Saturday, September 3, 2011

Do Warm-ups Hinder Progress? Or "I've got 7 seconds of fight in me" and I used it all in the warm-up.

I've got 7 seconds of fight in me. - Kevin James, Comedian

Psychologist, Carle Beuke, Ph.D., recently wrote an interesting article titled, How to become an expert. He talked about using deliberate practice to improve one’s skills and abilities. For those who are unaware, deliberate practice is where you break down an activity into chunks and slowly work on that chunk until you master it. Then you move on to the next chain in the series. 

What I found interesting about his article is that when he discusses sports, he specifically mentions the idea of excessive warm-ups, which is one of my pet peeves about BJJ and grappling training. Beuke writes:

Deliberate practice requires pushing yourself to perform slightly better than you normally would. You need to be at your best to achieve this. This means being well-rested and fresh. For this reason, doing an hour of cardio to 'warm up' for sports practice is not helpful.

Now, as time passes, age and weight affects my ability to accurately assess why I am not a fan of heavy warm-ups. My lack of fondness for them has built up slowly over the years because there have been many times where I have been worn out before drilling even started, or worse, injured. Often during these types of warm-ups my lower back muscles seize up into a pretzel knot, my abdominals lock up or I get calf cramps or a cramp that curls my foot up into a little ball. After that class is all about survival.

I can understand a brief 10 minute warm-up where we jog a little, perform some grappling specific exercises such as shrimping, bridging, rolling, break-falls and then proceed to light stretching.  But what has happened over the years is that Crossfit, P90x and other hardcore training techniques such as Tabata drills have seeped their way into the ‘warm-up’ and many classes often become an endurance test before you can gain BJJ knowledge.

I think this happens for a couple of reasons. The first is because I am dubious that most instructors from 18 to 32 years of age truly understand that once you hit a certain age the body does not just bounce back after exercise. This may lead to a callousness or indifference to the plight of those who struggle because of a complete lack of awareness of what the older grappler is experiencing. Further, aches, pains and injuries accumulate over the years and are easy to aggravate. As a large segment of grapplers are 30 and above it would behoove instructors to be mindful of this.

Additionally, many younger grapplers have different expectations than older grapplers. Many younger grapplers dream about being BJJ, Judo or Sambo champions. Then they want to parlay that experience into becoming an MMA champion. (A good number of these guys can’t figure out why everyone doesn’t want to train as hard as they do and get frustrated by it.) Others want to open their own grappling school one day.

To borrow from Seinfield, when he was younger, becoming Batman or Superman wasn't a dream, it was an option. But for older grapplers, they want to make sure they don’t get injured so they can have the option of going in to work the next day or so they can attend to their children's needs that night and the next day. This means that they have to avoid 'overdoing it" in class. Plus, older grapplers can’t afford to live the austere life of a fighter because they usually have spouses, kids, mortgages and job or career responsibilities. Of course, experiences and desires vary but if you’ve been around the grappling scene for more than a month you understand what I am talking about.

I train at a school that is not competition oriented and I appreciate this, but a lot of people do not have this choice and train at schools that have a lot of students focused on MMA and competing in grappling tournaments. It is my assertion that this often leads to warm-ups that are too rough.

As Beuke alluded to, when the body is excessively taxed it is very difficult to perform drills properly. If the individual doesn’t quit during the session (and I have never seen anyone quit in 8 years of grappling) they will resort to going through the motions and will have difficulty focusing on the specifics. Further, they may not be able to drill with precision due to fatigue. This can lead to bad habits or injury during techniques that require attention to detail such as throws and takedowns.

As a grappler I know that grappling is not meant to be easy. I also know that there is a fine line between pushing grapplers hard to achieve excellence and overworking them. My purpose in writing about this and raising questions is not to bash instructors, young people or grapplers who are easily able to cope with any warm-ups thrown their way. It is to remind people that warm-ups for grappling should be intended to prepare students for drills and rolling (sparring) that occurs afterward. It shouldn’t drain them of their capacity to learn and leave them unable to get the most out of their training session.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Law of Diminishing Returns and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

The Law of Diminishing Returns is an economic concept that asserts that after a certain point, further investment (or effort) does not increase your expected return. In fact it can reduce it.

