Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Exploring the Map . . .

Originally published in 2004:


One of the most common questions I am asked when I travel and teach is this. . .”what do I need to work on?” As a coach you will need to get used to being asked this, it is part of the job.

The answer to this question will of course be individualized to a great degree. But over the last Ten Years of Coaching BJJ I have also become aware of certain patterns that most athletes will follow in one form or another. It’s the journey all BJJ players undertake, and to explain my own personal vision of it as a Coach and teacher I often use a map analogy.

Imagine for a moment that the Art and science of BJJ is all diagramed out on a large map. Your job as a teacher and Coach is to help the student to first be able to read and navigate on the map, and then to begin to explore the map. As the individual becomes more adept at traveling the territory of the map, they begin to gain greater degrees of performance skill and understanding of the Art of BJJ.

Using that metaphor, here are some of the major steps I often see. . .


White to Blue:

The journey of white belt to blue belt in BJJ is one of familiarization.

Using the map analogy, its where you learn to read the map, this is north, south, east, west, etc. And also, where you learn what the major areas of the map are (neighborhoods). The combination of the two in BJJ terms is that you need to learn what and where all the major positions are (neighborhoods), and what the major routes are that connect those positions/neighborhoods, those major roads are the fundamental objectives. As an example, the five point passing game that we teach covers the basic objectives you are looking to accomplish as you try and pass the guard.

In short the journey from white to blue is where the athlete learns to basic rules of the road, learns to play the game.

What to work on:

As a teacher your major focus is best spent on the basic positions, principles, and objectives of BJJ. You want the athlete to first be able to recognize what the major positions are, and secondly to understand what their major objectives are when they find themselves in these positions. The sooner the student learns these two things the sooner they can begin to play the game, ie: explore the map. So a good teacher will keep it basic, clear, and concise, and create an environment where a newbie can start to roll on day one without feeling overwhelmed or confused by the tasks at hand.

As a student at this level your major objectives are simple, familiarize yourself with the major positions and fundamental movements. And secondly, relax.

Keeping it very simple and staying very relaxed will accelerate your game faster then any piece of advise I could offer a white belt. Who taps you out or doesn’t tap you out is completely irrelevant at this level. What’s important is that you enjoy yourself, and allow your body the time to familiarize itself with the mechanics of a roll.

Things to avoid:

As a Coach the major errors at this stage involve two things. The first is straying too far from solid fundamental movements/ positions. Teaching lock flows, elaborate submission set ups, or too many techniques in a single class will only confuse and slow down the progress of most white belts.

The second is straying too far from solid Coaching methods, the ‘here is a few new techniques, now lets roll method’. . .or the ’lets do 500 dead repetitions of this move’, are sure fire ways to slow down the learning curve of any new athlete.

These mistakes remain a constant throughout the athlete’s progress, and solid fundamentals combined with good ‘I’ method classes are a must throughout the athlete’s career. But they are an absolute deal breaker at the white belt level. Intermediate or advance BJJ athletes can still learn and grow even from poor Coaches who don’t really know how to run a proper class, or workout. But beginners will find themselves completely lost, and may eventually become turned off to the entire activity in that kind of environment.

As an athlete the thing to watch out for at this level is frustration. Because you may often find yourself in an unfamiliar position when rolling, and be unsure of exactly what you should even be trying to do, frustration can often get the best of you. The single best piece of advice I can offer at this level is this. . . .just relax. BJJ takes time, so just enjoy yourself as much as possible. It’s not a race.

Blue to Purple:

The journey of blue to purple is one of detail.

If an individual has no previous background in wrestling, then a lot of BJJ can seem like magic when you first learn it. There is a stage as a beginner where knowledge of a new technique can become that crucial edge that allows you to survive or even beat, a large, strong peer who may have previously smashed you on the mat. So it’s normal that as one comes out of that white belt stage and begins to play the game as an early blue belt, the idea that accumulation of technique equals learning becomes a natural assumption. This is why the blue belt stage is where you gather your instructional DVD collection. It’s also one of the traps of the blue belt. We will talk more about this further down.

Using the map analogy, it’s where you really start to explore the different neighborhoods. You are past the stage of learning to identify north, south, east, west, and the major neighborhoods/ positions, and you’re fully engaged in exploring these areas. No matter what position a Coach calls out, a solid blue belt should have no problem identifying it, and having a good basic idea of what they should be doing from there. Becoming ‘good’ at playing in those different positions is what the stage of blue belt is all about...

What to work on:

As a teacher your major focus is best spent on drilling positions. Submission should be kept to the minimum solid core moves, but the emphasis should always be kept on holding, controlling and escaping from positions. This is of course the case for all levels of athlete. But I think this rule becomes particularly important at the blue belt phase, because the Coach needs to bring the student out of the technique based mode, into a broader positional perspective.

I also believe that blue belt is the where the open guard should really start to be fleshed out. Open guard is the heart and soul of BJJ, and by starting people with the open guard, as opposed to the closed guard, you encourage the development of excellent hip movement. And no-thing in BJJ is more important then that.

As a student work your open guard! Learn to play an active and aggressive guard game. Treat it as an offensive position, with the mindset that regardless of who they are. . .they will not pass your guard. Work your escapes from bottom game. Your emphasis on open guard will help here, as you will be developing solid hip movement. And as always, stick to developing your positional skills and thinking in broader concepts.

Why does BJJ work the way it does?

What are the top three things you are trying to accomplish in any given position?

What is the best priority for those things?

Find the answers for yourself to questions like this. Now that you can play the game it’s time to begin that lifelong process of simplifying the principles and concepts that the game is composed of.

Things to avoid:

As a Coach the biggest thing to remember when coaching blue belts is patience. Patience is always important no matter who you are coaching, but it can be particularly trying with blue belts because as mentioned previously, they may still be caught in that accumulation phase. The belief that getting better must mean learning a new submission, or a new move, is a phase that many blue belts go through. And as a good coach you need to be patient with them and create an environment where they are guided towards a bigger picture perspective.

As always, sticking with core fundamentals in every class helps facilitate this process.

