We are always learning whether we are conscious of it or not. However, we will get the most of our jiu jitsu journey if we are more aware of the ways in which we learn and how they work together.

Let’s do this!

Hey! My name is Michael and this is my first blog post. I’ve trained jiu jitsu for two years and recently earned my Blue belt under Jon “White Trash” Friedland at Neutral Ground Milwaukee. For work, I teach international politics at UW-Milwaukee where I finished my dissertation last year. I also have the same learning/teaching philosophy I had as a ten year old. That last part is the important part and what I want to share with you now.

I played organized football for the first time in 5th grade. That year and every year until high school, our coach ended the season with the same damn speech. So for four years I heard Coach tell the team that people learn three ways in life: the books we read; the people we talk to and the questions we ask; and experience, or “the school of hard knocks.” 20 years later I’ve realized that this applies in life, at school, and especially on the mats.

What We Read and Who We Meet

Reading books seems the least applicable to BJJ, but we still do something like it. You’re doing it right now reading this blog. How many white belts have hated not knowing how to tie their belts and looked it up on YouTube? We have online resources, ebooks, blogs, and even things on paper like magazines and, well, books. This type of learning uses secondary sources of information. Secondary sources can be great—they are plentiful and relatively easy to obtain—but they have accompanying weakness. Recognize that secondary sources are someone else’s analysis of a problem or interpretation of events. When you use this type of information, actively think about what you are seeing or hearing or reading and always consider the source. Question the information. In academia there are journals, Journals, and JOURNALS—the better the journal, (hopefully) the more confident we can be about the information. Evaluating the quality of jiu jitsu resources can be tricky, and even if we are confident that we have useful information, it is best to look for corroborating sources. I’d strongly suggest pairing secondary source research with another learning method.

For example, if I am having trouble with the pendulum sweep, I could look up Jon “White Trash” Friedland’s YouTube video on the technique before trying it again, but I could also ask him. Everyone in the gym / dojo with you can be a resource if you let them. Very few people I have encountered are uncomfortable answering questions or giving you their take, but I’d guess that people other than your instructor or training partner on a given day would be much slower to offer information. So ask questions! Your brothers and sisters love jiu jitsu. They love talking about it and training. And of course, ask your instructors. Not asking robs you of an opportunity to evaluate what you know and what you gathered from secondary sources, and ultimately impedes your growth. Talking and asking questions is a form of primary source research. You are “conducting the interview” and interpreting the information you get. Still, this type of learning requires that you interpret what others have learned.

The School of Hard Knocks

When Coach gave the Three Ways We Learn speech, his goal was to encourage his young athletes to stay in school and listen to their teachers in order to avoid making regrettable decisions down the road. For us “the school of hard knocks” is the most effective, though toughest, way we learn. How many times have I decided to lie down for a short nap before class and not wake up? Enough to learn not to do it. Because of what I do for work, I think of this type of learning as experimentation. I observe myself getting my guard passed, swept, submitted, and so on and I want to change that, but I have to keep getting passed, swept, and submitted until I learn what question to ask. Asking the right question is hard because you have to understand the problem before you can look for secondary sources and ask others.

Sparring becomes the actual test of what you’ve gathered. Getting on the mat, experimenting, and modifying what you’ve gathered from other sources shows you what works and what does not for you. Later, ask for feedback. You’ll often learn that you’ve asked the wrong question and started down a different path. It helps to keep a jiu jitsu journal as a record of all your experiments, especially the failures. We all know this, but it’s worth repeating that we learn as much from our failures as our success. Most importantly, keep repeating the experiments even after you “solve” the immediate problem because jiu jitsu is always evolving.

Keep Your Eyes Wide

It’s funny how things change. In grade school I thought Limp Bizkit lyrics were profound and rolled my eyes at Coach’s speech every year. Now Limp Bizkit is a punchline, and I think about Coach and learning every day. None of this is revolutionary, but I hope this my thoughts help you become more aware of how and when we learn in jiu jitsu. It’s going to happen anyway, but I’d argue that we get more from the journey if we actively pursue all three.