I first encountered this term, in relation to grappling, at an academy I was training at in Macon, Georgia. I was training with Rick, better known as Bumble Bee. Bumble Bee was 6’6 and 290 pounds and the nicest guy you would want to meet. The thing is, it would be nice to meet him in a regular setting. You don’t necessarily want to deal with him in a grappling session.

If I were closer to Bumble Bee’s size then grappling against him would not have been a problem. However, I was six inches shorter than he was and 70 pounds lighter. I was at a serious disadvantage. But at 6 ft., 220 pounds, I was the biggest of the smaller guys so I was always and I mean always paired with Rick.

When we squared off to roll against each other the same thing happened every time. We would slap hands and end up in a clinch. He would push me onto my back and I would pull guard. He would then dig his elbows into my thighs to make me open my legs. (This simple technique doesn’t usually work when going up against a person of similar build, but his size and strength made it feel as if I had two spears digging into my thighs.) After that he would pass into side control. We would then spend the next five to ten minutes with him lying on top of my sternum until he could secure the Kimura. Rinse and repeat.

My instructor Cam, witnessing my struggles week in and out, told me in his southern twang, “Bakari, you’re bumping up against the Law of Diminishing Returns.” He told me I might be a small guy when compared to Bumble Bee but I was relatively big when compared to the other guys in class. He said that the smaller guys could use their flexibility, speed and small amounts of space to get out of danger when wrestling Rick. However, the closer someone got to Bumble Bee’s size and strength they gave up speed, flexibility and the ability to create space.

He told me I was using my assets to my disadvantage. Unfortunately, I was at the point where my strength and size (although good for an average size opponent) was a detriment when facing Bumble Bee. Why? Matching strength was a no-no since his power dwarfed mine. Also, his size nullified any girth tricks I could try to employ. Further, if I were to gain anymore size, it would further inhibit my ability to create space.

In other words, Bumble Bee possessed strength and size in ‘spades.’  I would be wasting my time trying to match gifts that he naturally and easily produced. My best bet against Bumblebee would be to improve my flexibility, increase my speed, become leaner and refine my technical ability. (This is what BJJ is about anyway.)

Although I learned a lesson from rolling with my nearly 300 pound grappling buddy in Georgia, I still did not fully grasp how the Law of Diminishing Returns could apply to grappling until a year later. By this point I was living in Florida and training at a new academy. It was my first time being able to train with a gi. My previous four year of training (not including Judo) had been no-gi.  After eight months my professor let me know that I could test for a belt. I couldn’t wait as I was very tired of people looking at my White Belt and assuming that I knew nothing. 

I naturally assumed that I would be receiving a Blue Belt, but after testing I was informed that I would be receiving four stripes on my White Belt instead. I was also told that I could re-test again in three months for my Blue Belt.

I wanted that Blue Belt. 

A fire lit in me like no other time in my previous four years of grappling. I increased the number of times I went to class each week and I drilled 100 techniques every day at home. I did all of these things no matter how I felt after work, no matter what else needed to be accomplished that day and regardless of how my body felt.

I didn’t want any surprises.

Needless to say, by the time of the test, my shoulders were creaking and my neck popped every time I turned my head to the left. I was sore all of the time and walked with a slight limp. I was a complete mess. Yet, I did earn my Blue Belt.

But looking back, I probably would have received the Blue Belt anyway. I believe I was ready for it when I first tested. When I first arrived at the academy I was able to tap all but one of the guys who were testing for Blue Belt my first go around. I also possessed the requisite technical ability. I also trained in Judo, which definitely helped my Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. But these guys had been training there for a year or more and I had only been there for eight months, so I believe I had to wait my turn. (Hence, the four stripes.)

In my efforts to insure that I would do well during testing I severely over-trained. I trained for a belt promotion as if I were fighting for a UFC championship. But, all I had to do that day was demonstrate 10 different techniques and then grapple a different person every minute for 10 minutes straight.

I was a classic example of overkill!

Recovery and Realizations

It took several months before my shoulders and neck stopped clicking and my limp went away. In fact, a large part of me being able to heal was due to my knee being injured the following week in class. (I folded my leg inward on a 260-pound guy that was trying to pass my guard. My knee folded in like a toothpick snapping. The pain caused an out of body experience and I emitted a scream that I am still ashamed of to this day. As a result, I had to stop training for five weeks before I could return.)

