Blog - BJJ & MMA Auckland | GroundControl

On Going Light

Hey bro, let’s roll light.

There’s a reason that’s a bit of a meme in BJJ.  The cliche of someone suggesting a light roll and then going into full on comp mode.  

“Going light’ is easier said than done.  Often what people mean by that is “don’t smash me bro, while I play my A game”.   There’s lots of benefits to light rolling. You get to do more transitions and as a result get to spend more time in more of the BJJ landscape.  It’s easier on the body.  You can start to see linkages between different techniques and so learn to chain them together rather than doing each move in isolation. 

So lots of reasons to go into a roll with the positive intention of going light.  But then we realise that that means our partner is doing more transitions as well.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of ramping up “just to get to the position we want”.  Which means of course they ramp up.  So we ramp up.  And suddenly it looks like a death match.

As always it comes down to being really clear on your goals.  If your goal is to test yourself in competition level rolls – find folks to go hard against.  Just understand going 100% is where you do your testing, not your learning.  Decide what percentage of your training time you want to be testing over learning.  100%? 

That would mean you are only coming to training to prove something (to yourself, to others) and you’ll stagnate, both in terms of technical improvement and motivation and enjoyment. 

For each roll decide where you want to be on the testing vs learning continuum.  Start to notice that if you’ve made a conscious decision to be on the learning end, then being in bad positions, having your guard passed, being tapped – these things don’t bother you nearly so much.  Because you know you haven’t “failed the test” because today was about the learning not the testing. 

And then start to notice what your contribution is to the intensity of the roll.  You wouldn’t believe how often I hear people complain that their partners are going too hard – and when I observe it’s because the person themselves is going hard. 

Rolling out of fear.  Fear of the tap, fear of looking inferior, fear of judgement, you name it.  That’s why sometimes it’s useful to make “going light” your only goal in the round.  If I am relaxing all the way through, how does that affect the intensity of my partner?

Sometime it won’t.  Sometimes they are so wrapped up in their own stuff they wont’ even notice the change.  But often, and more often than you think, when you go lighter, they’ll go lighter.  Just like in everyday communication.  How often have you seen parent yell at their kids “BE QUIET”.  or “show some respect” as they are in the middle of refusing to listen to the needs of the other person.

In other words, on and off the mat – it’s easy to forget that the tone of our interactions with people is often a consequence of the tone we are unconsciously bringing to the interaction.

Sometimes I go hard.  Sometimes I go light.  Oftentimes I spend the first few seconds of the roll evaluating the intensity of my partner and looking to match.  Which means it’s up to you – are we going light today?

How much choice is too much?

There’s some situations where we want lot’s of choice (like say ice cream flavours). And then there’s others where choice gets in the way, slows things down.  Ever been to a restaurant and found it really hard to choose from a menu?  How about at a wedding, or on a flight where there’s only two choices.  Notice how much more quickly you can make the choice when there’s less to choose from?

More choices = a slower decision.

In a combat situation we are running through the OODA loop constantly.

Making Observations about what’s going on, Orientating what we’re seeing to what we know, Deciding what to based on that knowledge and then taking Action.

It is at the Decide phase where too much choice can be a problem.  The less to choose from the less time it takes to decide – and the quicker our OODA loop runs.  And he or she with the quickest OODA loop wins – all other things being equal.

This is the challenge with BJJ in the modern age.  You’ve got what is potentially the most sophisticated martial art ever in terms of sheer number of techniques, rate of evolution and number of variations.  And that is coupled with the information age where all that knowledge is only a click away. 

Suddenly we are awash with choices.  And while we’re figuring out which of 120 sweeps to execute our partner is passing our guard.   

The challenge in BJJ in many ways is not learning more techniques, but narrowing down our choices. 

Being more algorithmic.  That is to say letting the observation dictate the action with no decision at all.
If the opponent does this, I do that. They put their hand on the mat while in my guard, I kimura.
Run with a set of “A game” options for a while as your first choice for each situation.  As you go into rolling be clear what those A game moves you would like to hit are.  This will provide focus for your roll and an easier way to notice your progress.

