Earning Blue Belt in Jiu Jitsu
Casey has one of the hardest challenges in the gym. He is partnered with Mike, a four-stripe blue belt with a background in wrestling. Mike is strong and technical with a good all-around game. His Jiu Jitsu is a lot like mine.
Mike has trained for almost four years. Casey has trained for two.
They have some good battles, with lots of back and forth, but Mike usually controls position and gets the tap.
I’ve watched them train together now for the last two months. Casey has improved a lot, but I’ve seen a consistent pattern in their rolls.
Just as Casey has made something good happen—and is about to threaten from the top position—he over-commits on top and gets swept.
He is so close, but not quite there.
Figuring out the next step is what will take Casey to his blue belt in Jiu Jitsu.
Learn By Doing
In the past, I would have given Casey specific instructions how to maintain his position, focus on alignment and keep his eyes on the horizon for better posture.
I wrote a book that covered these kind of tips. It seemed amazing. It was not.
One thing I’ve learned very clearly during the last year is that if you get people thinking about how they need to do things, the results are going to get worse.
I’ve seen it time and again.
You can see it when confusion creeps across their face.
Casey is smart, committed and hard working. He does what I ask and tries hard to make it work. And that is the problem, forcing a situation for him to copy, instead of create.
Learning is a creative act.
Play Fosters Creativity
The fastest way I’ve seen to get students to open up to creativity is through play.
Play has the ability to open doors in the mind that are locked shut.
Author Paul Arden writes, “If you can’t solve a problem, it’s because you’re playing by the rules.”
What a great quote!
In play, there are no rules. You can do whatever you want.
I took out a physio-ball, which acts as a constraint to action (see breakout below), and showed Casey some fun ways to use it to challenge balance, control and deceleration.
Casey practiced for a minute or two. No more. Training soon ended. I didn’t say much of anything for advice.
Next week, he had his turn again.
Just The Thing
When Casey and Mike returned to training, Casey decided to start the first roll on top so he could work on his passing.
Mike is always gracious in training. He started easy, allowing Casey the freedom to play. It is important to work this way to allow creativity to emerge. Positional sparring is usually best. Regular sparring is too strenuous, stressful and consequential for most athletes to encourage exploration and creativity. A feeling of personal safety and a risk-free environment are needed for creativity to flourish.
In those brief moments of play, something clicked for Casey.
He floated, balanced, slowed, stopped, turned and controlled his own movement. He looked like he was practicing the drills he had played with, only this time it was with a moving, resisting partner.
Mike has a great half guard. During their rolls, Casey would respond to danger the way he had been taught. He would look for a whizzer and try to pressure Mike back down. Normally, this would open both directions for Mike to sweep.
This time, Casey put his hands on the grounds, ignored his previous coaching and broke the rules.
Where he normally would have lost his balance, this time he didn’t.
Instead of getting swept, Casey passed to mount. Mike laughed. “Good job,” he said.
Play By Your Own Rules
Over the next couple of weeks, we “worked” on Casey’s passing — with the constraint of keeping hands on the ground against half guard.
Casey’s only task: stay on top.
At one point, Mike almost had a sweep but Casey posted on his head, twisted upside down, spun and landed safely back in position.
Afterwards, he admitted that he tried to avoid moves like that because he thought he should work on the “fundamentals” first. This is a common theme in sports. Fundamentals, basics. Master the basics. I used to post quotes about that.
Honestly, forget it! (Not the verb I would use at the gym.)
Would you rather be a shrimp or a spinning/cartwheeling/headstanding/unsweepable dervish?
Play by your own rules, be yourself, have fun and create some art. This is what Casey did to earn his blue belt in Jiu Jitsu.