Dan Inosanto on Adaptation

Last weekend I had the pleasure of learning from Dan Inosanto at a seminar. As he often does, he stressed the importance of adapting techniques to make them work for you, regardless of whether those techniques are Filipino stick disarms, Jun Fan kickboxing or BJJ submissions.

Your teacher might have a great triangle choke, and if you pay attention you will learn most of the small details that make it work for him. Before you can make the triangle choke your signature move, however, you are probably going to have to adapt it, because it is very likely your physical and mental attributes will differ from those of your instructor.

Physical attributes are very important in determining which techniques will work best for you. Most of the time your physical attributes won’t actually make it impossible for you to do a specific technique, but they will affect the ways in which you need to tweak the technique so that it works optimally for you.

It is also important to recognize that your physical attributes will change over time. I recently talked to a fighter who said that he could never quite finish the triangle choke when he weighed 155 lbs, but that this technique started working for him when he got over 170 lbs. This fighter was quite tall (6′ 2″), and at 170 lbs his legs had become a bit more muscular, just large enough to fill up the room around his opponent’s necks.

Mental and emotional attributes are also important. An MMA fighter who is willing to stand and trade punches – Wanderlei Silva for example – needs a lot of pain tolerance and aggression for that tactic to be successful. A more patient and calm person might have a difficult time pursuing such a strategy, and might be better suited for a counterattacking style of fighting.

All this dependence on attributes can make life difficult for instructors. It’s easy to teach students when their physical and mental attributes are similar to your own, but this changes when the people you’re trying to teach are very different from yourself. This is one reason why you should pay attention to techniques and variations that you don’t like: you may need to teach them to someone some day.

Consider how you would have to modify your bread and butter techniques to make them work for:

  • a 110 lb woman who wanted to learn BJJ
  • a group of senior citizens interested in self defense
  • Bob Sapp (the 370 lb MMA monster) looking to improve his MMA game

Great competitors know what works for their own bodies and temperaments. Great instructors know that too, but are willing and able to show variations, explore options and find solutions to the unique challenges of each of their students.

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