A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blog about everything.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ninja Turtles, Chi-Magic and (eventually) BJJ

  I didn't get into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu because of the UFC. 

  Though watching Royce Gracie do painful looking things to muscle bound creatures was fascinating, it never made me want to learn how to do it.  If I were to be honest, it was simply because the violence wasn't beautiful enough. 

Dial the years back a little further to pre-UFC, and you'll find tiny, pre-teen me cutting my  teeth on Sho Kosugi, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a healthy imagination.  I liked my violence well choreographed and beautiful to watch (a combination that truthfully didn't seem to exist in North American film until Yuen Wo Ping started doing EVERYTHING here post-"Matrix"). 

  To be really honest I wasn't looking for BJJ at all.  What I was actually looking for was something flowy that would compliment my passion at the time, which was choreographing fights for theatre.  It also had to have class times in the afternoon, because I was doing shows at night.  A ground based style wasn't even on the radar.  I loved Wo Pings choreography (the Matrix and Iron Monkey), Brandon Lee's JKD/Wing Chun, and Jackie Chan's environmental inventiveness, flow and parkour violence.  The majority of the fight choreography that I did was swordwork, but I loved the hand-to-hand stuff, so I figured some Aikido, Wing Chun or JKD would be a perfect fit. Rolling around on the ground wouldn't have struck me as very exciting in a world of whirling swords and dramatic kills, even if it had been on the radar.

  So all that to say, I started BJJ by accident.  In fact, I didn't even know what BJJ was, but it fit my schedule and I really wanted to do SOMETHING.  Actually my first class, we kicked bags (there was an MMA focus at the school when I started) and heck, I was good at kicking; I had a karate background and my show kicks were one of my favourite things to choreograph.  Though to be fair, I didn't do much kicking of actual things, and as a result of my zeal in that first class, I almost puked and spent a good 20 minutes lying on the bathroom floor while class went on without me.  Romantic, I know.  It wasn't until the second class that I actually met BJJ officially and, as they say, the rest is history (and present, and future I suppose).

  As a white belt in BJJ,  I was anything but graceful and flowing and certainly didn't bring to mind the incredible Violent Ballet of the Martial Arts that I had grown up loving.  But, unexpectedly, I found myself discovering something incredibly practical and realistic and it completely shifted my idea of what I wanted out of a Martial Art.  So a question emerged: does one have to choose between beautiful, flowing movement and brutal efficiency?  Surely there was no middle road.  Was there?

  Now let's fast forward past countless hours of training, learning, reading, studying, teaching, pondering and talking my wife's ear off.  What I have been discovering as my Jiu Jitsu develops, is that all the "chi" work and ninja powers that the Eastern masters talk endlessly about (but never seem to demonstrate convincingly in a realistic setting) may actually have some grounding in reality.  Perhaps what it is lacking is a practical delivery system or sparring method.  Afterall, Jigaro Kano didn't revolutionize Judo with new techniques; he did it by adding live sparring to their daily practice and removing the emphasis on kata or empty forms.

  I'm not talking about Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zhiyi flying across rooftops,  and I'm not talking about the Dim Mak death touch or the "I can't spar with you, because I might kill you" warning (isn't self control an indication of Mastery??).  What I am talking about is being a 160lb skinny dude (Me) that can overcome skilled opponents greater in size and strength (as a general rule EVERYONE is stronger than I am) and make it look easy.  There is something mysterious and mystical about sweeping someone head over heels, when in their mind they felt so strongly connected to the ground moments before.  However, the mystery evaporates once you begin to understand the Bio-mechanics and complex interplay of movement and timing going on behind the scenes.  I'm not interested in something undefinable, like Chi-Magic.  Rather, I want to know why a 7th degree Red and Black belt feels SO DAMN HEAVY just sitting in mount.  Or why I couldn't move Cobrinha's knee even an inch in his open guard.  In my opinion, the answer lies in something concrete and discoverable, not something elusive and only available through the proper guru.

  The more Jiu Jitsu I do, and the more I learn, the more I want my Jiu Jitsu to be effortless.  I don't want the people I roll with to feel like I beat them; I want them to feel clumsy, like they kept making mistakes and falling over.  I'm not even sure I want them to know I'm causing those mistakes.  I don't want to overcome people with my speed, flexibility or strength (haha); I want my structure and movement to cause my opponents structure and movement to feel wrong.   I don't even necessarily want it to be clear what happened.  When a 200lb brown belt tells me how strong I am, I know that it's not because I'm strong (I'm certainly not strong compared to a 200lb bruiser).   It's my Ninja powers, gaijin.  It's my Kung Fu, friend.  It's Bio-mechanics, baby.