But that time away from BJJ helped me learn valuable lessons about grappling and more specifically, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. I realized that I needed to pace myself and to be patient and that the art of grappling is akin to running a marathon and not a sprint. I realized that I can’t force people to promote me. There are politics and traditions that no amount of skill or attendance in class will overcome. Further I learned that over-training in attempts to get good (for individual growth) or for advancement and recognition (belt ranking) only leads to burnout, injuries and disillusionment and disappointment when it doesn’t happen as expected. As my current Professor always says, “Jiu-jitsu is a Haaaaard sport! It’s the hardest sport I have ever been involved with.”

Final Thought

We all have different goals with grappling but regardless of our desired outcomes we need to take a balanced approach in our efforts to avoid becoming a victim of The Law of Diminishing Returns.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Beat the Competition: Grapple when you Sleep!

Let's say there are two grapplers, Devlin and Kris. In the night class their instructor, Dahveed, tells them that a new spot is opening up on the competition team. Who gets it will be based on an in-house competition in two months. The competition will consist of demonstrating techniques and sparring. Devlin and Kris are extremely excited because they have been eyeing a spot on the team for a while now. Plus, the position comes with a stipend and sponsorship. Dahveed provides them with a sheet of new techniques he wants them to learn during the next two months and demonstrate at the competition. 
At this moment they are equal in size, strength, skill and ability and neither Kris nor Devlin has an edge on each other. In the time they have known each other neither has been able to tap the other out. Both want to be champions so they dive with equal fervor into their preparation. Unknowingly, they adopt the same training regimen and practice an equal amount of time. Their diets are virtually the same.

However, this is where their similarities end. Devlin and Kris are two very different people in one key area. That area is rest and sleep. Devlin has always been very disciplined about going to bed early and insuring that he gets 8 hrs. of sleep. Kris is a night owl and stays up late watching TV and reading books. He usually gets 5 hrs. of sleep each night.

Who do you think would perform better at the competition?
Although anything could happen in a grappling competition I would root for Devlin. You may wonder, if (from the beginning of preparation) Devlin and Kris are equal in all areas and their training methods, length of training and eating habits are exactly the same, why is it more likely that Devlin would perform better at the competition than Kris?
According to, Your Brain: The Missing Manual, Kris is missing out on a precious benefit gained during sleep that would boost his grappling ability. That precious gift is the brain reviewing the previous day's activities and increasing Kris’s ability to perform those actions better the next time he tries them.
As we practice any activity neural pathways are created that help the brain to remember how to perform the action at a later date. Each time we perform a particular task the pathways become a stronger series of networks that can help us get the job done. This apparently happens even when we're sleeping.
So by sleeping three more hours would Kris perform just as well as Devlin?
Most likely.
But there's a catch to improving performance by sleeping. The ‘review process’ occurs during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. That is one of four stages of sleep we cycle through throughout the night. It is also the deepest level of sleep. If Kris does not cycle through the REM stages then he can't reap the benefits.
The author of Your Brain,' Matthew MacDonald, cites two studies, one involving rats and the other humans, that demonstrate the effectiveness of REM sleep in improving our ability to conduct tasks we perform during the day. In a study (2001), rats, that had "electrodes implanted" in their brains, were sent through a series of mazes. Their neuronal activity was "recorded." When the rats later fell into REM sleep those same neurons fired in the same way as if they were running the mazes.
Another experiment, conducted by Robert Stickgold (Harvard Medical School) in 2000, was where human subjects were asked to play Tetris (a video game of falling blocks) for 7 hours a day. Participants were observed while sleeping and awakened during their REM cycles. Many of the test subjects were indeed dreaming of playing Tetris (17 of 27). MacDonald goes on to say that in these types of studies, subjects who are prevented from going into REM sleep do not perform as well as others who are allowed REM sleep when learning "new tasks." This provides indications that the REM cycle is needed to gain the benefits of getting more sleep.
The example of Kris and Devlin is a simple mind experiment. And, yes, studies need to be conducted to see how the effect of more REM sleep would affect grapplers when they train. But preliminary evidence already exists that sleep and more specifically, REM sleep, can improve performance.
Sometimes succeeding in something boils down to small advantages. As grappling is a rough sport and taxing on the body we can only practice for so long or in so many ways. If I can gain an edge through a relaxing, deep sleep, someone please, hand me a pillow.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Making Success Unconscious in Grappling

We slapped hands, as is customary before a grappling session. His demeanor was calm and he gave no indication when we were talking earlier that he was ultra-aggressive. We postured for a brief second, sizing each other up. Without warning he leapt into the air with both of his arms, legs and torso coming my way. Reflexively, I placed both hands in the middle of his chest and pushed him downward. There was a thunderous sound when he hit the mat. We both looked at each other for a moment; me startled by his aggression and he by my quick but explosive defense.

