Saturday, July 31, 2010

When You Seek It, You Can Not Find It

One of the most asked questions when people start out in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tends to be "What do I need to know to get my _______ belt?"  People are always looking forward to their next belt and what they need to do to get it, or how hard they have to work to get it.  What most people fail to realize is that they need to focus on building on what they have already learned and refining it, to take them to the next level.

When I discuss our Brazilian Jiu Jitsu program to prospective students I explain the "good news / bad news" about BJJ belts when the topic of rank comes up.  I explain to the prospective student that there are only 5 belts (plus stripes) in BJJ.  Where in some traditional martial arts you might have a dozen or more ranks until you finally get to black belt.  I explain that the good news is you only have five belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but that's also the bad news.  You are obviously going to spend a bit of time at each belt and should not focus on the simple goal of reaching your next belt.  I can already see a defeated look in their eyes when I explain to them that it took me approximately 10-12 months to reach my blue belt.

Focus on the Journey, not the Destination

The title of this entry, "When you seek it, you can not find it."  is from a Zen riddle and is illustrated perfectly in the book Zen in the Martial Arts (I have referenced this book already, and often will.  I highly recommend it to everyone).   The book tells the story of a young boy who happens upon a Karate master:

The boy tells the Karate master "I wish to be your student and become the finest karateka in the land.  How long must I study?" 
"Ten years at least," the master answered.
"Ten years is a long time," said the boy.  "What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?"
"Twenty years," replied the master.
"Twenty years!  What if I practice day and night with all my effort?"
"Thirty years," was the master's reply.
"How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" the boy asked.
"The answer is clear." said the master.  
"When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way."

How many times have we heard "stop and smell the roses," or that "life is about the journey, not the destination"?  If your sole purpose for participating in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is to get the next belt, then you are going to miss out on all the great experiences and opportunities for personal growth our sport has to offer.  Of course it is everyone's goal to succeed at whatever they do and earning rank in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is no different.  However, we can not become so focused on the goal that we lose sight of the process of our learning and the way we actually reach our goal.

I referred to the learning of BJJ as a process... meaning that we can not go from start to finish, without experiencing all the steps along the way.  Think of anything else you've learned to do in your life, there is always a crawl-before-you-walk process that takes place.  This is only natural.  Like a house, a foundation must be laid down to build upon.

Too Many Masters, Not Enough Students

Nowadays there is no shortage of instructional material to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  There are books, videos, websites, tournament footage and an over abundance of videos on YouTube put out by anyone with a video camera and some mats.  Don't get me wrong, I am all for spreading the art of BJJ and the more people that are exposed to it, the better it is for all of us in the end.  However, all this information gives beginners a false sense of learning.  A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu white belt will watch hours of video and read all the latest books, and go the gym and try out the latest techniqes.  They may be able to surprise some of their training partners with their new moves, but what happens when their training partners are able to stop this new move?

For hundreds of years, martial arts was about a student coming to his master to gain knowledge and learning new skills and techniques as they progressed through the style.  Each day a student would practice a technique, and then build off of that technique for the next one, and so on and so forth.  However, in today's environment, everyone is trying to find the quickest way from point A to point B, without talking the time to actually learn and create a foundation with which to build upon.

In the next few entries to follow, I will discuss what a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu student should expect for each belt level from white to black.  By understanding that we can not speed up the learning process in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it is my hope that wherever you find yourself along the process, you will be able to keep both eyes on the way... and not just the destination.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unpack Your Bags

The office of our gym, Warrior Way, overlooks our parking lot. About 20 to 30 yards beyond the parking lot is the road our gym is on, and a few yards beyond that lies yet another parking lot. For years I noticed a particular habit of one of our students. Though he was one of the first students to arrive for class, and even though there was plenty of parking spots right in front of our facility, he would always park across the street and make the 100 yard or so walk to our front door. Time and time again I would witness this, and though I found it odd, I never questioned him about it. It wasn't until a few months ago that I finally brought it up to the student and asked him why he does this. The answer I got was amazing! When he exits his vehicle, throws his gear over his shoulder and begins his walk to the gym he goes over all his thoughts and stresses of the day. As he makes his way closer to the front door he imagines dropping off his "baggage" of the day and visualizes setting down his concerns along his path to the gym...

