I think strength by itself is helpful but overrated. Having grappled with thousands of people on this planet as the result of teaching so many seminars and teaching so many Jiu Jitsu classes at kickboxing schools, karate schools and the like, it has been my observation that the most difficult guys to spar with are those who had the mix of strength and endurance. Let me say this a different way. The guys I sparred with who had strength were difficult to spar with the first 3-5 minutes. After that, their strength would let them down because they did not have endurance. The guys I sparred with who had endurance – and a tinge of strength – were the most difficult to spar with because it felt like they could keep going and going and going and going—Roy Harris
So how do you develop muscular endurance? That’s actually a fairly deep question because the body utilizes three distinct energy systems (phosfagen, glycolytic, and oxidative), each of which allows your body to fuel activities of different intensities and duration, ranging from steady state sub-maximal aerobic, to activities requiring short intense bursts of maximal effort. Each energy system is improved through a different workout methodology.
For example, lifting heavy weights at low reps is a short-term, high intensity activity which relies on ATP (the phosfagen system). If all you do is lift heavy and slow, you’ll certainly develop strength. But your lactate and aerobic systems won’t develop much, so if you’re tasked with sprinting up a hill or grappling at full intensity for several rounds you’ll likely do poorly.
The short (and incomplete) answer to how you develop muscular endurance is to mix up your workouts. Lift heavy some days, do high rep low rest complexes other days, train your aerobic system some days, and push yourself into an anaerobic metabolic state other days. That, and for us Jiu Jitsu players, grapple a lot. Every sport requires specific physical adaptations that can not be trained apart from doing the activity itself. Do you want to be able to grapple longer? Then grapple longer.
There is also an efficiency component that is rarely talked about. I hear white belts all the time say “I need to get into better shape”. Many of them are already, objectively, in pretty great shape. However, they are inefficient at Jiu Jitsu. They utilize way too much muscular power in non-productive ways which zaps their energy quickly. As you gain experience in Jiu Jitsu you become far more efficient. In my experience, athletes with great endurance are often also very efficient athletes. Great technique and excellent timing allows far lower energy expenditure. So get in shape, lift heavy things, and workout. But technical development and lots of mat time is the ultimate answer.
Having a big goal can be overwhelming at times. The finish line can seem very far away, even unreachable. Successful people learn to break down the process into smaller steps and make them into habits—little things they can do every day that gets them closer to reaching that goal.—Dan John
If the goal we set is too big—too far removed from our current reality, there will be too many steps necessary to get there, too many life habits that need to change, too many uncontrolled variables, too much momentum has to be enlisted, and the time-scale for achievement will be too long. That’s a recipe for failure.
How many out-of-shape people join a health club on January 1st intending to get shredded only to lose enthusiasm a month later and return to their old ways? Why does that happen? Because the goal is too big. They have to undo years-worth of couch gravity and poor eating habits. To do that from one day to the next is nearly impossible.
Major success is always a byproduct of small steps that when consistently taken produce habits and momentum toward an increasing number of bigger successes, which in turn reinforce these positive habits, creating greater momentum toward even bigger successes. Major successes are always built from a series of minor successes.
It’s great to wake up one day and decide you’re going to scale Mt. Everest, but if you’ve never hiked up a hill then the goal is wildly disproportionate from where you are right now. A better goal would be what Frans Johansson calls the smallest executable step—the tiniest change you can make that moves you in the general direction you want to go.
As you create habits and momentum toward your goals you are actually, literally, re-wiring the neural pathways in your brain. That’s huge. You’re also enabling yourself to feel success at small intervals.
It’s OK to dream big. But if you want your dream to be anything more than a far-off desire with low probability, break it down into bite-sized achievable steps. Then rejoice as you meet each micro-goal, inching yourself toward the big one.
It used to be thought that the human brain was essentially a static organ, but today we know that through a physical process called plasticity the brain actually changes and reorganizes neural pathways based on new experiences. If you learn something new, your brain will create new physical pathways. If you forget something you once knew, the pathways will have degraded.
One of the most powerful findings is that visualization affects brain plasticity nearly as much as doing the actual activity. In the book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge writes:
One reason we can change our brains simply by imagining is that, from a neuro-scientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound. When people close their eyes and visualize a simple object, such as the letter A, the primary visual cortex lights up, just as it would if the subjects were actually looking at the letter A. Brain scans show that in action and imagination, many parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.
