Monday, April 29, 2019

Learning Jiu Jitsu Games: Embracing Limitations

If you've done jiu jitsu for more than a month or three, you've probably experienced a minor injury. You know, the kind of injury that is annoying and inconvenient, but doesn't necessarily prevent you from training. Maybe you tapped a little too late to that arm bar and popped your elbow. Or maybe you got a finger caught in your training partner's gi. Or perhaps you tweaked your neck on that poorly-executed power double.

Regardless, these kinds of injuries can be a blessing in disguise. Why? Because they force you to train in a new way. Specifically, they cause you to limit the use of the injured body part. More specifically, these injuries require you to compensate in some way, which causes you to adopt different techniques, use different concepts, and employ different strategies. As a result,your game improves.

The good news - you don't have to get hurt to capitalize on this concept!

Back when we trained in San Diego, one of our favorite drills was a "no hands" guard passing drill introduced by one of our gym's black belts, Dave Hisquierdo. The person on the bottom would tuck their hands into their belt and use only their feet and legs to prevent their opponent from passing their guard.

As you'd expect, the top person won pretty much every time. However, the drill would create a fairly dramatic improvement in guard retention ability. You got real good at using your feet and legs to prevent opponents from passing your guard.

WHY this works is fairly obvious - the fewer tools we have at your disposal, the more skillful we need to be for those tools to be effective. As such, systematically "handicapping" ourselves in different ways forces us to develop skills we wouldn't normally develop. Ergo we see dramatic improvements in our game.

So what else can we do besides "no hands guard passing"?

My Games

Whenever I teach classes, I try to add an element of deprivation to most classes. While I usually use the various games randomly, they can be logically combined with related techniques or concepts to improve learning. Here are a few of my favorite games:

  • Rolling Blindfolded - We rely on our sense of sight more than any other sense, and this includes when we're rolling. For a sport so dependent on tactiles sensations, balance, pressure, pain, and body position, sight still wins out. When we remove the ability to see, we MUST rely on feel to know where our opponent is and what they're doing. Jiu jitsu, really, is nothing more than learning to precisely apply techniques to resisting opponents automatically. A major part of this learning process in learning to recognize and react to extremely subtle movements from your opponent. Rolling blindfolded helps facilitate that process.
  • Wearing Socks on Your Hands - We don't realize how important opposable thumbs are until we don't have them. Grips are a major part of this sport, especially in the gi. Even in no gi, though, our thumbs are useful for locking our hands in various grips. By wearing socks on our hands, we force ourselves to play jiu jitsu without the ability to grip, which means we have to rely on other body parts (and techniques) to control our opponent. Or escape our opponent's control. We can also get a similar effect by wearing 16 ounce boxing gloves when rolling. 
  • Tying Your Legs Together - This one's a bit absurd, but still fun. I use a nylon web belt with two d-rings, and just wrap it around my lower shins. This prevents us from separating our legs, which forces us to basically roll as if we were mermaids. Guard, guard passing, mount, and back mount are nearly impossible. This forces us to develop our upper body game in a weird, interesting way. 
  • Playing Keep-Away - This is a little more dynamic version of this concept. One person has an item (I prefer a soft foam ball) they must hold, and their goal is to keep it away from their opponent by any means necessary. This shift in perspective from submitting and defending submissions is subtle, but the change forces us to use techniques in a new way.
  • Limiting Submission Options - This is a good habit to get into on a regular basis, but also works splendidly as a special game. The idea is to "ban" particular classes of submissions, like chokes, armlocks, or leg locks. This limitation forces a bit more creativity by forcing you to get a little more creative. For an added boost, explicitly tell your training partner which submissions you're banning so they can focus on defending the submissions you have available. 
  • Limiting Positional Options - This works the same as the above game, only you're eliminating positions instead of submissions. This is handy when you begin to fall in love with one particular position to the exclusion of others. For me, this is back mount. In every roll, I will always take the back (assuming I CAN take the back against particular opponents.) The strategy is simple - pass guard to side control, pass to mount, attack one arm to wear it out, take the back, trap the opposite arm with my legs (so my opponent is forced to defend with the weakened, tired arm), then choke them out. By banning the back, it forces me to develop entirely different strategies, which helps me develop a more robust game.
  • Really Long Rolls - Admittedly, part of my love of really long rolls comes from my ultrarunner past. There's something magical about forcing yourself to the point of absolute exhaustion, then having to muster the will to push past the exhaustion. But it also makes for a good method of speeding your learning of jiu jitsu. Any match over twenty minutes will usually do the trick, but flirting with an hour or more will take you into the really interesting territory. When you're extremely tired, technique suffers, it's hard to concentrate, and small errors in your game get amplified. Experiencing this regularly will cause your game to develop quickly. 
  • Rolling on Hard Floors - We spend virtually all of our time training on mats, to the point where we forget the world is not soft and squishy. Froman entirely utilitarian standpoint, doing an occasional roll on hard floors can be a good reminder of the self-defense application of jiu jitsu. But it can also be a handy training game. Rolling occurs in a three-dimensional space where one "side" of that space is predictably soft and forgiving. When that surface becomes less forgiving, it forces us to alter our technique a bit for both ourselves and our training partner's safety. 
These are just a few of the games I like to play when training. There are countless more possibilities; your only limit is your imagination. Got ideas for other limitation-based games? Share them in the comments section or in the El Diablo Facebook Group!



Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What Does a Black Belt in Jiu Jitsu Really Mean?

Yesterday, I came across this excellent article by BJJ black belt Emily Kwok. It was timely given my last post about enjoying the lower belt experience. If you've read through any of my other writings on the topic (or discussed belt rank with me in person), you know I have mixed feelings about the whole belt rank system. While there are logical utilitarian uses for the system, it creates a host of problems.

One such problem is the disagreement on the meaning of a black belt. As Kwon discussed, what exactly should a black belt mean?

Does it mean the black belt is a good, moral person?

Does it mean they're a role model?

Does it mean they're a leader?

Does it mean they're a mystical badass with some kind of weird superpowers like walking on water or being able to shake exactly two Tylenol out of the bottle every time?

Or are they just jiu jitsu practitioners who, as the saying goes, are just white belts who never bothered giving up?

The longer I do this sport, the more convinced I am the latter explanation is far more accurate than we assume. In every conceivable way. While a back belt can be a good person, role model, leader, or a mystical badass who can breathe soup, they likely possessed those traits prior to stepping on the mat. Jiu jitsu isn't some magical fountain that causes people to grow a sense of morality. It's just a system of fighting based on rolling around on the ground in sweaty pajamas while simulating breaking limbs and murder with a little pomp and circumstance added for flair. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Sure, jiu jitsu can teach some life skills that could feasibly make you a better person (like humility or respect), but one has to be open to learning these lessons. And these lessons can be learned through all kinds of endeavors; jiu jitsu isn't special in this regard. 

The longer I do this sport (and the higher the rank I achieve), the more I realize belt rank really is nothing more than an indicator of an unwillingness to quit jiu jitsu. All the objective techniques, skills, and other "benefits" of higher ranks will eventually appear if you just keep training. While the path to mastery will take some people significantly longer than others, we'll all get there eventually if we stick with it. 

This is part of the reason I don't like using, nor do I recommend using "earn my black belt" as a motivator to keep training. Aside from external motivators being generally ineffective for long-term motivation, it's also just another somewhat arbitrary checkpoint among many arbitrary checkpoints checkpoints on the lifelong journey towards jiu jitsu mastery. There are far more effective goals we can set for ourselves (which will be a topic for another day.)

So how should we perceive any belt rank in general and black belts in particular?

Perceive them as individuals who have been training for however long their rank suggests. Nothing more; nothing less. 


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Don't be in a Hurry to Get Promoted: Enjoy Your Lower Belts

Yup. That's actually me. I like experimenting with stupid looks.

A few days ago, a few of us were sitting around "stretching" before training. A promising teenage white belt asked me if it was cool being a purple belt. I chuckled, then paused. The question was basically akin to one of my freshmen students (I teach high school) asking if it was cool being an adult.

