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Coach’s Journal: Complex Not Complicated

What does an Italian social researcher have to do with how we practice Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore?

A great deal. 

In a few short sentences, a quiet man who lives alone in the country, loves to read, walks for exercise and works in his garden growing roses, changed the way I understand the world — and coach Jiu Jitsu. 

I discovered Roberto Poli one morning before class, over a cup of coffee, while looking at my iPad.

His work appeared by what seems like coincidence. Reading one story, I clicked to another and then to another.

His story was titled, “A Note on the Difference Between Complicated and Complex Social Systems.”

Not sure what that would have to do with Jiu Jitsu. 

As I read, a giant smiled crossed my face. I stopped, shook my head and marveled at the profound distinction he had made. The world is made of two kinds of systems, he wrote: complex and complicated. Many people think of them as similar—and able to be understood with the same methods—but they are wildly different.

I immediately realized that Jiu Jitsu is a complex system. Until recently, I had been teaching Jiu Jitsu as a complicated system. 

Poli explained to me why complex is not complicated. 

“The difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems is a difference of type, not a difference of degree,” he wrote. “In this sense, a complex system is not a system that is remarkably more complicated than a customarily complicated system. A complex system is a system of completely different type from a complicated system.”

People are complex systems; machines are complicated systems. 

“Complicated systems can be – at least in principle – fully understood and modeled. They can be entirely captured by suitable models. Whilst it may not be feasible to build these models with all the necessary details – e.g. because it will be too costly or because some information would be missing – in principle they can be constructed. Complex systems, on the other hand, are such that they are never fully graspable by any model whatsoever: models of them – even in principle – are always incomplete and diverge over time.”

Many of the problems of the world, Poli argued, are caused by treating complex systems as though they are complicated. 

Most of Jiu Jitsu instruction follows this method. “Five techniques every white belt needs to know.” “One concept that works against everyone.” “The perfect way to do an armbar.” 

The ecological approach we use at Zenyo is perfectly situated to help you navigate a complex world. In the ecological approach, the environment is as important as the individual. The environment dictates much of what you are able to do. Trying to remove it and focus on perfect techniques is shown to be an ineffective way to instruct motor learning. The ecological approach helps you realize there are many ways to achieve goals in complex systems. The focus is not on right or wrong ways, or perfect techniques, but on flexible, creative and innovative behavior. Complexity acknowledges there are no easy fixes. Trying to make Jiu Jitsu “simple” actually makes it complicated. 

In my mind, complex equals challenging. (Read Up For Any Challenge.) Complicated equals confusing. 

Step-by-step instructions, like a frustrating furniture manual, interfere with your ability to self-organize and improvise in the moment, to navigate an ever-changing, dynamic, chaotic environment. You, your partner, your environment are all weaved together in a complex web that is indivisible. 

We train complex, not complicated. This is how an Italian social researcher has had a profound impact on how we train Jiu Jitsu. 

Listen to what Poli writes: “It is our claim that the difference between complicated and complex systems is of the same kind: one can always exploit complicated systems to understand complex ones – e.g. by developing simulations of the latter that come as close as possible – but in doing so, something essential is systematically lost.”

Intuitively, students, like Courtney Moore, who has trained at Zenyo for four years, can feel this complex way seems right. As soon as she got it, she embraced the complex challenge. She didn’t need easy answers. She learned to trust in her ability to navigate complexity.

“I tend to get very caught up in technique,” she writes, “and doing things right, which is definitely not helpful as a beginner who has a lot to learn. (Note: she is no longer a beginner. She has been training for 4 years and is now a blue belt. Main photo is Courtney with group being promoted.) A more hands-off approach allows me to just explore movement and learn to problem solve on my own. Rolling is so much more fun when I am not in my head.”

Her Jiu Jitsu has expanded in ways she could not imagine. 

“I’ve had a lot of growth over the past 6 months – way more than I was expecting. I think a lot of that is related to the mental switch to learn by doing. Rather than analyzing every single move during a roll, my focus has been on doing what feels right for my body. To think less. As a natural consequence of that I am physically feeling better and stronger. My mind is also less fixated on technique so I can explore more, make mistakes, and not be hard on myself.”

I believe that once you begin to train in a complex manner, you will never want to go back to the traditional way where techniques are separated and removed from reality. When you do, something is lost. 

 “It is hard to move away from the right-wrong dichotomy,” Courtney writes, “but making a greater effort to do so has had a tremendous impact on my training.”

Thank you to Roberto Poli, a professor in the department of Sociology and Social Research at the University of Trento, Italy. 

Courtney Moore Athlete Fighter Martial Artist

"I’ve had a lot of growth over the past 6 months – way more than I was expecting. I think a lot of that is related to the mental switch to learn by doing. Rather than analyzing every single move during a roll, my focus has been on doing what feels right for my body. To think less."

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