And then of course as you get more experienced you can make more distinctions. Their hand is on the mat in my guard but not by my hip, closer to my shoulder. So I execute a cutting armbar. More distinctions = more appropriate responses. But we are still running an algorithm rather than choosing from a buffet.

This is why it’s so important that beginning students have a clear curriculum to learn from. So they can make sense of the myriad of options they see in class and inevitably online. And have a structured way of prioritising those choices, a framework to hang them off.

I love BJJ for it’s richness. There is always something new to learn and techniques to develop and put in your game. But when it matters I want to be clear what my go to moves are – so I am dictating the pace. Not with my athleticism but with the speed of my decision loops.

What’s the worst that can happen?

What’s the worst that can happen?

How often do you ask this question? I mean really ask it and take the time to consider the answer?

Because it’s a question worth asking. Tim Ferris calls it practical pessimism.  If what I’m trying to do fails whats the worst case scenario. 

Ferris’ point as an entrepreneur is this – if you take some time to really consider worst case scenario – you often find it’s not that bad (I sleep on a mates couch for a month) – so go ahead and take a chance.

Here’s how that looks in Jiu Jitsu.  I’m on mount. I’m considering going for the armbar. Then the thought occurs to me.  What if I fail.  I end up in side control.  How bad is that?  Well it depends.

If you are very confident in your side control escapes, it won’t feel like such a bad consequence.  As a result you’ll go for the armbar more often and guess what.  Get great at armbars. 

So this is the paradox.  Being awesome at escaping makes you a dangerous attacker.  Because you will be prepared to take a risk. 

For another example from the world of MMA have a look at the first fight between Gonzaga and Crocop (Mirko Filopovic).  Everyone was excited to see what happened when such a world class striker fought a noted grappler.  The result?  The “grappler” knocked the striker out with a kick to the head!  How did this happen?

Simply put, Gonzaga was more prepared to take the risk.

Crocop was known for his phenomenal kicking (“right leg hospital, left leg morgue”), but was very cautious to throw those kicks against Gonzaga. 

Because if he lost his balance and got taken down, he was in Gonzaga’s world.  Gonzaga on the other hand had nothing to lose.  Throw a kick, why not?  The worst that happens is you get taken down and it becomes a ground fight – which is in his case great news!  So he threw a kick against a tentative opponent who was watching for the takedown, and boom. 

Moral of the story – be clear what the worst case scenario is, and if you can turn that into your strength then you’ll take the fear out of your decision making.  Which is as important for life as it is for Jiu Jitsu.

In fact in Jiu Jitsu it’s easy.  Even if you don’t have great side control escapes yet, the ultimate worse case scenario is you get caught and have to tap.  Which costs nothing.  I’m proud that we have a culture where you just don’t hear people “bragging” about who’s tapped who, because we realize what the tap really means.  It’s a tool to de-risk the activity and promote risk taking an learning.

And at the same time what that does is to build resilience. Resilience being the quality that arises when you have an underlying sense of “whatever happens, I can handle this”.

This is a quality that is developed on the mat and can change your life off the mat.

Self Defence, Risk Assessment & COVID-19

Perhaps the most important aspect of self defence is awareness and risk assessment. It should be the starting point of any conversation about how to keep yourself safe.

All the fancy martial arts techniques in the world will not help you if you don’t notice that the big dude with the knuckle duster is getting increasingly upset with you and increasingly close to you.

By the same token we want to be risk aware without being paranoid. You can drastically reduce your likelihood of being the victim of assault by locking yourself in your room 24/7. The only problem is you’ll be living a terrible life.

When talking about self defence we often use a colour coding system to asses the threat and our level of awareness based on context.