Doidge cites a study in which one group practiced finger strengthening exercises, while the other group visualized doing the exercises. After four weeks, the group doing the exercises increased their strength by 30%. The group visualizing the strengthening exercises increased by 22%. That means the visualizing group got over 60% of the benefits of training! During these imaginary contractions, the neurons responsible for stringing together sequences of instructions for movements are activated and strengthened, resulting in increased strength when the muscles are contracted.
This has profound implications for those of us who do Jiu Jitsu because it allows us to improve when we are off the mat. Most of us train physically only a few hours a week. And occasionally we must take time off due to injuries or other commitments. But if we get much of the benefit of physical training just by visualizing it means we can accelerate our development quite dramatically with zero wear and tear on our body.
I’ve experienced the benefits of visualization throughout my Jiu Jitsu career, so I can attest that it works. The key is applying it consistently. For example, after going to class, spend time visualizing the techniques that were taught. Or if you watch an instructional video, pause after each technique and spend several minutes drilling it mentally.
No, visualizing is not as beneficial as live training; what it lacks is the feedback and resistance that an opponent gives us. But it can certainly serve as an effective training enhancement and accelerator. The Soviets pioneered sports visualization in the 1970’s, and since then there has been much empirical evidence that it works. Today we have the science to understand how it works.
If you are serious about your progress, consider adding visualization to your training.
A dirty, rotten, stinking, scoundrel of a lying liar. A trickster, a cheat, a con artist, a deceiver. In biblical terms, a bearer of false witness.
Your brain has one main task—one prime directive: To conserve energy. In order to do that it lies to you. Constantly.
“You’re tired tonight. You should skip Jiu Jitsu”
“You did enough reps. You should stop”.
“Hit the snooze button… you need more sleep”.
Here’s Joel Jamieson:
The brain tightly controls both energy production and energy expenditure, and activity and training is a huge component of how much energy you expend each day. When the brain senses a threat to energy homeostasis, (i.e. too much energy is being used), its first reaction is to decrease motivation to keep moving and expending more, while increasing the desire to eat and take in more calories.
We are far more capable than we think we are. I recall reading a study showing that when cyclists thought they were racing against their own best performance, but were actually racing against a faster time, they exceed their best performance. When you trick the mind into thinking it has more in the tank, it does.
But really, we don’t need no fancy-shmancy study to tell us what we intuitively know. Imagine you’re in the middle of a hard workout. Let’s say you’re pumping out kettlebell swings and your lungs, legs, and grips are burning. You’re on your last set, closing in on your last rep. The agony is nearly over! At that moment, into the room walks in the most beautiful women (or man, depending on your preference) you’ve ever laid eyes upon. She stops to watch you. Intrigued. How many more reps could you crank out? What kind of maximum effort would you find the will to conjure?
Have I mentioned that your brain is a big-fat-pants-on-fire-hanging-by-a-telephone-wire liar?
It’s my belief that the difference between high achievers and average ones is that the former are able to ignore their brain better than the later. They ignore fear and they ignore discomfort.
Not once have I ever regretted ignoring my loser of a brain in order to do what I was supposed to do. The times I feel regret are always when I give into my prevaricating liar of a cerebellum and take the easy path.
So ignore your fibbing fibber of a dishonest brain and go train!
Jiu Jitsu is a system based around 4 distinct steps:
1. Take your opponent to the ground. The closer someone is to the ground, the less they can employ explosive force. What’s the first thing cowboys do when they brand a steer? They lock up its legs and put it on the ground. Nobody tries to brand a standing steer, you’re going to get killed because it can employ dynamic, explosive movement. Taking someone to the ground takes away the single most dangerous aspect of fighting: Quick, dynamic movement that can generate explosive, kinetic energy. So step number one is get the fight to the ground. It’s inherently safer. Less things can go catastrophically wrong than in a standing position.
2. Get past the legs. If you are a skilled Jiu Jitsu player and I end up between your legs, you can armlock me, you can leglock me you can strangle me. Even if you are an untrained fighter you can up-kick me. Legs are dangerous. So step number two is to get past those dangerous legs.
