I remember one jiu jitsu training session from my blue belt days. I went against a very strong and fit white belt, who wore me down, passed my guard and trapped me in side control. I couldn't get out. A jiu jitsu nightmare. Only the end of the round saved me.
My first thought was that I the next time I needed to fight as hard as I could to make sure he wouldn't pass my guard. Almost immediately, I realized I actually needed to do the opposite. I needed to let him pass my guard as much as possible so that I could not only improve my weaknesses but to learn from my mistakes.
Many people focus on improving their weaknesses. It's a common teaching theme. Many people talk about learning from their mistakes.
But actively making mistakes on purpose is rarely considered good coaching or training.
I think allowing myself to make mistakes and deliberately making mistakes has been one of the biggest parts of my progression in jiu jitsu. I try to always share this idea with my students at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore.
In his book Higher Judo, Moshe Feldenkrais, a movement scientist and judo black belt, instructed students to makes mistakes.
"You should deliberately commit each of these mistakes...in order to detect and correct your faults."
Feldenkrais said it is better to know you are doing something badly than to compulsively try to do something right.
Trying diligently to "get it right" can lead to excessive strain and interfere with the brain's ability to process information.
"A too strong wish for the aim often causes internal tension," Feldenkrais wrote. "In most cases where an action is linked to a strong desire, the efficiency of the action may be improved by separating the aim from the means of achieving it."
The way to do this is to make intentional mistakes.
In my last class, I decided to test out "mistake training" with my students. I worked on two positions: side control and the knee-slide pass. The two most common mistakes in these positions are pressing too hard into your opponent and missing the undertook while passing.
I had students start with their hands clasped in head-and-arm control. Then they drove too far over their opponent until their head almost touched the ground. Each time they would easily get rolled over from top and end up on bottom. I've seen this more times in training than I can count. Yet students make this error over and over again as they learn jiu jitsu.
Their desire to finally get to smash someone interferes with their balance proprioception.
I had them make same mistake transitioning to knee on belly and to mount. In the past, I would have worked to "fix" or "correct" their mistake.
This path rarely worked.
As Feldenkrais said, "to correct is incorrect."
So, my goal was to have them sense their position for themselves and to give them different options for the position.
Next we moved to the knee-slide pass.
The key to the knee-slide is to control the underhook.
I had them do many variations of the pass with using the undertook. Each time they passed they would get their back taken or reversed.
Then I gave them options to block the sweep or reversal by getting the underhook.
The last part of class was training. I couldn't wait to see how teaching with intentional mistakes would work for the students.
My major fear has always been that by showing mistakes, you encourage mistakes.
The result was amazing.
The students improved several levels in one class.
Balance, pressure, stability, movement.. all improved off the charts. One student looked like a different person. It was really astounding.
I can't wait to get back on the mats and make some more mistakes.
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.