Condition White – is my most relaxed and comfortable condition. At home with people I trust where I feel most safe. Here I don’t have to have the radar out (unless you live with someone that trains BJJ in which case rear naked choke attempts are always on the table)

Condition Green – out and about. More aware, scanning the environment to notice anything that pings my radar as unusual. That couple arguing, that person that looks a bit disorientated or muttering to themselves, the group in the corner that seem to be watching everyone. Just noticing and being aware (hard to do if your face is in your phone!)

Condition Yellow – something has really captured my attention. That person is approaching me, asking for directions but coming in from the side and I can’t see their other hand. Someone is upset about a traffic incident. Now radar goes on high alert, we’re managing space to keep them at a safe distance. Making sure my hands are free. Being aware of anyone else in the immediate vicinity.

Condition Red – an altercation seems imminent. I’m preparing to react or if necessary initiate. My fence is up and I’m employing verbal de-escalation techniques. It’s go time.

This system helps to a) make sure you’re noticing your environment so you know which condition you are in and b) ensure it is appropriate for the context.

You don’t want to stay in an oblivious Condition White state when danger is imminent. Similarly you don’t want to be walking around in Condition Red 24/7. It’s exhausting, you’ll get adrenal fatigue and people will think you’re odd as you walk around with your fence up all day.

I’ve been thinking about how this applies to what is happening around the world with COVID-19. Where you are in the world will determine what condition you are in. Clearly Italy, US, UK etc are Condition Red. No one in the world should be at Condition White.

Here in New Zealand as of today (19 March) we’re in Condition Yellow. We passed through White to Green when we heard about the virus and we passed through Green to Yellow when we started to get confirmed cases.

But we’re not at Condition Red. We still have no confirmed cases of community transmission. The government has all but shut the borders and travel has slowed to a trickle. Tracking contacts of those who have tested positive and mandatory self isolation seems to be doing a good job of keeping things contained, at least for now.

This is why our schools are still open, we are not in enforced quarantine or some of the other more extreme measures you are seeing around the world. Because so much of the media we consume is from Condition Red countries it is easy for people to feel like we should be pushing the panic button (as witnessed by panic buying). Panic never works – at any threat level. What works is having a plan and executing it when it’s time to execute it.

So I feel it’s important to recognise where we are.

We need to be realistic.

In other words respond to what’s real rather than what we hope or what we fear. We can’t afford to be complacent – washing hands, self isolating when returning from travel, all the other precautions you’ve heard about.

At the same time we can recognise we’re not at Condition Red so the toilet paper in the cupboard will probably do just fine.

Here at GC while we’re in Condition Yellow we are continuing to operate. We are monitoring the situation very closely and have plans to modify how we train as needed. My hope is that containment will continue to be effective and eventually we’ll de-escalate to Condition Green. However should we enter Condition Red it’ll be go time and we’ll react very quickly.

Until either of those things happens look after yourself. Protect both your physical health and your mental health. Be aware and vigilant while at the same time connecting with people any way you can and in the words of Douglas Adams – Don’t Panic.

Time flies – make the most of it

Well we’re a half of the way through the year.  It’s funny how quickly time can fly, and we can find ourselves wondering if we’ve made the most of it.   The same goes for our time in class.

I started out in Aikido, a very traditional Japanese martial art.  Classes were characterized by strict “ettiquette”.   This had advantages and drawbacks.  

The advantages were that in that very formal environment everyone was on task 100% of the time.  As soon as Sensei said “yamae” (stop) everyone immediately formally thanked their partner and sat in the formal seiza position to watch the next demonstration.  This took about 1.5 seconds. There was zero needless chatter.  The thought of feeling like you’d done enough reps and stopping never occurred to anyone.  You kept going until sensei called yamae and if they decided to let you go on one technique for the entire class you kept going until the end.  It was disciplined.  It was martial. 

The drawbacks were that the formality got in the way of communication.  I don’t think I ever saw someone ask the teacher a question mid demonstration (including when I was teaching which I did for 10 years).  A particularly brave soul might venture a “mo ichi do kudasai” (one more time please), but that was it.  Certainly you were more likely to request Sensei to look at your technique as you were drilling but then the rest of the class missed out on the benefit of the answer (it was in this environment where, as a teacher, I first developed the “two person rule” – i.e. if two people ask me the same question, I answer it for the whole class).  

