Blog - BJJ & MMA Auckland | GroundControl

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…

Have a Game Plan (and maybe stick to it)

That’s Interesting…

As I peruse the latest event results posted on this page, I notice somethign interesting.  The various successes reported, be they MMA or BJJ  have something in common.  They all describe someone working to a game plan.

It got me thinking about game plans, for BJJ, for MMA, for life.
Any good coach will tell you as you’re preparing for competition it’s important to have a game plan.  At the very least a basic idea of what you want to achieve, what positions you are trying to get to and what you want to do once you’re there.

One of the tools that is closely connected to game plans  is visualisation. Pretty much any top athlete on the planet now uses visualization as a training tool -a practice that, as far as we can determine started with Roger Bannister. Bannister was the first to break the 4 minute mile despite accepted beliefs at the time that it was physiologically impossible to do so.

So if we accept the importance of visualization as a training tool,  having a game plan can help structure your visualization training.

Some assembly required.

So how do you build a game plan?  There’s a couple of different models.  One is a very linear approach.  For example in a BJJ match, here’s how I’m going to start, here’s how I’ll take down, this is the position I’ll end up in and this is how I’ll finish.  You have now have a clear structure to the match you can visualise.

But there’s an obvious flaw.

Fighting, wrestling, competition is a chaotic environment.  There’s other factors involved (most notably your opponent) which can get in the way of your carefully crafted script.  And if your plan is too narrow, once you end up off plan you may find yourself lost, unsure what to do next and therefore a bit panicked.

So the next layer of sophistication is to have a plan that is more encompassing. Rather than starting at the start, start at the end. Think about your preferred finish and work out how to get there from a variety of different places. If I want to finish with a rear naked choke from back for example, do I have a path to get the back from mount, from guard, from side control (top and bottom) from half guard etc etc. Now wherever I end up I am still “on plan” and it’s simply a matter of executing.

When top athletes visualise their events (for example a track and field star thinking about an 800m run), they will visualise every conceivable eventuality. If they’re in the lead early on, if they stumble at the start line, if they’re boxed in by other runners etc etc. So that when it’s time to run the race whatever unfolds they have already experienced it, it’s already familiar and they know how to get from that point to the end goal – crossing the line first.

And then of course you can have branching plans. Rather than having all roads leading to rome (e.g. back choke) you have a separate plan or way to finish from every position.  To take an extreme and inspirational example it’s said that Jean Jacques Machado really doesn’t care how you attack him because over time he’s had so many seperate game plans they have all melded into one. So whatever the attack, he has a response ready to go which could feed into a variety of game plans. Or to put it another way he’s worked so many game plans to the point where he no longer needs one.

This is also how Rigan Machado was able to go into a match with a world class judoka and ask John Will to pick a finish. So broad is his library of game plans he was confident whatever John chose (omoplata, left arm), he had a path to that outcome from any situation.

Beware positive thinking.

That may seem an odd thing coming from me. Maybe it’s more accurate to say beware of certain types of positive thinking. Because the research shows some positive thinking is very helpful, whereas other types are not only not helpful but potentially harmful. And the difference can be quite subtle. Here is one of the pitfalls of visualising a game plan that I’ve seen. A tendancy to focus only on “positive thinking” to the point where competitors refuse to entertain the possibility that they may be losing – on the bottom, or getting hit with a flurry – for fear “negative thinking” will make it so.  So they never consider how they will deal with being on the back foot.

This is not so much positive thinking as wishful thinking.  Those that were around in the mid 90′s would have heard alot of this from the world of  Traditional Martial Arts (“We don’t fight on the ground because you’ll never get us there”.  Oh really?)

Much more useful is to go there, imagine you’re under mount, or facing a barrage of punches, but to see yourself working out of it, turning the tables and taking the initiative.


So what’s the point?

That’s all well in good if you’re into competition.  However, for the amount of time effort and resources we devote to our training, if getting  better at fighting people is all we get out of it  return on investment just doesn’t stack up. Particularly when you consider fighting is a skill that most of us are not likely to need off the mat.  However as anyone that’s been training for a while can attest, the true beauty of training is that the lessons translate directly to our off the mat lives.

