Jiu Jitsu is a difficult art to master. Even the initial learning curve can be difficult, and many schools unfortunately have had a high drop out rate because of that difficulty. While there may be a lot of reasons for that initial frustration, most of the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the instructor.
Introduction to Critical Thinking and Jiu Jitsu
A few months ago, Scott Bieri was introducing me to one of his friends and he called me “the Mad Scientist” of Jiu Jitsu. I have to admit, I rather liked the title.
I wasn’t originally planning on doing a series of articles. Rather I had one major concept I wanted to talk about, a thesis on Jiu Jitsu that I could use to explain some of my theories and how I apply them to both my writing and odds making in the sport, the way I coach or give advice to high level grapplers and also an approach to get the most out of my own personal growth in jiu jitsu. My track record in all of the above is pretty good, and can be verified by search the OTM archives.
The main problem with my thesis is that to have any sort of benefit to most people, and to even be understandable to many students, would require a lot of background information and knowledge. To ensure that my idea had a proper context to frame around it would require a lot of assumptions on my part. Thus while I’ve got some very specific advice to give, it’s going to start off a lot more generalized and work it’s way down, so bear with me.
I think that through this series you will develop a deeper appreciation jiu jitsu, and will get valuable insight on how to critique jiu jitsu, both for your enjoyment, for your own personal application, and for passing that knowledge along to others. I have a tentative outline scheduled for about 26 articles, with articles coming about once per week or so. The really revolutionary article will come about article 13. This is definitely a work in progress, so I would appreciate any feedback you might have (I will open up a separate section on the OTM Forum just for this discussion), and in order to make it more interactive, each article will have a homework assignment or some kind of task for you to perform. I MAY suggest a purchase from our online store from time to time to help with specific homework assignments, this is by no means mandatory, as I’m giving out this information free with no strings attached, but I am still running a business after all!
What are my credentials?
I’m actually a bit shy of making myself (“Gumby”) a brand over the whole concept of OnTheMat or OTM, but as I’m constantly told otherwise by a variety of people with our sport, so I should accept it and deal with it. If you are unaware of exactly who I am, I’ll summarize my biography with points relative to this article:
I began studying and training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in 1996 at Ralph Gracie’s first academy in Mountain View, CA. In December of 2006 I received my black belt from Ralph Gracie, which I consider to be among the most proudest moments of my life. Ralph belt promotions are viewed to be fairly rare and tough to get, and Ralph actually gave me his own belt, to which my knowledge he’s never done.
In late 1997 I co-founded OnTheMat with my good friend and training partner Scotty Nelson (actually Scotty was one of my most intense rivals on the mat). At the time OnTheMat was a very sporadic side project as we were both working full time and training as much as we could. At some point we individually realized we would rather but our energy and focus into something we love to do as opposed to the rat race were living at the time, and OntheMat became our full time jobs, and we haven’t looked back since.
Since making OntheMat my career, my personal mission has been to give Jiu Jitsu on all levels the type of exposure I think it deserved. To that end I’ve spent years traveling the Earth (particularly the United States) observing competitions, videotaping matches, talking with various people in this sport, and trying to absorb as much information as I possibly could. I honestly believe in this 10-year period that I have personally attended more competitions than anyone, and have observed countless matches from the very top competitors to brand new students getting on the mat for the very first time. In addition to my work daily on various OnTheMat projects that have always been observable on the internet, I have done a variety of things behind the scenes ranging from matchmaking, refereeing, promoting, scorekeeping, advertising, announcing, broadcasting, to setting up and cleaning up the mats and venue.
I’m semi-retired as an active competitor (all of the above drains me too much to really think about competing much anymore), however early in my career I was a huge mat rat and entered every competition I could. I still get on the mat and train competitively every day however.
I have had the opportunity to talk at length with the who’s who of this sport (more so, I probably have an interesting anecdote or two about them), and am always eager to learn more. Maybe my favorite role however is an assistant instructor at the Ralph Gracie Mountain View Academy, where it all began, and where I very often work with brand new students.
Why I am releasing this information for free?
I love Jiu Jitsu.
I want to see Jiu Jitsu grow.
I consider myself educated and enthusiastic about Jiu Jitsu.
I think that the more educated and enthusiastic other people are about Jiu Jitsu, the more it will grow. This is good in my view for a number of reasons.