BJJ tends to have a less formal environment. This is great for open communication between coach and student.  The danger is that people can get distracted in their training, start playing the “how would I counter this” game, or go into long chats with their partner about the time you used the technique to almost sub a purple belt etc. The cost of that is repetitions. 

I think the ideal situation is a blend of the two approaches. Utilising rituals to make sure you are 100% focused whenever your’e on the mat.  This is why I ask our students to bow on and off the mat – a formal recognition that the mat is a place of focus and concentration.  Why if you’re not a part of the class you shouldn’t be touching the mat.  Why when drilling it’s about the  number of reps you’re getting in.  Why when the coach yells “time”, you stop immediately (mid technique, mid sentence) and direct your focus back to the coach.  

And at the same time we encourage taking responsibility for your learning.  Move around during a demo to get the best viewing angle.  Ask questions to clarify your understanding.  Call the coach over to check your technique.  

This is how you get the most out of whatever mat time you have every week.  If you want to view it as a competitive thing it’s a simple equation.  It’s not about who has come to the most classes necessarily.  It’s about who has done the most reps, who has been most focused, who has asked the best questions so that you have given every class 100% and in return the class has given you 100%. 

What’s in a grading?

After another successful grading last week it’s a good time to remind ourselves what gradings are all about.

Gradings are a tool.  Nothing more nothing less.  They are a convenient way to do a number of things

  • Give students some guidance as to what techniques and drill they should be focused on.  This helps make sure you are building your Jiu Jitsu in a sensible order or priorities
  • Gives the coaches a sense of where people are.  Sometimes people will perform well in sparring with a great “A game” but a grading will higlight what the need to become more well rounded.  Sometimes we’ll notice common errors across most students on a particular technique that gives us some feedback on how we’re coaching that technique.  
  • Gives students an experience that lets them know how they are tracking.  Sometimes that will come from direct coach feedback.  Oftentimes self feedback is more important. Which techniques were you most comfortable with?  Which were you a little uncertain on.  Proactive students use gradings to track their own progress – they view it as a test they conduct on themselves more than one we conduct on them.

So what does it take to earn a grade.  A number of things.  Yes you need to be able to show techniques in the grading at a level of technical excellence appropriate for that grade ( the top control drill we accept for a one stripe candidate needs to be smooth and technical.  For a four stripe candidate we would expect it to be flawless).  You also need to demonstrate the right attitude in day to day training.  Working well with your partner, appropriate behaviour on the mat, taking responsibility for your own learning by asking appropriate questions, getting your reps in in drilling etc etc.  And especially for the upper stripes showing you can apply technical knowledge in live sparring.  This is not a case of who’s beating who, more a question of this – when we watch you spar do we see you working to implement appropriate plans, or has  your theoretical knowledge gone out the window as you revert to a newbie scramble.    

Let me finish by saying this.  BJJ is not a fast grading art.  If you need regular trips to the grading lollipop jar to feel happy, you may find BJJ challenging.  We expect as much dedication to training and technical understanding to award a blue belt as some traditional styles now expect for a black belt. 

Coloured belts are a big deal in BJJ, which then means stripes are a comparatively big deal as well.  Each stripe is almost like a coloured belt in a traditional style.  Which raises the question what do we have where those styles would give a stripe?  Simple.  A “good job” from your partner at the end of the round.  A “yes just like that, much better’ show of approval form a coach.  The quiet satisfaction as  you feel yourself moving more fluidly and effectively in a drilling session.  At the end of the day this where the joy of Jiu Jitsu training lies.  Not in stripes or belts or gold medals.  But in the journey that makes all of those things inevitable at some point.

