People who understand jiu-jitsu — and I mean really understand jiu-jitsu — confuse me. You know who I’m talking about, and maybe you are one of them: the types who can remember step-by-step instructions from classes and DVDs and seminars, the ones who can explain every detail in a technique and tell their coaches and teammates exactly why they made this choice or that one in a competition.
You are like X-Men to me. You baffle me, and I envy you, because I really love jiu-jitsu and really wish I’d been born with your superpowers. Mine, however, seem to have come from stepping in radioactive waste (the fictional kind, not the real kind that would instantly kill me). So, you know, I don’t really understand my powers, I just know that I have them, and sometimes my body does cool things I didn’t know it was capable of.
My jiu-jitsu journey has been built on the instincts I’ve developed and the concepts I’ve learned over the past nine years or so. Sure, I know the fundamentals inside and out. I understand why you’d pick some guards over others, and when a submission or sweep isn’t working, I can usually troubleshoot it enough to figure out why.
But a lot of the time, if I pull off something cool while rolling and someone asks me how I did it, I can’t do anything but shrug and say, “I dunno. It just felt right.”
There’s a lot of subconscious learning that happens in jiu-jitsu over the years as we get used to how leverage and pressure should work. With or without explicit instructions, we begin to make small adjustments in response to failed attempts, developing a feel for which way we should or shouldn’t turn to avoid an injury and how our opponent’s weight should feel on top of us if we want a successful sweep. We may not know how to explain it, but we understand it.
This way of learning and applying jiu-jitsu is based more on immersion, much like language-learners who build their vocabulary and sentence structure by watching TV shows in their target language. They may or may not be able to explain the grammatical rules of their target language or tell you why this word sounds like this but that word sounds like that, but they can apply what they’ve absorbed.
If you’ve always found yourself drawn more to conceptual learning in jiu-jitsu and easily forget highly detailed step-by-step processes, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn jiu-jitsu — you may just learn differently. You might be the type to take one big idea away from a seminar and figure out a way to make it work for you rather than keeping a notebook of every single technique that’s taught. You may feel like “muscle memory” is the only reason you’re even half-competent at BJJ, when in reality, there may just be a gap in your mind between how jiu-jitsu works and why it works.
Remember that conceptual learning is a very valid way to develop your jiu-jitsu. In fact, many coaches rely heavily on broad concepts, using specific details as supplementary examples. Just as you may have connected more with different teachers’ styles in a classroom setting, there are many, many ways to learn jiu-jitsu, and you don’t necessarily know “less” just because you understand it differently.
All this to say, don’t let your learning style give you impostor syndrome. Trust your coaches and teammates when they give you praise, and don’t pass it off as a “fluke” when you land a cool move that you didn’t even know you knew. A superpower is a superpower, no matter where it comes from.