As an athlete the thing to watch for as a blue belt is the tendency to be distracted from the fundamentals by some flash, or an overly complicated game plan. Learning to differentiate between movements which really are core fundamentals and those that are not, is a skill which may not be fully developed yet. Just because you see a very good competitor or black belt execute that movement or game doesn’t mean it’s something you need to be working on right now.

How is your elbow escape?
Head and arm escapes?
Cross sides escapes?
Base & posture in the closed guard?

By sticking to core fundamentals you will grow much faster.


Purple to Brown:

The journey of purple to brown is one of intense refinement.

There are two belts in BJJ that are the hardest to get. The second hardest belt to achieve is, the purple belt.

Most people that study BJJ for more then a few Years will at some point receive a blue belt. But a purple belt is a different matter. A purple belt means that not only can you play the game (a blue belt) but you can play it really well. Many people will quit BJJ before receiving their purple belt.

But, the hardest belt to achieve is without a doubt, the brown belt. A brown belt doesn’t just play the game well, they play it so well that they are dangerous to everyone they roll with, black belt, world champion, everyone. The step from brown to black (if the brown belt was legitimate to begin with) is always a short hop. So although most people will be purple belts for many Years, the brown belt stage is often quite shorter. This is what makes the brown belt so hard to achieve, and this is why you will most likely be a purple belt longer then you will a white, blue, or brown.


Purple belt is your hump belt, it’s the belt where you put it all the hard work.
The time for learning a lot of new technique has passed. There will always be new movements to learn. There is no end to the amount of techniques and counters that will develop in an Alive Art like BJJ. BJJ evolves, like everything else living. But for the most part these things will be variations of root movements you are already familiar with. By now you will know full well that being good at BJJ is not a process of accumulation, but rather one of timing. And that timing is only acquired when you roll and drill Alive. You will have to have thousands of matches. Spend thousands of hours drilling positions, working escapes, working guard passing, playing guard, playing top, and fleshing out your entire game.

As a purple belt no position can go unlearned. It is impossible to be a legitimate brown belt and have a “poor guard”, or “bad escape game”. You need to be good in every position, top, bottom, guard, half guard, and quarter positions. And all this takes time.


Going back to our map analogy, if the journey from white to blue was about learning to read the map and travel along the main routes, and the journey from blue to purple was about becoming familiar with all the neighborhoods, then the journey from purple to brown is one of deep refinement.

You are learning to ‘google earth’ at this stage
.

Not only can you get around the map and know all the major neighborhoods well, but you are fleshing out all the streets in each and every separate square block. It’s tiring work because nobody can give you a short cut here. If you really want to develop that true understanding of the entire game of BJJ (and I know you do because you are smart enough to be reading this) then you have to get out onto the mat and walk every single city block on the map. Getting better as a purple belt is about rolling, and drilling positions Alive. . . .over and over again.

What to work on:

As a teacher your major focus is on helping this athlete flesh out his/her game. This means they need to be exposed to athletes of different shapes, sizes, and styles of play. If you have done a good job as a head Coach then you have already created an environment where that can occur. By focusing always on fundamentals you have allowed an entire room of athletes to develop their own unique games, while at the same time making sure they are all highly technical and skilled. Now it’s time to let that room do its work.

You have to honor the process, and you do that by guiding purple belts through the ups and downs of being a competitive athlete.

(Whether they compete publicly or not doesn’t matter here. All purples belts will be constantly matching their game against others in daily, competitive matches within the Gym. And as such they will experience the highs and lows that come with these types of performance activities).

Having specific classes and times where the purple belts and more competitive athletes in your gym can train together and drill at a more intense and aggressive pace, is one of the single most important thing you can do to help as their Coach.

ICC 1996 - SBG Competition Team 98 Portland OR
includes Robert Follis, Tom Oberhue,
Nate Quarry, Jeff Wassom, and Eric Hemphill.

As a student don’t become too attached to any specific position or game. If you have a good Coach who really cares about you, then you will be a purple belt for a long time. And over those Years you will have a certain set of positions and routes that you will prefer over others. A type of game you may feel suits you best. But understand this, as a purple belt that game is not only subject to change, it’s guaranteed to!

You have a lot of work ahead of you at this belt. You have to flesh out the details of every single position that can occur on the mat. It’s not enough to just be ‘ok’ at certain positions anymore, while being ‘good’ at others. You now have to learn to be good at all the positions. And as your body goes through this process, it will of its own accord discover exactly what positions it favors, and those it doesn’t. But you won’t exactly know until the entire map is fleshed out what that game may be like in its final phases. You may spend a few Years being known primarily as a ‘guard guy’. And then within the span of a few days switch completely to playing more of a passing and top game style. You may discover that your left butterfly hook completely changes how you work your old half guard. Or that your ever developing top game also tends to change your preferred guard passing method.

All these changes are positive. It’s completely natural to play one type of game for a few Years, and another for a few more after that. That is how your body learns. You have to go through this process in order to develop that completely fleshed out, well rounded, game. That google earth map. It’s the purple belt process. Just go with it, and let your body play.

Things to avoid:

As a Coach Just as with blue belts, being very patient with purple belts will become a needed skill. It’s a slightly different thing though. Where as blue belts tend to become attached to learning new ‘moves’, purple belts tend to become attached to playing certain types of games, or ‘styles’.

As I have stated above, most people will be purple belts for a long time. Because of that there can be a huge difference between a brand new purple belt, and an athlete that has been a purple belt for five or six Years. As a beginner purple belt, style can make a massive difference in certain matches. One purple belt may meet another one and completely dominate, not because they are so much better then the other athlete, but more so because the two styles of the athletes just didn’t match up well. Likewise, they may find themselves smashed when working against a particular individual, and become very discouraged. This is because although they are good, there are still parts of the map that need a lot of detailing out as a young purple belt. And if they get caught on one of those blocks that has not been fleshed out yet, and that happens to be a neighborhood their opponents knows well, they can find themselves tapping much faster then expected.

