Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Way We Teach and Learn Jiu Jitsu is Kinda Dumb

Pretty much every jiu jitsu program I've observed uses the same teaching methods and sequencing, and they go something like this:

The instructor begins the class with some sort of warm-up, then shows some technique which may or may not be part of a larger curriculum, the technique is drilled, and finally students do some live rolling.

This methodology is repeated class after class, week after week, month after month, and year after year. Sometimes new activities will be added in for a little variety, but the same general format is always followed. We generally accept this because it's the way it's always been done. And it's likely the way we learned, so we have a degree of false confidence in the efficacy of the methodology.

But what if there's a better way?

In the world of professional education, teachers are always experimenting with new ideas (or revisiting old ideas), tweaking their methods, and always striving to do the greatest good for the widest swath of students who come through our classroom. This results in a slew of empirically-confirmed teaching methods (which we call "pedagogy") that teachers employ in the classroom. Over my twenty years in education, I've become intimately familiar with this system. It works fairly well for most students (which is impressive considering how many kids genuinely hate going to school), but is absolutely fabulous for the kids who are motivated to learn.

We don't do that too much in the jits world, though. I've encountered a VERY small number of people who seriously consider HOW they teach, but the vast majority of us are way more concerned about WHAT we teach. We just keep doing what's always been done while taking very few pedagological risks. The sad part? It's not all that hard to make some really simple tweaks to our teaching that could make a huge impact on student learning. Here are a few ideas:

  1.  Give students access to video of whatever we're teaching that class. A short, simple three minute video explaining the concept or technique we're teaching that students could view before class will help the student prepare for learning the concept or technique in class. Viewing the same video after class will also help reinforce the points made in class. This is especially important if there are a fair number of details involved. 
  2. Get a white board. Write your daily goals and agenda on the board for students to see before and during class. We learn significantly faster when we know what we're learning and why we're learning it. We also retain the information better. We also learn better when we know what to expect. It gives training a very specific purpose. I've been doing this in my psychology classes for years, and it makes a significant positive difference. 
  3. Tailoring teaching to individual students. We all learn in different ways. Some of us learn better by seeing. Some learn better by hearing. Some learn better by doing. And so on. This isn't nearly as hard as it may seem. Just pay attention to which people in your classes seem to "get it." Whatever you normally do is working for them. Now pay attention to the students who are struggling. Have a conversation with them about their experiences in school. What kinds of classes did they like most? What did their teachers do that worked well? How about their experiences outside of school when they learned other stuff? These kinds of discussions can reveal a great deal of insight to HOW they learn best. Once you're armed with that knowledge, start implementing it in your teaching. In education, we call this idea "differentiation."
  4. Add in a little variety. Pablo Celnik (2016), in a Current Biology article, described research where his team was able to reduce the time required to learn a physical motor skill by half when compared to simply repeating a task again and again (like we do when drilling a technique.) All they did was slightly modify the task. In jiu jitsu, this could be accomplished by implementing ideas like my "embracing limitations" games
  5. Show videos of experts doing the technique or demonstrating the concept in competition. Watching different people doing a technique successfully is an old sport psychology trick. Given the prevalence of jiu jitsu videos online, this should be easy. 
  6. Speaking of sport psychology... implement visuo-motor behavior rehearsal. This is just a fancy way of combining progressive relaxation with imagery, which is picturing doing a specific technique in your mind repeatedly. 
  7. Have students teach the material back to you. According to the "level of processing" hypothesis, the "deeper" we process information, the better we learn it. While this topic could be an entire blog post itself, the gist of the idea is that the more you have to think about something, the better you learn it. One of the best ways to get our students to "think" about jiu jitsu is to have them teach jiu jitsu. The reason is pretty simple - teaching material forces you to consider how others will perceive it, which forces you to really break down and contemplate the material.
  8. Use inquiry-based instruction. Inquiry-based instruction is all about triggering curiosity in your students. It works like this - the instructor guides students to develop questions about something they're interested in learning. The students then research it and present what they learned. The instructor then guides the students to reflect on what they learned and the process they used (the latter is to develop ever-more efficient methods of inquiry.) For an endeavor like jiu jitsu, this concept would be gold.
  9. Use cooperative learning to solve problems. Cooperative learning involves dividing the class into small groups, giving each group a little part of the total knowledge you want to teach, then letting the groups put it all together by teaching each other. Like #7 on the list, this forces deep processing AND collaboration (which results in deeper social bonds.)
  10. Give accurate, timely feedback. I was lucky in that I cut my jiu jitsu teeth by working with my coach in very small groups during sparsely-attended morning classes. That gave me the opportunity to ask a ton of questions AND get constant, immediate feedback. I've noticed, though, that few instructors deliberately give feedback to their students on a routine basis beyond what they're doing correctly or incorrectly with whatever technique is being taught. Something as simple as giving monthly feedback on a student's strengths and weaknesses could be incredibly valuable to their progress.
These ten items are far from an exhaustive list of all the things we can do to help our students learn more efficiently. We should look at our teaching methodologies in the same way we look at our jiu jitsu game - it's something we should always work to improve. Not only will it make us better instructors, but it will help our students become better jiu jitsu practitioners. 


