An important exercise then, is to take stock of your abilities, and understand how they affect your progress and perception of Jiu Jitsu.
At the academy (in good old Mountain View) I’m most often the one that gets to teach the first day students. While some might consider it a chore (and sometimes it is), I actually relish the opportunity to work with the new students. After all, first impressions are the most important ones to make, and the tone set in that first class will often determine if a potential student will wind up signing up for the class in the long run.
I’ve got a pretty good system worked out when I teach the first class; I know exactly what to show and my speeches are well rehearsed. I start from the assumption that the student knows absolutely nothing about Jiu Jitsu, so I’ll begin by a very basic explanation of each position I’m going to show. (“This is the MOUNT position. It’s called a mount because….”)
Now, I don’t actually expect that everyone knows nothing about Jiu Jitsu, or that no one comes into that class without any kind of related skills or abilities, but for that first class it’s easiest to have everyone start from the same place, and then work from there. Obviously everyone brings something different to the table. Some students pick things up more quickly than others. Some are more athletically inclined. Some have some experience in grappling. Some are taller, faster, stronger, skinnier, heavier, or more flexible than the others. Yes every one of those students is an individual and has strengths and weaknesses, and a talented instructor will recognize this quickly and be able to adjust their teaching to the individual student accordingly.
That’s an obvious statement to anyone who has worked with a new student. What is less obvious is that those intrinsic strengths and weaknesses are going to present along the entire span of one’s Jiu Jitsu career. They may become less pronounced over time through hard work and the accumulation of technique, but those strengths and weakness remain and turn into preferences over time. An important exercise then, is to take stock of your abilities, and understand how they affect your progress and perception of Jiu Jitsu.
• Attributes vs. Skills
When assess one’s (including my own) abilities, I place things in two categories: for lack of a better term I’ll call them attributes and skills.
Attributes are abilities that are either instinctual or born with, we’ll call them God given or natural abilities. Strength, speed, flexibility, height, etc… are examples of attributes. Some of these can be trained or increased to a degree, but often they are abilities that one simply works around or with.
Skill on the other hand is learned abilities. There are a number of related abilities that one might enter Jiu Jitsu with, such as a background in judo, wrestling, or even traditional martial arts. Some of the best Jiu Jitsu artists I’ve seen are break-dancers, surfers or skateboarders. While some skills may play out in Jiu Jitsu more directly than others, a background in other arts can be an asset to one’s development in Jiu Jitsu.
• Attributes and Skills vs. Technique
Before going and further, it’s worth stating in big bold letters here that THERE IS NO SUBSITUTE FOR TECHNIQUE. No matter what you bring to the table, the important thing is to learn the technique correctly first, and then figure out how to apply your attribute or skills to enhance that technique. If you try to substitute technique with something else, you’re going to wind up in trouble. If you master a technique and then learn to use your abilities along with it, you’re going to be that much more dangerous.
• A Personal Story
As you might have guessed, with a nickname like Gumby I’m VERY flexible. I often (especially earlier in my career) would use my flexibility to get into and out of situations. I was often praised by others for being flexible as it was such a good thing. The truth of the matter is that my flexibility often held back my technique, because it allowed me to far more sloppy than what would have been allowed for most other people. In retrospect it puzzles me how I could be praised for using my flexibility, while others would be criticized for using too much strength, when in essence we were all allowing our attribute to override our technique.
This would come back to haunt me later on, as when opponents I was more or less even technical ability wise, my flexibility would give me an edge. That edge quickly disappeared when the difference in technical abilities became more pronounced. Against a skilled opponent no amount of flexibility I possessed would do more than stave off the inevitable.
This would also become a problem later on as I began to teach more. If my techniques were based on my above average flexibility, I would never be able to share them with everyone else. I had to take a hard look at my technique and first make sure I was doing things correctly in a way that could be explained and duplicated by anyone, and from there I could add my personal touches. I consider this revelation one of the milestones in the evolution of my personal game.
•A Further Look at Attributes
Strength, Flexibility and Speed: Although all of these are obviously different, I list all three of these together but because while each has obvious advantages for Jiu Jitsu (which I don’t feel the need to detail), each can potentially be a detriment if they are used as a substitute for technique, as opposed to an enhancement to technique.
The easiest way to determine if you’re using one of your attributes as a substitute for technique is to try to explain your technique to someone else. If you can’t explain a technique to someone else without relying on strength, flexibility, then your technique isn’t a good one. If on the other hand you can explain a technique correctly without talking about strength, flexibility or speed at first, and then show how those attributes can make the technique easier to accomplish, then you’ve become very dangerous.
Something else about strength, flexibility and speed: these are all attributes that can be improved upon. However, while all of these qualities are important, it cannot be emphasized enough that there is a substitute for technique. Improving your bench press is not going to make you better at Jiu Jitsu! Improving your technique will make you better at Jiu Jitsu!
Endurance: Endurance is probably the most easily trained physical attribute, and an hours on the mat over time will gradually improve this anyway. It’s often been said that nothing will help your wind on the mat like more mat time in fact, and that various other types of endurance in other sports don’t always immediately translate into mat endurance.
Endurance is definitely the attribute that is most worth training in my opinion, as it’s never used as a substitute for technique, however the lack of endurance often makes it more difficult to accomplish technique!
