The path that takes you from observing a new activity to effectively practicing that activity is often not the simple short and direct route that many of us wish it were. I have become a bit fascinated with kayaking since I moved to the PNW. Not fascinated as in this is my new hobby that I practice all the time, but rather it is something I have seen and would like to learn. This came up in conversation with my Jiu Jitsu instructor and his only comment was "get lessons".

"Get lessons, and a good boat?" I asked.

"Get lessons" was his only reply. He knew that I wanted to talk about different boat styles and gear. He also knew that if we were to talk gear that I would focus on things rather than skills.

Seth Godin once said something to the effect of "It doesn't matter what kind of pen Stephen King used, it matters that he used it". Point being it is the person that makes the craft, the gear is supplementary. While gear might be cool, having the skill to use it is much cooler. Skill is something you either have or do not, you can't fake it long. Gear can be lost and replaced.

What are we getting lesson in/What are we trying to do

Learning Jiu Jitsu can be difficult. One of the things that makes it difficult to learn is that we don't have a great model for it because it is so new. If someone wants to get good at gymnastics or football there are very clear progressions lined out. Jiu Jitsu is a relatively new martial art and though it is a martial art, it is a grappling art. The overwhelming majority of martial arts examples are of striking arts, so in general when someone thinks of martial arts they tend to think of application of force through the lens of the most prevalent example - striking arts. Since most people here are properly proud science dorks I think a graph is in order. 


That is the classic energy diagram for getting into the correct position and then punching someone in the face. When you listen to boxing pros talk about boxing they often emphasize good footwork and movement over punching power. So even though the pros try to draw attention to the finesse of the set up and defensive skills. Never the less most people think about punching power when they think of boxing or other martial arts. 

The interesting thing about that graph is that I got it out of an old Judo textbook. If application of force is different in grappling than in striking you would think that the Judo text would reflect that. Judo though, while cool, is quite limited in it's application similar to how boxing is. Two people are standing directly in front of one another both with the same goal, so while the methods are different the application has much in common. 

Positional Hierarchy

One of the qualities that makes Jiu Jitsu different is the idea of positional hierarchy. If stand in front of each other like Judo or Boxing our physical strength is a function of our own personal physical strength. Jiu Jitsu uses the concept of mismatched positional pairs, so instead of measuring my strength versus your strength we become more interested in the inherent advantage or disadvantage of my position relative to yours. The basic game positional ladder looks like this:


But that representation doesn't show the whole picture of mismatched position pairs, it just shows you a quick road map of where you are and which direction you should try to go. Using the mount position as an example let's look at the idea of mismatched position pairs and it's implications a little closer. 



The goal of boxing is to punch and not get punched. In Judo it is to throw and not be thrown. Jiu Jitsu doesn't share that limited relationship, but rather uses position as a means to stay safe, establish control, and eventually finish. While being on the bottom of mount doesn't count as a loss, it is definitely a rest stop on the road to losing. This means that the Jiu Jitsu player has to be concerned with attacks to his or her position AND be aware of potential submissions. If I can obtain a superior position I don't have to be as concerned with submissions however my opponent has to be worried about both AND he or she is burning energy at a faster rate than me. 

Looking at the energy diagram above you can see that the majority of the time is spent in technique set up and entry into the move. While you might see similar energy spikes in a high level Jiu Jitsu match what you will often see is described as boring by those unfamiliar with Jiu Jitsu. The physical movement, balance, and timing required to execute Jiu Jitsu technique is at the heart of the art. No human amount of energy spikes will save you in Jiu Jitsu if you don't understand how to navigate the positional hierarchy. The take away form this is that the more proficient we are at the set up and entry phase, the less energy we need in the execution phase. If you hone your Jiu Jitsu skills to ninja level you can trick your opponent into providing the energy for the execution phase. 

This requires that we learn a new skill set. We have to learn how to move well on the ground. We have to learn where leverage does and does not exist on the ground. Finally we have learn the conversation of Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu involves a physical interaction with your partner and looking at Jiu Jitsu as a conversation provides many useful analogies that can help us understand the art. Since we are going to be doing a lot of learning let's take two whole minutes and watch a video about the oldest learning metaphor there is, learning how to ride a bike. 


