I recently promoted one of my students from white to blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He had been training with me for one and a half years at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore.
During that time, he had made steady progress. But in the last six months, his improvement was so vast, so noticeable and so markedly different than before that he looked like a new person.
Yet, his techniques had changed little. His execution looked better in drilling, but it was nothing remarkable. He used simple, “white belt” level moves. Yet, he was no white belt. Everyone could see that.
The changes that he made happened on the inside — in the workings of his brain — and manifested themselves on the outside.
His improvement in skill was the result of inner mental adaptations that led to outer physical expression.
I thought I would talk a little about how he went through this process, and, also, what I wanted to see from him to promote him to blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
I had two goals for him before I would promote him.
First, and foremost, I wanted to see that he could defend himself against 90% (really 100%) of new, untrained students who walked through the door. This is a critical difference between white and blue belts to me. And it is no easy task for my student. He is 5’4” and 130 pounds and smaller than almost everyone he will ever face.
Second, I wanted to see a thoughtful style of jiu jitsu from him. I wanted to see that he could remain calm under pressure, execute the right technique at the right time — and if he were not able to, then I wanted to see him accept losing with good technique. I didn’t want to see any stupid mistakes.
To promote him to blue belt, I would not accept his size as an excuse. If a big, strong guy who weighed 250 pounds came to train, I would expect him to be able to deflect the weight, power and aggression and keep himself safe. He might not be able to win, but neither should he lose.
I think this is a major component of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training. One of the original founders of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Hello Gracie, always stressed this in his teachings. “The Jiu-Jitsu that I created was designed to give the weak ones a chance to face the heavy and strong,” he said.
I had sensed that my student was ready to take the next step for several months. Then, one day, I knew for certain he was ready.
That day, I watched him train with two other white belts — both more than 250 lbs. and with decent experience — and he handled them easily and calmly, with precise technique and movement. He never let himself get squashed on the bottom.
With that, I knew it was time to promote him.
I asked my student to share what he thought brought about the improvement in his jiu jitsu skills.
“One change I can think of is the idea that each sweep, submission, escape, etc… is one big move…” he said. “I now think of them as a few simpler, smaller moves and preventative positioning to make them work. And by preventative — i.e is framing — at the right time/spot before it's too late and my opponent smashes me.”
In his training, he had learned two very important things: anticipation and simplification.
His explanation is in line with much of the scientific research I’ve been studying in relation to sport performance and motor learning.
My understanding is that our brain operates in anticipation of future goals and makes choices before we receive feedback if we’ve made the right choices. We mostly guess and hope for the best.
Through training, we get better and better at guessing at the future process. These estimates, at first, are always off by some degree and this causes a “prediction error.” We learn through these errors and constantly adjust to improve our predictions.
Along the way, our brains restructure to clump information together into functional units that require less and less conscious thought to perform. Our thoughts become clearer and the chaos of jiu jitsu comes into focus. Our brains make choices simpler through practice.
By thinking faster, then students are able to actually move slower and reduce prediction errors. They enter the “Matrix,” so to speak.
The major change I observed in my student was his ability to anticipate what he needed to do against what his opponent needed to do. The skilled jiu jitsu athlete is better able to anticipate the future and to think less about what is necessary to accomplish successful movements and goals.
One researcher I’ve been studying lately is Mihai Nadin, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Nadin runs a lab dedicated to understanding how anticipation figures into motor control and learning.
In his studies, he found “that while preparation and reaction play an important role in sports performance . . . anticipation distinguishes the professional from other sport practitioners.”
Therefore, a blue belt—while not a professional—would be better able to anticipate movement choices and techniques.
A blue belt can do this because, through practice and training, the brain reorganizes itself to make motor tasks easier and less subject to conscious interference.
Nadin cited a study that showed “in skilled athletes, representation structures (in the brain) had a distinct hierarchical organization, were remarkably similar between individuals, and were well matched with the functional and biomechanical demands of the task. In comparison, representation structures in novices were organized less hierarchically, exhibited a higher variability between individuals, and were less well matched with task demands.”
In previous blog posts, I wrote about how practice affects this process.
You can read about them here:
Learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: 4 Strategies For Success
Learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu The Scientific Way
Nadin goes on to discuss another study where “results showed that the (brain) structures of the practice group had changed between tests… The structural changes in the mental representation of the practice group resulted in the formation of functionally meaningful clusters and, over the course of learning, rendered the mental representation more similar to an expert structure. These findings indicate that practice results not only in a better motor control and anticipation of future states but furthermore in functional adaptations in the mental representation of complex actions.”
These new abilities of better motor control, anticipation and mental understanding bring about radical changes in individual ability.
Before, my student would almost always get smashed by bigger, stronger opponents. After the roll, he’d usually groan about how strong or big his opponent was.
Now, using the same techniques and trying the same things, he has completely different results.
His opponents now usually groan about how fast he is and how they can’t lock him down.
Higher skill level affords more time in execution. It looks like good athletes have “all the time in the world.”
For me, this is the big difference between each belt level: anticipation, thinking without thinking and problem solving in the service of good technique.
On the day that I promoted my student, I called him up in front of the class. I made everyone line up.
Then, one by one, he had to roll with each student. We had about 10 others present, so not too intense but still a good crew.
He showed great skill, patience, technique and heart.
He matched the higher belts closely in skill level and held off all the giants from smashing him.
Ten rolls is hard, though, and by the end he was shot. I rolled with him last. He had to fight hard not to throw up.
I think he was so tired afterward that he didn’t notice me walk off the mat and tuck a brand new blue belt inside my gi.
I came back on the mat and stood in front of him.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“Ready for what?” he replied.
“I think you are ready.”
He didn’t anticipate what was coming next.
Then a big smile spread across his face as he saw me pull out the blue belt from my gi.
Anticipation - The underlying science of sport. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273890715_Anticipation_-_The_underlying_science_of_sport_Report_on_research_in_progress
Mihai Nadin — Variability by Another Name: “Repetition Without Repetition” http://www.nadin.ws/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/variability-by-another-name21.pdf
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.