Playing For Fun — And Blood — At Our Jiu Jitsu Gym In Baltimore

Martial Arts and Jiu Jitsu Classes In Baltimore, Maryland
Jiu Jitsu is so much fun because it feels like play. Play is creative and makes you smarter. But play is serious business. Play for fun; play for blood.

A Look Inside Our Jiu Jitsu Gym

Hi, I’m John David Emmett, the owner and head instructor of Zenyo Jiu Jitsu. I want to give you an in-depth look inside our Jiu Jitsu gym in Baltimore. In this post is a conversation with our students where I explain a revolutionary approach to Jiu Jitsu to bring out the best in every person that steps on the mats. If you are in the area, I hope you will join us. Best, John 

New Training Ideas 

I love watching you all train. Your progress is fantastic. You inspire me to be a better coach, to find new ways to help everyone keep improving.  

I’ve been playing with some ideas that are really amazing. And I want to share my excitement with you. 

First, let’s go back in time. 

When we were forced to take a break from training, in the spring of 2020, for almost two months because of COVID, I knew everyone would miss rolling the most. I know I did. Because of the necessity for precautions for COVID, we had limited training time. I decided to structure our training so that you could roll as much as you wanted during your time slot. 

I chose to take a backseat and let you all direct your own training and decide what worked best for you. There were lots of times that I wanted to interject my coaching views into training but I actively chose not to, even when I noticed that someone might be doing something “wrong.” I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do, but I thought of it as an experiment. 

Now, after seven months of the experiment, I would say it worked incredibly well. 

I’ve watched every single person get better on the mat, experience less frustration and confusion, and develop their own ability to explore and solve challenges presented to them during training. 

After a couple of months, I started to research more fully what it meant to give students freedom in their training and a way to develop their own style. 

In this process, I came across a revolutionary approach to training Jiu Jitsu that changed everything about how I teach and how we train. 

Up For Any Challenge

So much of training has been separated into distinct parts. But everything is connected in a seamless web. There is no separation. We are psychological beings first. 

Self-determination theory looks at human behavior through the lens of three basic needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. 

People want to feel they have choice and control, that they are competent at what they do and that they relate well to themselves and others. 

In this theory, autonomy is the cornerstone for positive behavior. 

“To be autonomous means to act in accord with one’s self — it means feeling free and volitional in one’s actions,” writes psychologist Edward L. Deci — the founder of self-determination theory — in Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. “When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being authentic.”

With autonomy, you are up for any challenge. 

Class Stories

How our students use the science of training  to develop creative, individualized Jiu Jitsu 

Creating Competence

Training progressed. Each week, everyone improved.

I have to admit, I was surprised. I was also super pleased. 

Competence used to seem a hard puzzle to solve. Everyone is unique and learns and acts in different ways. Theories abound about how to create competence. 

I realized that a big part of solving the puzzle of competence was addressed by giving students autonomy. When you are allowed to make your own choices, you will find what works best for you. 

This is exactly what I saw during training. You all were spending less time on the mat but improving at a faster rate. Every single person that returned to training during COVID has improved exponentially. 

Cal earned his grey belt; Max earned his blue belt. Lily, Colton, Dylan, Ava and Aine all earned new belts. 

With autonomy in training, you all improved. 

How was this possible, since you were training less and being coached less? 

No Perfect Technique

The answer, I believe, is implicit learning, which basically means “the capacity to learn without awareness of the products of learning.” 

Much of what we learn in life, especially during early development stages related to motor control and movement, is done through implicit learning. 

The other style of learning is called explicit, being told how to do something and following instructions based on feedback and correction. Most of us have come up in this style through school and organized sports. 

Traditional instruction relies on the idea that learning is orderly and linear and you can explicitly tell someone how to do something and they will be able to do it — or they will with enough repetitions. If they repeat enough times, they will develop “muscle memory.” Traditional instruction assumes the conscious mind plays a dominant role in learning movement skills. 

The research, however, is pretty clear: Learning is not linear and over-thinking leads to degraded performance. 

Good movement occurs beyond conscious control, implicitly. If you try to think and replicate the action, you will find that it is gone, or even worse. 

Thinking too much about “how” to move has been proven through numerous studies to create confusion and less than ideal learning and retention. Your goal should be to solve your problem or execute your task, without excess focus on step-by-step processes. There are no “right” or “wrong” ways — no ideal movements or methods. There is no perfect technique. There is only effective, or not. 

While explicit and implicit learning can take you to the same place, research shows that implicit learning may get you to a high-skill level with less confusion and struggle. Implicit learning may also be more “robust.” {Thank you for that insight, Cherie!} Read more on learning in 4 Keys To Faster Progress In Jiu Jitsu.