3. Work your way through a hierarchy of positions. Once you get past the legs there is a sequence of pins. You’re going to go to knee on belly, you’re going to go to side control, you’re going to transition to mount, or transition to rear mount. Jiu Jitsu encourages you to go through those various pins. If you look at the sport of Jiu Jitsu, the pins are scored according to ones ability to strike an opponents and inflict damage. Knee on belly scores more than side control because you can strike with more power. Knee on belly is inherently unstable, however, so it scores less than mount, which is inherently stable and offers just as much punching power. So step number three is to work your way through a hierarchy of pins, where the pins are graded in value according to your ability to strike with effect on the ground.
4. Attack for a submission.
Jiu Jitsu is a four step system. It’s beautiful, it’s elegant, and it’s deadly effective.
And now the question needs to be asked, where do leglocks fit into that system?
They don’t. Leglocks don’t fit comfortably in that system. That’s why for generations, leglocks were considered a signal of failure. When you can’t take your opponent down, when you can’t pass his legs, when you can’t secure a dominant position, you go for a leglock. When you couldn’t get the system to work you resorted to a leglock.
What I tried to do is find an avenue where leglocks could come in, and the results were surprising. The four step process I described assumes a top position. The goal is to stay on top. Leglocks, however, assume a bottom position. 80% of leglock entries come from the bottom position or with an opponent is behind you. In other words, from supposedly inferior positions.
What I discovered is when you incorporate leglocks into the system you change the very nature of the sport. Jiu Jitsu, as it’s ordinarily practiced, is a single direction game—movement from the legs toward the head. If you get stuck or lose position, you start the process again. Traditionally it’s a mono-directional sport. But once you start adding leglocks into the game, Jiu Jitsu becomes a two directional sport.
So if I’m passing the guard and I can’t do it, I can fall back into the legs. If I’m in side control and my opponent recomposes his guard I can fall back into the legs. And I can play my opponent’s reactions in ways that open up opportunities for submissions more easily.
It’s been said that Edmond Hillary, the man who first scaled Mount Everest, after having made several prior unsuccessful attempts, turned to the mountain and proclaimed “I will conquer you! Why? Because you are not getting any bigger but I am!”.
What a great way to approach a goal! Hillary understood that even something as difficult as Mount Everest was achievable because the goal wasn’t getting any bigger, but he was.
Often a dream can seem unattainable because it’s so far removed from our current reality. The goal is way up there, but we’re still way down here. But little by little, with patience and perseverance, even scaling Mt. Everest is achievable because we have the capacity to keep growing, learning, and improving.
Several of our students will be competing in Naga this weekend so I thought it would be appropriate to post this quote by John Danaher:
One of the foundations of my coaching approach is to take away the whole sense that competition is different from training. Most people think the two are completely separate entities and will train for one or the other. If you’ve never been in a competitive atmosphere, you’ll never understand the pressure. I take a completely opposite approach. I want my students to see competition as just another day in the gym. When it comes to competition time, they tone everything down.
I mostly see competition as a mental exercise. Obviously you have to be physically prepared. You’ll never be in a great mental state if you haven’t put in the work. But the best competitors tend to be those that make the entirety of the event seem rather mundane. It’s just another day on the mat. Yes, the intensity is higher and you are faced with unfamiliar opponents, so of course you need to bring yourself to a high level of performance, but if the experience produces anxiety then you’ll never be at your best.
So the real trick is to be loose, but not conciliatory, playful, but not sloppy, intense, but only enough to sharpen the mind and body, aggressive, but not to the point where you become too single-minded and miss opportunities. All these things are mental.
It’s also very important to eliminate expectations of outcome. You only have partial control over whether you win or lose. You can certainly make a decision to do your best, but you can’t control the uncontrollable. Don’t make winning the goal. The goal is to be in a serene state of mind that allows the best you to emerge. If you can do that, then you’ll give yourself the best opportunity for victory.