So come along to gradings.  Give your self some feedback on  your own progress.  If you are new come and have a watch, or jump on and give it a go to see how much you’ve already learned, and get excited about how much there is still to come. 
We grade once a month whether you grade up or get to grow into your current grade a bit longer, there’s always another opportunity just around the corner. We have two results from grading – pass or not yet. Be content that this is a marathon not a sprint. And that’s what makes it so much fun.

How do martial arts build confidence?

There are many reasons why people get interested in training Martial Arts.  By far one of the most common we hear is “confidence”. 

What is confidence?  

Simply put it’s a belief that you can, rather than a belief that you can’t.  But there needs to be more to it than that.  A few years ago I read about a report on the performance of school children in various OECD countries.  The American children, according this report, were going backwards in comparison to the other countries on every measure (literacy, numeracy etc) except one.  Self belief. In other words American kids were getting worse at everything except their belief that they were getting better.  I believe to be truly useful confidence needs to based in reality.  From having experiences that demonstrate the “I can” rather than simply reciting positive affirmations to yourself or having people around you tell you you’re great.  True confidence is earned.
And that’s where martial arts come in.  Particularly the so-called “live” martial arts. These are the styles that involve some kind of full resistance sparring, be it grappling, or striking, or mixing both. This live environment allows the student to take all the guesswork out and to develop a sense of “I can” based on evidence they feel every night on the mat. 
The confidence from this kind of training comes in three forms.
First of all there’s a confidence that comes with knowing you can take care of yourself.  Even in a modern civilized society where, let’s face it, most of us are unlikely to get into a fight next week – the knowledge that you have tools to protect yourself if you ever have to gives you a real sense of assurance and security. I find martial arts have made me much better at dealing with verbal conflict and handling other people’s anger. Because that assurance allows me to come from a place of calm consideration rather than being in fight or flight mode and responding emotionally.
From that flows a second kind of confidence.  The confidence marital arts practitioners develop about their ability to develop any skill.  Because what martial arts teaches us is that we can learn.  That once you have the right methodology, you can get skilled at anything you choose to apply that methodology to. Whether it’s a new armbar, learning a new language, or new skills at work.   In our classes we are not just teaching people how to choke, armbar, kick and punch.  We are teaching people how to learn – and we are quite explicit about that.  That’s why so many of my students are excited to tell me about the other areas of their lives that have gotten better since they started training.
And then there’s the third confidence.  The confidence that you can handle it.  When students start they are often a little nervous about their first class. And then they come in and have a great time and realise that there was nothing to worry about.  And because it’s fun they keep coming.  And as they keep coming they feel more and more comfortable with the idea o
f being uncomfortable.  Certain fighting positions that felt hard, become easy.  Until one day they realise that they are staying calm and composed even in the toughest of situations.  And that’s how this confidence works.  It creeps up on you.  You suddenly notice that along with becoming physically stronger, fitter, tougher, you’ve also become mentally tougher.  In other words, when you know that you can stay calm fighting off an armbar or choke hold, suddenly the performance review at work, or meeting the new in-laws doesn’t seem as daunting anymore.  Because you have confidence based on real and regular experience that however tough things are, you are tougher.  You can handle it.
I don’t’ believe martial arts exist just to teach people to fight.  They are there to teach people about themselves.  And  specifically, how to get more out of themselves.  This is the confidence you get when you realise that  you are effortlessly doing today, what seemed impossible yesterday.
The confidence you get from knowing however good you are today, you can be better tomorrow.    
The confidence that whatever challenges are thrown  your way you can take a deep breath and get to work on moving forward.    Confidence that is based on  real world capabilities, demonstrated regularly.  Confidence that is earned.

Resolutions, goals, and minding your business

And so we’ve rolled into another year (see what I did there?)

New year’s resolutions have gone out of fashion, I get that.  “You shouldn’t wait for a specific date to set goals, you should always be setting goals” is the modern refrain.  And yet we can’t deny there’s something about the calendar ticking over that makes you reflect. What do I want the next 12 months to look like?