  What I've come to love about this art, is that the better I understand it, the more I feel like the purest version of BJJ (I don't necessarily think that the competition version is the "purest" version, for the record) is effortless, flowing and beautiful AS WELL AS brutally efficient. 

   It is of course incredibly violent, and while that might be the logical conclusion of an altercationit doesn't have be violent in it's delivery. 

  P.S.  For the record, Michaelangelo was always my favourite.  And I still (secretly) intend on becoming awesome with the nunchucks.  Also, my love of Michaelangelo in particular may have been an early indicator that as an adult I would be drawn to "Play" in Martial Arts practice, which I'll definitely be talking about in later postings.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Commitment, the Risk Spectrum and Looking Foolish

  Risk is a funny thing.

  In the context of skill development, risk is completely necessary to progress and yet we tend to avoid it like the plague.  Whether we're protecting our egos, our illusions of proficiency, or our bodies, we tend not to stray in directions that lead to unfamiliar outcomes.  In a lot of situations this is probably a good idea, but in day to day training/skill development, it can stunt our progress severely.
  To help my training and my teaching I use a scale I call the "Risk Spectrum".  Picture a line with zero at one end, and ten at the other.  The zero represents "No risk", 5 would be "Moderate risk", and 10 would be "Reckless".  Typically in the interests of our ego and self preservation, we spar and practice around 0-4 or 5.  We play it safe.  We follow paths we recognize,  use moves we're good at and lean toward techniques that we know will "work".  Unfortunately, this leaves a whole other range of movements, concepts and technique unexplored, untouched.

  0-5 represents our comfort zone.  Maybe if we're being bold we dip into a 6 one day while practicing but as soon as we feel the fluffy edges of our comfort zone getting too far from us, we retreat back into our safe range.   We can't properly learn and ingrain a technique unless we fully engage our bodies. However, often when we're trying a technique for the first time we "hold back", restraining ourselves, trying to do it perfectly, trying not to fail.  We've just watched an instructor demonstrate it and as soon as we start to move we can feel the disparity between what we've seen and what our bodies are doing.  So we proceed cautiously, measuring our movements, taking care not to tip over, or overextend, or God forbid, look foolish.

  Well here's a little secret that I try to remember:

If you want to continue on the path of mastery,
you have to allow yourself to look foolish, often.

  Almost nobody looks cool when they're doing something for the first time. You have to stumble and flop and fall over before you can even start to not look like an idiot.  You have to suck at "Mary had a little lamb" before you can enthrall listeners with the "Raindrop prelude". Usain Bolt had to plop down on his butt over and over learning to walk on wobbly legs before he could set world records while dancing. You have to be a spazzy white belt before you can be a smooth, calm black belt.

  How do we get there?  By giving ourselves permission to screw up.  You have to allow for this foolish, awkward, sometimes embarrassing clumsiness, every day.  If you reach a point where you feel like you've "arrived", and passed your "learner" stage, then that is the point where you stop learning.  The desire to progress must be paired with the willingness to be a perpetual student, and to be a student, you have to acknowledge your non-expert status.  

  Now for your viewing pleasure, here are a couple videos which have inspired me in the direction of embracing risk.  First up is Fernando "Terere" Augusto.  The portion of sparring starting at 6:00 blew me away.  The amount of pressure Terere is putting on his training partner by leaning in to the guard is unreal.  He completely trusts his balance and movement, and all his partner can do is try not to get bowled over and keep some distance.  If he lifts his feet at all he'll be falling backward and Terere will be attacking his back.  Now the tough part comes when you try to learn this style of passing.  It's not any one technique or "move" that you are trying to apply but rather a concept of applying pressure through "balancing" on your opponent/partner, and maintaining your connection.  So to build this into your body, you have to try to balance on your partner, which when you first attempt it, will likely result in your getting swept, triangled, and sometimes just falling over.  Without that full commitment to risk, you'll never figure out how to apply this kind of pressure in a way that benefits you, which is too bad, because it's quite effective once you get the hang of it.

  This next clip is a great example as well.  Gunnar Nelson, who is one of my absolute favourite grapplers to watch, and Michael Russell who has a pretty crazy guard game.  Gunnar is always coming forward, applying pressure, doing a balancing act on Russell who is inverting, spinning, working to off-balance and attack, and generally acting like a bar of soap under the pressure Gunnar is creating.  And in the midst of this dangerous guard game, Gunnar never stops coming forward, confident in his posture, balance and timing.  And when the opportunity presents itself, his body has already taken it.  This kind of game didn't appear out of a vacuum.  I'm guessing it took a lot of drilling and rolling, and a lot of risk. 

