Jiu jitsu requires many important physical skills. Jiu jitsu requires strength, balance, resilience, endurance, speed and agility. Students spend many hours developing these skills. Physical skills, however, are not the most important part of improvement. The most important skill of all is one much more elusive -- learning how to change.
To improve at jiu jitsu, students must go through tremendous change. You will not get good at jiu jitsu by staying the same person you were when you first stepped on the mat.
This is a concept that does not come easily to new students.
Most have been taught that improvement comes with effort and repetition. No pain, no gain. If at first you don't succeed, try again.
These notions actually interfere with progress in jiu jitsu -- and daily life.
Work needs to be separated from effort. Hard work is necessary for improvement; however, effort and strain block learning.
At Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore, I teach my students the principle of Seiryoku Zenyo, or maximum efficiency, minimal effort.
What students tend to hear, though, is something along the lines of "maximum effort." I spend a lot of time trying to convince them to relax and focus on "minimal effort" to practice their techniques, skills and drills. This attitude leads to faster improvement.
Students who relax are able to change their normal pattern of reaction and see things in a new way.
The reason for this is what Russian scientist Nikolai Bernstein called "repetition without repetition." Through his research, Bernstein discovered that simple tasks could never be duplicated exactly. Each movement we make is unique and new.
Each armbar is never to be repeated. Every takedown only happens once.
If you are never able to do the same movement twice, why spend endless time trying to perfect an action through repetition?
"Everything changes and nothing stands still," Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote. "No man steps in the same river twice. For it is not the same river, and he is not the same man."
This is the essence of change. Through practice, we no longer remain the same. At each new belt -- blue, purple, brown, black -- you will be a new person.
When students focus on change as a mental, rather than a physical, process, they are able to progress much more quickly.
Everything in life requires repetition for improvement. To get good at jiu jitsu, you need to practice jiu jitsu. To get good at armbars, you need to do armbars.
Practice, though, is only needed as much as to make a change in application.
So, the way to get better at armbars is not to practice armbars all day. The way to get better at armbars is to get better at jiu jitsu. You have to work to change your way of action altogether so that you can improve the whole and not the parts.
Judo black belt and movement specialist Moshe Feldenkrais called this: Improvement of processes, as opposed to improvement of properties. Feldnekrais wrote: "It emerges that systematic correction ... will be a quicker and more efficient approach than the correction of single actions and errors ... Life is a continuous process, and the improvement is needed in the quality of the process, not in properties or disposition."
Approaching learning and training with an open, relaxed mind is much more enjoyable and productive. The key is relaxation and allowing the change to happen, instead of trying to force it. Learning to relax on the mat directly transfers to other areas of your life.
In this manner, we start to build a strong foundation. Your foundation should support all that you do, not just jiu jitsu.
This is the focus of our classes in Baltimore. The focus is on getting more out of doing less.
Judo founder Jigoro Kano called this principle Ju-No-Ri -- gentleness.
It can also mean flowing with things.
In my twenty years of experience, I've seen students make incredible progress when they focus on smooth, relaxed, effortless practice.
It is paradoxical, but students who stop trying so hard to improve, improve the fastest.
"We have no muscles which, when contracted, render our thought processes more productive," writes German philosopher and educator Heinrich Jacoby, a pioneer of the self-development movement in the early 20th century.
Jacoby instructed students to work hard, but not try hard.
"Hard work can, on the one hand, mean constant openness and readiness to be moved, to become illuminated, to let ideas arise, but it can also mean -- and this applies to most of us here -- brooding over, practicing, and exerting oneself. If you are ... entirely given over to something, more can happen in a shorter time -- and what happens can be very productive -- than many hours of brooding over and exerting oneself may yield."
Improvement then becomes true change, a change that will build a lasting foundation on and off the mats.
Students at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore work on using attention and ease to learn creative ways to move in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
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.