So how does the idea of a game plan fit off the mat.  Obviously there is a parrallel with goal setting.  I’m sure we’ve all heard various accounts of the importance of goal setting.  And yet at the same time it turns out some of the studies that are quoted around goal setting (e.g the “yale” study) turn out to be urban myths.  And when I look at my life, and conversations I’ve had with others, I can’t help but notice something else.  Often the biggest opportunities have come out of no where.

And what about visualising success?  Of course there’s The Secret, the pop psychology phenomenon which everybody was citing after an appearance on Oprah. The Secret will tell you to simply visualise what you want (more money, great exam results, that perfect partner) and the universe will “manifest” it for you. However as John Will is fond of saying – if you put a picture of your perfect house on the wall and visualise it every day the only thing that will manifest is a family of spiders behind the picture. And John’s scepticism is backed up by the research. It turns out if you spend a bit of time visualising those great exam results every day, you’re actually *less likely* to get good marks. It seems that the visualisation tells your subconscious you’ve already accomplished the goal – so it decides there’s no need to work for it!

So while most would agree it’s important to have a game plan for life it’s clear we need to be careful about how we go about setting that plan.

Visualising the successful outcome, that winning moment, getting the job, opening the results, is great for creating an emotional incentive for the work. However just visualising the outcome is not enough.  We need to have a clear idea of the end point and then get serious about working backwards to the “how”. That then needs to become our point of focus. Rather than day dreaming about how nice it would be to get those great exam results, we need to focus on today’s study plan, or even better, that page of text in front of us right now.

Or to put it more succinctly, visualize the outcome to connect you the “why” at an emotional level, and then focus on the process to create the “how”.

From there it’s a question of execution. There’s a number of factors and unexpected complications that may need to be overcome in the pursuit of any goal.   So we have to be aware enough in the moment to both notice any barriers early, and change tack accordingly (just like on the mat!) Sometimes there are more difficult obstacles to overcome. The goal may not be “ecological” (i.e. it doesn’t fit in with the rest of your life very well), you may have some unconscious part of you that is resistant to the goal for some reason or you may have  ingrained limiting beliefs that are holding you back..

In these cases, just like on the mat, a coach can help iron out the wrinkles and get everything aligned.


Too Focused?

Another thing to consider is how  a game plan that is too narrow can restrict your options. On the mat for example, if I’m absolutely focused on hitting omoplatas this month I’m probably going to ignore, and not even notice all those opportunities for chokes. That’s ok on the mat.  But if we become too obsessively focused on a narrow goal set in life – what more important things can we be missing out on? How many people have pursued “financial security” so single mindedly they sacrifice any quality time with the family for whom they are supposedly working. Or are so intent on that next step in the specific career they have mapped out that they don’t see other and perhaps more exciting career opportunities right in front of their face.

As BJJers move from blue to purple one of the things we look for is a shift from a single minded attention on executing a game plan, to a slightly different mindset. A mindset that has a gameplan in mind, but is also so flexible and in the moment that they can notice changing circumstances very quickly and adjust to take advantage. This I believe is also the appropriate mindset in life. Have some end points in mind, and at the same time not to be so focused on that, that you miss the opportunities that are around you all the time.  Rats head and ox’s neck all at the same time.

So where does that leave us?  

Just like on the mat there’s a number of different ways we can run a game plan. We can have a very linear game plan, this is what I’m going to do- I’ll do this then I’ll do this then I’ll do that. Unfortunately just like a fight life can be a little chaotic. There are a whole heap of things that can get in the way. And if we are overly focused on just that game plan we may find ourselves too slow to adapt and adjust. Try asking yourself occasionally – “what opportunities am I failing to notice right now by being focused elsewhere”

Or we can have an end point in mind and a number of different ways to get there. Allowing for as many contingencies and “what if”s as we can come up with.

And then perhaps the more sophisticated version, the Jean Jacques version if you like, is to work simply on developing ourselves. To develop ourselves goal by goal so we are more and more prepared for whatever life throws at us. To be awake and aware enough that we can notice what opportunities are around us and then be absolutely focused in the pursuit of our passions. All the while being open to changing circumstances and new possibilities. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some remarkable individuals, from John Will to Olympic gold medalists to top business people and world renowned sports psychologists. When discussing the area of goals and achievement they all seem to indicate the same thing.

At the end of the day it wasn’t the achievement of the goal that was the important thing. It was who they became in the pursuit of the goal that mattered.

