This was originally written for my friend Matt Benyon's upcoming BJJ ezine... due to the ordinary pressures of real life, his project is on the back burner, so I thought I'd share. Hope you enjoy.
By the way, if you haven't checked out his blog, Martial Farts, you def should. He just released his video blog regarding training BJJ in Japan, "Grappling Dummies 2.0," with the first episode including techniques like sweeps, attacks and a deep half guard pass. If you like it, spread the word...
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Every Roll is a Conversation
I’m a one-stripe blue under Phil Cardella and Relson Gracie, in Austin, Texas, and I’ve been training about 15 months. I’ll start off by saying it’s pretty pompous of me, given my minimal experience, to write about the process of learning BJJ. I still don’t feel that I roll like a blue, and I certainly don’t believe I have a greater perspective than anyone else does on what learning BJJ is all about. All I can do is reflect on the process I’ve experienced so far.
Seems to me learning this art is a lot like learning a language, a language that meets needs on many levels. When you’re brand new, so new you don’t have a gi even, it’s kind of like tuning in to a TV channel in a foreign language. The sounds/moves are so unfamiliar, it washes over you like babble. You can’t even tell one word from the next... or one posture from the next.
As a whitebelt with anywhere from a week or two’s worth of lessons to maybe a year or so, you’re learning your alphabet. Just like a kindergartner practices the shapes of the letters and learns to distinguish one from the next, whitebelts learn the basic positions and how they interact. This is cross side, this is a cross side escape. This is an armbar from guard. This is how to counter a triangle. More advanced white belts and blue belts are learning combinations of letters into words– meaning you must learn the sounds of the letters and be able to sight read rather than just sounding things out syllable by syllable. The analogy roughly being that blues have to develop some instincts for reaction without thought: suck the arms in, don’t push off with the hands, get to your side, connect elbow and knee.
However, BJJ is far from just learning how to “speak” and “read.” If yoga or tai chi is Latin, BJJ is a living language. The reality is, every roll is a conversation. You’re both trying to get a point across, to persuade the other to your point of view. Sometimes your perspectives are diametrically opposed, sometimes you can see where they’re going and agree for a span. How does this fit in?
Most new whitebelts are like babies grunting, making sounds, only barely able to communicate with their partners by shoving or grabbing them and they’re fixated on what they want to “say,” often refusing to “listen” to their opponent (which manifests itself in that charming, rigid deathgrip and spastic movement we all know and don’t love.) More experienced whitebelts are toddlers, able to answer simple questions, indicate their wants, and somewhat able to get what they want from others. When someone asks a two year-old if they want juice (begins to lay on an armbar from guard) the two year-old can respond somewhat intelligibly (the whitebelt can tell what’s coming and react by pulling the arm back, etc.) The two year-old can usually motivate others to do things by making one or two-word statements; the toddler grappler can identify one move at a time and go for it.
This starts getting more like a conversation and less like a crude shouting match dependent on strength (“volume”) as blues get stripes and turn into purples. The transitions between moves, the chains of attacks, the conversions of defensive “answers” into responsive “questions” (on the offense) are the hallmarks of a blue’s improved fluency in the language. Conversations actually take place in blue-land, from what I see and hear (not based on my own expressive skills or lack thereof). Purples and better blues, I think, add to that working vocabulary and express opinions with increasing sophistication. Their fluency in the language increases their persuasive advocacy skills; they know your motivations and can couch their “perspective” in terms more appealing to you. In other words, they can read your base and sweep you because they know which way your body already wants to go.
Roberto Pedreira put it succinctly this way: “Learning happens with least expenditure of cognitive effort and best retention with minimal reinforcement when it is ‘just in time,’ that is, when you learn what you need to learn when you need to learn it.” (From his blog the “Global Training Report.” Because, I think, whites and blues are more holes than game, whereas purples are more game than holes, learning must accelerate as blues move up in the ranks and turn into purples. Higher blues and purples are better able to identify the holes and comprehend the fixes because they stand out more and are more easily communicated– the same way we, when learning a new language, are better able to ask “How do you say such-and-such” in that language-- if and only if you can at least ask the base question in the language!
Of course, better purples and browns have mastered proper grammar and vocabulary, and are beginning to express their own personal flair– their “voice” is expressed as their game. They are expected to be able to adjust their “speaking” style and “word choice” according to their audience. They're probably learning another dialect as well-- doing things on their "bad" side. Filling out the ranks, black belts have a distinct sound all their own, able to articulately respond to questions and artfully phrase their own while jockeying for argumentative ground politely but undeniably.
How does metaphor help us? When I roll with someone more experienced, I don’t beat myself up quite as much for failing to understand everything they’re “saying” or for being caught speechless/being swept. When I roll with a noob, I remember what it was like being inundated by strange words/positions and (sometimes) I try to “speak” with more basic "words." I try to focus my rolling time depending on my goals– work on adding vocabulary? Using the words I already know in different contexts? Hearing the similarities between words and analogizing responses? Working on grammar/transitions? Or perhaps a strict focus on “pronunciation” (for me, light rolls, focusing on precision and dexterity.)
Of course, what do I know... I'm still a toddler grappler. And grateful to all the grownups who keep telling me the same stories over and over again.