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


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