In my previous post, Lifelong Learning, I discussed the need for students to have an empty mind as they journey through the process of learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We can not keep our "cups empty" if we allow thoughts of our stress and concerns to flood our minds as we step on the mats. I was teaching a class recently and when I looked out in the class I was troubled to see a few of the lower belts day dreaming, looking around, and otherwise allowing their thoughts to drift off. Whatever they were thinking about at the moment, I definitely could tell it was not the technique I was demonstrating. I stopped and discussed the importance of what I call active learning. Again, this is a catch-phrase I came across in teaching and I use it with my 7th graders all the time. Learning is a two-way street. I can teach all I want, but if a student does not focus their efforts on taking in the knowledge I try to give them, they are not going to be successful. We may all know someone like this in our Jiu Jitsu classes. When class is going on and the instructor is teaching, they run off the mat to get a drink of water, check their cell phone, or otherwise take themselves out of the learning environment. Perhaps, while the instructor is teaching, they too allow their minds to drift, daydream and wander. Or maybe they are the person that is talking or otherwise not focused on the technique or drill at hand. Don't get me wrong, one of the main reasons we all love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu so much is that is after all a social activity and most gyms have a close-knit social group off the mats. My point is that for a student to reach their fullest potential, they need to commit themselves to active learning for the one or two hours they are on the mats.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's greatest advantage is that it allows it's students the ability to practice techniques at full speed in sparring situations. Allowing partners to "tap out", gives us the ability to practice the effective submission holds without hurting ourselves or our partners. This, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's dynamic nature, make it necessary for the student to give full attention to the task at hand. Countless times I have come to class stressed or worried, only to allow myself to put my trouble aside for an hour or two as I train, spar and get a great workout. Remember my Jiu Jitsu class full of daydreamers? After I discussed the importance of active learning to the class I assured them that whatever troubles they set aside for the hour they are in class will be waiting for them when they leave the gym. Just like the techniques they practice in class, they need to practice clearing their minds to allow them to take in all the information being taught with each new position and technique.

We know that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu requires more than just size, strength and athleticism. It requires the practitioner to "feel" the nuances of each position and upcoming transition. As BJJers, our minds and bodies need to be in tune with the task at hand. If you've ever competed in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament you can relate to the feeling moments before a match. Almost as if you are donning armor, getting ready for battle, you cross the lapels of your gi, and tighten your weathered and torn belt around your waist. Both your body and mind are so focused at the upcoming battle that when you step onto the mats you can actually feel the texture of the mat under your feet. As a sign of respect, you bump fists with your opponent, trying to size him up as you barely pay attention to the referee giving final instructions. The referee motions you to step back to your starting spots and you shake your hands out or bounce up and down as you try to get the last bit of nervous tension out of your body... Imagine at this exact moment allowing your mind to drift to thoughts of what groceries you need to pick up tomorrow, or remembering duties you need to complete at work first thing Monday morning? What do you think the outcome of your match would be?... Life is about balance and in no way am I suggesting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is, or should be, more important than anything else in our lives. Obviously responsibilities to our families, friends and loved ones should come above all...

For many people just getting to the gym or dojo to train is a task in itself. Leaving work on time, dropping the kids off at practice, running errands, etc. are all tasks we must complete before many of us can even think about grabbing our gi and our belt and running out the door to Jiu Jitsu class. However, once you do make it to class, do yourself a favor and take a few moments to clear your mind of stress and concerns as you focus on your learning and practicing.

Even though they'll be waiting for you outside, allow yourself the freedom to unpack your bags for an hour or two.