Sure, kinda. I mean, it's sort of nice having that automatic recognition that comes with experience. And buying beer and lottery tickets. Strip clubs are fun. Or so I'm told. 

But it's never the neverending party you think it's going to be... mostly because both being a purple belt and being an adult also comes with a shit-ton of responsibility and expectations. I actually like both responsibility and higher expectations, but you lose a hell of a lot of freedom for that "privilege." 

Actually, being a purp is probably a lot more like being a college kid. While you do have more responsibility and higher expectations than earlier stages, it's also permissible to do a lot of experimentation. Expected, even. 

I distinctly remember being a white belt and looking up to the purps and almost being in awe, not unlike little kids looking up to the big kids. I couldn't wait to get there. So much so, I didn't really savor the white belt experience. 

Or the blue, for that matter. I wanted to get better as fast as I could. I was pacing myself as if I were running a 5k without realizing I was in a race across the continental US. 

Around mid-purp, I started paying more and more attention to higher belts. And I started noticing something I hadn't noticed before. They weren't always having as much fun as I was. Sometimes they looked... stressed. I'm no spring chicken; I've experienced enough life to understand they were dealing with something I had only briefly tasted as a jiu jitsu practitioner but experienced in spades as an adult - responsibility and expectations. 

They had to lead classes. Develop lessons. Manage egos at the gym. Having people depend on you. Worry about keeping student safe. Worry about making sure the gym was clean. Talk to upset parents. Wrangle hyper kids. Constantly fight off younger, more athletic lower belts eager to "tap a brown or black." They're expected to know anything and everything about the sport. Avoid having bad days on the mat. If you own a gym, there's all the headaches of running a business. And so on. 


I didn't see those angles in the earlier days. I just saw them effortlessly kicking ass in the sport I struggled to grasp. Like the high schooler who can't wait to be an adult to buy beer and start earning a paycheck, I failed to understand those relative perks came with a whole lotta shit. 

At some point, I'll get that promotion from a four stripe purp to brown, and I'll embrace the new responsibilities and expectations. But I've spent the last two years thoroughly enjoying the purp experience, and taking advantage of the twilight of my "college" years in this sport. I only wish I had done this with the two previous belts. Regret is kind of a shitty thing that way. 

So what did I tell the white belt?

I told him not to rush it. Savor the experience. Enjoy the obscurity while it lasts, because it ain't gonna last and you're gonna progress from it soon enough. 

~ Jason


Thursday, April 18, 2019

Jiu Jitsu and Play: What We Can Learn From Dogs

A few days ago, I filmed our dog "Thor" playing with a friend's puppy ("Drako".) There are all kind of important jiu jitsu lessons we can learn from this two minute clip, but the most important lesson wasn't fully captured in this brief snippet - The dogs did this for hours.

Why were they rolling around on the ground biting each other repeatedly? Quite simply, they were playing. Both being herding dogs, they were in their element rolling around on the ground nipping at each other. They only stopped because the puppy couldn't stay awake; he literally fell asleep playing.

What IS "play"?

Believe it or not, the science of "play" is fairly robust. "Play" is a pretty large, encompassing concept best defined by watching Dr. Stuart Brown's TED talk on the subject (watch it; it's eye-opening.) He's also the founder of the The National Institute for Play and the author of "Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul".

Pay attention to Brown's comments on "rough and tumble" play in the Ted vid. It'll go a long way towards explaining the application of play in the sport of bjj.

Back to BJJ

All too often, we take jiu jitsu too seriously. We focus on winning medals at tournaments, getting that next stripe on our belts, or finally tapping out our nemesis at our gym. Maybe we're focused on learning to protect ourselves or our family. Or maybe we're preparing for that mma fight in a few months. Or maybe we're just trying to lose those last fifteen pounds from too many Chalupas and discover those abs we haven't seen since tenth grade.

But how often do we just focus on playing?

Is "Play" the Answer to the Sport's Problems?