What happened that moment lies at the heart of what Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his book, Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. I am by no means an expert at Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ), which is essentially wrestling with submissions. But I have been practicing BJJ as well as Judo for a combined 8 years. Each class we drill takedowns, takedown defense, how to hold someone down, how to protect yourself if taken down and how to make a person submit through a combination of chokes, joint locks and other nefarious techniques.

Once we finish drills we then ‘roll' or wrestle with each other to solidify the techniques we practice. Where I train, new and advanced techniques are introduced often. Yet, they are extensions of basic techniques, so it is not uncommon to practice the basics hundreds of times. We practice to the point where carrying out a technique becomes an unconscious process. Or what Gladwell would describe as a Level 2 event. Level 1 is reserved for tasks where we must be actively engaged in order to get something done. Unfamiliar tasks and unknown variables cause us to perk up and pay attention in these situations.

At a speech at the University of Washington, Anthony Greenwald, Ph.D., who Gladwell also profiles in his book, discussed the unconscious manner in which we operate when performing certain tasks. He asserted that we are comfortable in these situations and can go through the motions without having to think about what to do next. He cited riding a bicycle, going through a checkout lane and driving as actions where we don't often give our full attention. In fact, he went a step further and said we spend most of our lives in Level 2.

We have to ask ourselves tough questions as grapplers. For example: How many of the tasks related to becoming a success do you complete at Level 2? How many ‘reps' have you done; how much ‘film' have you watched; how many ‘plays' have you devised and practiced and how many ‘competitions' have you entered in order to make what you do an unconscious process? Sure, we must be fully present when engaging in any activity. But the more we can focus on the big picture and not on the individual steps the better off we will be.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Process or Results Oriented Approach to Jiu-jitsu

In communication and psychology, the terms Results Oriented and Process Oriented are used to describe people's approach to communicating with others, tackling tasks and competing. Although neither approach is inherently good or bad, it is best to know which approach is more useful when training in sports.

Before discussing how the Process or Results Oriented approaches relate to grappling, think about what type of grappler you are. Remember, there is no right or wrong here; you will just be assessing your approach.

When you consider your overall grappling mindset are you more concerned with progress or winning? Are you concerned about being the best you can be or being the best? In practice do you work on parts of your game you consider weak or do you only rely on your strongest techniques against your rolling partners? When you compete, does a loss cause to you to descend into a funk or do you recognize the good points of your performance?

Results Oriented Grappler

Results Oriented (RO) people are concerned with the outcome. They want another victory in the win column; to be called champion and most importantly they don't want to lose. Their desire to win is so great that the Results Oriented person may adopt a win at any cost approach and not consider who is hurt or damaged in their pursuit of success. Results Oriented people as coaches can sometimes be the 'in your face,' 'no excuses' type.

In the academy many people take the RO approach. The new student who thinks that losing a grappling match makes them less of a person, the guy who always refuses to tap and the person who always wants top position or whose guard is so good that they always want to be on the bottom. What about the person who will hold one grip the entire roll and you end up in a five-minute stalemate?

All of the behaviors listed above are Results Oriented approaches. It is difficult to say if it is the right or the wrong approach because it leads to mixed results. A win at all cost mentality often leads to victory in both practice and in competition. I’ve tapped many times to grappling partners who have exploded into an arm-bar or a foot-lock technique in practice. I’ve tapped to choke attacks that lasted well over two minutes in regular grappling sessions. I’ve even had guys place their toes over my mouth in attempts to get an arm-bar and after escaping I had to look for the camera to see if someone was shooting a fetish video. 

In other words, I’m saying that I have tapped to a lot of what I consider slightly out of bounds techniques and approaches. In those situations I believed that my rolling partners wanted the tap even though it didn’t seem like fair play and at the risk of my personal safety. Did I consider them bad people? No, not a single one, but I did consider some of their actions as misplaced in the training environment.

