Goo goo gahhh, Daaa!

People often talk about learning BJJ through the metaphor of learning a new language. In particular, the different between beginner and intermediate is characterised by the ability to form meaningful sentences (combinations and strategy) out of the words (techniques) you’ve learned.

If this is true, thus far I’ve progressed from mere baby noises to occasional word like noises — interspersed with a good deal of gabbling. BJJ has a hell of a lot of vocabulary to learn.

This is an interesting contrast to my previous combat sport, fencing. Although there are a few complicated moves in fencing, it really consists of a few basic techniques: stance, lunge, parry, circular parry, riposte, disengage, beat, envelopment, stop-cut and flèche. You learn these in the first few weeks.

Compare this with BJJ; where there are at least eight basic positions — back mount, mount, side-control, half-guard, north-south, turtle, closed guard and open guard. And then, of course, innumerable submissions, passes and sweeps from each position. It takes many months, if not years, to build up the basic vocabulary.

I don’t mean to suggest that fencing is easier or less complex than BJJ. There is endless refinement of technique and application of strategy within the basic moves. A serious competitive fencer might be doing the same basic lunge that I would, but with many times the accuracy and speed. Not to mention the depths of strategy involved in applying the basic moves at a higher level.

But the difference is vocabulary depth makes the experience of learning very different.

First, most obviously, a great deal more time and effort has to be devoted to learning new techniques.

Second, at the beginning, it’s harder to learn the techniques because you’re having to learn all the stuff adjacent to them and you have no conceptual framework to fit them into. For example, it was only on my second or third class involving a butterfly sweep that I grasped what the butterfly position was or how butterfly hooks worked. Naturally, this meant my early attempts at butterfly sweeps didn’t go well. Conversely, when a recent class focussed on a particular triangle entry, I found it more straightforward. I was just fitting a new set up onto my existing knowledge and practice. As I get more basic knowledge, I hope it will get easier to learn and apply new stuff.1 At the start though, there’s really nothing to be done but dive in and try to keep your head above water until it starts to make sense.

Third, any form of freeform sparring tends to involve flashes of understanding interspersed with periods of fog. If I’m in part of the game I know a bit about, I have some idea of what I’m supposed to try and what my opponent is probably up to. For example, from closed guard, I know a few sweeps and submissions to try — and I’m familiar with the basic guard breaks as well. I’m fairly confident in trying to do something (whether it works or not is an entirely different question).

In other positions, I often won’t know what I’m supposed to try to do or where my opponent is trying to go. I’ve found this particularly applies to any form of open guard, where I often have the sense of being in very deep water. Which grips and hooks are dangerous? Is my partner about to sweep me? Should I be moving towards them or away? Is that an opportunity to pass or a trap? It’s all still arcane. This means that I either try things in a somewhat random fashion (sometimes this works better than other times) or end up slightly frozen (which I’m trying to stop). This is getting better as I learn more. Also, as I get more of a feeling for things, I can sometimes either apply a basic principle (it’s probably not a good idea to let people get directly under your centre of gravity) or bastardise a somewhat analogous technique (this bit looks a bit like a spider-guard hook so I can probably try that thing…) But it still tends to be a relief when the roll returns to something I’m more familiar with.

Fourth, in BJJ it’s very common to ‘lose’ a technique, at least as a beginner. For example, one of my early classes covered a basic back escape — bridge into them, use two hands to move their active arm over your head, bring your shoulder down to the floor and come to your knees. But, in a recent class, when my partner took my back I tried to start by bringing my shoulder down to the floor, which obviously didn’t work. It was only when they talked me through what I should have been doing that I remembered the other steps. Again, this just doesn’t happen in fencing. You might be too slow or be fooled by opponent into doing the wrong thing, but you don’t just forget how to parry.

All of which is a long way round of cataloging the total beginner experience. But also to make the point that this extended period of basic vocabulary building is probably longer with BJJ than the vast majority of sports / activities.

I suspect this is one of the reasons that it doesn’t seem to be something anyone does casually. The need to pick up a very wide vocabulary of techniques before you even start to know what you’re doing is a significant barrier to entry. Of course, this is also why some people get sucked in — it’s a deep and fascinating art.

Photo Credit: Alex Groundwater

  1. I also have a theory that at a higher level this goes into reverse to some extent. This is because, once you’re more experienced, your existing techniques have been practiced and polished to a high standard. By comparison, something new may be clumsy and difficult (and, since you’ll be trying it on better opponents, ineffective). I may report back in a few years. 

The advantages of starting BJJ older

I started BJJ a couple of months ago, aged 35. My guess is that quite a few people my age who consider taking up a martial art decide they’re too old. It certainly crossed my mind.

A few months in I’m very glad that I took the general advice that you can start at any age. I can confirm it’s true. If you’ve got any interest, try a lesson or two.

More than that, I think there are some advantages to being a bit older. Nobody should put off starting. But there are compensations for a slight lack of youth and vigour.

Less trouble with your ego

One of the first things everyone told me when I started was ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be confused for at least 6 months. We all go through it.’

Starting is disorientating and sometimes frustrating. You start out being really bad at everything and getting tapped a lot.The most difficult thing though is that, quite often, you won’t even know what you should be trying to do — much less be able to do it.

All of this is hard on the ego. Everyone is very supportive. But partly that reflects the fact that the starting phase of BJJ is difficult, a lot of people drop out and people know you need that support.

Even beyond the very start, reading around and observing, it’s obvious that controlling the ego is a bit part of surviving and progressing in BJJ.

First, you need to keep plugging away until things start to make sense (I’m definitely still in this stage). Second, once things start to make sense you need to keep pushing on and learning. If you get too caught up in winning or belts or otherwise entangled in your sense of self importance you’ll probably get frustrated and quit — or injure yourself.

One of the advantages of starting late is that you’ll probably put less pressure on yourself to perform. Ego is still an issue — BJJ is competitive and we all like to win. But, as a mid-thirties office worker, I don’t feel the same need to prove something that I might have felt 15 years ago. Which means I can relax more and enjoy the journey.

More perspective / experience

Similarly, a decade and change into my adult life, I’ve got a slightly different perspective on time and progress than I might have had in my early 20’s. It will probably take me a few years to feel I’m making real progress. But that’s okay, I’ve got time. And a couple of years doesn’t feel as long as it might have done when I was younger.

More than that, I’ve been through similar learning curves before, particularly in education and in work. I know, if you keep at things, you normally get the hang of them in the end.

More money

We generally have more money when we’re older than when we’re younger. Obviously this isn’t universally true (in fact none of these points is). But I was fortunate enough to be able to join a club, buy a gi and so on without financial worry. That wouldn’t have been true if I’d started 15-20 years ago.

We may benefit more…

This may be nonsense, but I think it’s quite easy to get a bit narrow as we get older. There’s less to learn and we may feel that we’ve got ourselves into a bit of a rut. We meet new people more rarely and most of the people we do meet are quite similar — because they’re drawn from the narrow pool of our work and social circle. We don’t do something totally new very often.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. But learning BJJ has been an opportunity to be a total beginner again and meet a whole bunch of new people who I’d never have got to know otherwise. That feels more important to me now, in my thirties, than it would have been in my twenties when I was doing that anyway by going to university, doing my professional training, starting my first job etc.

Also, on a purely physical level, most of us in our thirties and above probably benefit more from regular exercise than our younger compatriots. We’re reaching the age where we start to put on weight and the advantages of youth start to slip away. So a demanding physical hobby is just the thing. Not least to realise that, while we might have lost a step or two, we’re not quite over the hill yet.