It’s ironic that the more competitive martial arts lead to individuals being more humble than the non-competitive ones. The process of going to class, and losing, paying your dues, being humbled through loss—and the person who beat you, they’ve lost a thousand times. It’s not a big deal to tap. It might be a big deal to you initially that you lost, but to them it’s just part of training. And then as you continue the march of time you realize that winning and losing, whether it’s in competition or in class, just comes with the territory.—Roy Dean
By the time you get to black belt you will have felt failure so regularly that it will almost certainly have smashed your ego. It’s hard to be arrogant when you experience daily just how difficult it is to become skilled in Jiu Jitsu, and how much failure you must experience along the way. That failure, in fact, never ends. Here’s Roy Dean again:
About a third of my techniques fail even now. I go for an armlock, but I don’t always get it. I go for something, they block it. I go for something else, they block that. Sometimes in setting up for an attack they respond and I’m able to capitalize.
Not everyone can handle the suppression of their ego. If you can’t permit yourself to be vulnerable you won’t tend to last long in BJJ. You’ll come in, experience what it’s like to get tapped out, sometimes by someone with less developed physical attributes, and soon have an excuse to not train. But the ones that stick with it, the ones that keep training despite the challenges will often see themselves transformed.
Some of the most humble people I’ve known are some of the most deadly. I know MMA athletes that could destroy 99% of the world’s population in hand-to-hand combat, yet they are incredibly humble, respectful, and genuine. That humility was forged by the daily struggle to become skilled. Some days you win, some days you lose, and that never changes. When you understand, not intellectually, but viscerally, that regardless of how skilled you’ve become there will always be challengers that might get the best of you, it tends to give you a very healthy perspective.
The word flow in BJJ most commonly refers to a style of rolling in which the training partners agree to focus on fluid transitions and graceful positional exchanges. The goal isn’t for one person or the other to win, but rather for each to execute their game both offensively and defensively with only minimal resistance; attacking, defending, and transitioning.
There’s usually a huge gap between learning a technique or movement sequence and being able to execute it against full resistance. The greater the intensity, the smaller the windows of opportunity. If no one gives an inch when you roll, you won’t get enough opportunities to practice your game, so your progress will be excruciatingly slow.
Flowing lets you bridge that gap because you’re practicing at a level of resistance that permits you apply your game. The resistance is minimal, letting you practice even moves you’re not good at yet. Over time you can scale up the intensity as you are better able to seize smaller and smaller windows of opportunity.
Trent Lewis, a phenomenal black belt I trained under in Florida, was such a proponent of this style of rolling that he would demand that every training session included flow rolls. At Roy Dean Academy we did a lot of this style of training too, and the result was very fast development.
I’m convinced that flowing offers profound benefits: It accelerates your learning, it encourages a more graceful, movement based game, it builds excellent timing and sensitivity, and it lets you train with more longevity because it’s not as hard on your body. It’s also a lot of fun. And, to the astonishment of people who do it for the first time, it’s a great workout because you are in constant motion. When you play a slower, pressure based game, there is often lots of opportunities to rest within the roll. You can’t rest when you flow.
The long-term benefit of flowing is it builds the ability to apply a movement style of game against full resistance. In the early stages of BJJ, flowing can only happen when both partners agree to it. The high level stuff is being able to flow against anyone, regardless of their intensity or physical attributes.
Blue belts often become frustrated because they just can’t finish their opponent. They get so close, but they often fail. This usually leads the blue belt to seeking out more and more submission techniques. He thinks that the “new” and “sneaky” techniques will make him more skilled at submissions. However, what he doesn’t realize is that his inability to finish his opponent is directly related to his inability to positionally dominate him.—Roy Harris
The primary focus of novice students should be to develop good positional movement, transitions, and control, along with solid escape mechanics. The paradox is that while students will typically accumulate the largest number of techniques during the first few years, they won’t be terribly successful with them. The issue is one of control: If you do not have control over the major body section attached to the joint you are attacking, your ability to finish will be poor.
The lesson here isn’t that you shouldn’t accumulate techniques, only that you do so with the understanding that they won’t provide much success until your positional game is reasonably good. Technique accumulation is how we develop a game that fits our personality and attributes. But techniques alone without positional control have very low probability of success.
So if you’re feeling frustrated, don’t seek the path of sneaky techniques. Focus on positional escapes, movement, and control. Getting good at those things will lay the foundation to reliably getting the tap.
Chris Haueter explains a profoundly important concept: Using our hips as the primary method of controlling and manipulating an opponent’s balance and posture from closed guard. Hip engagement, in fact, is one of the major keys to success from nearly every position in BJJ. Just like in music we can always have more cowbell, in BJJ we can always use more hips.