For many people the answer is “different to the last 12 please”.  And there’s one word in that sentence which is the killer.  But I’ll come to that shortly.

But first a word about goals.  Or at least my personal view on goals.  I understand the importance of a well formed goal.  Specific, measureable, ecological (i.e. fits in with the rest of your values and needs), important etc.  And there are times when setting specific goals in that way is really useful.  But useful for what?  Goals aren’t’ important in and of themselves. They are important because they set you up with momentum and direction.  They are the tool to get your life moving, not an end in themselves.  The achieving of the goal is not the thing.  Who you become in the achieving of the goal is the thing.  Getting a blue belt (or a purple, brown or black) is trivial. The forging your personality goes through on the path to that belt is what matters.

So I believe in fuzzy goals.  I never set a goal to start a martial arts school.  Or a business consultancy.  Or a private therapeutic/coaching practice.  These things just happened because I had a general sense of the things that spun my particular propeller and followed that scent where it led.  Not like a bloodhound.  More like a tourist in a strange city wondering where the smell of that fresh baked bread is coming from.  I drifted into it. Ambled.  I believe in fuzzy goals and I believe that if you have a vague idea of the general direction you want to head, and live by a few basic principles great things begin to happen.

So let’s come back to that wish for 2018.  How would you like the next 12 months to be?  “Different to the last 12 please”?.  The word to watch there is “please”.  It’s an entreaty.  A request for a favor from the universe.  Hoping that the world, other people, circumstances, will serve us up a different set of conditions.  Hoping that luck will fall our way.  But as John Will is fond of saying. – hope is not a strategy.  So get rid of the “please”.  Get rid of that wish that someone, something, some event will happen to you.  Replace the request with intention.   And apply some basic principles.

Be proactive – mind your own business

If you touch hands at the start of a round and then wait to see what happens, something will always be happening to you.

And this is how some people spend their entire lives.  Not living it,  but rather having their lives happen to  them.  Whatever your resolution for this year, of course outside factors will have an effect.  The behaviours of others, the economy, the politicians, your mother in law, the weather, you name it.  But that’s none of your business.  Your business is to look the momentum and direction you want in your life and move towards it.  That’s your job.   Goals can be fuzzy, but what needs to be very clear, is your understanding of the part you must  play in creating your life.  Want a better relationship?  What can you  do to change the patterns?  Want a better financial situation – what are the small steps you  can take to be in more control of it.  Yes I agree, there’s more to the outcome than what you do.  But that’s not your business.  Your business is maintaining your own energy and actions.  So mind your own business and everything else will eventually take care of itself.

Don’t’ waste energy

I love getting big strong newbies in mount.  I love how they struggle and thrash.  Using their superior strength and fitness to gas themselves out.  They have more energy than me.  More strength. But your strength and your energy count for nothing if they are focused on the wrong activities.  Put your energy where it does most good.  We’ve all made mistakes in our live and it’s easy to ponder them and ask ourselves what if, and why did I?  People have had all sorts of terrible things happen to them and it’s tempting to turn your gaze back to the past and wonder why me?  We all have limitations on us and it’s easy to think if only I had more money, more time, a better support network, a more understanding boss.

It’s not fair

You don’t understand

It shouldn’t be like this

I deserve better

These are all valid statements.  They will often get the support of like-minded friends.  But make no mistake.  They are energy leeches.  They suck energy from your life.  There’s an opportunity cost here.  For every moment you spend on those thoughts, that’s a moment that you can’t be moving forward.  They are natural thoughts to have and of course it’s ok to spend some time, some energy on those thoughts.  Just like it’s ok to spend money on frivolous things from time to time.  But you want to be budgeting carefully.  How much of your energy and time are you prepared to spend on such things before moving into a more creative zone?  A zone which creates new ideas, opportunities and experiences.  To move into that zone there are just a three simple instructions that you need to follow. Everything else is just noise and wasted energy.  Here they are:

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.

Follow those three simple ideas, and you won’t need hope as a strategy, you won’t need to ask the universe “please”.  You will just stumble into great things and meet great people.