Size: Size is definitely an attribute, but unlike the other attributes on this list, it’s one that really can’t be trained. Jiu Jitsu techniques are theoretically supposed to work for all body types, we all know through experience that certain maneuvers favor certain body types. The key is to look at your body type (whatever your body type) as an advantage, and then adjust your game plan accordingly. If you really believe you have a below average body type for Jiu Jitsu, then I challenge you to have above average technique.
• A Further Look at Skills
Judo: It’s often been said that Judo is the prefect compliment to Jiu Jitsu. Many of the techniques are the same as a matter of fact, and there is some argument that the arts are in fact two sides of the same coin. I think the safest thing to say is that while many of the techniques are the same; there is a difference between the core philosophies.
From the beginning Judo starts on the feet and gets to the ground later, Jiu Jitsu starts on the ground and works its way back to the feet in most cases. Technically the arts may be extremely similar. But one has to understand that there are often two different philosophies at work depending on the situation. Those philosophies dictate the technique, not vice versa. So an important thing for judoka to understand is the Jiu Jitsu mentality (discussed last article) when training Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu practitioners need to understand the Judo philosophy when training Judo. Depending on your situation will call for when which philosophy is used. In other words, while the beginning and middle of the matches may have the same philosophies, the end game is decidedly different.
Does this mean Judo needs Jiu Jitsu and vice versa? Again, I think it depends on your situation and what you’re looking to get out of the art(s). So I’m not going to engage in what I believe is another pointless Judo vs. Jiu Jitsu debate. An open-minded person will see the value of all grappling training and becoming skilled in as many options as possible. One thing is for certain, if most of your moves are dependant on being on the ground, you better have a good plan as to how to take your opponent to the ground.
Wrestling: The comparison between Jiu Jitsu and Wrestling is less obvious, but any grappler will tell you that a skilled wrestler without any submission skills is still a very tough opponent. Aside from the uniforms, the most obvious difference in philosophies between wrestling and Jiu Jitsu is that a wrestler never wants to be on their back, as they will lose a match this way, where as a Jiu Jitsu artist has no problem being on their back. (When I’ve attended straight up wrestling practices I had to fight the overwhelming urge to simply flop to my back).
Aside from being grappling arts, there are a number of specific skills that wrestling teaches that carry over very well into Jiu Jitsu. The concepts of safety and posture are drilled just the same in wrestling as they are in Jiu Jitsu. As such wrestlers often enter Jiu Jitsu class with tremendous base already, and many fundamental concepts such as control firmly entrenched. The trick is changing the emphasis once again from pinning to submission. Once again, while the beginning and middle of the matches may have the same philosophies (albeit modified techniques), the end game is decidedly different.
It also goes without saying as well, that if your game plan is dependant on being on the ground, you better have an excellent plan on how to take your opponent to the ground, and wrestling provides this.
TMA: A lot of the marketing behind Jiu Jitsu points out the fact that your Traditional Martial Arts are useless in a real fight and largely a waste of time. While that type of marketing is useful when attempting to reach students who have not necessarily trained in anything, I’m willing to bet that this is a tactic that will rub a lot of potential Jiu Jitsu students, who have happened to train in one of those TMA’s the wrong way. While I could write another series of columns on the practicality and reality of self defense, and my opinions on the subject, I don’t want to be the one to deem something that many people have dedicated large portions of their lives to as being a “waste of time”.
How much of your TMA may actually translate into Jiu Jitsu absolutely varies depending on the art and your experience within it. However the concepts that a good martial art is supposed to develop, discipline, character, dedication and hard work, those qualities that are supposed to carry over to all areas of like, are certainly desirable qualities in a Jiu Jitsu student.
Other: In my years of training, I found that people who are successful in some other pursuit (and these can be as varied as break dancing, chess, poker, football, soccer or whatever) can often become fantastic Jiu Jitsu artists. The key is to realize, that there were certainly qualities in athletic ability or intelligence, combined with hard work and dedication, that lead to those earlier successes, and those same qualities, along with hard work can lead to great things in any other pursuit (including Jiu Jitsu). The myth is that skill in one discipline automatically equates to skill on the mat.
• The One Thing You Can’t Teach
The one thing you can’t teach is heart. I not only consider heart to be gameness in the heat of the battle, I also consider heart to be a day in, day out attribute shown in the willingness to work and improve. I will take heart over anything else to be honest, as it’s what makes fighters.
• The Perfect Student
Or at least the easiest student to teach is the one who is a blank slate. The perfect student is a shapeless lump of clay, ready to be molded into the image of the perfect Jiu Jitsu fighter.
That student does not exist of course. Everyone comes into Jiu Jitsu not only with different expectations of the arts, but different strengths and weaknesses. A good mentor will recognize this (you remember article 1 on Mentorship, right?) and work with the student in order to improve their Jiu Jitsu.
Every student will need to recognize that no matter their strengths and weaknesses are, it is important to trust in their technique above all other things.
Your homework assignment this time is to make a list of all or your attributes and skills separate from your Jiu Jitsu Technique.
Next to each item, write down how this can enhance you Jiu Jitsu ability first. Then write down how it might actually detract from you Jiu Jitsu ability. Finally, figure out how you can improve upon attribute and skills.
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