An advanced purple belt won’t experience such a drastic change in performance based solely on their opponent’s style of play. That’s because they have filled in the detail on the majority of the map. So no matter where their opponent may take them, they can still usually put up a decent fight. Understanding this as a coach allows you to witness when an athlete may be moving out of the purple belt phase, and into a brown belt. And until that occurs, you as a Coach have to maintain the patience required to continually remind the athlete that although the game they are playing now is really good, don’t they still have a few positions, or neighborhoods that they could be detailing out a bit more?

The single best question you can ask a purple belt is this, where are you weakest? You have to create an environment where the athlete is forced to work their weak positions, while at the same time they are still able to play competitively and develop their strengths.


And when the purple belt comes to you sure that they have sorted out their own style, be patient, smile, and send them back onto the mat for more work.

As an athlete The thing to watch for as a purple belt is exactly what I described above, your attachment to any single game, or style of play. Understand that your job at this belt is to really learn to play well at every single position that occurs within BJJ. This doesn’t just take time, it also means that as your body is given time to work from these positions your own personal game and style of play will change. Its okay to work on developing you’re ‘A’ game, just remember that today’s A game may become tomorrows B game, and enjoy the process along the way.

Brown to Black:

The journey of brown to black is one of simplification.

If the process described above was fully traveled, and the athlete had a Coach who cared enough about them to keep them at each belt until they were ready, then by the time you reach the stage of a legitimate brown belt you will pose a threat to ever person you touch hands with.

You won’t have any holes in your game. As I mentioned above, it’s impossible to be a legitimate brown belt and have a “poor guard”, or “bad escape game”. You won’t just know every position on the mat; you will be good at every position. “Style” will still make a difference when you roll, but it won’t play nearly as large a part as it does when you are a brand new purple belt. By this stage of learning, even if you are taken out of the positions you prefer to play in, you will still bring plenty of game.

Matt with Jeff Munson SBGi Camp 2000

If you read the description above and wonder what the difference is between a brown belt and a black belt, the answer is this. As a good purple belt you had begun the process of developing your own “style”. As I mentioned above, this style is not only subject to change as a purple belt, it’s guaranteed to. But, by the time you reach brown belt that individual style of play has become more solidified. It is identifiable, and it will be a direct reflection of your own personality, build, strengths, weakness, and mindset.

Your task at brown belt is simple; it’s time to perfect your routes.

Using the map analogy, you learned the read and explore the major areas of the map as you went from white to blue. You gained experience and time in the various neighborhoods on the path from blue to purple. And you filled in a lot of detail regarding the entire city on the journey from purple to brown. Along the way you began to figure out what sections of a particular neighborhood, city blocks, specific streets and even ally ways that you prefer to travel. That process of discovering your own preferred routes. . . .that is the process of discovering your own “style”. By the end of the purple belt stage, those particular pathways have been carved out. Now that you are a brown belt, it’s time to perfect those routes.

What to work on:


At brown belt the answer to this should be very simple. It’s now time to be very competitive. It’s time to get in shape, push your body, and push your game. The only way to sharpen those routes, to test those specific directions you have for the map is to wrestle competitively against as many people as possible. You need to spend sometime matching your “style” against other styles. You need to pressure test your game.

As a brown belt you need to be willing to roll with anyone that walks into the Gym. And you have to enter the roll expecting to win.

In order to do this you will need to be an athlete. You will never know how your game works under pressure unless you’re capable of pushing yourself past the point where most people tire out. If you don’t ever experience that level of conditioning, then you may never reach those points where your game becomes tested the way it should be.

You have mastered the fundamentals already. You know the technique. Now it is time to see just how good your body can perform those mechanics. Just how can you be?

Matt and Karl in Munich 2004

As a teacher:

When you’re working with brown belts you have for the most part gone past the point of being a ‘teacher’. Offering new tips or techniques is not what a brown belt needs. To work well with brown belts you need to be a Coach. Your council will revolve more around specific strategies. As one brown belt pits his style against a worthy opponent, advice on how to approach the match, deal with conditioning, and handle pressure all become key areas to work on.

You also have to be willing to let the brown belts go. In other words, let them be a very competitive animal, let them make their mistakes, gain their confidence and fine tune their game. Sometimes the best thing you can do for BJJ athletes at this stage is to get out of their way, give them space, and be their only if asked. A good coach at this stage is a lot like a good butler. You may never notice they are there, but if they are needed they are available right away.

Matt with Randy Couture and Jeff Munson 2000

As a student it’s time to push yourself more then you ever have before in BJJ. And if you have never played a serious competitive sport before, then you may be pushing yourself more then you ever have in your lifetime. It’s only in that pressure cooker that your game will finely condense into a working reflection of your own unique self. And that is perfect.

Things to avoid:

As a Coach you need to avoid the trap of needing to always be the ‘expert’. By this time you have probably spent a number of Years being the primary person this athlete has turned to for advise, information, and direction. Now you have to be willing to let go of that role and begin to acknowledge the athlete as more of an equal. Your relationship with them will change, and you can serve as a useful guide in matters of belt evaluations, teaching, and overall thoughts regarding the game. But, you can’t try and hold onto to the same teacher – student dynamic you may have had when this athlete was a white or blue belt.

For the Coach this stage brings up all kinds of issues regarding attachment to self image. And that’s perfect as well.



As an athlete don’t burn out. Be competitive, but keep it fun. Take care of your body, your health, and your overall well being. Make sure you don’t over train, or find yourself mentally drained.

The confidence you gain as a brown belt is invaluable, and it can’t be faked.

No amount of pop psychology nonsense, self hypnosis, or Tony Robbins car salesman insincerity will ever serve as a useful substitute for the true development that takes place when you fully honor the process.

Authenticity can’t be bought, sold, or even taught. It’s only ever found. And you can only ever do it for yourself.



The brown belt stage shouldn’t last more then a couple Years. If your Coach did his job regarding measurement, then you developed the meat of your game as a purple belt. Being a brown belt was a formality of refinement, testing, and self knowledge.

By the end of that time you will have a solid understanding of the entire map. And you will also have your own specific routes, details, “style”, which will be a direct reflection of your own unique persona. And this means you are now a black belt.

After black belt?