In the six or seven years I've been doing this sport (yeah, yeah, I know I'm just a "kid" in the sport), I've observed all kinds of serious issues, including:

  • Student attrition - One of the biggest issues martial arts businesses and BJJ businesses in particular deal with is student attrition. It's well-known that almost everyone who starts drops out, most before reaching blue belt. Of those, few make it to purp. This forces businesses to adopt policies which basically account for a revolving door of students to pay the bills. You're going to lose "X" number of students per month, therefore you need to constantly generate leads and sell memberships to remain above water. As a high school teacher, I can attest how this undermines the goal of teaching jiu jitsu to your students that stick around. 
  • Frustration - This is related to attrition, but jiu jitsu is an endlessly frustrating sport. Normally frustration is a good thing; it leads to personal growth. But if you become so frustrated you quit, that frustration becomes a serious issue.
  • The silly "creonte" nonsense - In the BJJ world, leaving a gym for a different gym is paramount to chucking a bad full of puppies and kittens off a bridge. You're expected to be loyal to your "team" (or "family" or whatever other dumb guilt-inducing symbolism gym owners decide to utilize.) Even if your "team" doesn't meet your needs. Again, as a professional educator, I find this idea repulsive on many levels. If gym owners and coaches aren't meeting the needs of a particular student, the student SHOULD move on. Using coercion to keep your students is Bush League bullshit; anyone who does it should be deeply ashamed. 
  • Territorial pissing contests - This is kinda related to the creonte stupidity. It's not uncommon for different gyms to develop toxic competitiveness where they sabotage each other. Competitiveness is fine; if done correctly, it makes all of us better while also bringing more people into the sport and advancing the actual art. But that rarely happens. 
  • Rampant egos - For a sport where "check your ego at the door" is repeated by almost everyone, it surprised me to find so many emotional midgets in the sport (no offense to little people... I'm a conscientious objector to political correctness.) It's not uncommon to find people who throw a temper tantrum if they get tapped. Or ruminate on losing for weeks, months, or even years. As humbling as jiu jitsu is, the fact that this problem typically gets worse the higher our rank ***should*** be a good indicator that there's a systemic problem with jiu jitsu culture. 

The Solutions

So how can a focus on "play" fix these problems? Let's break down each one.

  • Student attrition - Based on conversations I've had with people who have quit the sport, almost all of the reasons can be distilled down to the simple fact that their jiu jitsu experience simply wasn't all that enjoyable. They didn't look forward to training enough for bjj to be a priority over other activities. Or even just sitting on the couch watching Sanford and Son reruns. "Play" is magical because humans never get tired of it. In psychology terms, "play" is an incredibly powerful intrinsic motivator that does not decrease over time. If black belts are just white belts who never quit, it stands to reason our primary goal as teachers of the art should be to keep people motivated enough to not quit. So we focus on play.
  • Frustration - When we're playing, the stress of performing morphs from "distress" (bad stress we do not like) to "eustress" (good stress we enjoy.) When we frame every training session as an opportunity to play, the frustration of not being able to hit that arm bar from guard goes from feeling pressure to avoid failing to an amusing game. That shift in perspective makes all the difference in killing the frustration inherent in the sport. And keeps people from  quitting.
  • The silly "creonte" nonsense - Focusing on "play" eliminates this problem by eliminating the weird cultiness issues with using unsavory methods to retaining students. Whenever we play games, we want to play the games with others who also enjoy playing the game. If someone's not into the game, we're okay with them leaving to do something else they'd rather be doing. We're not going to get butthurt when they leave. Not only does this create a far more positive environment, but it also eliminates that weird bitterness when students switch gyms. 
  • Territorial pissing contests - When we focus on playing, competitiveness takes on a different flavor. It's not nearly as serious; it becomes more colloquial. More laid-back. That, in turn, makes it more productive. If we're playing, we'll be more likely to share and learn from each other. Hold an open mat. Laugh. Joke. Grab a barley soda afterward. If we all did that, we'd eliminate the territorial pissing that's currently commonplace in the sport.  
  • Rampant egos - This is a biggie, mostly because it's a strong personal pet peeve of mine. I cannot tolerate shitty losers. Or people who aren't willing to risk losing because their ego is too fragile. Or people who need the constant external validation of winning. In all cases, this is almost always the result of people tying their perception of their own self-worth to their performance on the mat. While it would seem logical to simply tell these people to chill, it's not that easy because this condition usually occurs as a function of deeply-seated insecurities that usually develop from childhood. "Play" fixes this problem by reframing the purpose of rolling from winning to having fun and learning. It's exceptionally hard (and conspicuously out of place) to throw a hissy-fit from getting tapped when everyone else is laughing and having a good time. 