I tell my kids, it’s not always fun, but if you want to be good at something, you have to do it when it’s not fun.—Flea
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.—Chuck Close
I’ve been guilty of failing to act when I’m not feeling motivated. The fallacy is in believing that motivation is an independent entity, under its own control, and that if we just listen right or wait long enough it’ll speak to us. The image of a blocked writer staring out a window comes to mind.
But true motivation always comes from doing, not waiting. Motivation is the byproduct of problem-solving and actively engaging. Every time I’ve passively waited it has only caused me to become less inspired and less motivated.
If you have days where you lack motivation to train or get things done, the best response is to do it anyway. Make a decision to stop being a slave to how you feel. Feelings are fickle things. Instead, roll up your sleeves and make a choice to get to work.
I think there are countless paths to spirituality—meditation, surfing, running, climbing, music, sailing, archery, calligraphy, chess, martial arts, motorcycle maintenance, whatever. The vehicle is just the husk. It is a structure, a form, a channel to be penetrated with an understanding of its relativity. In my opinion, what matters isn’t so much what art you pursue but how honestly, creatively and relentlessly you explore it.—Josh Waitzkin
There is perhaps no word as amorphous as spirituality. What does it mean? Ask a Christian, a Hindu, a Humanist, a Stoic, a Mystic, or a Materialist and you’ll get as many answers.
I don’t claim to have a definitive definition, but what Waitzkin is suggesting is that spirituality is the personally transformative byproduct of engaging on a very deep level. Spiritual isn’t something we are, it’s something we become as a result of pursuits that are so deep that they lead us to a fuller existence. Jiu Jitsu, of course, being one such vehicle.
I tend to agree with him. Seeking excellence as a lifestyle, regardless of the pursuit, creates the best opportunities for finding purpose, understanding, wisdom, and happiness. For me, those are the essential components of what one might call spirituality.
I do it because it’s hard. Because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And because it never ends. Every day presents me with a series of problems that I spend the rest of the day thinking about how I might solve—or at least chip away at. Next day same. And the day after that.—Anthony Bourdain
No matter how long I train or how much my skills improve there’s a certain amount of struggle that comes with training that never goes away. I’ve come to embrace this. Struggle means progress. It means there is more to improve.
There’s an old saying I love: There’s no such thing as saying the same. We are either working to improve or allowing ourselves to get worse.
If we eliminate all struggle then we actually get worse. If training is never hard, then we get soft. If training never makes us feel like our Jiu Jitsu is lousy, then we will stop trying to improve.
It’s important to embrace and this. If all you focus on is how hard training is without an understanding of its purpose, then training can turn into a grind. Understand that every drop of sweat helps perfect our character. Every gasp for air brings us one breath closer to the best version of ourself.
If you embrace the fact that you’ve chosen the hard road precisely because the hard road is the path to perfection, then you’ll actually celebrate the difficulty and not dread it.
There’s a time to feel great about your Jiu Jitsu and proud of your accomplishments. That time is not when you are on the mat. The mat is there to bring truth and honesty. Embrace the difficulty of training. Celebrate afterwards.
According to Dan Inosanto, effective training involves three stages:
Cooperative training is how we initially learn and practice techniques. There is no resistance at this stage. It’s just about drilling the shape, movement, and proper mechanics. Our partners assist in our success by creating structures that allow perfect execution.
The Contesting phase involves resistance. It’s what we typically experience while sparing. It’s how we learn to apply our technique against someone who is not going along with the plan. It’s my belief that resistance should be scaled slowly, so that new techniques can be incorporated. You can’t go from cooperative training to high intensity training and expect to be able to bridge that gap.
The Combative phase is where we test our technique against 100% resistance. A Jiu Jitsu competition (and the training leading up to it) is a good example. While this phase is important, it should be done the least often. It’s purpose is to develop a higher level of physicality and mindset. You can’t train this way all the time or you’ll get burned out or injured. But you should train this way some of the time to keep the knife sharp.
Several years ago I was profiled in a computer magazine. One of the questions they asked me was “what is the single most important trait of a good programmer?” My response: Curiosity. You must have an insatiable appetite to explore, ask questions, and find answers.
Recently I saw a post by John Danaher on Facebook where he states: “One of the most valuable attributes a jiu jitsu player can have in order to make sustained progress over long periods of time is a SENSE OF CURIOSITY.”