This is a broad topic. There are many issues that arise after the black belt. You will have to deal with things like measurement, coaching and teaching (see the post on belts below). As well a lifelong process of simplicity that never stops evolving. You will learn to get heavier, and intangibles like base, timing, and transitional skills continue to be honed.

I will deal with many of these subjects in future articles. But for now, the single most important thing I can say regards being a black belt is this:

When it comes time for you to help guide others through this same process, you need to make sure you go back to teaching the entire map, and guiding your own future students through their own exploration of that map.

You must avoid the pitfall of teaching your own specific routes.


This doesn’t mean you need to keep secrets, far from it. But, by focusing only on the fundamentals you allow athletes the needed space and information required so they can develop their own unique games. While also making sure they are all highly technical and skilled. When you teach just your own style, you rob them of that same process.


The Process of BJJ itself is a very powerful form of Yoga. And when I use Yoga in this context I am referring to it in the older, original sense of the word. All of us involved in this process can feel a deep sense of gratitude for it. It’s a real blessing, privilege, and joy.


"Religions are founded by what mystics say when they come back; but what the mystics say is not the same as what happened to them."
Carve your own path

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Five Questions . . .

Being an excellent Coach in BJJ requires proficiency in three different areas.

The first is of course, your own personal performance. To receive a black belt in BJJ you should have the performance ability of a black belt. However, being able to perform or even compete well as a black belt is no guarantee you can teach others the Art. In fact, some of the worst Coaches I have seen also happen to be great competitors. It’s important to note that teaching and Coaching skills are in many ways a separate skill set. And just like your own game, teaching others requires training, practice, and attention.

In addition to your own performance and teaching ability, there is a separate talent that I also feel is equally important. It plays a valued role in both your rolling, and Coaching skills. This talent is the ability to evaluate the skills sets, strengths, weaknesses, openings, and talents of someone else’s game.

Some people can teach a great class and have a good game themselves on the mat, but when it comes to being able to spot holes in somebody else’s game, or areas that could most use improvement, they falter a bit. I have also met other Coaches that could tell after observing even a single roll, exactly what kind of game another person is using. And how that game will match up as it relates to the bigger picture of BJJ.

This talent is directly linked to your overall understanding of the Art itself. And that big picture analysis requires among other things, the ability to determine what is a fundamental, and what is not. And that is what I want to discuss in this article.

Those of you that have trained with me in person know that my entire Coaching philosophy is based on the importance of solid fundamentals, and drilling them in a safe but very Alive manner. As such, this is a topic I think about a lot, and it goes to the heart of my entire teaching theory as it relates to SBGi.

As a student of BJJ, being able to determine what is a fundamental and what is not. What everyone needs to know, and what may be more “style specific”, is in my opinion one of the most important skills you can develop. As such, here is a simple guideline I often teach.

A fundamental must meet at least 3 basic points:

1- It's something everyone who plays BJJ needs to know how to do.


2- It's something everyone who plays BJJ will do in essentially the same way.


3- It's something everyone who plays BJJ will need to do viscerally while rolling (i.e.: without conscious thought) in order to play the game well.


So as an example, not everyone who plays BJJ at a black belt level plays X guard. Rickson (to my knowledge) never played this type of half guard game. As such, I would not consider X guard a fundamental. This does not mean that some black belts will not use X guard as a core part of their own game (ie: Garcia), and it certainly doesn’t mean I wont teach an X guard class in my own Gym. But it does mean that you can be a perfectly good black belt, without having an X guard. The same can be said for pivot sweeps, DLR guards, rubber guard, and a whole encyclopedia of BJJ movements.


Contrast the above example with an elbow escape. Every black belt on planet Earth has a solid elbow escape (or should). The mechanics behind the basic motion won't change much; the physics of the movement remain the same regardless of age, weight, etc. And it's one of those things all good players start to do as a natural reaction, without having to stop and think about it.



The ironic part is that as a Coach, the more you veer away from just core fundamentals, the more I believe you actually stifle much of the organic growth process, the journey, that all BJJ athletes have to take.

Likewise, the more you stick to just fundamentals, the more room for creativity, play, and unique games you give to your athletes on the mat. A Gym that focuses on core fundamentals will never (or rarely) have two purple belts that play the same type of game. A Gym that teaches a "style", that is deviates away from fundamentals, will wind up having a lot of students who all roll and move the same way . . .using the same guard passes, subs, etc.



Another point to consider is how fundamentals are taught. Most (not all) fundamental movements in BJJ can be taught as broad concepts, or postures. The posture, pressure, possibility model fits perfectly here.


When you begin teaching a "Style" you wind up having to teach more on a technique-by-technique basis . . .it's not about universal principles, but rather the Coaches own interpretation of those principles. Your no longer giving the athlete the freedom to explore his/her own map, you’re instead picking the routes for them. And that is imo, the weakest and slowest way to teach BJJ.

Going back to teaching methods, since most fundamental principles related to BJJ can be taught through positions/postures, most of my classes focus on position. When your teaching position first, staying on track in terms of fundamentals is a pretty easy task. IE: I don't think it's too hard to determine what the core fundamentals are for holding or escaping mount, head and arm, modified head and arm, crossides, etc. What I usually encourage student teachers to do when it comes to this topic is to answer for themselves the following questions:

The 5 Questions of BJJ:


1- Make a list of all the core fundamental positions within BJJ.


2- Determine what the top 3 to 5 things (major points, principles, concepts) are as it relates to holding that position. And ask yourself why those are the 3-5 things.


3- Determine what the top 3 to 5* things (major points, principles, concepts) are as it relates to escaping that position. And ask yourself why those are the 3-5 things. *(I seldom go above 5 because it's usually over complex if I do so)


4- Determine the order in which those 3-5 things arise naturally during a competitive roll. And ask yourself why those 3-5 things occur in that order.


5- Create a drill to develop the top 3-5 habits in an Alive environment.


Not only is this a good exercise for teachers, I think it's great for everyone who studies BJJ. If you take the time to answer these questions on your own, then your personal understanding of the game itself will increase a hundredfold. And barring mat time, I don't think there is a single factor that will help you accelerate your learning curve greater then that conceptual model you have built yourself, and own in terms of personal understanding.



