Learning, Progress and Success in Jiu Jitsu
“It’s useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit,” said researcher Scott Grafton, a professor at UC Santa Barbara. “When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior. What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning.”
Less is More with Brain Activity and Learning
According to a story about the study published by the Huffington Post, "Also surprising is the fact that this lowered activity had nothing to do with regions of the brain that control gross motor skills and visual processing; Instead, the brain regions in which less activity was better were the executive function regions of the brain: the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.
Executive function refers to a set of mental traits associated with goal-setting and achievement. These traits include the ability to make and follow through with a plan, resist impulses, pay attention and learn from past experiences. The frontal cortex is certainly useful for higher-order thinking and complex tasks, but when it comes to learning simple tasks quickly, executive function seems to be a hindrance."
How Thinking Interferes with Jiu Jitsu
Human chess is one of the most over-used analogies to describe jiu jitsu. In reality, jiu jitsu is more like learning to drive in a new location and learning to manage heavy traffic. At first, you are always lost. Then you learn a simple route, which can later lead to exploring off-shoots off your known route. Eventually, you learn many routes to get to the same destination. What once used to take all your concentration, now takes almost none and you are able to make adjusts easily and quickly to roadblocks, detours, lane changes and bad drivers.
Your improvement is not a result of memorization but of creating new neural pathways in your brain. As these pathways become engrained, they become more and more subconscious.
That's why when you move, sometimes out of the blue, you drive toward your old location.
What started as a very lengthy list of maneuvers and thoughts, go straight, turn right, continue two miles, etc., becomes one thought: go home, go to work, go to the gym.
This is the exact way to improve at jiu jitsu.
Thinking of One, Not Many
If the path to success entailed more effort, more desire, more repetition, then only a select few would be able to develop good jiu jitsu.
Good thinking is good jiu jitsu.
But only in small doses.
The most famous quote in jiu jitsu is attributed to Rickson Gracie: "Flow with the go."
Empty your mind so that your body can react to the moment.
This is impossible for beginners.
You can't relax when you don't know where to go or where your partner is trying to go.
The only way to learn this is with practice.
The purpose of practice is to find your route.
You first have to start slowly, ignore the flashing signs and other drivers and all the distractions and focus on the task at hand. Very slowly drive down the road. When you make it to your destination, start again. Go even slower.
Then stop worrying about it. It doesn't need to be perfect, or even good, just so long as you arrive.
Then do something else.
Getting To Your Destination Faster
The more you start look at your goal in jiu jitsu as a destination, instead of a technique, the more you can speed up your progress and let go of excess mental thought.
Your thoughts move quickly because they are not bogged down by unnecessary things. Turn left, turn right, go back, speed up. These are all simple thoughts that are easy to execute as you figure things out.
Your mind starts to moves faster because you make less choices and see the overall movements as single thing.
When you first learn a technique, the separate components can be overwhelming: right hand, left hand, foot, knee, head, shoulder, angle. One move can be made up of dozens of individual thoughts.
With practice ,the number of thoughts per move decreases.
What was "ok I step with my left foot, then I slide my right knee as i get the underhook, etc." speeds up to "knee slide, underhook."
To get to the final destination, submission, faster, you extend the path as far as necessary.
"knee slide, spin over the head, kimura, back choke."
So passing someone's guard with the knee slide, defending the single leg by backstepping over the head to set up a kimura or single-wing choke, becomes one thought.
The individual moves makes up a list. Route 1.
The list is one thing, one thought. Route 2.
The list is singular and takes little thought to execute quickly. Route 3.
Training the moves with repetition but also variation and creativity creates the neural pathways to move rapidly and without the hindrance of excess thought so that you can begin to go new places without having to bother with a map.
John David Emmett is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with an interest in movement and the Feldenkrais method. He teaches at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore.