The Art and Science of Invisible Jiu-Jitsu

 After over 15 years of Jiu-Jitsu and over seven as a black belt, it’s a great feeling to not only love the art, but to  fall in love with it art all over again.

I’ve had this experience quite a few times in my BJJ career, and the last couple months were another such highlight. In fact, between some insights I’ve had from my own teaching plus the opportunity to train with some awesome people recently, I’ve been enjoying one of the most profound learning curves I’ve ever had. Turn out you can teach an old – or let’s say, experienced – dog new tricks.

Those familiar with my approach will guess correctly that these insights had nothing to do with learning a new technical series with a put-this-hand-here and a this-foot-there. Instead, it had everything to do with an increased understanding of the core essentials of  the art – those “invisible” principles and nuances that serve as the engine that makes all technique work.

The final leg of my recent travels was a seminar with Rickson Gracie black belt (and for years, the head instructor of Rickson’s academy in California), Henry Akins.

I met Henry in person a little over a year ago but didn’t have a chance to train with him. Ironically, I had learned some gems from him second hand, from some others who had trained with him years ago. I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity to personally work with him ever since, and as I expected his approach did not disappoint!

It’s no secret that Rickson is the closest thing we have to a living legend in Jiu-Jitsu. But the main reason I hold him in such high regard isn’t about hero worship or because his last name is Gracie. Rather, it’s because I believe that based on what I’ve seen, he has the deepest understanding of how and why Jiu-Jitsu works. The fact that he also had the “perfect storm” of ability, physicality, and mental game to be the baddest dude on the mat for so many years is pretty cool, but not necessary.

Henry does an amazing job of conveying what he admiringly calls the “magic” of the Jiu-Jitsu he learned from his teacher – and carries on in his own right. What was the seminar like? Simply put, it is a different and in-depth look at what we already “know.” So-called basic techniques take on a new life as you are shown that there is, in fact, a best way to perform them… it’s physics, pure and simple, and the path to this higher level is a lot simpler than you might think.

Don’t get me wrong. I am interested in the evolution of the game and what new and often sophisticated variations and combinations are being developed (even if not for my own personal game). But what I am most interested in is the process of peeling back the onion to grasp the structure and mechanics of Jiu-Jitsu technique at its most essential level. It’s what I personally strive for in my teaching because it will allow anyone, of any age or personal attributes to develop their game regardless of how simple or complex – and more importantly, know precisely why they are doing what they’re doing. In this regard, training with Henry is a bit like Christmas and Disneyland rolled into one.

Some of the tips he showed were so subtle and simple but effective that you could very likely convince the weak minded that you have super powers in a demonstration (yes, that cool). Case in point, within a short period of time you learn why even many of the top BJJ competitors in the world break the open guard incorrectly… regardless of whether they get away with it is another matter, but you immediately understand and feel why the common methods are flawed (I actually knew this “trick” but still came away with a few new nuances); you find out why even some of the best teachers in the world teach the arm bar in a less-than-ideal manner that makes it more possible to escape (if you know the best way out); why someone grabbing your sleeve to stand up in your guard is a useless and easily defeated grip (a “why didn’t I think of that?” moment), and much more.

One of my favorite moments came after the teaching when Henry was taking questions and he asked if he had been influenced by any of the modern game innovations that have been developed in the competitive scene. His answer was directly in line with my own philosophy: “I’m interested in understanding it so I know how to beat it, but for my own game anything I see has to pass through a filter that meets this criteria: it has to work for gi, no gi, and if strikes are involved.”

Best part of all? When you get the concepts and principles at their core, you don’t need to be fed information or limited to what you’re taught. You can have the freedom and confidence to apply these principles to other areas in the game, solve problems and develop your own personal style. Ultimately, it’s not about accumulation, it’s about distillation.

Truly the gift the keeps on giving. Along with the “Aha!” factor, I think that’s why Henry calls it magic. Can’t wait til next time.

Here’s to invisible Jiu-Jitsu!

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Scotty OTM