Showing up Is Not Half the Battle: Mathematics of BJJ Skill Acquisition

Jiujitsu is so open-ended, ever expanding…without clearly defined edges. Progress is difficult to measure as it is difficult to have a clearly defined measuring stick that isn’t also in constant change with you. An ultimate differential equation to math nerds. Judging progress can be like judging an art contest; it’s complexity this way makes it beautiful. Everything is qualitative: better, smoother, gentler, more. It might be refreshing in the gentle world of unknowns to at least have something we can measure. By the numbers, trackable, and a constant reminder of how somebody training once a week can get more experience than somebody training everyday.

We can start with a live rolling session. Let’s say 30 minutes, switching partners every 5 minutes, with the option to take breaks as needed. And within every separate roll there are any number of movements and positions within it. Movement is the essence of jiujitsu, but can also be hard to measure. Positions, however, can be measured by a number, not the infinite variations of positions, but a number of positions employed in a given roll, and this is where everything starts.

Any position acquired has that 3-5 second window of escape, to avoid scoring and, more importantly, to kill momentum. As an example, if you can hold a cross mount after a guard pass for the 3-5 seconds to score after they’ve done their best to escape during their greatest chance to escape, it is very likely you can hold it for 3-5 minutes. Once that window closes, the passer reinforced his pass, and the passer learned his lesson (the point system exists to remind them both). They both gained invaluable experience and can evolve from it, perfect, and will both walk from it a better grappler.

After this position is established, you could either move on to the next opportunity for more experience or could let that position lay stagnant, “let em burn” for a bit. Sure, there is a skill to continuing to maintain position for minutes on end, and we’re not saying otherwise. It’s just that drastic diminishing returns on experience occur shortly after the position is established and scored. The hard part is letting go of that security you now have, them not moving and no further cues to crush. Fear of losing that safety in exchange for getting smoked in transition, getting crushed and submitted instantly afterward can freeze the flow. Instead, however, looking forward to the new experience, be it defending from somewhere new, getting tapped or swept is the paradigm shift necessary to get past the “lay and pray” mentality. Part of Jiujitsu is to remind ourselves that the lesson goes for both players, regardless of who attacks/defends/scores/taps. Whether playing Kasparov or Dumdum 5.0, neither game is interesting, and nobody learns on either side of the board, without the pieces moving.

With this in mind, it’s what happens next that brings in the math.

Starting with all the grappling time available to you in the 30-minute session from above. If you take a break, every 5th round, 4-in 1-out, your chance of experience for the day drops by 20%. You’re already at 80% experience for the day!

Even worse, if in each roll you decide on holding each position or submission attempt for 10 seconds or more cuts your experience in half! It’s disgusting to think that five extra seconds now has you experiencing 50% potential!

You can see how heartbreaking it can project if you did both (now at 40%) or considered taking more breaks than 1 or holding onto positions longer than the 10 seconds!

You can see how just a couple small changes can have a drastic change to your overall technical experience. It is easier said than done, but the math doesn’t have permission to lie.

I’m not saying never to take a break, or that you won’t get stuck in a position for longer than 5 seconds. That is part of the game for sure. But the more you control what you can, and how you roll, the better control you have over your training.

This, of course, is without considering:

  • distillation of knowledge
  • reflection on what happened in the previous round(s)
  • the important skill of dealing with a partner not letting you move
  • your physical exhaustion or injury
  • psychological aspect
  • and anything else hard to put a number on 🙂

You can lie to yourself but the math won’t. How long do you stay in a single position or submission attempt? How long and often are your breaks? Control what you can.
Source: Jon’s Jiujitsu Thoughts

Your Jiujitsu Alphabet

One of the first things you learn in school is the alphabet. If asked what letter comes after “p” you’d most likely say in your head “l-m-n-o-p…Q” It’s so ingrained in us that for the rest of our lives we run that shitty song over in our heads countless times, for countless reasons. And most of us don’t remember even learning it.

A way to look at the basics of jiu-jitsu, the absolute fundamentals that should be learned first on your path, is as your “alphabet”. They comprise your fallback safety net to catch you when your brain gets confused. Before you learn the jokes or swear words of your new jiujitsu language, as fun as they may be, learn the 2 and 3 letter words. And before you learn those, learn the alphabet that those words are made of.

When learning a new technique, most people work on memorizing and practicing these new techniques as is, and unrelated to anything. It is treated as an awesome looking movement they want to master. And at best, you’ve learned THAT movement, for THAT moment in THAT position. At worst, and usually, it is imitated for a bit and fizzles out of existence.

An exponentially better approach is to see how what you’ve learned previously, the very basics, could be analyzed and arranged to give you at least the clues to figure it out. Use what you DO understand of your jiujitsu language already and go from there. Once you’ve begun looking at every new technique as a combination of the same basic movements you already know, you’ll find yourself coming back to your “alphabet”, and new ideas won’t seem so new. Instead of memorizing and practicing these new techniques as they are, you’ll be able to break it down as a combination of much simpler techniques. This technique is a skill in itself. Much more effective than taking each technique as is…This way of technical navigation will give you a much fuller understanding of the total language of jiujitsu.

The basic movements are your alphabet…learn them…you will need them to fall back on.

