How we learn

Now that I’m beginning to get the ghost of an inkling of what BJJ is all about (and so I should, since I got awarded my third stripe on Wednesday: thank you Luciano, I’ll try to deserve it), I think I can understand the learning process a little better.

Our class is fairly standard. Our instructor shows us a move – armbar from side control, or whatever. He breaks it up into the individual stages, the grips, the shifts of weight, and then he puts it back together again. Then we pair off and practise.

By then we’ve already completely forgotten how it’s meant to go. It was obvious when we watched it. It was so obvious that we were bored with being shown and impatient with the one guy in the class who wanted to see it just one more time. And now – our minds and bodies are blank. We have to call the instructor over and get him to show us on our own bodies what to do.

The same comes when you try to learn any physical activity and the reason is always the same. They can teach your mind, but it’s your body that has to learn.


Your body, not your head. This is why I’m suspicious of how-to books and instructional videos. Your eyes are in your head and what you learn with your eyes stays in your head.

This fits in with what happens after we’ve finished practising and started sparring. By then we know the chosen move very well and we can do it with our eyes shut (literally: try it, it’s good!). We get into the starting position, we shake hands, and… complete blankness again.

For the first few months I would just wait for the other guy to do something so that I’d at least have something to respond to.

Now I’m beginning to see my body doing the thinking, and it does it very, very differently from the way my mind works. It doesn’t say (as my mind would), “let’s see, he’s in my guard, has he left an arm free for an armbar? has he left me room for a triangle choke? can I get far enough away for a scissor sweep?”, tick, tick, tick, enumerating every possibility. The body doesn’t use words at all. It feels the balance of forces, it feels what is immobile and what can be moved. I find myself seizing a wrist, pulling him close to me, pivoting to reverse the position, without knowing which move I’m doing or even what’s going to happen next. It comes without warning, and it doesn’t come often (yet) but it’s an unmistakable feeling. I remember the same thing in salsa – the moment when you depart from a planned sequence of steps while still staying with the music. It happens with languages too: the time when you start saying things in a certain way not because it conforms to a grammatical rule but because it feels right.

In every case it’s the same thing. You have to learn to go behind what you’re being taught.

I don’t know any way of accelerating this process on your own. I don’t think that any book or video (at my early white-belt stage at least) can actually teach anything. Indeed, they can do harm by driving you further into your head. There is no substitute for getting out there and trying it.

But I’ve still gone and bought the Cesar Gracie instructional DVDs (I saw clips on YouTube and liked his straightforward style). And I really appreciate Slideyfoot’s BJJ technique summary And most of all, I look forward to the photographic snowboarder series on B Stuff.

What these have in common is that I can use them to remind me as opposed to teaching me. I can look at a half-remembered move on the screen and see what it is like and instantly feel it too. (Where B Stuff’s snowboarders score is that I don’t even need words). Embarrassingly often, I can look at an unfamiliar move and, as I think through it, realise that I’ve learnt it myself, a month ago, and forgotten all about it.

I’m sure these fragments of memory will knit together in the end, and finally there’ll come a time where even learning a genuinely new move becomes a kind of reminding. Then my body’s “behind” learning will really have worked.

I reckon that’s a blue-belt stage. From watching the blue belts, it seems to me that after that, once you’ve finished going behind, you start going beyond. You can rely on the body skills, so you start learning to use them. Your mind comes back in, in its proper place. Planning strategy, assessing your opponent, deceiving him, even…

I hope I’ll get there one day!

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4 thoughts on “How we learn

  1. the first few paragraphs – that really does happen in all schools huh? It even happens to blue and purple belts. I learn pretty much the same way too. Congratulations on your stripe!!

  2. Congrats on the stripe!

    Does Cesar Gracie go into much detail on escapes (what I’m concentrating on at the moment)? I also liked his vids on YouTube (especially the Americana – that definitely helped), but they’ve since been taken down, as far as I can tell. I had been using them in the summary, so had to replace them with the stuff from Ryron and Rener.

    I’ve not bothered with DVDs yet, but I think I’ve delayed about long enough now that they should hopefully have a positive rather than negative effect on my training.

    Oh, and thanks for the mention. 😀

  3. It was actually through YouTube that I became aware of the Cesar Gracie vids – so when the owners of the material got it removed from YouTube it was counter-productive. They should have made sure that a good sample was available on YouTube together with clear links to allow us to buy them.

    I haven’t had a chance to look at the DVDs much yet. I’ll post a review once I have, but overall I feel that watching them can be of some benefit (to me at my stage although I’m a long way behind you). The key is to watch a little inattentively rather than trying to memorise everything. The bits that fit in with what’s already in your head will glue themselves on to your existing knowledge and the rest will slide past harmlessly.

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