Friday, November 28, 2014

Earning the blue belt - "Don't muscle it"

A friend of mine asked me why I hadn't been writing posts over the past few months. Here's why:

It was hard not to smile
I started training in martial arts (formal training, not the "Kickboxing for Dummies" variety) in January 2007. At that time, and for many years to follow, I had a list of goals I wanted to achieve. I was 17 at the time, but my list wasn't much different than a list I would have made ten years earlier: Breaking 4 boards with a single kick, beating someone twice my size, beating five someones twice my size, learning lightsab- er, swordsmanship and weapon defenses, etc. Imagine my skepticism if someone had told me that, years later, the achievement I would be most proud of was earning a blue belt in a grappling martial art I poked fun at through most of college. Last Wednesday, when the newly promoted Professor Haris (far right) gave me my blue belt, it was clear what the proudest moment of my martial art career had been so far.

So, why the lack of posts? When I started this blog, it was with the affect of a teacher and instructor. My goal was to dispel myths, illustrate techniques, analyze self-defense, and generally teach martial arts to an audience. Of course, I still knew I was a learner in a variety of contexts, but with respect to the blog I was also very much mingling that lifelong-learning with my instructional intent. As I worked towards my blue belt in the past year, however, I realized exactly how much I still had to learn. It wasn't that all my previous knowledge and instruction had been invalidated (relieving news to anyone who took my classes!). Indeed, much of it was ultimately confirmed or sharpened. Rather, in practicing BJJ, I saw that all that knowledge was just a tiny piece of a larger martial horizon. Because of that, I wanted to step back and approach the martial art from a student's standpoint, not just that of a teacher. That meant trying to learn, not trying to instruct, which in turn meant owning my mistakes on the mat and not trying to profess any mastery on a blog.

It's actually even more
awful than it looks here.
Speaking of mistakes, nothing exposes them like a 305 lb. training partner mounting your chest. Rounds like that make it hard to write a meaningful blogpost on self-defense groundfighting tactics.  Those are the situations that make you set aside the confidence that goes into instructional writing, replacing it with the humility that comes from getting armbarred or triangled five times in a five minute round.

Now, it's time to come back to writing. Same posts, new experiences. Same attempts to share knowledge, renewed humility as a martial artist. I want to start my return to posting with probably the most important thing I learned along my journey so far. Hopefully, this reflection will speak to readers from a variety of backgrounds, whether those practicing an art like Tae Kwon Do or jujitsu, interested in learning/starting such an art, or just having a general interest in anything martial.

"Don't muscle it"
Jujitsu attracts practitioners from every profession, culture, body type, and background. Despite that diversity, almost every beginner (myself definitely included) has one strategy that they invariably resort to when all else fails: Strength. Armbar not working? Use more bicep curl action! Can't sweep them to their back?  Push harder!! Having trouble getting the guy off your chest? BENCH PRESS HIM OFF!!! These reaction types are universal responses that I have seen across the martial arts, ones that I have personally tried to address in my own training. Because when strength becomes a substitute for technique, you don't learn the moves, can't execute them properly, and you will eventually encounter that opponent who has trained their whole life to overcome raw muscle. After all, BJJ was initially founded as an art for small guys to beat big ones. If you enter a match with the big guy mentality you are probably in for a bad time and definitely in for a sore elbow/throat. 
150 lbs on the left.
250 lbs on the right.
Place your bets!

The funny thing about the "Don't muscle it" principle? It's absolutely not a secret. Every higher-belt student tells it to the lower-belt students. Every coach and professor (jujitsu term for black belt) says it too. Endlessly. Heck, every student says it to themselves when they are drilling. But like 95% of the advice your mom or dad gave you, it's often in one ear and out the other, especially when you shake hands and fist bump before a spar.

So, how do you stop muscling things and start developing your technique? Hmm... Good question! If someone has a solution to that timeless problem, please let me know. Or write a book on it; you'd make millions. But if not, here's a little method I have been trying with some success.

Don't treat the principle like a chalkboard repetition you have to write out a hundred times ("I won't muscle my technique, I won't muscle my technique..."). That cognitive process lasts right up until your opponent has taken your back and is opening up your collar for a choke. Once you enter survival mode, the academic "I won't muscle my technique" gets replaced by the caveman "RAWR!". Here's a different method that has worked for me: Drill your moves without strength before you spar. Don't just tell yourself not to muscle things. Actually practice without muscle. You fight how you train, and if you sneak strength into your repetitions, it will be waiting there to take over in the real thing. Can't land the reversal at half speed without a gym-bro grunt? Slow it down and focus on your technique. Do your arms feel like you just did a 2 hour upper body day? Try and think of where those muscles were compensating for something else. If you do this before the sparring or fighting starts, you will have a much better chance of doing it when it matters. And hey, if you are like me, this will probably just help you muscle it in eight out of ten times instead of all ten. But that's a good start, and if you can get that start as a white belt, you will be ahead of everyone else at your rank.

Spoiler alert: Those biceps
weren't that helpful
Ultimately, jujitsu (like any other martial art) is about using technique to supplement and beat strength. When you substitute strength for technique, you are not just learning improper versions of your moves, you are learning an improper version of the art itself. That is as true of jujitsu as it as of most technical disciplines, martial or otherwise. Of course, none of that is to say that strength isn't needed in technique application, or that you won't ever use strength in a confrontation. Muscles undoubtedly generate the power necessary to execute a maneuver. In an otherwise even contest, they can also be a tipping point for one of the combatants. But using strength as an added edge does not mean using them as a crutch, or as your main gameplan.

As I continue my martial journey, I will continue to try and work this principle more seamlessly into my practice. Whether you practice a martial art, or any other technical trade or craft, I hope that this concept proves beneficial to you as well. I also hope you take that principle of "Don't muscle it" and expand it. Learn to flow with an opponent's energy. Know when to change tactics instead of forcing something. Understand how to change a technique that isn't working to preserve its technicality and not give in to the muscling urge. These derived concepts have helped me in both my martial and non-martial pursuits, and I believe they can be similarly helpful to any of you.

I initially wanted to end with a list of thank yous to all the different people who supported me and trained with me, but it was too long even for my historically lengthy articles. So I'll close with this picture of my second family. To everyone, keep training and keep on your journey!