Firstly, I have seen how Jiu Jitsu has transformed people’s lives (including my own) for the better. People gain confidence, feel better about themselves, live healthier lifestyles, and find personal happiness and a sense of community with other practitioners of Jiu Jitsu. While I don’t believe that Jiu Jitsu is for everyone (which quite frankly is part of its allure) I personally believe that Jiu Jitsu has something of benefit to everyone.
I’m not being entirely altruistic in my approach. From a personal standpoint, as the co-owner of a business related to Jiu Jitsu, more educated and enthusiastic people in Jiu Jitsu stands to benefit me economically, and I don’t feel the need to be apologetic about wanting to make a living (nor do I believe anyone should). However, in a metaphor I’m fond of using about my business sensibilities, I’m not trying to get a larger slice of the pie per say. I’m trying to put a larger pie on the table for everyone.
So by placing this information, for free, on OnTheMat, not only will it benefit the sport in the long run, ultimately it will benefit my business sense. Furthermore, if you come to my website on a regular basis (which you should be doing, as we’re an excellent resource of current events and all things related to the sport), there is a greater chance that you will consider using our online shops (or visit our Fightshops) for your purchasing needs in regards to the sport. Some of the homework assignments might even have suggestions to buy some stuff from our website, but I will state this is entirely optional and will done only in the context of a lesson I’m trying to get across.
One quick point I’d like to make. Jiu Jitsu as a lifestyle is more akin to marathon than a sprint. I intend to be involved to some degree with Jiu Jitsu for the rest of my life. I hope to help foster long and healthy relationships within this sport for everyone.
Lesson #1 Mentorship in Jiu Jitsu
Jiu Jitsu is a difficult art to master. Even the initial learning curve can be difficult, and many schools unfortunately have had a high drop out rate because of that difficulty. While there may be a lot of reasons for that initial frustration, most of the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the instructor. Here’s the thing, it’s one thing to teach someone Jiu Jitsu, There are a series of positions and maneuvers to be learned that are usually classified as Jiu Jitsu. You can learn them from a book, a website, a video, or whatever. The benefit of having a real live person teaching you Jiu Jitsu is to ensure that you are become better at Jiu Jitsu.
This is what a Mentor should be doing for you. A mentor is someone who is not only showing you Jiu Jitsu, but a mentor will take the time to ensure that you yourself become better in Jiu Jitsu. That is a subtle but an important difference. So let me take the time to emphasize this point again. A MENTOR IS SOMEONE WHO TAKEN THE RESPONSIBILITY TO MAKE YOU BETTER.
Are you not convinced of the need of a mentor? Think you can get learn Jiu Jitsu without one? What sport or activity of a competitive nature can you think of, either individually or with a team, can you think of anyone who got there without a coach? Can you think of any? Of course you cannot. You may not know their individual names, but behind every athlete, team, and champion there was a mentor right behind them who guided them along the way.
•Who is qualified to be your Mentor?
Ideally your Mentor should be the main instructor at your academy. (In large academies your mentor may be senior student, or you might have multiple mentors). To be a mentor requires two things. Firstly, is a working knowledge of the art of Jiu Jitsu and the ability to convey it. I’m not going to say this person needs a black belt (because I know that is not always a possibility, and furthermore some black belts make lousy instructors. In fact, in this series of articles I’m going to largely avoid the topic of belts all together), but this person should have knowledge and experience above your own. Furthermore this person should be able to push and extend your limits, both physically and mentally. This requires a bit of work on the part of the mentor, because it takes getting to know his/her student rather well, and understanding what abilities he/she has and what needs to be worked on. Once again, a mentor should be committed to making you better in Jiu Jitsu, and this is a greater degree of difficultly than simply teaching a class.
•What should you expect from your Mentor?
Once again, you should primarily expect from your mentor the capacity of having someone who cares about your individual progress and who can help you meet your goals. A mentor should have an overall roadmap for getting you better and Jiu Jitsu and will have tailored instruction to meet your needs.
Am I suggesting a mentor turns every class into a private class? No way, that would be impossible, but in virtually every well run class I’ve been through there are plenty of opportunities for observation, interaction and advice between mentor and students. A student should feel free to ask any question of a mentor, however the answer may be that you’re not ready for the answer yet and you’re simply going to have trust your mentor.