Results Are What Matters

I have to be honest – coaching like this is very different for me. I spent almost a solid year working on a 100-page book covering in great detail the curriculum for Zenyo. I spent countless hours working and coaching to help you all master movements and techniques. 

To now step back and trust that you will be able to self-organize and find your own best path is very difficult. 

But, one thing stands out – results are what matter! 

This way — as proven by research and as I can see with my own eyes — works. 

I’ve spent hours over the past six months studying methods related to coaching that take advantage of the aspects of self-determination theory and implicit learning. 

It has been a lot of work, fraught with confusion and frustration, but with much more excitement and joy. 

Seeing you all benefit in profound ways is immensely rewarding. 

The next question for me became how to facilitate the process when needed. How could I help develop autonomy and implicit learning? 

All About The Revolutionary Training Method We Use At Zenyo​

Sound Of Good Training

Trying to answer this question, I read so much technical information and delved into so many theories that my head started to hurt: self-determination theory, social cognitive theory, adaptive unconscious theory, non-linear pedagogy theory, constraint-led approach theory, ecological dynamics theory, differential-learning theory and more.

The language is super hard to explain. I knew I was in danger of falling into a trap of technical jargon. 

And I know nobody got time for that! 

I thought about my training and what helped me along the path to black belt. I had learned a great deal through implicit learning. My teacher, Marcelo, and most Brazilians, teach more in an implicit style. Marcelo used to tell me, “You can be too technical.”

At some point, you just have to do it. 

A large part of implicit learning theory is to forego explanations and feedback, to let the process happen naturally. 

What would that look like — or should I say sound? 

Good training has a sound. The sound is laughter. 

I know that good things are happening when you all are laughing and having fun during training. 

My favorite memories of training involve joking around and playing with fun variations of techniques. 

As a blue belt, I got to train with a multiple-time world champion. He swept me with the same sweep – butterfly — into the same submission — triangle — three times in a row. 

He went for it a fourth time and while I tried to block it with all my might, I looked at him and said, “no, no no, no.” He laughed and said, “yes, yes, yes, yes.” We both had a great time training and laughing. 

It felt like play. 

Now I realize it was. 

Play and implicit learning are intricately linked.

Play More

What seemed super complicated and theoretical became easy to understand. 

Good training is play. 

That was it! 

Play is the answer. 

Play more, learn more, improve more. 

Look into the best athletes in history and they all loved to play. 

As a coach, however, it is important to me to go on more than opinion, feeling and tradition. I want to be backed up by science as I trust science and research.

“I believe that we have … evidence that with enough play, the brain works better. We feel more optimistic and creative,” writes Dr. Stuart Brown in Play: How It Shapes The Brain, Opens The Imagination and Invigorates The Soul. 

“It is intensely pleasurable. It energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities” writes Brown. 

Play links to the best processes of implicit learning. Play is varied, non-conscious, non-repetitive, outward focused and non-idealized. 

Play is creative and links multiple areas in the brain together. Research has shown that animals that play more are smarter and have larger brains. Read more on how we use play to shape training at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu: Take Your Jiu Jitsu Game To The Next Level At Zenyo 

Play Accomplishes More Than "Work"

One problem with training consisting of lots of rolling is that is can become overly competitive and static. 

It can lose its sense of play and athletes can then stall in their progress. 

I noticed this hasn’t happened as much as during classes pre-COVID. 

I think the reason why is the amount of time on the mat. Sessions are only 30 minutes. That about of time seems very short, but as soon as you start going, you realize that 30 minutes of hard sparring is a long time. 

A couple of hard rolls, and then you’re ready to dial it back, experiment and play more. I think this is the impetus for continued progress.

One of the accounts I follow on Instagram is by horse trainer Kathy Sierra. Her account is called Pantherflows: The Science of Movement + Motivation (@pantherflows). Sierra is an expert in both horse and human movement and instruction.  

She writes of play: 

Play triggers movement in all planes. Play triggers exploration. Play triggers nature’s performance-enhancing drugs. Brains love play.Bodies love play.

But somehow we’re in a culture where PLAY is just for “fun” (as if that’s not an ideal goal), but “serious work” is where the real stuff happens.”

The research on Self-Determination / Self-Regulation and Exercise is compelling, but NOT surprising to most of us: intrinsic motivation in movement is linked to better long-term, sustainable, robustness in maintaining fitness “work.”

In other words, PLAY is better for “work” than actual “work.”

Kids Jiu Jitsu Class Baltimore

Strong But Gentle

A Lesson For Kids That Also Works For Adults

Play With Differences

Before COVID, I was quick to jump in with advice, feedback and criticism. I believed that there was a “right” way to perform technique — or at least a better way. And that it was my job to show and tell you. 

