by guest author Nicolai Geeza Holt
Stephan’s note: today’s guest author shares his thoughts about a topic near and dear to my own heart: learning from instructional material. Nicolai trains with Niko Han and currently has 47 wins by submission in competition.
The most important point to understand before you build up a big library of BJJ instruction material is this; the books, videos and DVDs you buy will not solve the practical problems you are having on the mat. Your practical problems can only be solved with practice. And you cannot practice in books or in DVDs. Practice happens on the mat.
So what are instruction materials good for?
Instruction materials can give you a big picture general idea of the kinds of things you need to master and understand over your long BJJ learning process. There are four key areas you have to master in BJJ and I will list them in order of how well BJJ instruction materials cover them.
First, techniques; BJJ instruction materials are good databases of both basic and advanced techniques.
Second, fitness; some instruction materials are specifically prepared to help you to prime your body for strength, cardio, flexibility and coordination with exercise routines, while others focus on diet or overall health.
Third, preparing your mind; some of the most insightful and useful BJJ instruction material (once you have trained past the basics), relates to how you manage what is going on in your head before, during and after marshalling on the mats.
Fourth, some BJJ instruction materials cover fight or competition strategy. This last area of knowledge is the least well covered. Strategy is rarely dealt with as the main topic and it seems to crop up as side-points to other points a teacher is making. You have to dig hard for this last kind of wisdom.
Even though the area best covered in BJJ instructional material is technique, every submission or escape, or way to improve your position, or way to prevent your opponent improving their position, takes place in a particular situation. In competition or sparring every sequence happens exactly that way only once; kind of like that old saw – you can never step into the same river twice because the river is always changing (of course this is not to say that you will not get stuck at the same old positions with some of your regular training partners). Therefore, no book or DVD that can cover more than a small fraction of the exact sequences that occur in real live situations.
Because each specific sequence of moves occurs only once, most BJJ technique material breaks the knowledge down into individual submissions, holds, sweeps and moves. It is rare that more than 3 or 4 techniques are shown in sequence, and generally instructional material focuses on the details of a single technique. But good instructional material will not only outline suggestions of things to do in precise situations, it will also state the general principles that underlie the practical steps suggested.
How do we learn BJJ?
We learn BJJ by imitation. Here is a little neuroscience to explain how we imitate. In the frontal lobe of the brain is a region called the motor cortex. It is involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary motor functions. Meanwhile, the pre-motor cortex is an area of the motor cortex responsible for the sensory guidance of movement and especially the core trunk muscles of the body.
In the pre-motor cortex there are cells that fire when we move our limbs, shrimp or grip. The pre-motor cortex also has groups of cells called mirror neurons that fire we watch someone else move their limbs, shrimp or grip. Mirror neurons are critical to imitation. The more you watch other people do BJJ, the more your mirror neurons fire. The circuits are automatic and they bypass conscious mediation.
Typically most people can copy complex sequence of actions after they have seen them 3 times ( i.e. fired up their mirror neurons 3 times!). BJJ superstars (or any sports superstar), naturally has extensive networks of mirror neurons. The good news is that anyone can build their mirror neuron networks with practice. The point of all this is that the more visual that the learning materials you use are, the easier it is to fire up your mirror neurons and consequently the easier it is to imitate what you just saw. So just watching others doing BJJ can help your own BJJ.
Which one to choose? – BJJ Books versus DVDs versus YouTube
BJJ Books are good because they give you time to think about what is being taught you, they have visual content in the form of pictures and their written word is carefully thought through, well articulated and edited. The weakness of books is that still pictures are less effective at firing up your mirror neurons and frequently the author has a self-congratulatory tone as opposed to a simple genuine desire to spread knowledge.
DVDs are good because they are highly visual in a way specifically designed to fire up your motor neurons and they present a coherent body of knowledge. The weakness of DVDs is that they are expensive, they are extremely mixed in terms of quality and they often have lots of filler techniques that no-one ever uses.
YouTube is good because it is free, you can search for a specific technique and get a variety of insights from many different teachers, you have easy access to all the info, it is highly visual, and you can get both theory and practical content. (Try searching for rear naked choke in YouTube to see the wealth of knowledge available). The weakness of YouTube as a BJJ learning tool is that it is an incoherent collection of videos, good in some areas and weak in others, and you can easily get side-tracked in your learning process.
Some other bullet points on BJJ instruction material
- If your own instructor makes a DVD definitely buy it – it will greatly speed your learning process.
- Watch the whole DVD in one sitting first time through to understand the full set of ideas the instructor is proposing.
- It is a business. Being a BJJ teacher is not a well paid profession and therefore the best will try and supplement their income by selling instruction material. What gets a product sold is not always what will help your BJJ.
- It takes a long time to learn BJJ and nothing can beat a good instructor giving you good drills to do with a good training partner.
- BJJ instruction materials can give you new ideas when you are getting stale.
- Think of BJJ instruction material as being analogous to vitamins in your diet – you need all the basic stuff in your diet and vitamins add that something extra for top performance.
- Most BJJ instruction material is weak on counter techniques, so make sure you ask your instructor for the defence each time you learn a technique.