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


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