That stated, it's pretty easy to answer the above as it relates to positions once you have some serious mat time in BJJ. This process teaches you what fundamentals are. But when we venture away from positions, and more towards sweeps and submissions, the ability to determine whether something is a core fundamental, or style specific, becomes trickier. This is where I add three additional ideas:


Three teaching suggestions:

1- Curriculum wise it's about creating habits.


2- Teaching method wise it's a question of focus rather then exposure.


3- There are no rules, only warnings.


The second one (teaching method wise it's a question of focus rather then exposure) means that when it comes to specific sweeps as an example, I have classified a few core basics I think everyone should know, ie: double ankle sweep, scissor sweep, hip bump sweep, basic butterfly hook sweep, etc. In addition I have added the core subs, armbar, triangle, kimura, americana, uma plata, RNC, fundamental collar chokes, etc. When I venture to far off this list, (ie: here is a rolling collar choke that presents itself off a failed uma plata attempt that you go for when your opponent is opening your closed guard standing) Then I usually do so more to expose the athletes to the move, as opposed to focusing an entire class, or extensive drill time to such a move.

What you focus on is what’s critical, that does not mean that the athletes don't get exposed to possibilities. . . . . .only that the focus is on fundamentals.


Likewise, I will on occasion break my own rules. As an example I taught an entire BJJ class last week that covered fundamental collar chokes, the high percentage ones. This class focused on the grips and chokes, and not on position. I explained as a disclaimer that I don't usually teach that way, but wanted to throw in something different. All these students get a steady diet of positional work as they are in my Gym, so no harm. The class worked out well. I wouldn't suggest basing a curriculum on that method, but it's fun to throw in alternative focus points from time to time.

Rule #3 (there are no rules, only warnings) also applies to all fundamentals. If you don't play correct base and posture, bad things can happen (armbars, triangles, etc). Does that mean that a can opener will never work? No it does not. The same can be said for collar chokes when inside someone’s guard. . .sometimes it works.


So here is how it flows together. . . . . do we want our athletes (especially new people/ white belts) doing can openers and ezekial chokes inside the closed guard?


I for one know that is not the habit I want my beginners to develop. And again point #1, it's about creating habits. . . .that does not mean that I won’t show them a can opener (especially how to counter it), that is point #2, exposure, rather then focus. And when I tell them not to do a can opener I wont say "because you will always get armbarred" because that is not true. . .I will tell them that in Jits we have warnings, not rules, and that is point #3. And if you grab the neck like this then we need to give you a huge warning as it relates to submission exposure, that is why we teach this instead.

Now rather then saying "just do this because I say so". . .you are actually helping to further their understanding of why we do what we do. And I think that point is critical, and often one of the things that marks a good teacher.


It is also why I follow each of the 5 questions with the follow up question of why. The “why” question is perhaps the most important, and it’s a question that you as a Coach want to encourage every student to answer for themselves. By allowing the student the freedom to think over the “why” question, you provide the space needed for them to build that conceptual model in their own head. And that individual, personal understanding about the big picture of BJJ is perhaps the single biggest factor (barring mat time), that anyone can have when it comes to an accelerated learning curve.



Those three points
, habits versus options, focus vs exposure, and warnings versus rules
, help balance out a solid curriculum. And if you fill that curriculum with solid fundamentals, and take the time to answer the five questions of BJJ for yourself, you are bound to have good success.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

About Belts. . .


One of the more controversial aspects of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the colored belt system.

For those less familiar with BJJ, let me explain that the BJJ belt system remains (especially within the SBGi Association), performance based. What that means is that if someone has a purple belt, then they should be able to roll with other purple belts of the same age and similar weight, and be competitive. The belt itself is simply a visual reminder of this skillset.

That is a very different form of measurement as compared to most traditional Martial Arts, which being based on dead patterns and choreographed two person demonstrations, are not an indication of any practical skills which relate to actual fighting.

To be honest, the only other Martial Art which I can think of that has kept to a functional form of measurement when it comes to belts is Judo. But Judo being far more popular then BJJ has a wider margin of error when it comes to what the belt may or may not indicate in terms of skill. BJJ is still a fairly tight community, and it would be next to impossible to maintain the illusion that you were a brown or black belt in BJJ, if you actually were not. The reason for that is of course the Alive training.

Although not everyone competes publicly, everyone does roll against fully resisting opponents. As such, you cannot fake being good at BJJ anymore then you can fake being good at speaking Spanish, playing the guitar, or playing basketball. And that is what gives the belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu the notoriety that they hold.


So what's wrong with that?

Many athletes have grown a serious aversion to any form of traditional measurement, or symbols. Their reasons for this aversion are valid. And if anyone would know these reasons well, it would be me. My entire career has been a sincere effort to bring people into a state of questioning when it comes to all forms of traditional measurement. And that questioning was not only needed, and long overdue, it was healthy. Terms like Alive training, dead patterns, delivery systems, etc, have entered the grid of modern martial arts consciousness, and are repeated in writing and language all over the world now. Regardless of what some critics may claim, SBGi has played a major role in changing perceptions regarding what functional, healthy, and sincere training can be.

So that sets the stage. BJJ belts are performance based, which makes them a completely different animal from other belt systems, certificates, or forms of measurement. And that is a healthy thing. Yet at the same time, the entire idea of attaining validation from any source outside your own self runs contrary to the whole philosophy, or underlying theme, of Aliveness & SBGi. A theme which I myself have been a major advocate, and proponent for.

It is that seeming contradiction of ideas that creates the tension, as well as the value, which the belt system used in BJJ holds.


Observe hypocrisy:

One of things to watch for with vocal critics of the BJJ belt system is the hypocrisy. Identification with an outside measurement as a form of personal identity is of course the problem with measurement. Without that identification or attachment, the belts, or any other form of measurement, become harmless tools. And that identification is the only valid argument against these types of measurements.

*(Many of you I am sure already realize this. But if this idea is new to you then I would encourage you to question this concept vigorously, and think it out for yourself.)

