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BJJ as Language Learning - Elie Bleier

עודכן ב: מרץ 16

We’ve all been there. You were once that guy, early in your BJJ training, frustrated with your progression, asking the advanced belts what you’re doing wrong. Nowadays you may be on the receiving end of these complaints, where after a tough roll in which they couldn’t get anything going a lower belt complains to you, having a hard time wrapping their head around what exactly they're doing wrong.

You know what I’m talking about; if you don’t, you don’t train BJJ.


In order to help frustrated newbies, I’ve developed a metaphor for explaining the progression of BJJ. I call it BJJ as Language Learning.


It goes like this: suppose you're learning a foreign language, and the purpose is not just comprehension but conversational. That is, while you may learn the foundations in the classroom, in the end you want to be able to speak with others. However, no one starts out being able to do so. Instead, it's a process where you practice arduously and, piece-by-piece, become able to express yourself and understand what others express to you.


During your first lessons, you learn the basics: hello, goodbye, where's the bathroom, etc. This literally just mimics words without fully understanding context. As lessons progress, you start to add conjugation, vocabulary, tenses, and become able to chain together simple sentences. After a few months, you can have basic conversations on a few topics; as you progress, those conversations become more nuanced, more intelligent, more specific, and you even start to improvise on topics outside your breadth of knowledge.


Usually when conversing with a native speaker he'll cater to your level; if you're just starting out and he wants to talk about philosophy, it's probably going above your head. For this reason, it’s important not only to challenge yourself with language above your level, but also to speak with those at your level where you are able to practice skills which both of you are still grappling with. And while you can continually progress and become more fluent, there will always be those better than you, those who practically started speaking in the womb.


Now apply all this to BJJ. Unlike traditional martial arts, the goal is not just to understand a kata, or rote material, but to go head-to-head with another person. That is, while you may learn foundations in the technique portion of class, in the end you want to be able to roll with others. Again, no one starts out being able to do so. At least, no one starts out being able to do so well. Instead, it's a process where you practice arduously and, piece-by-piece, become able to put to task what you’ve learned and understand what others impose upon you.


During your first lessons, you learn the basics: kimura, hip sweep, how to tap, etc. This literally just mimics movements without fully understanding context. As lessons progress, you start to add technique, drills, situations, and become able to chain together simple if-then flows. After a few months, you can have basic rolls with others where you engage with a few tactics; as you progress, those rolls become more nuanced, more intelligent, more specific, and you even start to improvise on tactics outside your breadth of knowledge.


Usually when rolling with a higher belt he'll cater to your level; if you're just starting out and he wants to imanari roll you, it's probably going above your head. For this reason, it’s important not only to challenge yourself with those above your level, but also to roll with those at your level where you are able to practice techniques which both of you are still grappling with. And while you can continually progress and become more advanced, there will always be those better than you, those who practically started rolling in the womb.


This, in a nutshell, is my metaphor of BJJ as Language Learning. Simply put, just as you learn nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc, and piece them all together to form a sentence which you use to convey something to another, so too do you take pieces of jiu jitsu and form coherent patterns which you use while rolling with others. Importantly, this all takes time. One does not become fluent overnight, nor does one fall into a black belt.


This may make perfect sense to you. You may even agree. But you may also recognize that this metaphor can be applied to practically any skill. For you can't immediately master anything without time, dedication and practice.

Yet there are at least two components which make BJJ well suited to the metaphor of language learning. One is that it is a physical. While most commonly languages are thought of as verbal, movement is a non-verbal language. Just consider whether you fold your hands or leave them draped by your side when speaking to someone else; one conveys closedness while the other openness. In BJJ you can come out swinging, putting all your energy into each movement, or you can calmly flow between positions, each conveying different non-verbal signs. In this way, all physical movement - including BJJ - is a form of language.


The second component in which BJJ fits the metaphor is that it, along with other one-on-one physical activities, mimics intimate conversation. Unlike going to the gym alone, or taking a fitness class, or even doing team sports, in BJJ you always roll with a singular other. When doing so, you speak to them and respond to their speaking. This conversation, flowing through action and reaction, is all non-verbal. After a roll where you butted heads and movement stalled, you're often frustrated and pissed; you guys didn’t converse well. But after one where you scrambled and reversed, countered and submitted, you'll eagerly bump hands, excited to geek out over what had just occurred. Guess what? You just had a good conversation!


So the next time a newbie complains to you that he's not progressing, explain to him: BJJ is a language. Like all languages, it takes time to learn. Tell him he needs to focus on the grammatical foundations before jumping into complex conversations. Show him how to say hello, goodbye and other simple terms; teach him how to have a basic conversation. Also, since you’re more fluent than him, ask yourself: are you speaking to him at his level?

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