Curiosity, I believe, is the fundamental requirement for achieving anything significant. Sure, you need determination. But what curiosity provides is a framework to apply your drive upon.
Here’s John Danaher again:
That sense of endless curiosity is the root of enthusiasm and success in both teaching and learning - the moment a man loses that, it is only a matter a time until his study and teaching suffers. I believe the key is to always keep one question in mind at all times - IS THERE A BETTER WAY OF DOING THINGS THAN YOU AND YOUR PEERS ARE CURRENTLY USING? As long as you push this question to the forefront of your consciousness the game will always be exciting and continue to make you grow.
I can say without question that what has kept me interested in BJJ for more than a decade is my continued curiosity about the art. Every time I train more questions emerge, driving me to continually seek answers.
If you train BJJ, I hope you too are infected with curiosity.
Big thanks to Professor Dean for sharing his knowledge. Today’s seminar focussed on sweeps, with a unique way to cut underneath one’s opponent. We appreciate everyone who came out today and look forward to training these techniques again soon.
It’s been a great honor to have professor Dean sharing his knowledge all week. And huge congratulations to TJ Brodeur for being promoted to blackbelt by Roy. TJ is one of my oldest training partners. We both started BJJ around 11 years ago as white belts and have progressed together. I’m stoked not only that he got his blackbelt, but that it happened here in Wyoming at Third Way.
For purposes of control, the body can be divided into two sections: The top and the bottom. The top is everything from the ribcage up. The bottom is everything from the pelvis down. The goal of BJJ is to positionally dominate at least one of these two sections of your opponent (and preferably both). If your opponent can move relatively freely, your ability to finish them will be poor.
In practice, there are many ways to achieve major control, but that’s beyond what I want to talk about here. Mostly I want to point out that the simplest way to look at the body is from the hips down, or from the ribcage up. If you’re new to BJJ, you should constantly ask yourself whether you are maintaining major control. It’s very difficult to achieve minor control (for example, arm control leading to an armbar) without first establishing major control.
There is a dichotomy when it comes to control: Often, the more tightly you control your opponent the fewer submission options you will have. When you lock someone down, as a byproduct, you’re also preventing your own movement.
This is particularly true at lower levels of skill because students haven’t mastered the art of, as Roy Dean calls it, applying “overlapping pressures” as you transition from one control point to another toward the finish. Until you get good at that you’ll have to relinquishing some degree of control in order to get the submission, and that’s usually where the opponent is able to escape.
An interesting paradox emerges as your belt darkens: 1. You are able to exercise more control throughout the entire sequence leading to a submission, and 2. You don’t always need full control because you get comfortable operating in that in-between realm. Marcelo Garcia, just to cite one example, is a master of the in-between game.
These two concepts—more control/less control—broadly speaking, align with the two general styles of BJJ that can be played: A tight, pressure-based game, or light, movement-based game. Most BJJ players are eventually drawn to one style or the other based on their attributes and personality. In my opinion, the complete practitioner should be able to play either game.
The two best examples of these two styles within our lineage would be Mr. Harris and Mr. Dean. They call Harris “the boa” because of his intense pressure game, while Roy Dean, thanks to his agility honed from many years training in several martial arts, has a beautifully fluid, movement game. That isn’t to say that either man is limited to that style—they certainly are not.
At the highest levels, the distinction between the two styles is much more blurred because the master understands how to apply tremendous pressure with absolute precision and finesse, but without limiting their transitional mobility. They can drift in and out of each style of game instantly as needed.
Learning Jiu Jitsu requires an active mind, but applying Jiu Jitsu requires an empty one.
In BJJ, or any fighting art for that matter, if you’re thinking, you’re late. The ultimate goal of Jiu Jitsu is to feel your opponent’s movement, their energy, and to react instinctively without thought.
Bruce Lee said that the ultimate technique is no technique. What he meant is that once you’ve mastered the technical—setups, timing, movement, and mechanics—you put that aside and simply respond and flow, expressing yourself creatively. Once you’ve mastered the technical, you’re no longer thinking about what to do. You are just in the moment.
Rickson Gracie said the goal of BJJ is to flow with the go. To do that effectively means disengaging your active mind and allowing your body to do what it has trained itself to do.
