Before we discuss the five rules for white belts, we must first understand what these rules are attempting to elicit; we need to have a clearly defined goal. We rarely achieve anything noteworthy without purposefully seeking that thing. If we do not know toward what we move, we won’t get there; there are too many variables to shift us off the course we have not properly defined.
The aim is mastery.
When we watch skilled black belts train, their movements seem effortless. They are always in a safe position from which to attack, and they string those attacks together as though all of Jiu Jitsu was one movement. The experienced practitioner breathes calmly with a serene face, and with the least amount of effort always seems to arrive at his or her predetermined goal.
But how do we define mastery? What is this elusive skill the masters embody which we all seek to emulate?
We can define mastery as efficacy; a blend of efficiency and effectiveness. The master is able to utilize a minimum effective dose, moving just enough to be maximally effective while minimizing the effort required to be so. This definition reveals a fundamental truth:
Mastery is not a final point at which to arrive; it is a continuum of infinite degrees upon which we move.
Our goal is to continually move along this continuum, away from aimless exertion and toward purposeful and effective movement performed in a way which maximizes efficacy while minimizing exertion.
This is the goal toward which we aim, and our job as beginning practitioners is to learn to use this metric to gauge the worthwhileness of our actions. To better understand this principle, we will rely on the games of our youth.
The Mortal Kombat Principle
Most of us played video games growing up. A staple in my adolescence was Mortal Kombat, a fighting game in which two players battle one another, using various kinds of attacks unique to the character the player chooses, in an attempt to completely diminish your partner’s health meter, as he seeks to do the same to you. Whoever runs out of health first, loses.
This serves as a great analogy for the training of Jiu Jitsu.
We and our training partners possess a finite amount of energy. Our goal when training is to use this energy in the most efficient way, retaining as much of ours as possible while forcing our training partners to use excessive amounts of theirs.
Should we succeed in this endeavor, we deplete our partner’s reserves and force them into disadvantageous positions from which we capitalize.
This creates two simple and correlated guidelines for action:
1) Seek to maintain as much of your energy as possible. 2) Create opportunities in which your partner consumes his or her energy inefficiently.
To the degree that we do this, our partner’s health meter will go down at a rate faster than ours, and we will greatly increase our probability of achieving success (positional advancement or submission) during the training session. We must seek to achieve this lopsided energy expenditure to the furthest extent we are capable.
Now, let’s understand how to do it.
How Does One Operate Efficiently?
Our shared goal is to make Jiu Jitsu as accessible as possible. We must clearly articulate the goal, and the many sub-goals which comprise it, if we are to achieve our intended result.
Efficiency in Jiu Jitsu can be understood through four aspects:
1. How to move 2. From where to move 3. With what to move (to be discussed in Rule #2) 4. Why to move (to be discussed in Rule #2)
One by one, we will study these fundamental aspects of Jiu Jitsu to better understand our goal.
How to move: The Playful Sphere
Our language reveals our world. Our vocabulary and the etymology of our words have much to teach us. Especially in Jiu Jitsu, the common phrases we use reveal how to optimally practice the art.
Those who wrestle are called wrestlers. Those who practice Judo, Judokas.
Jiu Jitsu practitioners refer to themselves as “players,” and this reveals an important truth:
We are meant to play Jiu Jitsu. It is a beautiful game of physical, mental, and spiritual exertion, in which we seek to manifest our will, bending our training partner’s will (and body) to ours, to advance position and achieve submission, while negating his or her attempts to do the same.
You do not work games; you work at the office. You play games.
Jiu Jitsu is meant to be played. When we are training Jiu Jitsu, we are not fighting. Our training partners are not our opponents. They are not an obstacle to be overcome with great force and effort. Our training partners are fellow players with whom we work together to play Jiu Jitsu on the way to becoming better versions of ourselves.
Our teammates are not our competition; they are the greatest tools in our development.
We defined mastery as a movement toward efficiency. This efficiency is most clearly demonstrated in our movements. We call live training “rolling” for a reason; we are to flow smoothly as we transition between positions.
When beginning students start live training, they resemble a cube rather than a sphere. They topple violently from position to position, like a cube falling on its side, with sudden starts and stops that are aggressive and inefficient.
