I don’t exactly know why I began learning jiu jitsu. The simple answer is that I was looking for a Muay Thai gym and I decided to go with a Ralph Gracie affiliate in Chicago on the north side. One day I stuck around for an hour after the Saturday morning boxing class and the owner, a black belt named Misho Ceko, told me to get into a position with another new guy. After a few minutes being crushed under my partner’s weight, I realized I knew nothing about self defense. That night I bought a gi.
I did not grow up watching combat sports on TV. I didn’t own any Tap-Out merchandise and I still don’t have any tattoos. I also have no real interest in being a serious competitor in jiu jitsu. I’d like to do a competition for the experience and to test myself, but it isn’t important to me that I win.
So why do I keep coming back to this strange and beautiful brutal sport?
I think it is because jiu jitsu has taught me a lot about what learning means.
When we begin learning a new skill, we often have a honeymoon phase in which we are excited by the novelty. It’s fun to pick up new skills, challenge yourself, and break the monotony of your usual responsibilities. By following a chain of such hobbies, one might successfully defer mastery of any skill by perpetually starting over from scratch.
There is a reason most of us did not keep practicing piano long enough to become concert pianists. When the honeymoon is over, we realize that we are staring down a long, interminable logistic curve of skill acquisition. We might still have dreams of being a rockstar one day, but when we have to practice scales day after day, the magic disappears pretty quickly, and we are left only with an overwhelming sense of futility. Television has not prepared us for this harsh reality.
Through jiu jitsu, I have learned to face my own sense of futility. There is simply no way to pretend to be any good at jiu jitsu. BJJ implements a ruthlessly empirical method of measurement – sparring.
Jiu jitsu is both brutally difficult and easy to practice at full strength without harming one’s training partner in a way that is impossible in, say, boxing. Instead of delivering blows to your partner’s head, you are instead maneuvering him into a position such that he will be forced into accepting defeat, or else succumb to permanent injury – i.e., via asphyxiation or a broken arm. Paradoxically, this makes jiu jitsu quite safe to practice against a competent training partner.
Sparring is the test. And it is this empirical test that makes progress possible.
My biggest leap in learning I had came when I realized what kind of questions I should even be asking. What is guard retention? What does it mean to frame? How does spinal alignment affect balance and stability?
The same is true of any skill. The beginner, knowing nothing of the principles, cannot grasp the purpose of a technique. But he can learn the technique through repetition. He can learn how to implement it in a specific context. By learning enough of these contextual skills, he can assemble piecemeal a working skillset. But he still does not really have understanding. And that understanding may only come when he has already internalized the contextual procedures.
We can think of the learning process as a man trying to climb a very tall wall. First he must begin building a ladder. Each discrete skill that he learns constructs another rung of the ladder. The rungs themselves are not critical – indeed, he may be able to climb the wall missing one or two. The important thing is that he keep focused on constructing the ladder, rather than expending energy trying to scramble his way up the wall, so that one day, when he has long forgotten that the wall is there, he will be able to easily scale it.