Study! Drop the Arguments.

It should be understood without having to belabor the point that the purpose of any class is to improve or acquire skills of the art you are studying. I use art in the broad sense since I’m actually a trained scientist, and truthfully jiu-jitsu has more of a science feel than do most arts. Jiu-jitsu is constantly practiced and applied, much like science, it is repeatable.

I bring this matter up because I’m often faced with the type of students who seem to forget the reason we are doing what we do. Or for that matter, seem to misunderstand the point of a study. I think I know why this is, it’s because jiu-jitsu is an applied study that touches on some deep-seated emotionalism (and I’m going to aim this at the boys, but the girls are often guilty too) that screws with our identities and undermines our sense of toughness, coolness, and autonomy. When another person, sometimes one you’ve only just met, can trounce you on the mat, even though you know it’s only a class, and it’s only a tussle for sport, and that we’re learning from the experience, we still invent myriad excuses that have nothing to do with being beginners. Most of us can put these excuses where they belong—in the trash—and keep playing. But some, some folks have a difficult time with the feelings and end up hobbling their ability to progress. They get angry. They sometimes insult the intelligence of their partners. And they even at times resort to avoiding really playing the game. This last bit is particularly interesting because it’s about equivalent to taking a course in pottery and refusing to do anything but singular pinch pots. Or paying someone to teach you guitar, but instead of working on anything new just continuing to blast “Smoke On the Water” over and over again. 

Indeed I’ve had students in the past, not many mind you, but enough to be memorable, who have said to me, “Geoff, why do I need to practice guard, no one can put me there. Except you. And maybe, John, well actually a few others, but still.” This fellow is quite strong, and loves to bulldoze his partners onto their backs. Being heavy he gets away with it frequently, but it’s mainly because his partners are carefully selected by him, usually fifty or more pounds lighter, and also fairly new to the game (which, in fact, takes years of concerted and mindful effort to get good at). Yes, of course, almost no one can put you in a bad position, but is that enough? Aren’t we training to deal with the bad positions? Isn’t that the entire point of the exercise?

Another fellow, no matter what we’re working on, is convinced that it’s his duty to resist during the drilling of the techniques. Indeed, he resists through the entire class. He is much like a contrary toddler who says “No!”, having just discovered the power of the word, to everything. When his partner attempts to sweep him, he fights to base out, lean back, free his hand to post. He seems unaware that he’s now actually sparring instead of drilling. He seems oblivious to his simple role in the study. That of providing a body, so that your partner can effectively practice a move, and so that he will provide you with a fairly compliant body so you can learn the move too.

One lady, with winning smile and cheerful disposition, regularly asked me what she was “supposed to be” doing when her partner was practicing the move. At first I didn’t quite understand the question, as she was doing what she was supposed to be doing, which was role-playing so that her partner could practice a sweep. It took a moment for her to clarify. What she wanted was a means to thwart the sweep. She desperately wanted an answer to the technique being studied so she could apply it to the current practice. Of course, she’d have been very frustrated if her partner also wanted to do that.

There are some folks who seem to misunderstand their goals so deeply that they only appear to be trying to win every possible engagement. These players stand out like sore thumbs in a class. Their defense game does not develop. They are only energetic when they are in the most dominant positions. It doesn’t matter if they are 250 lbs working with a 140 lb partner, they refuse to develop any weak skills. Instead they rely entirely on their bulk and go for as many wins as they possibly can.

Another student attempts a new technique once, maybe twice during the rolling play, and when it fails, abandons it as no good. These are the folks who mistake small sample sizes for data. If your N=1 or 2 at most, you’ve not really put in the time to gain experience with the move. It honestly takes hundreds of reps and tireless attempts to get a new move to fit to your game.

To be fair beginners can be expected to misunderstand, but all of these examples are of people who trained for years. They will fail, and they will become frustrated by the jiu-jitsu players. When I talk to them about it, they will argue with me because I’m a black belt and they know they can’t beat me, and it’s therefor irrelevant what I have to add to the discussion.

One of my Dad’s favorite old jokes takes place on a golf course. A team of primatologists has trained a gorilla to play golf. The press gathers around and is awed by the gorilla’s selection of a heavy club and the first drive going a magnificent 300 yards onto the green. After the applause they reconvene where the gorilla lines up and sends the ball powerfully within putting range of the hole. As the press gather around the hole to watch the skillful application of club to ball, the gorilla saunters up and drives the ball 300 yards into the distance.

It’s OK to be the gorilla sometimes. In fact, at times it’s almost unavoidable. But what we are doing is more finesse and fine sensitive skill than that. Otherwise it really wouldn’t be worth doing, we’d all get big, and groan when another bigger person came into the room, because we’d know we had nothing to defeat anyone bigger than ourselves. Waking up to the tactics and subtle skills of jiu-jitsu is the job of every student. This is why I say:

If you are athletic, put it away.

If you are fast, train slowly.

If you are strong, train like you’re 90 years old.

If you have an amazing technique that almost always wins, shelf it.

Only then will you be able to develop the skills deeper than your habits.

Thanks for reading.

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