In the competitive arena, Results Oriented grapplers are right at home. A RO approach makes the grappler determined. It makes them work harder when it counts; choose the best strategies for the moment and it makes them a formidable competitor.

Process Oriented Approach

The Process Oriented person, although concerned with success, is also concerned with how that success occurs. They are concerned with their performance during their pursuit and will ask themselves questions such as: Did I perform better than last time or did I improve in the areas I was focusing on? I won, but did I play by the rules and show good sportsmanship? If I keep improving the way I am, will I be a champion?

It is easy to recognize a Process Oriented grappler once you know their mindset. It is the person in class who continually works the weak spots in their game, even when they know they will lose or will be dominated in a grapple. It is the guy who is calm during rolls even when the other person may be ‘raging’ for a tap. As a coach the Process Oriented grappler is more concerned with their athletes doing their best and improving as opposed to getting the victory.

You can also say that Process Oriented people focus more on the future while Results Oriented people focus more on the now.

Which approach is better?

In reality, both can be successful and of course there are winners of all types. Common sense would dictate that when dealing with people you are close to (i.e., training partners and teammates) you have to use a Process Oriented approach because you have to respect each other's well-being and treat each other how you would like to be treated. Going all out, at all times, and using the Results Oriented approach in your academy can lead to injuries, loss of training partners and being banned. Yet, Results Oriented approaches can be useful in establishing a pecking order when first grappling with someone or during an in-house competition. It can also give the false appearance that someone is better than he or she is (which can lead to promotions) because they are always tapping people out. But as a general rule, it is my contention that it will leave a grappler with holes in their game as the concern is with winning and not developing an overall game.
However, always using the Process Oriented approach can lead to a person never developing that “win at all cost” mentality that is sometimes necessary in competition and absolutely vital in self-defense situations. It also can lead to people gaining a mental advantage over the Process Oriented grappler because ultimately a tap is a tap. Once people tap you a hierarchy is established whether or not you let them tap you or placed yourself in a position where you would likely be tapped. (I believe that this approach can hinder rank advancement as well.)
So, which is best? It depends on your aims and goals? But how you approach grappling will determine your longevity, your relationships and your overall success.

Ultimately, the approach you take depends on the context and on you.
This is by no means settled. What are your thoughts? What type of grappler are you and how do you think it affects your training and overall success?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Using an Audience to Improve in Competition - Brazilian Jiu-jitsu

Picture a man competing in three bicycle races. One is where he rides solo for time. The second is where he uses a "pacer" to help him maintain a consistent speed. In the third race he races against other cyclists. Which of his times will be fastest?
Norman Triplett, believed by many to be the pioneer of sports social psychology, discovered that "competition" affects "performance." Bluntly, you perform at a higher level when other people are present. He discovered that professional cyclists achieved faster times when racing against other riders. Their times became slower when they were timed in solo events or used pacers.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Numerous researchers who followed in Triplett's wake received results that supported and debunked his conclusions. Sometimes people performed well when an audience was around, other times they failed miserably. It was Robert Zajonc, Ph.D. (pronounced as Xyience) who came along and found that if you have no talent for a task, your performance will decrease when an audience is present. On the other hand, it would increase if you were well acquainted with the task at hand.

In an oft-cited study (Micheals et al), pool players were classified into two categories; below average and above average. Their games were observed with no audience present and then with four observers milling around. What they found was telling. The above average players scores increased when an audience was present while the below average players scores nose-dived.
So what could this mean for grapplers? Well as beginning grapplers, having guests and friends accompany you to competitions is good for moral support and it demonstrates that they care for you. However, as far as competition is concerned, it may have a deleterious effect on your performance. Having a five year old screaming, “Get up Daddy!” when pinned in side control as a beginner may short-circuit a grappler's thought process.
But for the intermediate and advanced grappler, as experiments in other fields have indicated, having family and friends present at grappling competitions may be the extra push needed in order to perform better.
Additionally, some people may ask, “What about the people already present at tournaments? Aren't they an audience?” To those individuals I would ask them to reflect on the low attendance rate of 'fans' at grappling events. Participants often outnumber the fans. Further, many matches occur at once. As a consequence, grapplers often end up on mats at the far end of gyms or the other side of an arena where fans will not be present. A grappler could end up with no audience at all.
Therefore, if you do want people present, you should make sure to invite them. 
If you've had any experience with this please let us know so we can all learn.