One of the greatest discoveries of my life has been the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, the judo master with a busted knee who learned a new way to train the body and movement. His teachings have changed the way that I approach everything that I do, especially how I teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at my school in Baltimore. His ideas are such a radical departure from what I have known and considered to be true that they make me question all I thought I knew.
One passage from his book, Awareness Through Movement, speaks of a path to improvement counter to traditional teachings and that eschews increased effort and will as the path to success. "To the extent that ability increases, the need for conscious efforts of the will decreases," Feldenkrais writes. "The effort required to increase ability provides sufficient and efficient exercise for our will power."
He goes on to observe, "If you consider the matter carefully you will discover that most people of strong will power (which they have trained for its own sake) are also people with relatively poor ability. People who know how to operate effectively do so without great preparation and without much fuss. Men of great will power tend to apply too much force instead of using moderate forces more effectively."
I've noticed this extensively in my teaching of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The ones who seem to truly believe that effort and repetition are the key to improvement are the ones to progress mostly slowly.
"If you rely mainly on your will power," Feldenkrais continues, "you will develop your ability to strain and become accustomed to applying an enormous amount of force to actions that can be carried out with much less energy, if it is properly directed and graduated.
"Both of these ways of operating usually achieve their objective, but the former may also cause considerable damage. Force that is not converted into movement does not simply disappear, but is dissipated into damage done to joints, muscles, and other sections of the body used to create the effort. Energy not converted into movement turns into heat within the system and causes changes that will require repair before the system can operate efficiently again.
"Whatever we can do well does not seem difficult to us. We may even venture to say that movements we find difficult are not carried out correctly."
That last sentence aligns perfectly with Judo founder Jigoro's Kano teaching of "Seiryoku Zenyo" -- maximum efficiency, minimal effort.
Looking at technique that way during training can lead to a good way to pinpoint weaknesses. If your effort feels great, your movement is probably incorrect. Work to improve the movement and your results will improve and your efficiency will increase as your effort decreases.
Try less to improve more.
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.