    Wednesday, May 22, 2019

    Could Gamification Solve the Problem of People Quitting Jiu Jitsu?

    The jiu jitsu world suffers from a serious problem - the vast majority of the people who start the sport quit rather early. It's been said that 90% of all people who start will fail to earn their blue belt, and only about 1% of those folks will stick with the sport long enough to earn a black belt. If those numbers are even close to accurate, that's pretty sad. 

    While there are a multitude of legitimate reasons people quit training (kids, work, injuries, etc.), sometimes it just comes down to the simple fact that training jiu jitsu, over time, is really hard. And sometimes the cost of training becomes greater than the rewards we get from training.So really, the attrition issue in jiu jitsu ultimately comes down to an issue of motivation

    What We Know About Motivation

    Generally speaking, motivation comes in two flavors - intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation occurs when we're motivated by something outside us, like someone gives us candy, a paycheck,  or a belt promotion. Intrinsic motivation occurs when we're motivated by something inside us, like the desire to improve, satisfying our curiosity, or playing. 

    With extrinsic motivation we do the activity because we either get something good or we avoid something bad. With intrinsic motivation we do the activity for the sake of doing the activity.

    In the world of jiu jitsu, most people are motivated by extrinsic motivators, like the aforementioned belt promotions, the medals we win at the local tournament, the envy we receive from others when we wear our fancy gi to class, the feelings of superiority when we tap someone out in class, or the praise we receive from our coaches. 

    The problem with extrinsic motivators is sustainability. Interest and motivation always wanes overtime when we're motivated by extrinsic motivators. This is why job satisfaction typically decreases with time - we're doing the job for the paycheck, which is an extrinsic motivator. In jiu jitsu, if you're doing the sport primarily for the extrinsic rewards, you're going to burn out and likely quit.

    Conversely, intrinsic motivators do not decrease over time. You can continue an activity for years and years and your interest remains relatively constant. If you're doing jiu jitsu for the intrinsic rewards, you're likely going to continue the sport for the long haul. Indeed, just talk to most black belts. You'll find they didn't stick with the sport for the belt. Or the medals. Or to be perceived as a "badass." Or the accolades. No. They stuck with it because they have a primal love of the actual art. They love jiu jitsu. 

    Or, more precisely, their love of jiu jitsu has been stronger than the many costs that arise from training this art of a decade or more.  

    Unfortunately, we can't just tell people to love jiu jitsu. Sure, most people who start and don't quit after three classes probably seem to love the sport, but they're in the "honeymoon" phase. Much like two people who fall madly in love for the first few months of dating, they're really just riding a high caused by a cocktail of brain chemicals. I'm not talking about that kind of love. I'm talking about the kind of love that you find endlessly engaging. It's the kind of love that makes you a better person. It's the kind of love that makes us feel comfortable and gives us a sense of belonging and purpose. 

    That kind of love doesn't just happen. And it certainly doesn't happen because we utilize best-practices in our teaching of the sport. Given the minuscule percentage of the population that sticks with this sport, it's safe to say those who do stick around survived in spite of the way we teach the sport, not because we're doing something special in our gyms.

    Gamification ~ Intrinsic Motivation

    The human brain is an amazing organ. There are a myriad of simple "hacks" we can do to dramatically improve our performance. One such hack is known as gamification. Gamification takes any routine, mundane activity and improves it by introducing some element of game mechanics. We basically take boring shit and make it fun by turning it into a game. It's shockingly effective. 

    I was first introduced to this idea as a psychology undergrad at my alma mater - Northern Michigan University (Go 'Cats!) I was a T.A. for an intro to psych class, and was hanging out in our T.A. office with a fellow psych student. I think her name was Beth. Anyway, we were sharing stories about our mutual hatred of cleaning despite having a low tolerance for clutter. Beth explained how she made cleaning tolerable by making it into a game. She set a timer for fifteen minutes and would attempt to clean the entire house in that time. She claimed it made cleaning a blast!

    I was skeptical, but tried it anyway. I'll be damned it it didn't work! The cleaning wasn't exactly thorough, but it was good enough. More importantly, the timer trick made cleaning... kinda fun.

