Updated: Oct 14
Our first two rules were big ones, embracing the growth mindset and codifying Jiu Jitsu in an accessible way. Our third rule is at the center of your Jiu Jitsu education, learning how to learn.
Jiu Jitsu is the tool for personal development. The better you get at wielding this tool, the more likely you are to derive benefits from its practice.
My goal for all our students is to help guide them to black belt. Not because I value the expression of technical mastery in this given field, which I do, but because they are more likely to achieve the original goals that brought them into the academy by achieving a black belt. These goals are commonly: self-defense, weight loss, learning a new skill, and being part of a community. All of which are achieved in proportion to the sincere and repeated attendance of the student.
Our primary goals are achieved on the way to black belt.
My humanity has improved to the degree that I have grown as a marital artist. We must be as sincere about our technical development in Jiu Jitsu as we are our personal growth; they are inextricably linked. And to acquire great skill in this art, unless you are a hyper-talented athlete, you must learn how to learn.
Fortunately, the Jiu Jitsu community follows the same structure that has made organized religions and philosophies so accessible.
Take Buddhism, for example: the three foundations of the Buddhist education are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha; the teacher, the teaching, and the community of disciples. Organized Jiu Jitsu has the same three-pronged approach to education and provides all the necessary external tools for education.
We as a Jiu Jitsu community have done an outstanding job creating these supportive communities.
With these external criteria met, we need to focus on what is internal: the conceptual framework through we interpret our education.
Seeing Techniques For What They Are
In the previous chapter, we described techniques as the bridges with which we ascend the hierarchy of positions. That is what they do; now let’s understand what they are.
Techniques are not entities which exist on an island; an arm bar from closed guard is far more than just an arm bar from closed guard. If we are to truly understand this art, we must look more deeply:
Techniques are the manifestations of principles.
For a technique to be effective, it must embody various principles in Jiu Jitsu. These principles are fundamental truths of Jiu Jitsu, specific concepts which yield forecastable results when applied with proper timing.
Early on in our training, we learn the upa reversal from mount. We trap an arm, trap a foot, and upa in the direction of the limbs we have taken away. This is a mount reversal.
At a deeper level of abstraction, however, it is a paramount example of a principle:
Take away a limb, put weight where that limb would have been, forcing your partner, now without a post, to lose top position. Rather than learn this technique in a vacuum, we must understand the principles it embodies so that we can apply this concept to alternative experiences in Jiu Jitsu.
This principle applies anytime someone is on top of us. By understanding how it works, we acquire a precept (and skill) which exists in far more positions than the one which expresses it.
With finite mat time, learning at this level of abstraction will give us the ability to make the most of our training. Techniques are not ends in themselves. They are means by which we ascend the positional hierarchy and the manifestation of the principles which constitute grappling.
When you are a beginning student, your best asset in understanding these principles is your instructor. To make the best use of this opportunity, you must ask him or her questions, ad nauseum.
The aim of our education is to acquire knowledge which will lead to understanding. There is a big difference between the two; the world is full of knowledge, but genuine understanding is sparse.
Asking questions will be one of the greatest tools for your education, and the simplest codification of what questions to ask is three-fold: What, How, and Why.
The “Whats” are the techniques that we learn each class. The “Hows” are the three or four steps that comprise the technique. The “Whys” are the principles that make the technique worthwhile.
I have found that if you can articulate these three aspects of Jiu Jitsu, you have assimilated your knowledge into understanding. This is the goal of the student, to be able to understand the many aspects of Jiu Jitsu in this tripartite way.
When you begin, all of Jiu Jitsu is unknown, and we often have no conceptual framework with which to codify the various and seemingly unconnected experiences of training. Therefore, we must be purposeful and diligent with our questions.
The students who progress the fastest are those who ask the most questions.
New students often mistake the respectful atmosphere of the academy for one of silence. You are not expected to know everything. And the more sincerely you can communicate your ignorance, in the form of asking questions, the better grip your instructor will have on your understanding and thus will be better equipped to serve you.
