The most important ability in Jiu Jitsu is the skill of focusing your mind on the right task. Focus might seem easy, but it is actually quite difficult—your brain does not want to focus intently on one thing because focus comes at a cost. That cost is energy, which your brain is designed to save.
A simple grip like the Kimura, above, can be challenging to master if you can’t switch focus between fast and slow thinking.
The Two Systems
Our brains are infinitely sophisticated systems that operate on both a conscious and unconscious level. The ability to distinguish the ways in which your brain responds to challenges makes learning Jiu Jitsu easier and more productive.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman details what he calls the two operating systems of the brain. Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize, has created a framework to explain how the brain relies on these systems he calls fast and slow.
The fast system, or System 1, “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control,” Kahneman writes.
System 2, or the slow system, “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.”
Kahneman writes that most of our life is spent using System 1. We are hardwired to act first, think second. Life depends on the ability to fight or flight. Overthinking is not only slow, but also tiring. Being overly fatigued from mental effort is dangerous, in the real world and on the mat. Effortful thinking comes at a cost of mental energy that the body is reluctant to spend. “The defining feature of System 2 … is that its operations are effortful … a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary.”
System 2, however, is where most of learning occurs. To learn a new skill, you need to slow down, take your time, deliberately process complex information, then practice with patience. The new skills you build through System 2 transfer to System 1 thinking. You go slow so you can go fast later. The better you integrate new skills through slow, deliberate practice, the more accurate your predictions and responses will be when you transition to fast mode in sparring.
“You believe you know what goes on in your mind, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, nor indeed is that the typical way. Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. The mental work … goes on in silence in our mind.”
– Daniel Kahneman
Fast And Slow
Most of our life is spent in System 1 thinking. Humans are designed for action. The primary goal of evolution is survival and if you are in immediate threat, there is no time for slow thinking. You have to go.
Sparring in Jiu Jitsu is like this. You have to be alert, ready to react and quick in your thoughts and actions. Most of your work is done in System 1. Jiu Jitsu demands quick solutions to immediate problems and slow thinking is ineffective and counter-productive in this case. Slow thinking in sparring leads to slow death.
Rolling is only one method of training in Jiu Jitsu, however. Another method is technical practice, working on new skills that you have not yet integrated. Trying to apply fast, easy thinking to this form of practice will lead to errors and erratic progress. You have to learn to shift your focus and go slow to avoid the errors inherent in System 1 thinking.
“System 1 registers the cognitive ease with which it processes information, but it does not generate a warning signal when it becomes unreliable. Intuitive answers come to mind quickly,” Kahneman writes.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman uses several tasks to illustrate the nature of the two systems.
Thinking of 2+2 draws on System 1. The answer comes to mind immediately without effort.
Thinking of 17×24 draws on System 2. The answer does not come to mind easily and likely will take effort to solve.
Another puzzle used in the book is an easy calculation of costs. Do not try to solve it but listen to your intuition:
A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?
Was the easy answer right? (The correct answer is $1.05.)
Learning new techniques in Jiu Jitsu is much more like algebra than simple addition. The task requires you to spend much of your time in the effortful System 2.
Slow: Simple In Principle
Jiu Jitsu requires fast and slow thinking. The need to switch between the two methods is challenged every class. This is part of the fun of Jiu Jitsu; it is mentally stimulating. Unlike jogging on a treadmill, which allows you to disengage your conscious brain, relax and zone out, Jiu Jitsu requires focus when you are developing skills and quick responses when you are applying skills.
Here’s a simple challenge to see if you are able to switch between the two modes of thought. Try a takedown—a single leg or double leg. Where do you place your head? Now, after a few tries, put your head somewhere else.
It will feel different. It takes some effort. You’ll need to slow down.
I coach all beginners to execute the single or double leg takedown with the head on the inside. Most students instinctively place the head on the outside. The only way to overcome this instinct is to slow down, switch your focus to System 2, and make the correction.
“The way to block errors that originate in System 1,” Kahneman writes, “is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down and ask for reinforcement from System 2.”
Jiu Jitsu is simple in principle. Kahneman clarifies “simple in principle” because it is effortful to switch from System 1 to System 2. Simple does not mean easy. Mental focus is a skill and like all skills, it takes practice.
Developing this ability is key to advancing your Jiu Jitsu. When you encounter challenges in understanding and executing techniques, you must make the switch, slow down, and don’t get ahead of yourself.
Fast: Mostly Right
Learning new skills requires us to slow down as real learning is effortful and requires discipline. The challenge in Jiu Jitsu is not physical but mental when it comes to figuring out a new move.
Focus is demanding and uses mental resources. The faster you try to work, the more you will probably struggle. If you have ever seen world-class black belts work on new skills, they go very slow. This is the process.
The process changes when the speed picks up. You have to switch gears. You have to move and think fast in rolling—you don’t have a choice.
Kahneman relates his perception in terms of daily walks. “Accelerating beyond my strolling speed completely changes the experience of walking because the sharp transition to a faster walk brings about a sharp deterioration in my ability to think coherently,” he writes.
Now, imagine a big blue belt trying to crush you during training. You are forced into System 1 response. The brain is challenged to think quickly but also needs to hold onto more than one thing. You can’t just rely on instincts, at least not until you have developed a deep level of knowledge and skill.
The key to success during sparring is using System 2 to establish a single task to focus on when training. Usually, I coach students to focus on their grip. Once a good grip is established, you can achieve both physical and mental control. I encourage students to consider their grip in every part of the rolling process. Focusing on that singular skill allows the brain to let go and trust System 1 to do the right thing at the right time.
Your ability to direct your focus between the brain’s two thinking systems is vital to your development in Jiu Jitsu. It builds confidence, ease, and precision in your Jiu Jitsu game.