    I've been using this gamification for strength and conditioning workouts for some time. I've even started a group that meets here in Western Colorado (the Western Slope Hobby Joggas) that use this concept. We do tough workouts every Sunday morning at 10am, and implement an element of gamification in each one. The "game" part of the workout helps obscure the fact that we're busting our assess, which helps keep the participants motivated.

    [Sidebar - if you like harder workouts, are in the Western Slope area, and hate training in gyms, check out our Hobby Jogga group. It's fun! And free.]

    This same idea can be implemented into jiu jitsu training. I've previously written about the importance of "play" in jiu jitsu, and I've also shared a few of the games I like to play in training based on setting limitations. But why stop here? Why not make the entire training experience a game? In the next section, I'll share a framework for an idea I've been working on for a few months.

    The Big Idea

    We start by defining a time period over which the game will take place. I'll use sixteen weeks for this example. This will give the game long enough to fully develop without dragging on so interest wanes. At the end of this four month cycle, we'll declare a winning team. 

    The next step is setting the teams. In this hypothetical scenario, we'll make three teams of ten. Each team will elect a "captain" who is responsible for leading the team. 

    Finally, we set up a competitive aspect to the game where each of the three teams is competing. We'll make the scoring simple - teams will earn points for specific tasks. The tasks are set up to reinforce the behaviors that will lead to everyone improving their jiu jitsu games or positively contributing to the gym culture, so points could be earned by doing the following:

    • Each team member who comes to class earns two points.
    • Each team member who  comes to an open mat earns one point.
    • Competing in a tournament earns five points.
    • Cleaning the mats before class earns one point.
    • Researching and teaching a technique in class earns three points. 
    And so on.

    The actual points can be awarded for anything that we want to improve. We could also use the system by reducing points for undesirable behavior, but I generally like to keep things positive. Your mileage may vary. 

    Other activities can be added to the game. Make a weekly competition. Each team selects two people, and they roll with someone from the other teams in a competitive match. The winning team earns five points towards their team score. This would give students some of the benefits of competing without the commitment required to compete.

    Or maybe give each team a task. Let's say this week's technique is an Americana from side control. Introduce the technique on Monday, then have each team research and develop the most effective Americana defense they can. On Saturday, have each team demonstrate what they developed and have the highest belts act as judges. The most innovative (or whatever quality your gym values) earns five points towards their team score.

    At the end of the sixteen weeks, hold a banquet and give the winning team a trivial prize. Maybe put their names on a plaque and hand it in the gym. 

    After one cycle, the teams could be disbanded and reformed randomly or deliberately (to assure they're fair) and the cycle could be repeated. If ideas like cooperative interdependence are incorporated in this system, this could provide an opportunity for strong bonding among teammates. The teams themselves could be used to advance some of the more difficult goals we try to teach in our classes. 

    For example, the same teams could be used for cycle after cycle. Each team would be given a particular identity based on a prevailing "style." The members of the team would incorporate that "style" into their game as long as they were part of that team. Let's say we have Rhinos, Cougars, and Vipers

    The Rhinos are known for their relentless smashing pressure game. They're calm, persistent, and grinding. Their methodical approach is meant to mitigate faster, more athletic opponents.

    The Cougars are smooth, sneaky, and deadly-playful. They use lots of movement and misdirection to constantly play with their opponent's balance and body position. Like a cat batting around a mouse, they continually set clever traps to lazily "toy" with their opponents.

    The Vipers are aggressive and deadly. They combine relentless focused attacks with evasiveness and speed. Their frenetic, offensive approach assures matches end quickly and decisively.

    Over the span of several cycles, our students will be exposed to three radically different styles of jiu jitsu, which normally only happens if they switch gyms. For most, this would be a powerful learning opportunity. Minimally, it would be fun to "try on" different jiu jitsu personalities to get a slightly different perspective on the art. 


    These are just a few ways jiu jitsu training could be gamified. The attrition issue is a real problem in this sport,and the solution could be as simple as making training more fun. One of the best ways to do this is by embracing intrinsic motivation and turning training into a game.

    What do you think? Could this idea work? Would you like to see your gym try something like this? Leave a comment!



    Thursday, May 16, 2019

    The Eight Points of Attack: A Conceptual Framework for Jiu Jitsu

    A few years back, I had a bit of a crisis in jiu jitsu. I had recently earned my purple belt, and was immersed in learning as much as I possibly could. At the time, that meant learning as many techniques, variations of techniques, and chains of techniques I possibly could. Unfortunately, my brain simply couldn't handle the information overload. My coaches, who were far more experienced than me, could provide what seemed like an infinite level of knowledge, but I could only retain a tiny portion. 