“Filling” the Jar

There’s the famous old story, about a professor’s analogy for time management, demonstrating it with rocks, pebbles, sand, and water put into a single jar, the jar being your total time spent on earth. Each of the rocks, pebbles, sand and water components representing the things that take up your time. The idea, of course, is that to fit everything into your limited life, you must start filling it with the most meaningful, the “biggest” things first, represented by the biggest rocks. The activities that mean gradually less gets filled in behind the big ideas and dreams, in the order of descending pebble/sand size, etc. And everything fits in a well-balanced life in the priority of importance to you. Any other order and you wouldn’t fit everything in the jar, OR your life, and you’d miss out on the most important “rocks” as activities/passions.

For jiujitsu, this analogy can be used as well for it’s knowledge and the belts within it. Super rough, but imagine those super easy basics, in the beginning, the building blocks of all other knowledge to come, being the big rocks. Rock by rock, each is put into the jar of knowledge until it is “full.” This is followed by the pebbles, the sand, and the water, IN THAT ORDER.

Your first “fill” with the big rocks turns you blue! Boom, you have your first colored belt, that first huge target as the coveted blue. This is a big accomplishment, and you have filled the jar of jiujitsu knowledge with these HUGELY important “rocks”. What you’ve learned were the most important technical chunks of all of jiujitsu.

Of course, the many gaps between the rocks in your knowledge are next to be filled with the pebbles, “filling” the jar once again as you turn purple!  The sand, of course, fills the remaining gaps for brown belt til “full” again.

As the water of the black belt knowledge coats every stone and fills every gap, your jar is again full. This is truly beautiful because, like the water in contact with EVERY earlier placed stone regardless of size, the attainment of your knowledge in the pursuit of black belt knowledge should affect every part of every stage of your previous knowledge attainment. It affects every piece, from the sand to the huge “basic” rocks, constantly polishing each of the grains along the way! Your shrimping and bridging gets polished, as well as every movement that incorporates them!

After black belt? Any physicist would tell you how most of the jar STILL holds absolutely nothing. It never ends, and by the time you’ve reached black belt, and most people well before then, you would never want it to.

Technical Farmers-physical Storms… How Farmers Weather Storms

Recognize that it is natural for most beginning grapplers to rip hard, balls-out, wall to wall. They simply have no idea where to begin in the new world of grappling. Someone is apparently trying to kill them, and self-preservation has them reeling to “survive/win”. If they can just power through something, crank on an arm, or grunt enough, not waste any time breathing, things might work in their favor and they’ll learn this stuff yet…and that’s totally cool, it’s a necessary phase for most people. This can manifest itself as the typical physically aggressive grappler that is still not technical enough to utilize his new tools and is simply compensating in his win/lose world of rolling. Or worse yet, he’s the guy who IS technical enough but chooses not to use them, pridefully out of stubbornness. Either way, the effect can feel the same to the gentle artist.

Resist the natural temptation to match their actions. Resist through nonresistance. Weather their storm. Remember that your mission, regardless of your training partners experience or actions, is to develop your new tools of physics so that you won’t “need” the physical aggression, but will rely on technical aggression instead….so you can move at the right time, with the LEAST force, in the right direction. It can be frustrating as hell to not push back, mimic their wasted energy, and end up exhausted with no real gain. But your mission is to NOT take anything and everything you can force into your way, (regardless of early success)….but to maintain your discipline calmly, freeing your mind to scan for technical cues, all the while your training partner is full on kill mode. sidenote: this ALWAYS appears futile at first. you must have faith.

Don’t eat all your seeds before they’re planted just for the immediate gratification of the all-awesome tap out or escape or whatever you were forcing to happen.  Plant your seeds of true knowledge in training, through a focus on technical mastery, regardless of the actions of any training partner. They may not be developed enough to do the same…we were there once, and we can’t control what they do or blame them. Besides, we must eventually be able to adapt to all kinds, regardless of their experience/aggression. If they must eat all their seeds every class, it’s up to them and they will leave the “victor” that day. But as long as you’re planting your seeds regardless, your return, although not immediate, is well worth it and produces exponentially more experience and grace, closer to understanding our gentle art. Be the gentle farmer pursuing endless knowledge and growth, and not the hit-or-miss scavenger who must weather famine after the feast…..even if it means letting the scavenger onto your field. They may even learn to farm.

Effective Defense vs. Total Defense

defend everything – everything the training partner does is “bad” for you, so everything is wholeheartedly defended. this is the new student, terrified of everything, attempting to slap, yank, punch every grip or knee slide brought to him. Success for them comes as not dying today.

Defending less will expose you to more…help you learn more, takes courage but so did stepping into a dojo.

defend nothing – learned enough to realize that not everything your partner does is immediately dangerous for you, it IS ok for them to have a hand in your collar. I mean, there is now one less hand to prevent your guard pass for example. And if you’re “lucky” they can get their 2nd hand in your collar, occupying that hand as well. This is beautiful, because that leaves them with so much less and you’re ready to rock. But this sucks if those two collar grips are good enough to nap you before your offense is successfully executed.

Defend more, not everything… you must respect every attack, but defend just enough, learn to find how LITTLE you need to defend. This trial and error will come with a ton of “setbacks”, and this changes with each training partner and each isolated attack….but risking this will free up valuable flanking reserves 🙂

defend enough – defends everything just BARELY enough, sometimes not at all, keeping the majority of his efforts free for offense. They understand that it’s not how WELL defended something is that proves a good defense…it’s how EFFECTIVELY it is defended. How closely they can judge and ride that line of near misses and constant flow, wasting nothing along the way. They know that an impenetrable castle with infinite wall height, no windows and triple moats can never effectively survey the landscape, and that any castle can still be starved out by just an offense’s mere existence. They know that defense, of any kind should be temporary at most.
Effective defense vs. Total defense.