No one will teach you what you pretend to know.
Ask as many questions as you can muster. A good instructor will cherish your inquisition. If you get the feeling like you are annoying your instructor, that says more about your instructor than it does you. Ask away. There is no such thing as a stupid question, as each question reveals your understanding (or lack thereof) to your instructor. The more transparent we are about our understanding, the more likely it is to increase.
Ask questions. Whats. Hows. Whys. The further along this progression (toward why) your questions are, the more universally applicable the answers will be.
Keep a Notebook
Now that you are purposefully pursuing knowledge, you need a place to store it.
I best retain my education by keeping a notebook, in which I write down all the techniques (Whats, Hows, and Whys) I learn on a given day, my notable successes and failures, and any questions or hypotheses I have for the next training session.
Throughout all my years of training, I have only met a handful of students who do this. Historically, they are the ones who progress the fastest, barring the freak athletes that progress fastest in everything, regardless of diligence.
We have much going on in our lives outside of grappling, and our memories are fallible. We must be purposeful about our education. I leave the specifics of note-taking to you. The act of note-taking, because it is so worthwhile, is far more important than the way in which you do it (for now).
Imagine if you tried to pass your college courses by passively showing up to class and then taking the final. We had to take notes to codify our education, and revisit it constantly as we absorbed the information. Taking notes in organized education is a universal. Why should your Jiu Jitsu education be any different?
“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?”- John Wooden
The thing is, you won’t have time. We have a finite amount of mat time which determines the degree to which we achieve our potential. We must use this time wisely if we are to glimpse our highest selves.
My choices in life have always been driven by my desire to achieve my potential. Without getting too deep into the metaphysics, I cannot say for certain why I am here, but I know this fleeting life is an absolute miracle, and I operate under the axiom that to do our best with the time we are given has to be a worthwhile use of this gift.
When we opened the Matakas Jiu Jitsu Academy, our first task was to paint the school. In exchange for pizza and conversation, a bunch of my former students and dear friends came together to paint the whole place in a single night. As you now well know, the conversations between Jiu Jitsu practitioners meander, and at some point in the night we all contemplated our greatest fears.
My buddies responded with the usual answers. Snakes. Clowns. I think one of them even said marriage. But mine was different.
My greatest fear is to confront my creator at the pearly gates after a long life. He asks, Well, Chris, your time on earth has come to an end. How’d you do? And I confidently say, You know what, God, I think I did pretty good.
And then a screen appears in the cloudy heavens, and he begins to show me all the opportunities I was given, all the gifts that came my way, and then shows me all the times I took the easy way out, or acted unkind as I gave way to weakness. He then looks me straight in the eyes and says,
How’d you really do?
This is my greatest fear, and it drives me daily.
We each have a potential within this art. And the closer we get to its achievement, the more likely we are to see equivalent progress in our personal development. Our highest selves and our technical advancement in this art run parallel with one another. We must sincerely seek to master a guard pass as we would our virtues, because at the end of our lives, I have a feeling we will realize they were the same pursuit.
Take five minutes after training to write about your experiences on the mat. Then, in your free time before your next training session, review your notes so you have a better framework with which to most optimally use your next training session.
Ultimately, how we do one thing is how we do all things. The sincerity with which you approach your training will be the same with which you live. Take the time to be a serious student.
Narrow Your Focus in the Immediate
When we ask questions, keep a notebook, and seek to truly understand the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu, we are purposefully pursuing a real education. And even as a college graduate, I never understood what this meant until I began my journey in Jiu Jitsu.
Quality Jiu Jitsu instruction is structured: led by an articulate and knowledgeable instructor, in a community of peers all seeking the same advancement, a curriculum is followed to ensure a comprehensive and systematized pursuit of education.
The Jiu Jitsu student must have a clear focus for his education. In the beginning, this is largely the responsibility of the instructor, who should give you a clear-cut picture of the direction you’re heading and what to seek to understand along the way. But this only gets you so far, as the instructor has too many students to focus adequately on your personal evolution.
We must become a source of our own education.