See you on the mat.



Remember that technique?


Recently I’ve had several discussions about how well students remember the techniques or classes that they have been to.

Memory is an interesting thing. Especially when applied to a physical skill like jiu-jitsu.  It turns out that memory is a term we use to cover a multitude of different activities in our brain. So perhaps if we can better understand memory we will better understand  how we apply our memory  to jiu jitsu  techniques.

The neurosciency stuff.

There are a number of different ways to view memory but one useful way to think about is that there two types of memory. What is called episodic memory, and then implicit memory. So what’s the difference? Well episodic memory is as the name suggests memory of episodes in our lives. So for example, if I ask you to think of what you did last New Year’s Eve, you would probably pull up an image or a  memory of a particular episode. Who you were with, some of the things you did, maybe even how much you drank.

However if I’ve asked you to actually perform a task, say for example riding a bike or driving a car, the chances are you will not be drawing upon episodic memory. You be drawing on implicit memory. In other words the memory of how to do something,  the memory that gets coded in through activity.

This distinction was brought into stark relief through the study of psychology’s most famous patient.  He was known around the world as HM (HM recently died in 2008 – the most researched man in psychology).   After a childhood accident left HM afflicted with terrible epilepsy, his neurosurgeon sought to reduce the effects by removing a particular part of the brain known as the hippocampus (the surgeon later admitted he had no idea what effect this would have an it was an experimental move).

As a result HM’s amnesia abated, at a catastrophic cost to his memory.  He had developed anterograde amnesia.  What that meant is he could not form any new memories after the time of his surgery. In other words although he could remember his early life (episodic memories)  he could not form any new memories from after the surgery.  He could not even recognize himself in the mirror as he aged

While tragic for HM this condition  provided a wealth of research opportunities for psychologists. They were able to, test HM on his ability to perform over a range of tasks over time despite, having no memory whatsoever of having done the task before. And of course they had a subject that was delighted to perform the same tasks over and over again every day – to him it was new and exciting every time!

What the researchers discovered, was a very clear distinction between these two types of memory They would sit on the patient in front of a computer screen and asked them what was in front of him.  Having never seen a computer before the surgery, he would  describe it as a telephone typewriter or something of that nature. They would then give him  a simple range of tasks –  like rotating shapes to fit a certain pattern. Although HM had no memory of having done these tasks before, there was a very clear improvement in his ability to perform the tasks over time. In other words the memory was being coded in implicit memory, but not episodic memory.

What became even more interesting was,  being sat for the first time that day in front of a test he had performed many times before, the researchers would sometimes ask HM what he thought he should do in this test. HM’s answer was consistently “I have no idea”. Researchers then asked him to take his best guess at which point he would often take a “guess” which was very close to the specific instructions they were about to provide.

In other words although he had no memory of having ever done the task before, somewhere in his brain was still the knowledge of exactly how to go about doing that task.

So how does this relate to learning jiu-jitsu?

Well we learn in a couple of different ways one is episodic memory. Think back to the last John Will seminar you attended for example. There may be certain parts of the seminar that you remember very clearly, and others which have not been emblazoned across your episodic memory in quite such detail. However in arts like ours it would seem to be that implicit memory is much more important episodic memory.

In other words what does your body remember about how to do the techniques? Sometimes we will perform techniques and will not even remember where we learned them. So how do we increase our rate of  implicit  knowledge.?

Well if HM’s case is anything to go by repetition seems to be the key. Drilling. But this blog is not meant to be just another preach around the importance of drilling.   I think we are all already aware of that.

Rather I think it’s useful for us to take it easy on ourselves with how much you remember sometimes after classes. I have always been an advocate of using training notebooks to jot down pertinent details of things we might have learnt, be they technique related, or simply related to concepts and learning lessons.  However I often see students start to berate themselves for the fact that they can’t remember what was taught even last week. Perhaps one lesson HM teaches us is that, as long as we are on the mat, coming to training, and doing repetitions, we need not worry about whether we “remember all this stuff”.  The point is that some structures in our brains will be remembering whether we are aware of it or not. So you want to get better at jiu-jitsu? The key seems fairly simple –  come consistently to class, focus on doing repetitions and the learning takes care of itself.