The irony is that every individual I have ever met that was strongly opposed to the use of belts in BJJ was also clearly attached to their own form of measurement, in the sense of identification through the ego. It would not be uncommon to see the same individuals arguing for other forms of exclusivity, separation, or labels. And as with all labels, it’s not the symbol that is the issue, but what is behind the symbol the moment it is used.

In otherwords, there is a world of difference between saying "Who cares what belt you are", and saying "who cares what belt you are", and actually meaning it. If you observe closely you can see which is which. And to get to the later you sometimes have to take a journey.

That said, there is probably no single issue with BJJ that creates more controversy, then the belt system.


So why the fuss?

The fuss points to value.

The controversy points to an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

The hypocrisy is clear if you measure.

The interesting question then is. . . .What's behind it?

Attraction and Aversion

Are always two sides to the same coin. Top - bottom, left - right, attraction - aversion. One is not possible without the other. See that for what it is.

Both point to attachment. . .both point to a fundamental misunderstanding between the description and the described, the symbol and the symbolized.

A gift given for manipulation, a gift given from love. Which has value? An endorsement given because someone is a buddy, and endorsement given out of a sense of deep integrity for your craft. Which has value?

Without judgment of others, what is behind it all for us?


Why measure at all?

The moment you begin Coaching and helping others, you will be asked to measure. Let me give you a concrete example.

I love to roll. There is nothing regarding this thing we do I enjoy more, then doing the thing itself. Teaching a seminar is fun, running a class is fun, and the ability to help others through this trade is great privilege. It has allowed me travel all over this planet, and it has created a network of wonderful people along the way.

That said, there is still nothing I would rather do when it comes to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu then just roll.


After a good roll it would not be uncommon for me to sit up and tell the athlete what they did that was really good, that gave me a very hard time, and what would be worth improving on. This is just a natural habit I have developed, and the reason for it is pretty simple. I have become so used to being asked. . . ."what do I need to work on?" . . ."What can I improve?" And I have discovered over time that people really appreciate and want that feedback about their game. These are perfectly natural questions that you have to get used to if you plan on entering the Coaching field.

Besides that daily 'mat chat' that occurs naturally after most rolls, there is another question which will get asked of you often. . ."Where am I at?".

In BJJ terms this is often a veiled reference to what belt do I think they may be. Or how far from the next belt do I think they are. And before any of us judge that question, ask yourself. . .have you ever asked a Coach, or BJJ black belt that question yourself?

Again, it is a natural question and one that you need to get used to being asked all the time if you plan on Coaching.


So here is the cold reality when it comes to being a Coach, or teacher. Even if you focus your teaching around performance (something I myself try and always do), i.e. these are things you do well, these are things to work on, you will still be asked to measure. It is part of the job, and since it arises of its own accord, I also feel it is something that we as Coaches are responsible for dealing with in a healthy way. By that I mean we are here to serve as guides through, and within, the issue of measurement.

How do I know this to be true? Because it is what happens. Reality tells us.

If we try and avoid the issue by repression. . ."Belts are bullshit, just train!". . .or hedonism . . . "You are a 4 stripe pink glove, with a two stripe white belt, and a red sash in clinch". . .we may, and most likely are, simply avoiding and perpetuating the entire issue.

Instead I would like to address the issue head on and realistically. Recognizing the fact that 95% of all human beings have been raised in a system, from grammar school forward, that is based almost entirely on measurement from outside sources. And as such, in order to help people see through that, we have to recognize it as it exists, here and now.

So that brings up the question all Coaches have to eventually ask themselves. . .


How do you measure?

I recently witnessed an interesting conversation between two BJJ black belts. One mentioned the recent promotion of an athlete that both Instructors knew well. And the one Coach asked the one who gave the promotion a very simple question. . . How did you measure? And with that simple question, the coach who had given the promotion became a little defensive. "You dont think he deserved it?"; . . ."What are you trying to say?!". .and again the reply came back, "No, I am just asking how you measured?: . . .and what a key question that is.

How do you measure?


People like to make lists. It is a psychological phenomenon, and the understood reasons for it are really interesting if you want to look them up.

Every field likes to rate itself, and every art form, sport, and craft opens itself to being measured the moment you share it with another human being. It is just what usually is. That said, it is always interesting to see how people rate my own. By my own I mean trade, and by trade I mean teaching human beings to fight well.

When it comes to this measurement some people rely heavily on anecdotal evidence. This is often (not always), a popular one with traditional martial arts, JKD, and RBSD 'reality based self defense'. I dont think an analysis of why this type of evidence is worthless or at best an extremely poor form of measurement, is needed here. I think most people will get that understanding first, which I believe helps create the question. . "hmm is that really true?" to begin with. And that is probably a thought already in surplus with those of you reading this now. And that is a very good thing.

After all, haven't we all heard the stories of the eighty Year old Martial Arts master that levitated a car in mid air, or fought off half a football team with a tree branch? By now I have to assume we all know better then to take those stories seriously, so lets move on.


Another popular method is how successful any single athlete from a Gym is in a particular competition. This is a far better comparison then any form of anecdotal evidence. But it does have one major flaw. It can only account for a few known subjects. These subjects may show a high degree of skill, and one can assume that they found worth in working with those coaches based on the fact that they trained with them. No doubt about that. But what about the rest of the Gym? How are the average members (the other 95% of the group), doing in terms of performance? Can they bring game?

If not, I think it is a safe assumption that the major skill sets the successful athletes have not come from that Gym either. And I base that on the fact that if they had then the rest of the Gym would also show marked improvements in performance. Not at the same level as a pro athlete of course, but as measured against their own, individual, past levels.

I say that because in a good Gym everyone will grow as measured against their own past levels. This is a natural result of proper Alive training in a healthy environment. And I know it for a fact because we do it daily here.


And that brings me to the third measure of performance, and the one I would offer as the most accurate in terms of skill within the trade. The overall performance of the majority of students over a specific period of time.

When the majority all increases at a measured rate, then the training methods and coaching itself can be shown to be valuable.

