Phonics by Proust, ABCs by Emerson -Jehiah Burchfield

Imagine trying to teach a child to read by teaching them each word of a famous poem or piece of literature. Trying to convey the nuances and depth of great pieces of writing to a new reader would require constant steps backwards and excessive repetition; and while some gifted few would eventually grasp the beauty therein and simultaneously learn to read, most would suffer in frustration and miss the opportunity they had both to experience a superb art form and to acquire a valuable utility.

In other words, if you learn the basic elements first, everything else has a chance to fall into place; and poor methodology can ruin even the most potentially beautiful activities (insert sexual joke here).

Things work the same way in the gym. If you don’t know the basic stuff, you won’t be able to play the game as quickly or as well, which means you will appreciate your time on the mat less. There is nothing fun about constantly getting your guard passed and/or getting choked from mount over and over and over and not really getting much better at prolonging the inevitable. However, if this is happening to you, the answer is not to work on the latest way to control someone’s hands with their gi skirt while pulling a crazy upside down helicopter guard “whose your daddy?” toe hold sweep-I don’t know if that even exists, but if does, leave it alone for now.

Focusing on things like that will continue to get you smashed.

Actually, no matter how you train someone will smash you, but if you want to get smashed less then focus on what is actually holding you back. I will bet you money it is something very straightforward that you simply have not practiced enough. For example, at the end of a long rolling session the other night one of the students asked me “How do you keep passing my guard?” to which I replied “I move your legs out of the way”. I was partially joking with him by giving an understated answer, but the comment was also meant to encourage him that it really is pretty simple stuff that makes the biggest difference. So, we talked about that briefly, and it turns out he could tell some of the main reasons why he couldn’t pass my guard and I could pass his-he just needed to reinforcement that he was on the right path.

There is a concept known as “capacity constraint resource” in operations management, which basically means you need to identify the primary limiting factor of a system if you want to make the most useful improvements to its performance. Obviously there are a number of things you could get better at; the question is which one has the best tradeoff in positively affecting performance? There are a lot of data out there to be considered, but what you need is information that can be put to use.

I realize that many athletes do not come to the game with the ability to do this for themselves, and it is my opinion that coaches should be primarily working on providing this service. A student can run you tube searches for the snazziest technique of the week, they do not need me for that (and honestly, I know disappointingly few). On the other hand, what will put them on the fast track to actually being able to play the game they have chosen to play is to learn their way around it so they can get to the business of rolling instead of continuing to be confused spectators in their own grappling matches.

This is what I strive to provide, and this is what I want from a higher level BJJ coach when I go train somewhere. I would rather have someone simplify what I currently see as complex or correct me on something I am already pretty good at. That changes your game much more than a glut of new techniques. A coach should have a sharp eye attuned to the present moment; they should be a source of relevant information, and a dispenser of the next thing that a student needs to hear, not the next thing the coach wants to say.

 In a later piece, I will write about the one conceptual model that has most affected my learning and teaching in the last couple of years, and that I feel brilliantly captures the points I am making above. I came upon it through SBGi (

 ) where I primarily heard the concepts from a man named Cane Prevost, who is one of Matt Thornton’s black belts from Portland. Matt has spoken for years of the value of training and coaching the basics, and I owe much of my game and approach to his material and teaching.

The truth gorilla: J

I would leave you with this thought-try to pay attention to what is missing and what is working well in your game. A lot of what is important will be clear to you if you pay attention, and guidance will provide you with a number of shortcuts that will be completely common sense as soon as you see them. If you ever feel I have strayed from this path and am showing you something extraneous, feel free to call me out on it. If it is not apparent why something is useful, ask, because maybe it is not.

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