Less gear is generally better.

Training wheels and tricycles enable kids to go faster, but without the skill to control it. Then they get a bike with pedals and have to learn two complex tasks in tandem - balance AND navigation while pedaling.

On a balance bike, children are focused on balancing, rather than pedaling.  As a result, they are more prepared for an unexpected loss in balance and are much less likely to fall.  This is deliberate practice. You are isolating the most important skill - don’t fall off the bike, and not just working it…. You are working it with your feet out ready to catch you if you fall….. So the first thing you learn is to not fall.

Once they have that down they naturally want to go faster and further, so the child's natural curiosity leads them to push those boundaries and as the boundaries are pushed the skill is further developed.

The take away here is that the learning process is segmented. The child is learning the elements of riding a bike either individually or in closely associated pairs, (balance and steering),  so that he can develop proficiency faster. Still though, it's just a kiddo riding a bike and maybe it is tough to see the correlation between that training method and what we are doing in Jiu Jitsu class. Let's look at some video of iron Mike Tyson training and see if we can find any similarities.

 You can skip it if you would like, however you might miss out on getting a birds eye view of the whole picture if you do. You DO NOT need to watch the whole video, watch just enough for you to see the point of the practice. Watch it at 2x speed if you need to, just watch enough to see if you can figure out what they are working.

What are they working on? Graph please!

It would be odd to overlook how powerful Iron Mike punches, however that is not the point of the practice shown above. Footwork, timing, and positioning is what he was working on there. Tyson was known as having impeccable defense and the ability to throw effective strikes AS opponents were trying to hit him. He was a master of position. He had a HUGE foundation of defensive movement and worked diligently on a very specific style. The punching in that video is done only because; 1) the power of the punches effects timing and follow up - doing the drill AND throwing the punches makes the drill more useful to him, 2) To him because he has already worked defense in isolation and punching power in isolation and this allows him to put them together.

The point of showing it is to show that at the most elite levels the skill acquisition model is very similar to learning to ride a balance bike; isolate the desired trait and train for that specifically. There is a ton of footage of Tyson working all of the attributes he is known for in either isolation or in specific pairs. Working skills and attributes like this allows you to give them your full attention so that your body functions on autopilot when more complex tasks come up. To reiterate, in boxing outsiders tend to look at punching power while insiders look at footwork, timing, positioning, defensive skills and execution of strategy. Here is a little montage of Tyson training skills in isolation and then using those skills in matches. Please note that in the video Tyson says that he trains this so much that he can feel himself start to evade the punches at the instant they are headed his way.

There is another very relevant training, (and execution) method used by Tyson. He doesn’t use ALL the weapons of boxing, he uses HIS weapons of boxing. You see this concept in just about every field and sport. Masters make maximum use of minimal tools. Less gear is generally better. It’s the person that makes the craft, the gear is supplementary. For our purposes gear = more moves. However before we dismiss more moves let’s spend a little time looking at one common problem in Jiu Jitsu regarding moves. The issue is something I hear somewhat often; “I can execute the moves when we drill them, but I have a hard time pulling them off in training”.

But first let’s talk a little bit about leverage

To illustrate why let's break down a common difficulty in acquiring martial ability; muscling a technique. Part of learning Jiu Jitsu is learning how amazing leverage is. When “you” do martial arts correctly you are using the power of leverage, not the power of you. If we physically load boxes on a truck by picking them up that is “you” moving boxes. If however you place the boxes on a dolly and then push the dolly up a ramp, that is leverage. You are technically still moving the boxes, but the power of leverage is making that task much easier. Many people practice martial arts, (who have not learned the difference), end up muscling the technique, (picking up the boxes), instead of using leverage, (putting them on the dolly).