In that kind of environment the athletes that want to take this to a high level in terms of competition will thrive. They will grow, fostered by a large community which serves as both a support base, as well as a good pool to draw from in terms of sparring and drilling partners. And the community itself will grow together at a steady rate.

As each individual grows better within a certain skill set they are able to bring greater challenge to their fellow members, and the whole class grows in terms of evolving game. It is a healthy, synergistic community.

It will by its nature, being healthy, be completely organic. It will grow at its own rate, with new members coming, and others moving on in time. It will contain a wider margin of membership, all ages, male and female, hobbyist, pro/am athlete, and everyone else who is built to try this process out at some point.


Consider this, what if an organization (in this case a group of Gyms which share the same training methods) could show that it had produced consistent performance in the majority of all its members not just at a single location, but worldwide. Would that then be an accurate form of measurement when it comes to evaluating objectively the training methods it uses?

Speaking for myself I think it would be a good place to start looking.

To contrast that with the previous two forms of measurement, anecdotal and based on single individuals, I have seen very famous MMA, and BJJ Gyms that have produced noted competitors, and whose main cliental progresses slowly or not at all.


You will often find at these locations that the average members is viewed as either a pay check, or cannon fodder for the more valued competitor.

I dont mean to imply that there are not some very good Gyms out there. But I would say that the majority of the well known ones I am very familiar with would fall into the above stated category. It is very, very common scene. I travel around the world and hear from all sorts of people who share with me their negative stories about training at such Gyms.

And regards the anecdotal schools, lets just say that we are talking about an apples and oranges comparison here. So there is no point including them.

Lets call this above stated conclusion the value of 'community', and we will get back to it . . . . and exactly why I feel it is so important when it comes to BJJ belts later in this article.


So how do you measure?

I have given this subject a lot of thought, and here are some of the perspectives I hold on this topic.

Technical performance is the sole measurement I use when awarding BJJ belts (with the exception of higher belts that may teaching, at which point coaching skills also become critical). And it is a conversation I always have with the athletes before and after any belt evaluation I give.

What I say simply is this. . . You can be a tough fighter without being technical, due to aggression, size, explosiveness, strength, etc. But you cannot be a good technician without being able to fight, its impossible. So what I look for is a good technical skill, as by my definition of "technical" both personal performance, and overall technical ability within the skillset of BJJ is contained.

As I observe an athlete against various opponents I notice if they are patching up weaknesses in their own game, technical holes, areas where they may be lacking some core fundamental skills, with superior attributes. And if they are, they have to willing to shelf their own ego long enough to stop doing that so that we can see whats left. What is left will be their technical game.


Think about it, if you can rip out of an armbar using explosiveness and speed, or escape a triangle by picking up your opponent, or escape bottom by bench pressing the person on top. . .should you?

The answer depends on the context of course. But I would offer that for most people most of the time, the answer is an obvious no. Within the Gym you want your training to be as technical as possible. If you are getting caught with armbars, we want to find out why? And then develop a technical solution that will work against larger and stronger opponents. This way, when you find yourself matched against a bigger, stronger, faster opponent, you will still have game.

Although we want all of our classes to be athletic, and to push our limits to some degree when we train, we also want to make equally sure that we are training in an intelligent, and highly technical manner.

That said, as a BJJ Coach I am not there to measure how fast a person can sprint 50 yards, or how strong or explosive they are. I am there to measure technical skill within the core fundamentals, the basics, of the delivery system we call Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And that is what I do.


How about Competition?

Competition is great! But as Coaches we have to remember this, you can't really get a feel for some ones technical performance based on a single competition. One time performance in a competition is not an accurate measurement.

Having stated that let me be clear, I do think there is value in the journey that is preparation for competition. Getting in shape, becoming stronger, faster, and more explosive, tightening up your game, facing the nerves, thoughts, and pressure that exists in competition. For those meant to take that journey, it is a wonderful learning experience. So that's not the question.

The question is, would a one time performance accurately measure an athletes technical skill level within BJJ? And my answer is no.

First, no single performance can measure that. Only multiple performances over a wider period of time, against multiple athletes would.

A single performance could easily be related to a super high level of conditioning, which as I stated above is not what I am paid to measure. So unless I see the athlete on a regular basis, or observe their progress in a series of competitions over time, I need to have another way to evaluate perormance as a coach.


I also want to point out that not everyone wants to, or needs to, compete.

If I as a Coach make public competition the sole criteria for measurement I use, then I leave out a huge percentage of people who might find tremendous value in BJJ.

In addition I think the teachers, or coaches who try and tell others that they "Are not living up to their potential" or other such bullshit need to find new jobs.

I have written before about the poison teachers, but suffice it to say that it is never our job to tell others what they "should" be doing with this Art form. Some may just want to roll, or move, or play. And that is exactly as it should be.


By the way, everything I just stated above can equally apply to any single day event. And that would include of course a visit to a new Gym.

We often have blue and purple belts walk into our Portland Gym from other schools. Sometimes they do exceptionally well with the athletes on the floor because they are bringing a type of game that people there are not used to.

Sometimes they do really poorly, because they athletes at the Gym are bringing a type of game that they are not really used to.

In short, as a Coach I have to tell you that it is honestly hard to say where a person may be at in terms of performance when they only visit my Gym for one or two evenings.

If that same athlete stays at our Gym for a week or more it becomes much - much easier to evaluate their game. The other athletes start to get a sense for how the person moves, likewise they get a sense for how the Gym regulars move, and it becomes far clearer for me as a Coach to observe what strengths and weakness that athlete may have within the game.


The black belt trap:

The last type of measurement I will talk about is a trap that I think some coaches can fall into with BJJ, and that is when you begin using yourself as the yardstick.

Besides the obvious issue of being too small a sample to gain an accurate measure from, there is the issue of "style". Each athlete in BJJ, and each black belt, has their own type of style or game. Some styles will match up better then others do. This is a fact not just with BJJ, but with all sports and competitive activities.

As an example, I may crush someone when rolling. Or tap them quickly several times over. But is that a good measure of where their game is? Not always. Sometimes I may just be having a 'good day', and they are just having a bad day. Other times it is simply a question of my style, which may match up really well against the way they play.