So maybe it’s not so much a matter of developing ourselves so we can achieve our goals.

Maybe it’s more a case of setting goals so we can develop our selves.

Getting the fire back

I was thinking today about the peaks and troughs we all go through with training.  Sometimes we feel like we’re rolling really well and sometimes we feel like we’re stalling.  Stagnating.  What is it that makes some sessions feel so tough and others we walk away from excited and motivated.  As a white belt you assume that it must be about the result.  Who are you tapping and who’s tapping you.  You assume that once you develop the skills to dominate your partners it will get rid of the tough sessions and all will be smooth.  And then as you advance you realize that you still have those peaks and troughs, through blue, purple, brown and yes even black belt level.  And if you’re paying attention you realize that it’s not necessarily about whether you’re “winning” or not.  Some of your flattest nights can be when you have a many to none tap ratio.  So what’s actually going on?  There are of course many answers to that question, but here’s one.

It’s a question of motivation. Not the “can I be bothered going to class” kind of motivation.  The other kind.  The fire in the belly, I love what I’m doing, rising sense of excitement and joy kind of motivation.So what makes people motivated in this way?  Despite what corporate sales managers across the globe believe it doesn’t come from external incentives (like commission, or say, a tap). The research shows it comes from three components.

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose
Autonomy is the feeling that you are in control of your own destiny.  Purpose is the idea that what you’re doing is in some way meaningful.
Mastery is what I want to talk about.  Mastery is not about being the best or feeling like you know everything there is to know.  It’s about a sense that you are in the process of mastering.  That you can feel your progress.  There’s something intrinsically enjoyable about realizing you’re a bit better today than you were yesterday.
What’s the secret to developing your sense of mastery?  Ironically it’s about not getting stuck in your A-game.  You certainly felt that sense of mastery on your way to developing your A game.  As you built the skill in the particular techniques that became your most successful.  And then you could use that game to control the roll and against the right people, dominate.  And often this is the game people go back to when they’re having a tough patch – hoping that going to your highest percentage techniques will let you win and therefore feel great.
But that’s not how it works.  Because when you use what always works and find that it still works it’s nice – but it doesn’t’ give you that sense of growing mastery.  The mastery bucket on your A-game is already pretty full so it’s harder to find a sense of  extra improvement.  Rather, it pays to go into the opposite direction.  What’s the new thing you want to work on, the thing where your mastery bucket is empty – where there’s plenty of scope to feel a sense of improvement.  That’s where you’ll find the fire in the belly again.
What does that mean practically speaking?  If you go into a night of sparring with no plan, just taking it as it happens – you’ll inevitably end up back in your A-game. And even if you’re getting taps they’re the same ones you’ve gotten before and you may end up feeling a bit flat.
So the key is to have a plan.  What is your intention?  What are you trying to get?  What’s the first step to the new technique you’re working on getting into your game?  What’s the position you want to get to?  If you’re clear about your development goals – just hitting the start of that technique once or twice in rolling will have you walk away feeling stoked and itching to get back on the mat again, to make the next step.
Which brings us to purpose.  What is important about training Jiu Jitsu?  Obviously it’s different for different people, but for me it’s how the lessons learnt on the mat enrich my life off the mat.  It was BJJ as much as anything that really taught me that the joy of life lies in that space just outside the comfort zone.  The value of finding new ways to do old things and old ways to do new things – to pursue a feeling of continuous development and learning everywhere in my life.
Set a new goal.  Commit to the first step.  Experience the mastery effect.
Or as one of my favorite quotes says – “Mastery is the skillful avoidance of a sense of completion”

John Will’s regular visits to our mat are always special, but November 28, 2015 was particularly memorable.

The session started with the awarding of brown belts to coaches Thomas Kwok and Mark Schatzdorfer.  Brown belt is a high level grade in BJJ which few attain, and these grades are just reward for the years of hard work and dedication shown by these two impressive practitioners of the art.  Technically advanced, learning focused and fantastic coaches, Thomas and Mark are lynchpins of the GroundControl culutre.

It wasn’t over there though, as John finished the session awarding the grade of black belt to head coach Mike Fooks.  The BJJ black belt is among the most significant accomplishments in modern martial arts, taking over a decade of dedicated training as a minimum.  With only a handful of homegrown black belts in NZ this was a proud moment for Mike and the club.



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