“Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.”
Hunter S. Thompson
The world of BJJ is dynamic and always changing. If you feel like you’re standing still, that you can’t adapt, or you aren’t progressing, perhaps you’re plateauing. Sometime it feels like you have to get better just to stay in the same relative spot compared to your teammates, it feels like not getting better means you’re falling behind the rest of the crowd. If that is your experience, it’s time to refresh your learning style.
Even smart, knowledgeable people can struggle to learn from experience. One may think that 5 years on the mats equates to 5 years of experience, but what if we really have one year repeated 5 times? Many of us are so focused on problem solving on the mat that we don’t take the time to reflect on our use of techniques after we’ve used them. This oversight severely limits our capability to learn from the experience. Naturally, we want to reflect, but we’re on the mat, we have more immediate problems to solve — not to mention that reflecting on any loss or mistake is painful and we’re inclined to avoid pain to protect our egos.
It takes time and honest self-assessment about our development goals, but it pays off big time in the future. The problem is that the future is not visible today, so slowing down now to go faster at some point later seems like a time consuming, low priority activity. Add to that the payoff being far off in the future, it’s hard to connect to the reflection today.
If we grow accustomed to our success patterns on the mat, think of the top player with a poor guard, questioning our performance can stir defensiveness. It’s not because we aren’t skilled, but because we resist learning out of a fear of seeming inept. Smart people aren’t used to failing, so they struggle to learn from their mistakes and can respond by blaming something else- “I’m not a guard player”. In the same way a muscle strengthens at the point of failure, we learn best after failure. Putting yourself in difficult situations and trying new things is the key to learning with this model.
Push to the Point of Failure
The first step is to stop getting defensive. Justification gets us nowhere. Instead start collecting and analysing information about your performance. Journal and reflect after training. What conclusions can we draw from our training? How can you test them next time? What evidence do we need to prove a new sweep/submission/concept has value to us?
The next step is to change our mental models. Break apart paradigms. Question where conventions came from. Pivot and make reassessments if necessary. Learning Jiu Jitsu isn’t a linear process. We can’t master one technique or group of movements and then sit back and await success.
“Fail early and get it all over with. If you learn to deal with failure… you can have a worthwhile career. You learn to breathe again when you embrace failure as a part of life, not as the determining moment of life.” Rev. William L. Swig
Enter Josh Waitzkin. After reaching the pinnacles of competitive chess, Josh Waitzkin turned his focus to martial arts. On the surface Martial arts and chess are completely different, but Waitzkin used his methods of learning for both. He advanced quickly because he was willing to lose matches if doing so meant he could learn. He noticed that other martial arts students had a tendency to repeat their mistakes, letting fruitless habits become ingrained. They wanted to be right, to win, even if it prevented their learning. In contrast, Waitzkin viewed practice as an experiment. Each session was an opportunity to test his beliefs. He mastered several martial arts, and holds a black belt in BJJ.
When Josh was first starting his journey in chess the first instructor he had did things a little bit differently than most. He took nearly all the pieces off the board and had him practice with just a king and a pawn versus a king. A little counter-intuitive as most people will start from the beginning and work their way through the whole game, but in the beginning there's too much to focus on and most people will become lost by the sheer number of options they have. Sound similar to your first few months or years on the mat? What Josh's teacher did instead was have him focus on less. This way his mind wasn't hindered by countless options and he was able to adopt high-level principles.
Depth over Breadth
We basically have two approaches we can take to learning, the first and most common is to try and cram more and more information into our head. That is to try and learn more techniques so we have more knowledge, but this is a very surface level knowledge.
The second approach is to narrow your focus to one or two things. To do less but to do it incredibly well. To focus on depth over breadth. Through Josh's approach to learning with just a few pieces on the board it gave him more room to think and completely internalize how each piece moves. He would then move on to a king and a knight then a king and a rook until he deeply understood every single piece on the board. Now when he actually dropped back into the complex opening and middle game positions the chaos seemed decipherable. He could see the workings of each piece he had learned more. By focusing on less his knowledge grew. He was able to learn new information faster and faster.
This it is a state of mind that relies on preparation and resilience. Resilience is a trait we built up over time by planning for setbacks, distractions and building adversity into our practice.
Here is a simple structure you can use to implement these core principles for BJJ learning.
What is the current technique in use?
How does it differ from similar techniques and the associated goals?
What unspoken rules are being followed; are they detrimental?
What could change, and how?
Forget the details; what is the bigger picture?
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