In my last post I discussed how jiu-jitsu has forced me to stop overthinking everything and learn to roll in the moment. I am going to continue the theme of how jiu-jitsu has forced me to think outside the box and address another topic my brain has trouble with: the lack of repeatable results.
I have always been drawn to math. There’s something about numbers and their relationships that appeals to me. I can still remember learning about the divisibility by 9 rule (explained here). It rocked my world. I was able to figure out the divisibility by 3 rule after that and to this day I still often add up numbers to see if they are divisible by 3, 6 and/or 9 (some people may think that is nerdy, some people may say it’s a little obsessive compulsive but I prefer to think of it as adorable).
I find comfort in equations and formulas knowing that I can always predict the results based on a series of steps. I make a living writing computer programs. My job is to produce repeatable results. Given the same input, the output should always be the same. I am used to living my life very algorithmically. I think in sequences of events. I like to know that if I do A and B that the outcome will always be C. Now enter jiu-jitsu where almost nothing is repeatable or predictable.
Early on in my training I regularly found myself trying to figure out what the next step would be when I was drilling a move. Often when I would ask my instructor, the answer would contain some variation of “it depends on your partner’s reaction”. I found this very unsatisfactory. I just want to get to C. Tell me what A and B are and we can all go home happy.
But of course there is no equation to jiu-jitsu that results in the same outcome all the time. There is so much that is not under your control. Different partners will react to the same setup differently. Even the same partner will react in different ways. Just the other night I was rolling with someone and he tried to put a triangle on me, I did an escape and got out. Not two minutes later he put me in another triangle (it’s triangle week at the gym), I did the same escape and he didn’t budge and I had to tap. There is nothing logical about that! Within a span of seconds I did the same experiment with the same steps and got two different results.
Early on my desire to think formulaically really stifled my training. If I was getting in a bad position a lot I would ask my instructors ways to get out of it. They would often show me a couple of escapes to use depending on what your partner was doing. I would pick one and decide I was going to use it. I would then get really frustrated when I would apply the escape and it wouldn’t work. YOU TOLD ME THIS WAS A SIDE MOUNT ESCAPE AND I DID IT YET I AM STILL IN SIDE MOUNT! What I didn’t realize was that I was ignoring the part where I worked off of what my partner was giving me.
I was also so focused on sequences of events that I often wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was drilling that day. I would find myself thinking about what came before the move and after and what the desired outcome would be and I wasn’t working hard enough to learn the move itself.
As I mentioned in my last post, I soon discovered that my typical way of thinking was not always beneficial to me in jiu-jitsu. I made the decision to stop trying to process everything logically while I was rolling and concentrate more on acting instinctively to what my partner was doing. I found that not only was my jiu-jitsu getting better by doing this but I was having more fun and feeling less frustrated. My ways of thinking have changed so much that when a student asked me last week what the next step would be from a guard pass I showed her, I said “well it depends on what your partner does”. I have become everything I used to hate.
So jiu-jitsu made me think outside of my very cozy, logical box and learn to rely on instinct. It also forced me to realize that my next move was not always going to be under my control so I had to learn to work with what was given to me. Of course these are lessons that not only apply to the mats but also carry over into everyday life.
This change in thinking has been a big part of my jiu-jitsu transformation and I will always be grateful for it. I think it will always be difficult for me to explain to the non jiu-jitsu people in my life why jiu-jitsu is good for the soul but this is a huge part of it. Through jiu-jitsu I have had to do things both physically and mentally that I never thought I was possible of and I know I have become a better person because of it.
I think a lot. I know that seems like a pretty lame confession but it’s long been both a terrific asset and a terrible downfall of mine. On the one hand I tend to think through everything and make what I feel are logical, rational decisions. On the other hand I often overthink things, imagine the worst possible outcome, convince myself it will happen and then paralyze myself with indecision and fear.
I find this thinking duality exists in jiu-jitsu as well. My tendency to think through things has been very helpful in jiu-jitsu. While drilling in class I will often try to think about what the situation would be where I would use the move we are drilling, whether it’s a move that I think I will be able to apply to my own game, what I could do to get into the move, what I could do after the move and so on. After class I will drive home thinking about my rolls…what went right, what went wrong, what positions I am getting stuck in, etc. I will begrudgingly admit that I often even wake up in the middle of the night and end up laying there thinking about my current jiu-jitsu problems. It’s a bit obsessive maybe but I think it’s all been beneficial in helping me learn.
Somewhat early on in my grappling career though I realized that there was a time where my tendency to think through things rationally and slowly was not helping me at all. That time would be when I am rolling. I would often get stuck in bad positions and just lay there doing nothing while I thought through my options. What escapes do I know from here? How did I get here? What are the risks if I try a certain move? Not surprisingly by the time I had rationally and thoroughly thought through my next move, it was irrelevant because my partner had most likely moved onto something else or, even more likely, submitted me.
I started to realize that when it came to rolling, it was going to be more beneficial for me to turn off my brain and just let my body do its thing. This was by no means an easy thing. I am a thinker! I feel like my mind is always going and shutting it off is not something I’ve had much success with in the past. I am a horrible sleeper and I think part of the reason is that my brain just won’t shut up.
I was determined though to stop letting my brain take over my rolls and concentrate on letting my body do what it wanted. I quickly found that this was making my rolls a lot better. Most jiu-jitsu practitioners know that the best time to get out of a bad position is when your partner is still in transition. I realized that by spending so much time thinking about what to do next, I was missing my chance to take advantage of the moment.
To my surprise I also found that I was enjoying rolling so much better this way. I thought it would be a struggle to get out of my own brain for a while but I actually enjoyed the break from being a pragmatic overthinker. This is probably one of the qualities that I enjoy most about jiu-jitsu, the chance to stop thinking about everything and just rely on instinct and muscle memory.
Of course there are still times when my brain gets too much in the way and this sometimes leads to frustration and anger on the mat. I often see the same frustration when rolling with the newer students. I can see their mind working and feel the paralyzing indecision gripping their bodies. I often want to tell them “just stop thinking!” but I figure that would probably only be more confusing.
While I know that there is definitely a strong intellectual component to jiu-jitsu, I have learned that in the heat of battle, it is best for me to shut off my brain and let my body do what I have trained it to do. If you are finding yourself getting super frustrated on the mat because you can’t think of what to do next, I challenge you to stop thinking about your next move and just do it.