The original title for this article was "Why is BJJ easier than my [insert Stand-Up Art]?" This was a question proposed to me when we were taking submissions for the Swamp Talks videos. Truth be told, it was a question that made me uncomfortable at first, as I assumed it would be misconstrued. This question, out of all of them, really stood out to me and made me think.
It made me think about something I hadn't previously considered. Something that was clearly on the mind of more than one of my students. I opted not to address this question, even though I left it on the list. I needed more time to think about it, to ponder the implications. It wasn't until a few months later that I had formulated a decent answer.
So why is it so difficult to get the stand-up game? Let's break it down by each element and it will begin to make sense.
Crawl. Walk. Run.
Here is an analogy I like to use when I hear people (usually those training less than a year or two) getting frustrated when learning something new in class. It goes something like this -
Student: "I can't get this!!!"
Me: "Did you walk out of the womb?"
Student: Followed by: "No."
Me: "Right. First you laid there kicking your legs on your back. Then you laid on your belly for a while doing push-ups. Next you started to crawl. Then you started to use your arms to climb, and stand. Once your legs gained strength, you began to take your first steps. After you got the walking thing down, you started to run."
"That was how many years ago?"
Student: insert answer
Me: "Ok, so now you are learning to walk all over again, but expecting...to run right away."
At our roots we are primates. Our instinctive method of striking is large, powerful swings that maximize our anatomical structure. This creates power, but leaves little in the way of protection.
In martial arts (boxing, kickboxing, karate, etc.), you learn a new way of striking. Ways completely counter to your instincts, and some that will build off of them. This new method can provide power, while offering a guard for helping to protect your own head in a fight.
Striking seems simple from the outside, and I believe that is why I see so many people baffled by the amount of time it takes to get good at it.
I read a blog post from Dan Djurdjevic yesterday speaking about 'what it means to be a beginner' (see his post here). In his article he brought up boxing, and the amount of time before a boxing coach thinks you are moderately skilled at striking. This was new to me as I am not in the western boxing circuit. He claimed 4 years for proficiency, but coaches do not consider you close to stepping into a ring with a pro-fighter until much later. This is a martial art built around 'STRIKING AND FOOTWORK ONLY'.
It is healthy to have realistic expectations. A heavy bag routine a few days/week can help increase your striking game and cut down on the mistakes. Remember, it's about building motor function. The more you punch, the easier it becomes to tweak and fix.
You may have come with a natural affinity for striking, even if a coach tells you it's the wrong way to fight, but you have even more limitations when it comes to blocking. Your natural instincts tell you to shield up, turn into a ball, or flail wildly.
When you enter martial arts, these motions are new, and you have to refine and work on them. Which includes technical elements, structure, timing, position. The training time for this can be fairly quick with proper partner training, but it is not a stand alone. Unfortunately you can't stand there and block all day long. Eventually they will find a hole.
You can practice blocks without a partner as well. Getting the repetition is important with or without a partner. Here is a short video showing basic blocks, and practicing them in the air, and then with a partner.
Your 'Other' Left Foot
Sooo you thought you knew how to walk...? Since we spend a large part of our life moving around on our feet, you'd think Footwork would be a given. Nope. On the contrary. Building a proper stance, then learning how to move in that stance takes a lot of repetition for it to become second nature. Until then, you will have holes in your game that are easy to capitalize on for a moderately skilled opponent.
Shuffling, stepping, circling, angling, cross circle steps, spin outs, change steps, are a lot of meat on the table. In order to polish these, you'll need to spend the time working it. The nice thing is, you don't NEED a partner to practice footwork.
Just for Kicks
As if that wasn't enough, now we're telling you that you should be able to stand on one leg, breath, relax, and kick someone hard enough to make them think twice about attacking you again. Yup, this one is definitely outside the normal realm of human motion and fighting instincts.
Kicking is going to be a skill that takes a focus on it's own. As with striking, if you have a bag you can beat on it will do leaps and bounds to help you get your kicking to a decent skill level. Once you have the repetition, and you aren't falling on your ass every time you lift one leg off the ground, then you can grab a partner and focus on targeting, plus timing.