  So if you're going to try something, try the hell out of it.    Next time you want to introduce a new technique into your game, or flesh out your understanding of a concept, try it constantly.  Whether it's working or not, try it.  Whether it feels right or not, try it.  Just try it, try it, try it.  Tap like crazy, get swept, get passed, get crushed.  It's worth it.  Oh, and one more thing, enjoy yourself.  Once the pressure is off to win every roll while looking strong, confident and slick, BJJ (or any skill really) gets a lot more fun.  And isn't that why we're doing this in the first place?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Pathway and The Playground

  I'm really interested in how different people both approach training, and express that training.    As long as you just keep showing up, eventually your Jiu Jitsu will not only get better, more efficient, more effective and more fun, but it will also begin to better express your personality.

  I love seeing this transformation happen.  Yes, it's great to see the techniques start to work, and to see someone's rolling start to click for them but what really intrigues me is how each individual person's Jiu Jitsu reflects their personality.

  Mostly I see this personality start to really come out around purple belt, but there are definitely hints about what it's going to look like much earlier.  I started looking at my own Jiu Jitsu and that of my students and training partners in terms of two distinct paradigms: The Pathway and The Playground.

  Initially, a player will be drawn to one of these two sides.  This will be evidenced by the qualities they display in their expression, both in learning technique, and attempting to execute it. What I'm referring to here is their natural tendencies, not their competition gameplan. (Obviously in a competition, a player will most likely choose a strategy that will allow them to play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.) As the player gains experience, they will move  toward a more balanced approach, drawing qualities from both sides.

  On one side, we have The Pathway, which is direct, clear, fundamental, safe, simple, and strong.  On the other side we have The Playground, which can be described as indirect, spontaneous, improvisational, creative, complex and flowing.

   A Pathway player wants to impose their game, moving in a straight line.  I like to think of a Pathway player as being like a fridge passing the guard; they're moving forward and you can either get out of the way or get crushed.  Clear paths, minimal technique accumulation.  As beginners, these players tend to err on the side of caution, which can limit their exposure to new positions.  Some examples of more direct players would be Roger Gracie, Fabio Gurgel, Xande Ribeiro and Bernardo Faria.

  Someone on the Playground side is more interested in the movement, often sacrificing good position in favour of exploring new possibilities and quite often, they make it work.  At first, they may find it difficult to make anything work consistently, but eventually they come up with some really fun and unconventional positions and ideas.  These guys improvise really well, and drag their opponents out into the chaos because they know they can find their way back, whereas their opponent may get lost.  As beginners, they tend to get distracted when learning new technique; every option opens up 10 new possibilities.  Examples of less direct players are Eduardo Telles, Roleta,  Jeff Glover and Terere.

   As a player evolves and advances in skill, they may begin to move toward balance.  A balanced player draws on the qualities from both sides; fluid, complex improvisational abilites but also clear, well-defined paths.  Strong and heavy but also quick and light.   Their path is determined by what is needed in the moment.  This is what I strive for in my Jiu Jitsu.

    In the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, which I'll likely refer to again in future posts, it says, "the attack itself contains the very elements which an Aikido defensive strategy will utilize physically, functionally and of course psychologically in neutralizing that attempted aggression".   This demands that a player not be single minded, or close minded, or too committed to one technique in the moment but instead be always listening, always receptive and self aware, and only doing exactly what is determined by the demands of the moment.   Of course, this type of flow is mostly impossible without a solid foundation of fundamentals, which must be ingrained into your body and mind through drilling and repetition.

  In my opinion, both approaches, The Pathway and The Playground, are vital to having a complete Jiu Jitsu game.

  In an art that walks the line between baffling complexity and utter simplicity, these two paradigms help me to express who I am, through my Jiu Jitsu.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mastery and the 1%

So begins my entry into the blogosphere.

Since I've been training BJJ, I've been reading blogs to help add a word, thought or bit of expression to my learning curve.

So now, with 4 scary stripes on my brown belt, I begin to make my own contribution to the learning curve of anyone who finds me.

Which brings me to the title of the post. I certainly don't mean to say that I've attained Mastery of BJJ, or anything for that matter, and I don't intend to make blog posts from the high hill of a guru.

Mastery is a book by a gentleman named George Leonard, and it's an excellent read. The basic gist of the book is that the path of mastery of any skill is that of practice. That mastery isn't about goals, trophys or achievements, but rather the everyday commitment to the plateau.

One of my teachers, Prof. Shah Franco said once that everyday you get on the mat, strive to be 1% better. This gives you the perspective that even if you've had a crap day, and everyone ran circles around you, if you've improved just 1%, you've met your goal.

As I approach my black belt I'm realizing that all the coloured belts are basically "pre-beginner" belts, and that the black is simply the last "beginner" belt. Or rather the first belt, where the real learning begins, now that the rules are finally ingrained.

So this is a blog about my 1%s. My everyday revelations, light bulbs and inspirations.

Hope you enjoy it.  Thanks for reading.