How We Manifest "Play"

Shelly, my wife, fellow purp, and the individual responsible for getting me into this sport, was instrumental in planting the seeds of the epiphany that "play" could be transformative in this sport. Basically, we dick around A LOT both inside and outside the gym. We joke. We tease. We laugh. We act silly. We dress up in costumes sometimes. We playfully torture each other. Basically, we don't take ourselves seriously. This is especially true in our hobbies. 

Before we started this sport, we ran ultramarathons, which is a brutally-difficult, dangerous sport defined by abject pain, suffering, and agony. In short, it's pretty much always miserable. We tempered this unpleasantness with constant "play." This was us running a 50k in the Marin Headlands in the San Francisco Bay area. 

It wasn't a "costume" race. :-)

When we started bjj, it didn't take too long to bring that light-heartedness to the mats. Since that time, we've fully embraced our dumbassery. When we're not leading classes, we turn it down a few notches, but still joke around, shit-talk each other, give each other wet willies, and so on.

When we are leading classes, we ramp it up a bit with more jokes (often utilizing adult humor and a complete disregard for political correctness... which means we don't train with the easily-offended), the inclusion of games, "themed" classes, funny music, doing practical jokes (including Shelly's favorite joke when rolling with someone new, they go to knee-on-belly, and she loudly screams "OH MY GOD, MY BABY!"), teasing, and a whole lotta laughing. If we "win", we're humble. If we "lose", we thank and/or congratulate our partner. 

Note this is OUR version of play, which is kinda twisted and a little dark. But WE'RE kinda twisted and a little dark. And it's impossible to offend either of us. Your mileage may vary. More importantly, you have to find your own play style, which is discussed in Brown's book I linked at the beginning of this post.

But Doesn't This Foster Shitty Jiu Jitsu?

This is the most common question I receive when I talk about play and jiu jitsu. No, it doesn't. For all our dicking around, we are dead serious about our solemn responsibility as stewards of the art. As much as I hate fragile egos, I hate shitty jiu jitsu even more. This is why I always train with the best people I can (who can tolerate aforementioned adult-ish "play" style), I almost always pick the best opponent when rolling (iron sharpens iron... which turns out really is true metallurgically-speaking), and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the art

When rolling, I may be joking around, but I'm constantly working on improving technical knowledge and precision, pacing, breathing, macro- and micro-strategy, and so on. I'm constantly striving to become the best version of myself I can be, and doing everything I can to help my training partners become the best version of themselves they can be. 

There's an idiom in jiu jitsu that earning your purple belt pretty much guarantees you have the requisites of eventually earning your black belt (which is a stupid goal... that'll be a post for another day) unless you get severely injured or time constraints make training impossible. Basically, you've passed the slew of "tests" that cause others to quit. For me personally, "play" is a critically-important part of what has kept me on the mats, and will continue to keep me on the mats. And I suspect a focus on play will keep others in the sport, too.


So there you have it. Play could very well transform the sport and eliminate a lot of the silly problems that chronically plague bjj. As much as I would love to see other people adopting this approach, I suspect there are just too many stoic sticks in the mud to fully embrace the idea. Some of you, though, the folks who are perpetual kids at heart, really need to start learning the lesson from Thor and Drako. If you're one of those exceptions, though, touch base with me! The easiest way is to friend me on Facebook or join the El Diablo jiu jitsu FB group

~ Jason


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Ways We Perceive Jiu Jitsu: Every Opponent is a Puzzle

I'm enamored with learning about and discussing how us jiu jitsu practitioners perceive jiu jitsu. Like, how do different people think about the art? Why this interest?

