One of the most striking research findings,” Brown writes, “is the power of active retrieval — testing — to strengthen memory, and the more effortful the retrieval, the stronger the benefit.” 

Every time you come to Jiu Jitsu class, and work on skills you have previously practiced without being shown how to do them first by your instructor, you are employing active retrieval. 

Desirable Difficulty

Real learning is one of the hardest challenges we face in life. As adults, there are few things we will choose to learn that are as difficult as Jiu Jitsu. 

“We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not,” Brown writes. “When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.”

Make It Stick lays out four learning strategies that are backed by research. Try to do things on your own; mix up practice to include more than one element; space practice sessions out and try to recall material without help. Working to recall what you’ve done is key to bringing out what you know, instead of forcing things in.

When you put all four strategies together, they challenge the brain’s learning process. You are creating difficulty for yourself. This difficulty, Brown writes, is actually desirable and solidifies learning, while also strengthening the brain’s capacity for learning new things.  

“When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.” 

This working to remember — active retrieval — is how you learn. Working to remember builds your brain and ingrains your skills, and is key to successful learning.

“We make the effort because the effort itself extends the boundaries of our abilities,” Brown writes. “What we do shapes who we become and what we’re capable of doing. The more we do, the more we can do.

There is only this,
doing small things
with great love —
the task at hand —
a world in a
grain of sand.
Ripples Zenyo Jiu Jitsu
Zenyo Jiu Jitsu

*inspired by the words of William Blake, Francis Bacon and Mother Teresa


In The Practicing Mind: Master Any Skill Or Challenge By Learning To Love The Process, Thomas Sterner writes “if you have never considered it, think about how everything we learn and master in life, from walking and tying our shoes to saving money and raising a child, is accomplished through a form of practice, something we repeat over and over again. For the most part, we are not aware of the process , but that is how good practice manifests itself when done properly.”

The process is the goal. By improving the process, you improve everything you do. Judo black belt, movement architect and author Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Life is a process. Improve the process and you improve life itself.” 



The process gives you the tools to rise to your best. Every day at Zenyo we see students transform through hard work. Read stories about how our Baltimore Jiu Jitsu students achieve greater levels of confidence and strength to conquer challenges, on and off the mat. 

About Author

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu is the premier Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy in Baltimore, Maryland. Zenyo is run by John David Emmett, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with more than 20 years experience.

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