BJJ Lessons from a Sushi Master

I just watched a really cool documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi (available on Netflix, iTunes, etc.).  This 2011 film paints a fascinating portrait of Jiro Ono, an 85 year old master chef who’s been making sushi for 75 years.

Jiro – the protagonist – is a single-minded perfectionist workaholic who hates national holidays because they keep him away from his obsession,  which is working on creating the perfect sushi experience for his customers.

It’s clear that for him every single detail in the food preparation and presentation counts. It matters where the fish come from. It matters how much pressure is used to prepare the rice. It matters that his apprentices eat good food themselves to train their tastebuds. It matters whether the customer is left or right handed.

Slightly obsessive perhaps, but Jiro Ono’s tunnel-vision has paid off.  His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, was awarded a three-star Michelin Guide rating. This is the highest rating a restaurant can achieve, there being only about 100 other restaurants in the world which have that honour. And of those three-star restaurants, only Jiro’s restaurant is located beside a subway station in the basement of an office building.

Before you fly to Tokyo to eat at this tiny 10 seat establishment you’d better make a reservation several months ahead, and bring $300 to $400 per person.

ikuraThe experience of dining at Sukiybashi Jiro is about as far removed from the all-you-can-eat sushi experience as you can get.

For your money you get about 20 individual pieces custom-crafted sushi, each piece a treat for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

The thing that struck me most is that he’s still learning, still trying to get better, still searching for that perfect expression of sushi.

For example he says that they used to massage octopus for 30 minutes to prepare it for eating.  But now they’ve started massaging it for 45 to 60 minutes, because it further improves the texture and brings the flavour out even more.

What I don’t understand is how on earth would you even come up with massaging an octopus in the first place, leave alone figuring out that 45 to 50 minutes is better than 30 minutes?!!?

The idea of sushi is pretty simple.  From an outside perspective you’d think that all you have to do is place a hunk of raw fish onto a lump of rice and you’re done, no?  After all, thousands of low-budget sushi restaurants throw fish onto rice with moderate success every single day.

But to do simple things at a world class level takes an insane amount of work, training and practice behind the scenes to get that one thing just right.

Jiu-jitsu is the same way.

An outsider would probably think that rolling around on the ground with someone is pretty simple – just ask one of those out-of-shape UFC armchair-quarterback guys who’ve never trained but always have an opinion about what Georges St Pierre should do next.  Grappling is apparently all about getting on top, crushing the bug and – hey presto – you’re done.

(If these non-grapplers were watching two high level competitors at the Mundials would probably start booing after about 10 seconds because their attention span has officially been exceeded…)

But you and I both know that high level grappling require an incredible amount of technique, strategy, detail, and nuance. And those attributes are even more noticeable when you’re actually rolling on the mat with someone good – because now you can feel all those subtleties that might be hard to see when you’re just watching it.

Take one of the most basic submissions in the BJJ repertoire: the cross collar choke from mount.

I bet you learned the cross choke early in your BJJ career. And maybe it even works for you once in a while.

Gi-Choke-One-Deep-Partner copyBut now if I put you on top of a seasoned black belt and allowed you to put one hand deep in his collar, do you think you could finish it?

Well despite starting in a good position that black belt’s experience and mastery of technique would probably be too much to overcome and he would likely escape, right?

The thing is Roger Gracie likely learned that very same choke in his first month of training as well.  But if you now put Roger on top of almost any competitor in the world and allow him to start with one hand in the collar, well, he’ll probably choke him out within seconds.

So what’s the difference between Roger Gracie and the rest of the world when it comes to the cross collar choke?

The difference is practice and repetition!

Doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. Always looking for that one tiny detail, tweak or adjustment, that will take an already great technique and make it even better.

How long has Roger Gracie has been working on his cross-collar choke from the mount? How many times has Marcelo Garcia taken someone’s back in class? How many times has Guilherme Mendes inverted and spun on his head in training?

Clearly they’ve all honed their bread-and-butter moves a thousand times in sparring for each single time they’ve used it in competition.

Getting that many reps in takes time.

Getting better at this art is a marathon, not a sprint. Yes, you can have breakthroughs and learn quickly at times, but to really make progress, to really improve, requires an attitude of lifelong learning.

There’s nothing sadder than someone who thinks he has nothing left to learn. The day I actually believe that I know it all is the day that I officially retire from jiu-jitsu and never train again.  But fortunately I think the odds are pretty good that I’ll still be training and learning when I’m in my fifties, sixties, and seventies…

So commit to being a student for life. Go deep in your art. Learn everything you can.  Experiment, research, test, refine, and evaluate techniques and strategies that you’ve been taking for granted.

In the words of the 85 year old sushi master chef Jiro Ono himself: “Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft.

Yoshikazu Ono

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