Often times when you muscle a technique you can tell that something is amiss. In the analogy of moving boxes the person moving the boxes by hand can tell that they are working hard. If you didn’t know that dollys existed you would end up working on body mechanics to make the task easier. You might try to lift with your legs and not your back, keep the load close to you, and not look down. You would use basic body mechanics in an attempt to be efficient. In loading a truck you would be correct, however for martial arts we need to learn to see the dolly. The dolly is the leverage that exists between my partner and I. Just as proper leverage can make my workload easier, it can make my partners more difficult

To make seeing the dolly easier we redefine the competitive element in the intro and fundamentals classes. We substitute who wins with our version of the memory game, however instead of memory it could more accurately be called physical recall. The teachers help the students understand basic Jiu Jitsu positions along with some of their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Students are then given a cursory introduction to basic moves from those positions. The physical recall game is played out by player A presenting a physical problem to player B. Player B then has to perform (recall) the correct technique. There are two obstacles to both students: 1) remembering the correct move, and B) physical performing the technique.

This works out well for the learning the mechanics of the technique, however as noted with the problem above, that does you no good if you can’t pull it off in training. If you remember the force/time graph from earlier you can imagine that often times when the technique doesn’t work students will rationalize that they must need a greater force spike during execution to make the more work. Where you should focus instead is on the first elements; set up and entry. What makes this tricky is that you are not sure what opportunity is going to come up when you are training live, (up down out or rolling). We can isolate some of the opportunity out with specific training goals and resistance, but that only helps so much.

What makes pulling off the move live so difficult is that you have to trick your partner into giving you some of the energy to execute the move. The only way to consistently and effectively accomplish that is to work moves in logical combinations. Since none of us can predict the future you cannot be sure of what opportunity your partner is going to give you. In order to become proficient at pulling moves off in training you need to become an expert in casual observation while training. What this means is that you are not waiting for your one opportunity to hit an energy spike and then hitting it, but rather you are keeping a good eye on where and how your partner is moving and trying to find openings within that. The more emphasis you put on following your partners moves and energy the better you will get at seeing openings. This requires that you switch your focus from “can I do the move” to “what moves are open and can I test my partner a little bit at those openings”. If you can redefine success to that standard you will find that you are pulling off moves much more quickly than you will by trying to pull off moves. It is a bit counter intuitive and it’s often not the answer that people want, it is however the answer. Learn to casually observe and test while training.

Let’s look a little more closely at when these windows of opportunity come up and why they exist. Imagine that sphere exists that defines your personal ability to execute moves. The sphere is defined by and filled with the individual elements that allow you to execute a technique.

Please note this is a different model that what you probably have for martial arts. Moves are NOT a thing I do TO you. Moves emerge out of the interaction we have with each other. If two dudes from Braveheart fight from a distance and one shoots the other with an arrow, that is an assault with a projectile weapon, Note: Not Jiu Jitsu. If those two dudes decide to pull out knives instead and see who can cut the other one up first; NOT Jiu Jitsu. A move is NOT a thing I do TO you. Moves emerge out of the interaction we have with each other. It happens when my sphere of martial ability intersects with your sphere of martial ability and it looks like this.

One thing I hope this model allows you to understand is that as we are all individuals our spheres are of different size or area of potential. The various elements that comprise the sphere all count to it’s area. The greater the size of your sphere in relation to your partner, the easier it is for you to execute moves. For instance maybe I am new to the sport, of medium athletic build and ability, and I have not internalized the idea of the positional hierarchy. Let’s say that by contrast you have been training a eight months, you have the same build but are in better shape because you train. Because you train you have greater fluency with the positional hierarchy and the ability to navigate it. In that case the relationship between us will look skewed, and the intersection of our spheres take up much less relative volume of your sphere than it does of mine. It might look like this.

One thing this mismatch means is that you are going to be able to pull of moves on me easier than I can pull off moves on you. It doesn’t mean that I can’t be successful in pulling off a move on you, but it does mean that doing so will take much greater focus on my part and a more perfect opportunity and execution. By contrast you can pull moves off on me in a much more casual  manner. Since many of the elements that make up the individual spheres require presence of mind, the more frantically I try to execute the less success I am likely to have. I “could” get lucky, but I will most likely just make reading and predicting my movement easier and give you and even greater upper hand. If, in this scenario, you are able to keep a level head while I am trying to energy spike my way out of the situation you will enjoy a pretty straight forward success while I just get more tired and frustrated.