A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blog about everything.

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?


  1. great intelligent post

  2. Great article. Come to Vancouver some time... we can have a roll and then go skate.

  3. Great advice - I try to keep this in mind whenever I am rolling (although I must admit, not so much when I am ramoing up for a competition).

    One thing I keep telling myself, and my training partners when I notice that they don't "risk" things is:
    I don't expect any technique to work on a live opponent the first time I try it, I don't really expect to start catching people with a new technique until about the 50th or 60th attempt. so, isn't it wiser to start on those attampts as soon as possilbe? If I keep waiting until I feel like I am better at it before tring it live, I will never get closer to the magical 50th or 60th - the sooner I start trying it, the quicker I am there.

  4. @Jeff

    ooooh, I like Van. Vancouver turned me into a coffee snob.

  5. @Matt the Gi Addict

    Sounds like we're on the same page. thanks for dropping by!

  6. Chris Davidson has talks about this in terms of concentric circles: http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/zones

    I like your notion of quantifying risk level, too, though - I can see that being useful in coaching scenarios.