Whats a move?

I have been beating the “Jiu Jitsu is much more than moves” drum for a while now. And though I think students kind of get it on the surface, it is clear to me that we need more work with the concept in general. So I want to break down: 1)  what “a move” is, 2) why the concept of a move is so powerful, and 3) how you might approach them moving forward to improve the quality of your training. 

1) Whats a move?


From the Merriam-Webster dictionary

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, British scientist Richard Dawkins defended his newly coined word meme, which he defined as "a unit of cultural transmission." Having first considered, then rejected, "mimeme," he wrote: "‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’


The word meme has deeper meaning than gifs or pictures passed around on the social media. As defined in the source above: an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from one person to another in a culture.

Dawkins came up with the word in order to draw attention to the fact that we do not just hand our genes down from person to person, but that the cultural meat of a group contains many concepts, customs, and ideas that are similarly shared within the group and are passed down as well, not unlike genes themselves. 

Unfortunately though we have reduced the word to the dumbest and most plebeian definition possible. No? OK, next time your boss asks you what you were doing please reply “studying memes on the internet” and let me know how that goes.

Jiu Jitsu moves are a type of meme. We see the phenomena in action after most large MMA or Jiu Jitsu events. It is not a bad thing. A cool move is displayed at the event and then on Monday everyone is trying it before class. We saw something cool and we want to figure out how it is done.

2) The concept is powerful for two reasons; 

a) Moves are empowering. When you acquire the skill of a move, you develop the ability to….. move. Not just complete the move itself. By definition a move changes your station on the positional hierarchy. You sweep to mount. You pass and take the back. It is an active verb, at least that is how we wish to think of it. You want the ability to do a move to someone else and not have them do that move on you. You want to advance, make progress, MOVE forward, get ahead. When you learn a move correctly you become better. Learning a move makes you feel accomplished and proud. 

b) Moves connect us. They give us a common language. Typically we want to share a move. When you feel a sense of empowerment the typical response of a well adjusted adult is to share that sense of empowerment. The typical response of a Jiu Jitsu athlete is to develop and polish that move in secret, and then pull it off on your unsuspecting training partner. Then of course we share a laugh and study what makes the move work. Studying technique brings students together.

3) Empowering can be a good thing. It is also not representative of the real world. Much of what we do can be thought of as boring or frustrating. While on some level, the struggle to improve will always retain elements of difficulty and frustration, we don’t have to define it as an either/or proportion.

Example: in the intermediate class last week we started studying the open guard. I may have shown a move or two, I don’t think that I did. If I did it was very briefly and wasn’t the point of the lesson. We worked on open guard movement and how to flow from one transitional position to the next. I didn’t even tell you how specifically to do it. Everyone who took those classes, and practiced diligently, got better. You may have not picked up one single move in the class. You did though get much better at the setups. When you played the top person you got better at setting up your passes and stringing them together.

One way to think about learning moves

If we define a spectrum of intellectual effort that has Richard Dawkins publishing research on one end and someone making cat memes at the other, our Jiu Jitsu practice should fall somewhere in between. Hopefully, on average, our practice will be closer to the Dawkins side than cat memes. That said our practice should be fun and engaging. Sharing moves is one of the ways we open our mind to possibilities and begin to explore the maze of Jiu Jitsu. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All play and no work makes Jack a poor boy. Said another way, if all you have is a cursory knowledge of many moves, and no moves that you can actually do, you will be a rightfully sad panda. 

Treating moves like cat memes sets a false expectation of success. A non-Jiu Jitsu example that parallels the phenomena is the little dopamine hit you get when you get an unexpected message on your phone from an old friend or unexpected good news. This conditions you to keep checking your phone to see if you can get more dopamine. 

When someone shares a novel move with us, the first step to learning the move is seeing how the move works. That is the little light bulb moment that brings a sense of relief, (and dopamine). “Seeing” the move registers with your reward center. However, seeing the move and adding it to your current level of working knowledge and ability are two different things. Sometimes you can see a new move and add it right into your game. For most mortals though it will take a fair amount of diligent and deliberate work. 

Moves are just a bit of vocabulary that allow us to talk about a subject. Fixating on them too much distracts from the art. In order to excel at Jiu Jitsu you need to be honest with your practice. Being actively engaged means adjusting your training, and/or your expectations, so that your frustration with the material turns into focus and determination, not diffuse angst and surrender. We train not to rid ourselves of frustration, but to learn how to handle it. Don’t define your Jiu Jitsu by the number of moves you know. Instead see how well you can articulate a move you “know” to someone trying to learn it. That way you will both improve with relevant and related material.

See everyone on the mat!