Likewise, if someone gives me a very hard time that does not automatically mean that they are at a certain level within BJJ. Again, it may just be a poor match of styles, or I may be having an off day.

That said, the temptation is to use ourselves as yardsticks by which we measure our athletes. I believe this is a temptation of the coaches own ego. And this is not fair to them, or to us.

As we age our performance skill may start to decrease a little. This is part of the process of being an athlete and a Coach who participates in the game. It is, in my opinion, a positive part of the journey that we all must face in time. But if we are using ourselves as the yardstick then the entire performance standard will begin to slip as well, and that is one of many problems that comes with this form of measurement.

This is why using yourself as the primary yardstick for evaluating others is never a smart Coaching method.


It is about community:

Again we come back to that word. When it comes to measurement all the above stated dilemmas become easy to solve with one word. . . community.

A Gym which has a large body of committed athletes, different sizes, different types of games, etc, all of whom are training together in an athletic environment, is by far the best way to measure any single individuals game.

On this mat you stand as a blue belt, or on this mat you stand as a purple belt, is easy to say when you see that athlete, work with that athlete, and roll with that athlete, week after week.

With that in place, competition becomes a great way to test the overall training environment of the community itself.

And by that measurement SBGi comes out with flying colors. Time and time again our athletes all over the world have shown the ability to enter grappling and MMA competitions and do fantastic, event after event.

This shows two things. . . .first, we have great training methods.

And secondly, I have never compromised on the standards that we have held for SBGi. No matter where I travel in the world, the measurement for performance has remained solid.


Letting it grow, letting it go:

It is true that there have been people who have become frustrated with our very strict performance standards. A few have even left the organization because I have refused to award them a belt which they felt they were obligated to. And that is exactly as it should be. And also serves as a positive sign which points to the fact that we have held true to our standards.

I have not, and will not award a belt because someone is my buddy, or because someone is a well known Coach, or because someone has been around SBGi for some period of time.

Simply put, I will not compromise on the process. I never have, and I never will.


I will only speak for myself in the last part of this article. And since I still head up SBGi, what I am saying speaks for our association as well, as related to those people I have given belts or certificates to over the Years.

I have maintained extremely high standards of performance for the Coaches and athletes I have recognized within SBGi.

I have run my own fulltime Gym in Portland Oregon now for well over Twelve Years, and In the last Ten plus Years I have taught seminars and coached athletes all across this beautiful planet.

In that time I have only awarded thirty or so purple belts, two brown belts, and one black belt. In terms of SBGi Coaching staff I have awarded seventeen Coaching certificates, of which fourteen have continued working through SBGi, one went on to create Team Quest, and two others went on to pursue other things.

My point is pretty simple, I have taught literally hundreds of seminars, in all kinds of locations, and had Thousands of students come through my doors, many of whom have stayed for Years. And in all that time and travel I have recognized personally less then 20 Coaches, and awarded only two brown belts.


It would have been very easy for us to accumulate a truly massive list of Instructors worldwide.

If our standards were simply a matter of sending an e-mail, buying a membership, attending a class, hosting a seminar, or taking a weekend Instructors course, we would have Hundreds of Coaches by now. But for a variety of reasons I set SBGi up in such a way as to ensure that all our Coaches, regardless of where they are found around the world, hold an unusually high level of performance and teaching skill.

If you pop into a Gym in Ireland, The UK, Denmark, Canada, NY, FLA, or any other SBGi location within the USA or world, that reality will become self evident.


As I wrote about in the last entry, my main intention as a Coach is to HONOR THE PROCESS. . . . .honoring the process sometimes means seeing a friendship through the conversation "no I cant endorse that" or "no, to measure you for this belt I need to see you on the mat against other athletes of that rank" . . .and should they refuse that criteria or move on from the Org because those standards are maintained, then letting them walk away and learning to be at peace with that, is part of what honoring the process means for us as a coach.

It is all part if our journey, our trip, our chance to grow as humans.

What is the point?

Only the evolution of the Art itself. . .what transcends individual attributes, and individual personalities?


In the end, what is passed on?

What stays and gets transferred?

For the Organization as a whole to grow, the next generation needs to surpass our own, and the answer that makes that happen is the conceptual understanding of the technical game that gets passed on, and then built upon, by the younger generation. The big picture regarding the physics, base, and movement. All of that becomes lost if we begin measuring instead who can run the fastest mile, or takes the best punch, or lifts the heaviest weight, within our generation.

And this is in part, the reason for the emphasis on quality of technique that I look for within our Org.


Is it Healthy?

A good father doesnt try and control his sons path, choose his sons path, or push his son into a particular path. A good father is like a good Coach, he acts as a guide, allowing his son to take his own journey, pursue his own bliss.

And a good father, like a good coach, expects at some point that his son will surpass him. To one up him so to speak. . .that IS the evolution of the consciousness.

As a Gym we seek the same. Each generation of students becomes better, at a faster rate, then the generation before.

Looking at SBGi this is absolutely shaping up to be the reality, and I for one am glad to see it happening.

The expression of that value set community wide, is to me a good measure of whether or not we are a healthy group. And I will tell you that right now, we are glowing.


Integrity, the SBGi way.

Its about honoring the process. . .if you get a belt from me it will not be given because we are friends.

It will not be given because I want to do seminars at your school.

It will not be given because you have trained with me for 15 Years, and therefore 'deserve' it.

If you get a belt from me it will be because you have reached a level of technical performance skill within your own game, that you can also articulate to others.


It will be just a symbol of course.

But make no mistake, it symbolizes something tangible, something real, and something meaningful in terms of measurement within our craft of BJJ, our trade of fighting.

It will be given with absolute respect and care. And it will be valuable precisely because it was something that could never be bought, bargained, or traded for.

It will be something personal, from me as a coach, to you as an athlete. And in that sense, it will mean a great deal to me at the time, because I will be proud of you, and happy for you.


And if within this process you become a BJJ black belt within our Organization, and you maintain those same standards, then you too will be honoring the process. And that will be our tradition at SBGi.

It is about authenticity, it is about love for our members, it is about honoring that process.

*** *** ***