So engage your mind while learning, but empty it while sparring.
There are two types of martial arts: Dead ones and live ones.
The dead ones are closed systems in which the curriculum is set and unchanging. New techniques are rarely incorporated, and the effectiveness is assumed without testing against full resistance. You don’t spar in a dead art. At least not for real.
Live ones, in contrast, are open systems that value effectiveness over everything else. If a move works, it gets incorporated. If it doesn’t, it gets discarded. Live arts are trained with full, dynamic resistance.
The year 1993 was the great turning point for martial arts in the modern era. Prior to that, debates over the effectiveness of one style vs. another were all academic. Was Karate better than Taekwondo? Was Wing Chun better than Silat? Was Judo better than Aikido? No one actually knew. Martial arts magazines devoted many pages to these theoretical matchups.
But when Royce Gracie beat all challengers at UFC 1 we began getting a glimpse into the truth. And the truth is that dead arts tend to fail, often spectacularly, when called upon to perform against the real pressure of a fully committed resisting opponent. UFC 1 also revealed that if you don’t know how to grapple you’ll be in deep trouble when the fight hits the ground.
In my view, the martial art you train matters less than the training methodology used in that art. Are you training in a live manner against dynamic resistance? Are you testing your technique at reasonably high levels of intensity? Are you sparring?
If so, then you are training for effectiveness. If not, then you’re engaged in a form of martial arts role playing—a pantomime. Make a list of arts that are trained live and you’ll find they are undeniably effective: Boxing, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Muay Thai, Sanshou, Wrestling, Sambo, Catch, Savate, etc.
The arts that are not effective all share one trait; they don’t spar. These arts might have beautiful techniques, or historical significance, or provide benefits such as exercise and camaraderie, but as effective fighting systems they reliably fail. Why? Because implementing a technique against someone who is not going along with the plan is a very complex skill, one that can not be mastered solely through cooperative training.
Cooperative training with no resistance is certainly important—it’s how we initially learn the mechanics of any given technique, but it should only be the starting point in a methodology of scaled intensity. To become effective you need to train with increasing levels of resistance.
When I learned how to surf in Hawaii, we started by drilling the basic skills with the board laying safely on the beach. We would sprawl on the surfboard, mimic the act of paddling, and then pop up into the standing position—all while the board remained stationary on the sand.
While this type drilling is valuable, it doesn’t teach you the balance necessary to surf for real. For that, you must spend much time catching actual waves, and mostly failing at first, until your body learns to make the adjustments necessary to stay up. Eventually you are able to ride very small waves with reasonable success, which in turn permits you to begin attempting to ride bigger waves, requiring more practice—and more failure.
Martial arts that don’t spar are like learning to surf on the beach without ever getting into the water. No matter how perfect your mechanics are against a cooperative opponent, the moment you get into real surf, even small surf, you will fail.
So if you are looking for a martial art to train. The only question you should be asking is whether it’s trained with resistance. Is it a live art? If so, then it’s a fine choice.
We’ve all been there: We run out of toothpaste, but manage to squish out a little blob, just enough to brush our teeth with.
Then the next day we forget to pick up a new tube, so we’re forced to squeeze harder to get another blob or two out.
The following morning we carefully roll up the tube from the backend, forcing more toothpaste out.
Later, forgetting to buy toothpaste yet again, we snip off the backend of the tube with scissors and swirl our toothbrush in there to eek out another brushing.
Really, this pattern could continue for another week because no matter how much we deplete the tube, there’s always a little more that can be extracted.
It occurs to me that there is a lesson here—beyond the obvious one, that the amount of toothpaste we waste in our lifetime is significant. What’s the lesson?
You can always get a little more if you keep squeezing.
What a great metaphore for life. When you think you’ve given all you can, there’s always more your can get out of the tube. Always. In Jiu Jitsu, our mind will always quit long before our body is incapable of continuing.
Former Navy Seal and ultra-marathoner David Goggins says: “When your mind is telling you are done, you’re really only 40 percent done”. Joel Jamieson says “when the brain senses a threat to energy homeostasis, (i.e. too much energy is being used), its first reaction is to decrease motivation to keep moving.”
So never quit. Never stop fighting. Don’t give in to your mind when it’s telling you to stop. You can always squish a little more toothpaste out of the tube.