Kicks expend more energy, and create bigger liabilities (depending on the type of kick). Wasting them on targets that are not open can bleed out your endurance and leave you sucking wind. Knowing when and where to throw the kick is the key to the leg game.
Next on our list is another completely foreign skill. Beyond the basic charge and tackle, throwing is an art form. One that has been separated out from other martial arts for specialization. Styles such as Shuai Jiao, and Judo are primary examples, both comprised of techniques not inherent in human instinct.
Learning the technique is one thing; building the timing for the perfect execution is a highly advanced skill.
Joint locks (Chin Na) are another highly technical aspect of martial arts. They require a certain finesse to be effective and become proficient in. There are tons of locks out there, but knowing how, when, and on who you can use them is sometimes confusing. Combine this with timing them off a punch, or grab, and the difficulty increases exponentially.
"Repetition is the mother of all skill." This is the truth with joint locks, and the more you train them, the better you will get, and the more sensitivity you will have to make adjustments when things change on the fly.
Check out Size Matters for more on the intricacies of joint locks.
Once the range changes, you now have to deal with the clinch and getting tied up with hooks. Learning to escape and dominate the clinch, as well as throwing Elbow Strikes, and Knee Strikes, is yet another skill we throw in the mix. Like kicking and punching, practicing these on a heavy bag can help knock off some of the repetition and get your skills kick started, but you'll need to apply it with a partner to get the full benefit.
So, "Why is BJJ easy?"
Part of my discomfort with this question was that I knew it would be misconstrued. I understood what they really meant to say, but I was afraid others might take it as "BJJ is EASY!?!?! Say, What?!?!?" That wasn't the implication in the question. BJJ is not easy, and they know that, but elements of the question had merit. Why does it seem easier to pick things up than with stand-up arts?
BJJ, at least most sport BJJ, is heavily focused on the ground game. That means you are working on a single plane, with your body weight supported; allowing for ease of movement with your arms and legs available to focus on attack, defense.
Additionally, unlike all the items we listed in stand-up that have nothing to do with your instincts - BJJ is much akin to your natural movements and innate self-defense skills. Like tiger cubs that practice sparring before leaving the safety of their mother, so to do we practice fighting when we are young, pliable, and less likely to hurt one another, and ourselves. Watch untrained kids go at it. They have a natural inclination towards wrestling and that type of movement, and if they had fur you'd think they were monkeys.
You Don't Need Another Hero
We all have hero's we see in films, or in the ring/cage. We see people we admire for their skills. But that's it, we see the results. What we do not see, is what they had to go through to get there. The blood, sweat, tears; the pain, the setbacks, the injuries.
Many people find Bruce Lee to be an inspiration. There exists an invisible effort behind he, and every other icon such as Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Holly Holm, etc. when you see them, you see them in their prime, or entering their prime. You see them after years/decades of training, practicing, sweating, sacrificing.
There is no 'short cut' to gaining "mad skillz". You have to do the work. In order to do the work, you have to enjoy the art, the people you train with, and stay focused on your goals.
The Sum of All Parts
So in summary, if you look at the base elements I listed above, you can quickly see how things can seem overwhelming and hard to accomplish. It's normal. Any skill takes time to master.
On top of each individual component being an art in and of itself, trying to tie all the pieces together while your brain is in the early stages of learning, is thrilling, and yet seemingly insurmountable at times. Push through this and you will be rewarded.
When you walk into a stand-up martial art like Mantis Boxing, at it's essence - you are being told that you do not know how to walk, talk (lingo/jargon), punch, kick, grapple, or throw, and all the stuff in between. You are starting fresh. This is a great time and feeling, but after a few months, when the newness wears off, you start to feel the deck is stacked against you. Things you took for granted in everyday life, are now being retrained. And it takes work. This can be overwhelming, humbling, and at times seem unattainable. Nonsense.
Take a deep breath, relax, and focus on enjoying the process, the people you train with, and have fun with learning. If you think in terms of belts/time, or years to mastery, you will forget why you started doing this in the first place, and talk yourself out of the arts altogether. Live in the moment. Enjoy the journey.
Thank you Max Kotchouro for some of the photos and video.