If you are in a situation where you cannot find a mentor, you should find a new situation. You can read that for exactly what it means. Jiu Jitsu is not the least expensive hobby in the world, and if you’re not finding mentorship in your Jiu Jitsu class, you should find another class. On the other hand if you’ve found a mentorship relationship with your instructor, you should really embrace it as something very powerful indeed. You may not always agree with your mentor, this is true, but once someone has realistically accepted the position of mentorship, this is a powerful bond indeed.
There maybe another case when it comes time to switch mentors, when there is still a lot of progress to be made in the learning of jiu jitsu, but the current mentor has shown all that he/she can. In a healthy mentor relationship, the mentor acknowledges the limits of his/her knowledge and blesses or even suggests the transfer to another mentor.
• What should your Mentor Expect from you?
Every time I attend class, get on the mat myself, or even do my OntheMat related work, I ALWAYS have the intention of getting better each time. Even if it’s just a little bit better. I don’t find it unreasonable to expect the same from everyone else. If I’m in the class (particularly if I’m teaching class) I honestly expect everyone present to be trying to get better. Some days the steps are smaller than others, but all I’m looking for is forward progress. To tell the truth, one of the things that makes me the most impatient is when the mat is treated as some kind of social club, if you’re not on the mat to work, then I expect you to get off of it.
Once you’ve established a mentorship relationship, it’s pretty safe to assume that your mentor expects you to get better each time and expects you to work towards that goal. A good mentor has realistic expectations, but is always looking for forward progress. You as the student are going to work and listen and as a consequence you should expect to see results.
•Everyone needs a Mentor:
Of course I’ve only covered mentorship in the very early stages of Jiu Jitsu. The need for a mentor never goes away however, and even at the very highest levels of Jiu Jitsu. As I’ve seen time and time in high level competitions the difference between having a mentor in your corner and not is often the difference between victory and defeat. Jiu Jitsu is a lifelong journey and there is seemingly an endless variation of techniques and philosophies to learn. In an interview I did with Helio Gracie, he told me is still learning and refining his technique! Now if he is still working at it at the age of ninety-something, that means there is always room for improvement for everyone.
Realistically, a mentor at the highest level may not be one offers much technical advice anymore, but the motivation factor plus the years of familiarity will be of great help.
•I am not your Mentor.
One thing I want to clear up right now, that unless you happen to train at the Ralph Gracie Academy in Mountain View, there is no way I am your mentor. I am simply not in contact with you to the degree a mentor should be. Nothing should be substituted for live human interaction and a mentor-student relationship, and I would never suggest anything to overtly or subliminally suggest otherwise or sabotage those bonds. I am merely an observer and a giver of advice in this case, heck I like to consider all of you my friends, take it as you will.
•Becoming a mentor yourself.
At some point in your career in Jiu Jitsu you may find yourself in the position of mentor, in taking more personal responsibility for the growth of an individual. It is not a position to be taken lightly. The first part is taking care not to usurp any previous mentorship relationships. As I said earlier, it generally should be the primary instructor at your academy who should be fulfilling the mentorship role, although in large academies that role may often be filled by a senior student. Secondly, it’s important to know your own limitations. You may have some work of your own to go on your technical ability, or your ability to communicate that knowledge, or above all you might not have the time or energy to devote to being a mentor. It’s a task that takes a considerable amount of time to get good at it, but ultimately the desire to accumulate and pass along knowledge is a very human trait that has contributed to our evolution for eons. Becoming a mentor may be the most rewarding aspect of Jiu Jitsu.
The single most significant piece of advice I can give to any would be mentors out there is to lead by example.
Homework Assignment #1
Your assignment is to identify and approach your personal mentor. Make sure that YOU have someone at a level above you that will help you become better in Jiu Jitsu. This person should probably be your instructor, although given the size of the class and your actual interaction with him/her, it might be a senior student acting as your mentor.
Homework Assignment Part Deux
Now that you’ve identified your mentor, ask that person what you need to do to become better at Jiu Jitsu. Listen very carefully to what he/she has to say, and don’t offer any feedback just yet, just listen. I do not know what your mentor is going to tell you, but I encourage you to act upon it the best you can. (You might also want to share with your mentor about Critical Thinking and Jiu Jitsu, so you have something to discuss).
Next Week: What is Jiu Jitsu?
I’m a bit more than amazed at everyone trying to sell, defend, or talk about Jiu Jitsu without having a clear definition of the topic. Next week I aim to help correct that.
You can discuss this article and points made with Gumby in the OTM Forum Critical Thinking and Jiu Jitsu