I came up with this idea while watching an instructor talk about how your perspective on a technique changes as you move from white to black belt. I started writing down how I feel you expand your mind as a martial artist when you progress through the ranks, or maybe just with time. Thinking in terms of a single technique, I laid out five steps. Each of them correspond with the five belt levels from white to black.
1. Recognize the position
The first challenge of any technique is
simply identifying it. Some techniques, like wrist turns, are easier to
recognize because they only happen from a few positions (usually when
your hands are grabbing someone's wrists, it's a wrist turn). Other
techniques, like throws, are harder because there are many positions,
and can be done with many parts of your body. Although you may not fully
understand how a technique works, or even what it is, you start by
recognizing the positions. You may have certain snapshots in your head
of what a position looks like, or it could be associated with a feeling
when your body starts to move a certain way. It's not always easy, some
positions look close but they're not right. Eventually, you just know.
2. Find the setups
As you recognize the positions better and
better, you begin to see the opportunities that create them. When
someone locks their arm firmly, you see an opening for an armlock. They
are anatomical cues that prompt you to begin a certain technique.
Initially, you probably have a limited library of techniques in your
mind. Your association of how setups lead to positions that lead to
techniques is very linear. If someone does A, I should do B. If this
works, I get a technique. Finding these setups is like reading a map.
You start to see how things are connected and how some setups lead to
You need the setups to find the techniques, at least in your own
mind. You start to play with creating the setups, rather than waiting
for them to happen. sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't. You
start to piece these setups together with commonalities, leading into
the next step.
3. Learn what makes it work
After many repetitions, your
starting to get pretty good. You can size up a situation pretty quickly
and see if you have the setups to do your technique. Now that you can
lay out your technique clearly in your head, you begin to compare and
contrast it's various forms. You start learning what the setups have in
common, and can reduce it down to usually one or two things. Take a look
at the blood choke. It has more than a dozen ways to do it, but they
all rely on pressure to the neck (obviously). You eventually can see (or
someone tells you) that everyone has two arteries on their neck and
when they are both compressed, they will pass out from lack of blood
after a few seconds. No matter how you choose to do it, those arteries
have to be stopped from bringing blood (which carries oxygen) to the
brain. It's what makes it work.
Now that you know what makes it work, you can take a second look at
those positions and setups. You realize now that while they were useful
to know, your relying on them less and less. You really only need to get
hold of that neck, you don't always need to be in a certain position. You may not even have to use the parts of your body you thought you did.
4. Create new ways to do it.
Before you had to recognize the
position before you could do a technique. Now you don't even acknowledge
the position, you go strait to the technique. Your finding your techniques in
places that weren't there before. You no longer need to find the setups,
your creating them. Continuing with the choke example, your starting to
find chokes with not just your arms but your legs. You can choke
someone with their own arms, even their own clothes. Your even starting
to play with new chokes like air chokes, and seeing how they link to
strikes to the neck and controlling someone's posture. Sometimes you do
things that may be modified versions of the technique. But does that
even matter? A technique is just a label we use so we know what we're
talking about. Your moving beyond these labels and simply adding more
tools to your toolbox. Now your starting to think like a black belt.
5. Do it without thinking
The last step in the learning process and the one where you truly take
off. The key to doing anything without thinking about it is to not be
attached to it. As you continue to learn more techniques and put them
into practice, your toolbox is full enough that if one thing isn't
there, another thing will be. Although we started talking about finding
the positions and the setups for a single technique, its hard to even
think about individual techniques at this level. The boundaries that separate them are disappearing. You see techniques
everywhere. It's not that you have too many options, your just ready to
take whatever is there. If your opponent escapes your technique, you
just flow into the next one. That's because the technique doesn't even
matter anymore, it's just one method of finishing that's as good as the next. You defeating your opponent is the only really important thing. Your not attached because you feel like you can win in many
As a final word, be careful of the sixth and final step which is "you
actually forget what your doing". The better you get at something, the
more likely you are to forget the fundamentals. I've tied my belt so
many times, I occasionally have trouble doing it slowly and teaching a
new student. When this happens, return to step 1. Remember, your always a
I want to acknowledge and give credit to Roy Dean, Sensei, a very successful and respected Brazilian Jui-Jitsu Black Belt and a Seibukan Jujutsu Black Belt. His video "White to Black, A Shift in Perspective" inspired me to write this with my own variation on it's message.
I spoke with a high school friend who had taken up this thing called jujitsu (or jujutsu, jiu-jitsu). He told me about Royce Gracie, winning some epic tournament despite being the smallest fighter, beating all other styles of martial arts. I was getting ready to go to college, and decided to give it a try. When I arrived in Monterey, I went to the first jujutsu school I found. As fate would have it, the school was teaching a style rooted in Japanese jujutsu. Naturally, I had no idea what the difference between this and Brazilian jujitsu was.
I came to understand that I had fallen into one of the best academies in the world, the headquarters of Seibukan Jujutsu, with the founder alive and in his prime. I began a journey into martial arts that spanned several years, three black belts, and ultimately becoming an instructor. It continues today.
During this time, I learned the difference between the different jujutsu styles. Like so many classical martial artists, I developed a deep mistrust of Brazilian jujitsu (BJJ) and most sport based martial arts. I was skeptical of their training, their mindset, and their culture. Yet, my limited experiences with BJJ practitioners in particular led me to respect their skills, which far exceeded my own when it came to grappling. I always kept a curiosity about their art and combat sports associated with it.
Fate is a funny thing. After I had already been training for several years under Toribio, Kancho, I happened to hear an interview with Rener Gracie. His over the top enthusiasm for spreading his family's philosophy of jujitsu was inspiring. Taking a leap of faith, I drove to a seminar soon after to train with his older brother, Ryron.
While I was ready to embrace the differences between Gracie jujitsu and Seibukan jujutsu, I found myself more in awe of the similarities. The people I met were welcoming, talked always about "keeping it playful", and most surprising: they were more focused on self defense than competition. And I genuinely enjoyed training. Seibukan jujutsu had always been like painting a picture. Gracie jujitsu was like solving a puzzle. Ryron himself was very encouraging to me. He told me about Gracie University, and even invited me to train at his family's academy in Los Angeles.
I walked away realizing that my prejudice against BJJ was born from my own ignorance. I hadn't known, and I never bothered to find out. I had made a judgement about the many based on the few.
At the same time, I couldn't help but notice the same ignorance in the other side of the gate. When I did travel to the Gracie Academy, I realized that they also knew little about the traditional martial arts, and had a number of misconceptions. I came to understand that I was some sort of an anomaly, a student who actively trained in both at the same time. And I was better for it. In fact, I believe everyone would be.
This blog is my thoughts on martial arts in general. Things I notice, things I learn, things I teach. But it's also about closing the distance between styles, especially my own. Distance is important in jujutsu, the closer the better. I think the way we often break this rule in our overall training, keeping as far away from other styles as we can. I want spend more time closing this distance in my own training.