I see now that there is no right way. There are many ways. There are no basics or fundamentals. Each person is different. There are techniques that work and make sense for you as an individual. 

I’m working to understand how everyone is different and practices Jiu Jitsu in their own unique and different way. 

Different is good. The brain learns through differences, not repetition. This is the key idea behind “differential learning.”

Differential learning is an approach to training that seems very much like play. 

Pioneered by Professor Wolfgang Schoellhorn of Mainz University the theory has been used at the elite-level in professional soccer by clubs like Barcelona FC.

“The idea is that there is no repetition of drills, no correction and players are encouraged not to think about what has gone wrong if they have made a mistake,” explained Schoellhorn, an expert in kinesiology or human movement. (See one of his studies on differential learning.)

Sounds just like play. 

Differential learning is a way of playing with variations. The ability to play and make up interesting configurations develops an adaptive, elastic style. 

When I need to jump in now to offer help in training, I use the ideas in differential learning to guide me. I help you try variations, explore different ways, and expose you to as much stimulus as possible. There is no right way; there are countless ways. Differential learning helps you find unique ways for yourself. 

“Athletes have to take responsibility,” Schoellhorn added. “They have to be creative and take responsibility and have to find the optimal solution. It’s a whole philosophy.”

Schoellhorn’s research is being applied in soccer development by coach Michel Bruyninckx.

“You have to present new activities that players are not used to doing. If you repeat exercises too much the brain thinks it knows the answers,” Bruyninckx added.

“By constantly challenging the brain and making use of its plasticity you discover a world that you thought was never available.

“Once the brain picks up the challenge you create new connections and gives remarkable results.” 

Play For Fun, Play For Blood

The great thing about this approach to training is that everyone already knows how to do it. 

We all know what it is like to make our own choices, and how that makes us stronger and more capable, even when we make mistakes. 

We all know how to “just do it.” You are created this way. Your brain is programmed to act first, ask questions later. This is the basis of implicit learning. 

A huge benefit of implicit learning is that it lowers cognitive load. You need to think less about how to do something and can then spend your mental energy on other things. 

“I think the real key that eludes people a lot of time is the idea that it’s the removing of attention that actually allows that ‘ah-ha’ insight to take place,” writes author and math teacher Barbara Oakley in her book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)

We all know how to play. 

Play is a fundamental need. We all love Jiu Jitsu because it feels so playful at times. 

The difference between Jiu Jitsu and other forms of play is that it prepares you for a real fight. 

You get to play fight all the time. This creates the basis to learn how, if needed, to fight for blood. 

There are enormous benefits to play fighting. Play fighting relieves stress, builds fitness and strength, creates competence and, paradoxically, makes us feel closer to each other. 

So, let’s play and have fun. We all need more fun in life, especially now.

“Work that is devoid of play is either boring or a grind…Having a fierce dedication to grinding out the work is often not enough. Without some sense of fun or play, people usually can’t make themselves stick to any discipline long enough to master it,” writes Stuart Brown in Play.

It's About You

All this stuff doesn’t matter much if it doesn’t work for you. 

It’s about you, not me. I’m just a servant. 

I wanted to make sure my feelings were shared by the group. I asked a couple of students to share their thoughts with me. 

One day I was watching Matt Long during training. I wasn’t quite sure what he was going for, but it looked uncomfortable and unbalanced. When I asked him if he was comfortable, he said no. I suggested he focus on comfort and being athletic in training. Almost instantly, a switch flipped and he looked like a different person. He was passing with speed, jumping side to side, and taking the back for a choke. 

“It frees me up intellectually,” he wrote, “so that I have the freedom to be more efficiently responsive in the moment. Which then gives me a quicker response time.”

I also asked Courtney Moore to share her thoughts with me. I asked, “Do you have any thoughts on how this “implicit” style of learning and training might have helped you?”

“That is a really good question. It has definitely promoted a growth mindset for me,” Courtney said. “I tend to get very caught up in technique and doing things right, which is definitely not helpful as a beginner who has a lot to learn. 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.”

And lastly, I’ll leave you with a conversation that I had with Mike Guberman on the mat during training. Each week he is getting better and better. One night, I gave him his fourth stripe on his blue belt. 

“Really?” he asked. 

“You don’t think you deserve it?”

“Well,” he said. Then he mentioned how he hadn’t been training as much. 

“You’ve gotten better, haven’t you?” I asked. 

“Yes,” he replied. 

It’s that easy. Make your choices, don’t overthink it, have fun. Good things will happen. 

All About The Revolutionary Training Method We Use At Zenyo​

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