There is a story that Saulo Ribeiro tells in his book Jiu-Jitsu University about Helio Gracie at age 90. Helio told Saulo,
Son, you’re strong, you’re tough, you’re a world champion, but I don’t think you can beat me.
Although the 90 year Helio wasn’t about to beat Saulo, he simply stated that Saulo couldn’t beat him. And Saulo couldn’t. Helio survived. Saulo could not impose his game on the 90 year old Helio.
This taught Saulo a very valuable lesson: the importance of survival and defense in the art of jiu-jitsu.
In turn, I hope that it also teaches all of us a valuable lesson as well.
When learning something new and exciting, it is very tempting to dive head first into the vast ocean of your endeavor. This leaves us thrashing about here and there, with no real direction, lost in a seemingly infinite sea.
Perhaps it might be better to first build a sturdy boathouse and dock, and make sure that it is well kept. Without these basic building blocks, we have nothing to land on or come back to.
As a beginner, it is tempting to want to take on the ocean right away. But it is best to limit our focus on the basics.
In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he describes a writing assignment that a student is assigned. She is supposed to write an essay about her home town, but can’t do it. When the teacher changed the assignment, and instructed her to write about a brick in the opera house on a small block in her home town, the words began to flow.
Josh Waitzkin used the above reference in his book The Art of Learning. He applies the idea of limiting focus to martial arts in the chapter “Making Smaller Circles” (this chapter name was the inspiration of the featured image for this post):
We watch completely unrealistic choreography, filmed with sophisticated aerial wires and raucous special effects, and some of us come away wanting to do that stuff to. This leads to the most common error in the learning of martial arts: to take on too much at once.
As a brand new student in jiu-jitsu, I try my best to limit my focus on surviving and defending. This takes quite a long time. I had to tap out several times during a class a few weeks ago. Surviving and defending is tough enough!
Coach Criqui emphasized this same sentiment during a recent class, describing the confused state that students get themselves in after watching 20 YouTube videos of moves they want to practice. He, too, encouraged us to limit our focus.
The Instructor’s Dilemma
There are several BJJ Academy instructors I’ve listened to on The Grappling Central Podcast. Many of them share a common sentiment: the struggle to drill and teach what should be taught versus drilling and running the program in a way that keeps students coming back.
Drilling basics, defense and survival strategies may get students in the door, but unfortunately, most of us don’t have the mindset of limiting our focus. We come in wondering how we’re going to compete and beat the instructor before we’ve learned how to defend against getting choked. Better yet, how to avoid positions that will lead to getting choked.
We want to dance before we can walk. We want to navigate the vast sea without a boat or a dock.
Students see where they want to be. Instructor’s know and understand the path the student needs in order to get there.
The successful student will work hard, think hard, and put the necessary time in, allowing their instructor(s) to lead them along the path the instructor knows so well. They limit their focus and stay on the designed path.
Students who look for and take shortcuts and alternative routes will inevitably get lost and not succeed in the way they had initially set out to.
Stay on path. Limit your focus.