    I was feeling pretty good about my game, but I realized I was nearing a big 'ole wall in my development. And not just one of those so-called "walls" marathoners talk about (which isn't a wall so much as the first in a repeating cycle of highs and lows.) This was an actual semi-hard (heh.) limit on my ability to learn, which would invariably limit my ability to progress. I was still learning jiu jitsu like a white or low-level, and it was becoming more and more obvious in how I rolled. 

    I needed a different way to think about jiu jitsu.

    In psychology terms, I needed a new schema, or way to organize the information was learning. So I "forgot" everything I knew about jiu jitsu and pondered the very nature of the art. It's basically two bodies moving in space with the goal of either breaking a joint or strangulating your opponent. Nothing more. Nothing less. That's when I had my "AH-HA" moment - while there's near-infinite variations and nuances, all legal submissions are really just attacks on eight different points on the human body. Well, a set of arteries in our necks, one big joint (the spine),  and six pairs of smaller  joints. The eight points, then, are:

    1. Two carotid arteries in our neck
    2. Shoulder joints
    3. Elbow joints
    4. Wrist joints
    5. Hip joints
    6. Knee joints
    7. Ankle joints
    8. The spine
    The carotids are simple enough; they carry blood to the brain. Constrict both enough and your opponent loses consciousness. All the other joints fall into a few simplified categories:

    • Ball and socket joints (hips and shoulders)
    • Hinge joints (elbows, knees, and ankles)
    • Condyloid joints (wrists)
    • Pivot joints (where our head attaches to our spine)
    • Facet joints (the spine itself)
    Yeah, yeah, anatomy and physiology folks will note this is *really* simplified, but we don't need "study for the MCATs" level of specificity here. We're only interested in what it takes to *break* these joints. 

    Every submission we learn in jiu jitsu (and almost all possible submissions) act on these eight areas. Slicers, asphyxiation (smothering), and pressure point-based submissions are most of the exceptions, and most are rare. 

    So I started playing around with this concept. Instead of going for a traditional straight arm bar, I would experiment with attacking the elbow joint (a hinge) from different positions and angles. After playing around with this idea for about a year, my previous schema of jiu jitsu being a giant collection of techniques faded. This old schema was replaced by a much broader-but-simpler schema based on understanding the planes and ranges of motion of these seven joints, along with an understanding of how the carotid arteries work. 

    Prior to doing this, my thought process was sort of like a "choose your own adventure" story based on cause and effect. I would initiate a movement, the opponent would respond, then I would access my mental cache of collected techniques, choose the appropriate response, they would respond, and so on. This method was very effective against people who weren't very good OR people who I had trained with a lot (because their game was adequately predictable so I could anticipate their responses.) 

    The problem? This is a very slow mental process. With enough repetitions, I would marginally increase the speed of the responses as muscle memory develops, but it still felt like I was a train confined to the rails of the techniques I had previously learned. It was extremely difficult to improvise, create, or even respond to novel situations. I could have continued to advance in the sport, but my development had already slowed to a rather pathetic crawl. And it was getting even slower with time. 

    The new "eight points of attack" caused me to regress for a few months mostly because I stopped going to regular classes and learning new techniques. Instead, I just did open mats and rolled. And rolled. And rolled some more. The strategy was pretty basic - get to an advantageous position, secure said position, then attack whatever joint (or carotids) I could from that position using basic physiological principles.

    The results have been rather dramatic. While I'm not going to be winning any world championships, my jiu jitsu is objectively better. More importantly (to me, anyway) - this changed how I learn jiu jitsu. Previously, I would memorize techniques in ever-greater detail. And I remembered all the details as discrete points. For example, I had somewhere around thirty details related to a basic triangle. Whenever I would hit one in training, some parts of the triangle were automatic (built through repetition and subsequent muscle memory.) Otherwise, I would run down the list of the points I could remember in order to more effectively execute the submission. 

    Now I would simply start with an understanding that I needed to compress both carotid arteries, and I could dynamically make adjustments with little conscious thought. This simplified system was faster and more effective. 

    The HUGE benefit, though, came when I started going back to regular classes and learning technique. Instead of memorizing anything and everything my coaches explained, I could focus on the underlying concepts and how it applied to the eight points of attack. Instead of learning a new arm bar to be added to the heap of techniques already in my head, I was learning new, creative ways to exploit that hinge joint of the elbow. It's a subtle but important difference. 

    In future posts, I'll discuss these eight points of attack and the mechanisms that make each of the attacks "effective." In other words, HOW do we attack each of these points? I'll also talk about how I started to apply this simplified schema to every aspect of my game, including takedowns, sweeps, escapes, defense, pacing, etc.

    Stay tuned!



    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...