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The Engineer and the Artist

In life and in jiujitsu, we have different needs at different stages on the journey.

While I was in New York competing, I had the chance to spend a week training at Unity Jiujitsu. Part of this was to get ready for the tournament, since Unity has excellent tough, technical training. Another reason had a bit of a more long-term view to it.

I always try to take advantage of the chance to train when I travel, and I try to soak up as much as I can. if you learn the same technique from 10 different black belts, you’ll often learn 10 different techniques — all of them correct. Seeing how great practitioners do things, even if it doesn’t wind up being how you do things, can only help you.

The impetus for this post: I’ve taken private lessons from many outstanding instructors, and two of the best were from Unity instructors Murilo Santana and Ana Lowry. What struck me about these two sessions, though, aside from how much I learned from each, was how very different their approaches were.

Awesome seminar with Murilo and Ana at Chapel Hill Gracie Jiuitsu. I am told the photographer was very handsome.

Awesome seminar with Murilo and Ana at Chapel Hill Gracie Jiuitsu. I am told the photographer was very handsome.

I’d taken my private from Murilo when he came to North Carolina for a seminar. I was blown away by how quickly he was able to analyze what I do (though he’d never seen me roll before), and how he was able to diagnose off the top of his head the best immediate steps for me.

He was like a great engineer working on a new but familiar design problem: “This is happening when you try this sweep? You can do one of two things. If you choose option A, he has three options. You should do these two things to shut down those options. If you choose option B, he might do one of two things. You want him to do the one thing, so bait him like this. If he does the other, you can transition to one of these two positions.”

This was exactly what I needed. During my mid-to-late-blue belt years, when I was competing all the time, the engineering approach was like food to me. I craved it all the time and couldn’t get enough. I drew elaborate decision trees for each position, reminding myself that if he gets this grip, I have three options to break it, and if I can’t break it, I have two options to deal with it. Murilo’s insights improved my A game instantly: I immediately used that to become a better competitor. As I absorb those insights, I think they’ll make me a better teacher, too.

Hey, I got a gold medal in NYC! Thanks, Murilo and Ana!

Hey, I got a gold medal in NYC! Thanks, Murilo and Ana!

You might expect people who train together and run the same school to have markedly similar strategy for teaching privates. You would — as I am often — be wrong.

To prepare for my private with Ana Lowry, I watched all her available matches on YouTube. I consulted with a good friend who trains at Unity and another who has trained with Ana about what I should ask during the private.

When we started the private class, though, it was clear we were going to start on a conceptual level. This is a martial art, she said, and so your art is going to look differently than mine. Let’s talk about what we’re trying to achieve in each position.

And then she broke down the core concepts of what a guard pass is. Using that as a framework, we started to talk about technique — and how the specific techniques we develop exist under that certain framework. This blew my mind. I was expecting to work on specific strategies to take the back. Instead, I learned how and why we use guard passing to take the back (for example). Ana’s explanations for the way jiujitsu functions helped me understand the whole art better.

I immediately used that to become a better teacher (at least, I think so). As I absorb that information further, it’s making me a better competitor, too.

Whenever you take a class from someone who excels, you’re going to learn something. And if you’re like me, you might learn something today and just begin to fully understand it a year from now. That’s the reality for complex systems.

For someone like me, it’s tempting to think that you can learn something just by checking a bunch of boxes labeled “technique” in various situations. Jiujitsu isn’t like that. Learning lots of moves and understanding when and how to implement them is important, of course — but so is understanding the “why” of everything.

At purple belt, I’ve been teaching a lot more. Learning more conceptual aspects of the art helps me communicate better with newer people. Jiujitsu is broader than competition, of course, and so it’s very important to understand the fundamental goals behind moves.

When you start out, you need a solid basic understanding of core concepts. Then, you need to learn techniques to give those concepts reality. From there, we — I — spend a lot of timing filling in technique gaps by learning new moves and chains of moves.

In terms of my own journey, I think it’s time for me to take a step back from obsessively learning moves to add to my flowchart, and think more about how moves work. The Oxford English dictionary says “art” is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” My private with Ana made me understand better why I do what I do, and that’ll help me both explain those things to others and improve the way I do things. That’s the definition of artistic practice, right?

We should all have a little of the engineer in us and a little of the artist. We should be both types of people and try to learn from both types of people, too.

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About Jeff

I write, work for social justice, listen to music and grapple. That's about it for now.

4 responses to “The Engineer and the Artist

  1. Pingback: August 1, 2015 - BJJ News

  2. Ty ⋅

    Hey Jeff. I enjoyed this article. I think I learn concepts best in a mechanical way too. Can you suggest any jiujitsu books in that vein? Thank you.

    • Jeff

      Hey Ty! Thanks, and thank you for reading. My two favorite books of this nature are Saulo Ribeiro’s “Jiu-Jitsu University” and Dave Camarillo’s “Submit Everyone.” I also like videos, and Ryan Hall is a great example of an engineer who breaks things down well. Best of luck!

  3. Pingback: The Importance of Systems - Elevate MMA Academy

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