The experienced player rolls like a sphere. The master glides from position to position, with no clear distinction between them. This is the goal toward which we aim. Moving like a sphere ensures we minimize expenditure of our finite energy.
The goal is to move like a playful sphere. Now that we know how to move, we must understand from where are we to move.
From Where to Move: Functionally Strong Postures
In most of your training, you will be either carrying a load or moving against resistance. To do so efficiently, we must maintain positions of functionally strong postures.
A functionally strong posture is one in which we carry loads in the most ergonomic way, with maximal recruitment of major muscle groups combined with skeletal positioning which most optimally bears resistance.
Said in another way, we want to minimize our rate of perceived exertion.
Our health meter will maintain to the degree that we can lighten the load we carry and lessen the resistance against which we move. This is achieved by maintaining functionally strong posture and putting our partner in functionally weak postures.
1) Functional Strong Postures: Right Angles
Physics are physics, and its laws apply whether building houses in the world or positions in Jiu Jitsu. Architects build with right angles for a reason: this is a means to efficiently carry a structural load.
We do the same in Jiu Jitsu, but rather than building with wood and concrete, we build with our limbs and spine. When framing (using our arms to create space), we want to carry the load in the most efficient way by creating right angles.
Whether using frames when on bottom, in side control, or posturing on top, inside the closed guard, (when our spine is almost perpendicular to the ground, resembling a right angle), creating these structurally strong angles allows us to carry a load and meet resistance in the most optimal way while minimizing energy expenditure.
2) Functionally Weak Postures
The beauty of Jiu Jitsu is that all lessons are binary: when we learn what we want to achieve, we learn what to deny our training partners.
Maintaining functionally strong postures minimizes our energy expenditure. Forcing our partners into functionally weak postures maximizes their energy expenditure.
Whenever possible, and it is always possible, we seek to put our partners into inefficient positions. This can be done myriad ways:
• Disalign their spine. • Force them to carry weight with sub-optimal frames (often less than or more than 90 degrees, in a non-linear fashion) • Off balance them to manipulate their center of mass
Without getting too technical, as you will intuitively learn how to do this through training, simply focus on making your partners work harder for what they want. You will achieve this by forcing them to move and carry loads inefficiently from functionally weak postures. Having done so, you will drain your partner’s finite energy at a much faster rate, leaving them less capable of advancing position or achieving a submission.
This continued pursuit of efficiency leads us to the consummate Jiu Jitsu metaphor, killing the monster when it’s small.
Kill The Monster When It’s Small
The most efficient way to deal with a problem is to not allow the problem to manifest itself in the first place. As Ben Franklin said,
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The immediacy with which we confront a problem matches the effort required to do so. I have always found the following metaphor useful:
Imagine you live in a mythical world. You stumble across a dragon’s egg in the woods outside your village. You have two options: 1) leave it be, or 2) squash the egg.
That egg has the potential to become a dragon, and therefore, in a sense, is a dragon: an adversary which can only be combated with massive resources of time, energy, and health. The pragmatic response is to squash the dragon while it is an egg.
These “eggs” present themselves in every moment of training.
While playing guard, our training partner makes a grip on our pants which leads to a guard pass, which turns into us being mounted, then turning our back to escape and getting choked. We must learn to defend that pant grip (the egg) with the sincerity with which we defend a choke (the dragon), because that pant grip is the choke in its early stages of development.
The embodiment of this conceptual framework distinguishes the novice from the master. You will see considerable improvement in your training when you begin to view the minutiae of Jiu Jitsu through this lens.
Mastery lies on an infinite continuum, one on which we daily strive to advance. This advancement comes in the way of efficacy, becoming effective by becoming efficient.
This efficiency is quantified by your rate of perceived exertion, the sense of how hard you are working. Your effectiveness is measured by your ability to advance position and attain submissions, while preventing your partner from doing the same.
This is practiced by attending to the “Mortal Kombat Principle,” as you playfully move like a sphere, “killing” the monsters in their adolescence. This is what the beginning student, to the best of my understanding, should focus on.
Now we turn to the five rules which, should you embody them, will lead to your acquiring great skill in this discipline as you strive toward your highest self.
To learn about these rules and develop a conceptual framework through which to interpret your training, check out 5 Rules for White Belts“.
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