It's a natural intersect between two of my passions - psychology and da jitz. 

More practically, it helps me understand my opponents' thought processes, which helps me analyze their game, which helps me learn jiu jitsu a little more efficiently. Whenever I'm rolling with someone (especially new training partners), I ask myself questions like:

  • Are they being aggressive and trying to impose their "A" game on me?
  • Are they playing a more passive "counter-grappling" game and reacting to what I do?
  • Are they experimenting with something new?
  • Do they rely on a handful of well-practiced techniques, or do they have a huge repository of knowledge they can apply?
  • Are they trying to bait me into various traps?
  • And, of course, how do they think about jiu jitsu?
That last one leads to more questions:

  • Do they perceive jiu jitsu as a collection of techniques?
  • Do they perceive jiu jitsu as a collection of concepts?
  • Are they rolling to play, learn, or win (which seems to be more common the higher rank I achieve)?
  • Are they relying on a different grappling art (usually folk style or freestyle wrestling here in the U.S.)?
  • Are they trying to analyze MY game?
And so on. 

The goal in all of this is pretty simple - I see each and every opponent as a puzzle, and my ultimate goal is to solve the puzzle. And solving the puzzle doesn't necessarily mean being able to reliably beat them (though that is often a side-effect.) The goal is to understand their game. I basically become a detective looking for clues in their actions. Or in how they talk about jiu jitsu. 

I'll typically pay attention to how they start. From the knees? Standing? From a dominant position? Inferior position? Do they seem to attack more to their left side (more common) or the right side (less common)? Do they favor chokes? Arm locks? Foot locks? What about pace? Are they spazzy? Lazy? Controlled? Or do they vary the pace? How is their positional control? Posture? All of these elements (and more) offer clues to their game. 

Once I understand their game, I can replicate their game. That process is a major way I learn new stuff and evolve my own game. Kind of a "learning via mimicry" idea.

I've tried perceiving the entire art as a puzzle, but the depth and breadth of the sport is simply too vast for this approach to be functionally useful, at least at my current level (purp.) So I downsize to the level of individual puzzles. It was far more manageable. 

Of course, this concept has its limitations, or at least in regards to fully understanding all my training partners. Pretty much anyone with more experience and/or technical knowledge than me is difficult-if-not-impossible to completely dissect. That doesn't mean trying to solve their puzzle is not without use; I just won't be able to completely solve the puzzle. Making an attempt still teaches me quite a bit. 

An ancillary benefit of this method of perceiving jiu jitsu is it removes the pressure of winning. We've all heard the phrase "you're either winning or learning." But how many people actually follow this idiom? The answer? Not many.

When we start perceiving our opponents as puzzles, it frees us to fully explore every element of their game, including how they finish submissions. That means you HAVE to put yourself in positions to lose in order to learn, even if you're getting tapped to lower belts. I like to think this is what the old timers meant when they said stuff like "check your ego at the door." Anecdotally, I've found people who refuse to get in bad positions universally plateau at some point and eventually quit the sport. You cannot learn if you are unwilling to lose.

This approach also compels us to try tackling the toughest puzzles we can, meaning we should always be choosing the best training partners we can find. Sometimes that means finding the best gym we can. Sometimes that means rolling with the best people in any given class (this is the reason the "don't ask higher belts to roll" tradition is utterly stupid.)

Ideally, this concept should be used as a supplement to typical training methods like learning actual technical skills, drilling, situational rolling, and so on. Also, the longer you train (and accumulate more knowledge), the more effective the concept becomes. This occurs simply because you have an ever-growing repository of knowledge to be able to recognize and understand what your opponent is doing. 

Give it a shot. If you like the concept, give me some feedback either in the comments section here on the blog or in the El Diablo BJJ Group on Facebook.

~ Jason


Jiu Jitsu Three Minute Hack #3: Co-Teaching

Co-teaching is a concept that isn't new in the field of education, but is virtually unheard of in jiu jitsu. The idea is that two...