Along with the aforementioned necessities, you must have a clear and unwavering focus for your training. The more you can narrow your immediate focus, the more likely you are to gain worthwhile knowledge.
My time in Jiu Jitsu can be easily codified by the epochs in which I focused on very specific aspects of training. I have always needed to hyper-attend to one area of grappling, and only once I understood it to the furthest extent I was capable at that time, then I’d move on to new area of study.
You should always have an individual focus aside from that of the weekly curriculum. That way, when you are live training, you have a clearly defined goal based on an honest audit of your current abilities. Choose the one or two techniques, positions, or concepts which keep presenting themselves to you in live training, and focus on them until you truly understand them.
If you are focusing on a specific kind of guard pass, do your best to bring the rolls into that position, and then hyper-focus on that guard pass in your training, taking mental notes of every obstacle you encounter.
There are a finite number of variables to attend to. If you can consistently diagnose them, you will increase your circle of competency until you have a firm grasp of the position and the subtleties therein. Once you learn to view all your training in this systematized way, success is inevitable.
And this success is a product of understanding. Because a purposeful pursuit of education is not a pursuit of knowledge. The world is flooded with knowledge. We need something more.
What we pursue is understanding.
Pursuing Understanding Through Communication
We all learn in different ways. For most of my time in Jiu Jitsu, my main training partner was Max Bohanan, a two-time world champion and an even better human being. Max is gifted in all the ways that I am not. Professor Almeida would show us a technique, and Max would feel it out once or twice, and instantly be proficient.
I, on the other hand, would not be able to use that technique well until I understood why it worked. In the short term, this seemed to slow my progress as a student. In hindsight, this mode of learning forced me to develop the skills to teach well.
The knowledge we possess is of two kinds: articulate knowledge and inarticulate knowledge. Articulate knowledge is embedded in inarticulate knowledge; the things you know, that you don’t know you know, greatly outweigh the things you know you know.
A great indicator of your understanding is your ability to communicate why a technique works. Knowledge is what allows you to perform a technique. Understanding is what allows you to teach it. I know what you are thinking: I am a white belt, aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves by evaluating my ability to teach Jiu Jitsu?
No, we are finally getting to the heart of the matter.
Because the first person you have to teach Jiu Jitsu to is yourself. And we convert knowledge into understanding using the linguistic system with which we communicate to ourselves.
One of the greatest tools for understanding is conversation. Two minds provide the environment for growth, using each other as a sounding board and mutually stress-testing each other’s ideas to better formulate their perspective with the help of another.
Ben Franklin attributed much of his success to the Junto Club, a group of high achievers which gathered together to hammer out ideas and better understand themselves, their projects, and their world. As the Zen saying goes, a five-minute conversation with a wise man is worth more than years of solitary study.
We need to be able to have the same kind of conversations with ourselves.
We must become an autodidact, teaching ourselves through inner dialogues in which we present a hypothesis and reflect on our experiences, stress-testing our ideas as we formulate new and better theories having done so.
In the beginning of my practice, when I achieved a guard pass during live training, I would reflect, asking, “Why did that guard pass work?” and then enumerate as many reasons as I was capable, with as clear and concise language as possible.
The longer the list I was able to write, the better I understood the technique. And this is invaluable, because if you do not understand why something works, you are less likely to repeat it in the future.
We are verbal creatures. We think in words. We need to be able to articulate to ourselves an understanding of our successes and failures. When we do this, we come to see that there are more commonalities than differences between the techniques, positions, and concepts of Jiu Jitsu.
In constantly articulating the root of our successes, we better understand the root of success.
Summary of Rule #3
We must be sincere in our learning. Strive to understand the principles behind the techniques, ask as many questions as possible, and keep a notebook to retain your knowledge. Purposefully pursue understanding as you constantly improve your ability to articulate the principles of good grappling.
The more clearly you can do this, the more likely you are to repeat success in the future.
If you want to read Chris’s latest book on personal development, check it out here.
If you would like to be coached by Chris personally, click here.