One more thing

One final word on implicit memory.  When we apply techniques from implicit memory in our sparring I believe, that we have a slightly different experience than when replaying techniques from episodic memory.

For example – imagine you’re in the middle of a roll, and you notice a situation which you link, via episodic memory, to something learned in a previous class or seminar.  ”oh it’s that technique we learned”.   Then you apply that technique.  You now get a real sense of improvement and competence “hey I did that thing we learned last week!”

This is because you are consciously aware that you have applied a new technique to the given situation and therefore you consciously understand that learning and improvement has taken place.

Interestingly I think it’s a little different sometimes when our responses on the mat come from implicit memory. In other words if we are not linking what we do into specific classes we remember taking, sometimes we are not even aware of our own improvement.

I regularly see beginners on the mat  complain about not feeling like they are improving, not feeling like they are not doing any better in sparring than they did previously. And as the coach both watching and rolling with them I can see and feel significant improvements. Moreover when the knowledge is coming from implicit memory it seems be more fluid, – there is less delay between the trigger and the response. So you could say in many ways that this the best form of learning because it just flows out of the persons game as if it was a natural thing.

And yet if we’re not really looking out for it we can miss the fact that we are improving!

So I guess the message is simple. Come to class, drill, and be prepared to step back from your rolling from time to time to really notice what you’re doing now that you weren’t doing six months ago.  Even if you don’t remember having learned it. See you on the mat.

If Somethings Worth Doing…


At the last official rolling session for the  year I found myself reminded of some great advice I once read.

Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly… first.

Which when you think about it is absolutely common sense. When we first do something new, chances are we’re doing it poorly.  We know this. And we know that with practice and time we start to get better and better until we achieve full competency, and then on to mastery. That’s a fairly well understood and straight forward process. So why do we see so many people (including ourselves) bailing out before we get to that point?

Simply because doing things poorly (in the learning stage) is uncomfortable. It challenges our view of ourselves as capable and effective individuals.  We don’t want to be poor we want to be great. And so we tend to protect ourselves from experiences that make us feel less than great.

Like learning new things.

So the question is – is it worth going through the discomfort of doing something poorly? Most of the time if we ask ourselves this question the answer is a resounding “yes!”  The trick is remembering to ask that specific question.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly – at first.

Case in point. The other night I was rolling with a student and just as we touched hands he let me know he was focused on being more “ju” in his rolling (being softer and less strength based).

I was pleased to hear that as its exactly what I would have picked for him to focus on. However as the roll progressed I found myself thinking “if this is soft I’d hate to feel hard..”.

To be fair there were times when I could feel attempts at softness but they didn’t tend to last very long. The problem was apparent.  He really wanted to go soft, but not at the expense of “losing” the roll”.  He wanted to develop a softer rolling style but not at the expense of doing poorly. You can guess the result –  as soon as he was under threat, the strength came back in.

Anytime you’re working on something new in your game, a new sub or sweep or even just a new rolling style, going lighter or slower, or more flow -expect that you will not be doing as “well” for a while.  I put the inverted commas there because it does depend on how you judge “well”.  If you’re judging your rolling by who dominated, who was tapping etc then you will feel like you’re taking a backwards step in the learning phases.  However if you’re judging your rolling by asking yourself if you were doing something that gets you closer to having the game you want – then you may have tapped out 8 times and been stuck underneath but still judge the roll to be successful because you forced yourself to uncross your ankles in pursit of an open guard game.

If something is worth doing its worth doing poorly.

Or to put it another way – the reason people sometimes don’t develop is that we’re not prepared to let go of who we are in order to become who we want to be.

So with a new year looming in our sights it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are we prepared to try being poor at for a while…

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