BJJ / Grappling Learning: Learning Languages

I love BJJ. It's such a deep and difficult art form to learn, and I think that that's part of the grappling art's charm. I am always thinking about new ways to learn (and teach) BJJ techniques and concepts and I often find myself drawing on the knowledge I have outside the mat. One such area is learning languages. I am fluent in three quite different languages (Swedish, English and Arabic) and have a fundamental grasp of both French and Afrikaans and some dialects of both Kurdish and Turkish. One of the best habits I have for learning languages is looking for patterns but also being very relaxed about rules. It is important to recognise why and when a pattern of language (or BJJ) appears but it is also important to accept that there will always be exceptions. In spelling, '"i" before "e"' is good to remember, but so is 'except after "c"'. In BJJ it's handy to remember that you shouldn't extend your arm when escaping, accept with a mount escape to butterfly guard or a armpit escape from the side control.

More about exceptions to the rules of grappling in a later post. I mentioned in my previous post that learning to watch BJJ is an important skill and avenue to learn more grappling. Luckily, my blog is read by some intelligent people and one of them is Megan (check her awesome musings on her blog) and, being a language learner/teacher herself, she had a query:

I always tell students I'm tutoring in English to spend as little time as possible listening to non-native speakers. It's advice I take myself. I've been wondering lately if the same advice is applicable to BJJ. As much as I love watching my instructor spar with the brown belts, what they're doing is so frequently above my understanding, I find myself favoring watching blues and some purples lately, since I can follow the conversation better. While I'm comfortable though, I believe there may be more latent learning going on when I'm watching higher level grapplers."

While I definitely believe there will be latent learning when watching advanced grapplers, I don't feel that the best use of such an opportunity. If you are lucky enough to have access to black and brown belts rolling, you should utilise the following exercise I use with my brother when I teach him Swedish:

I give him a text in Swedish, usually a dialogue. I tell him to follow the text as I read him the English equivalent (which I have in my hand). I have purposefully filled the Swedish dialogue with names of people and places and also with pronouns. This way, I know he can easily anchor as he's following the text. He can hear me saying "Liam and Sharon" and his eyes easily identify "Liam" and "Sharon" which indicates to him that the Swedish word between them is the word for "and". This has proved very quick in teaching him.

I do the same when train BJJ. After we are done with our session, I sit with him and we watch the Open Mat. I tell him to simply focus on the actions of one player (usually a higher belt) and tell him to specifically focus on every time that player tries to gain an underhook. Soon enough, my brother started to appreciate the importance of underhooks. He told me that he could see that they were "dominant" but didn't quite know why or how. I told him that he's indeed right and that the why and how will come later.

That's my suggestion for watching higher belts roll in BJJ or even No-gi grappling. Focus on one person's side of the conversation. Focus on one singular action and see how often they are doing it. Suggestions of good BJJ anchors are:

1. Underhooks
2. Overhooks
3. Framing with the knee
4. Use of the head

These are a good start. Now practice with this awesome match between Marcelo Garcia and Xande Ribeiro from ADCC 2005. First, just watch from Marcelo Garcia's perspective and see how he uses his head. Is he pinning it to the mat? Is he using to push Xande? Don't worry just yet about why, just notice it for the time being. When you've done that for the whole match, I suggest doing it again. Yes, re-watch it from Marcelo's point of view and see if you missed anything the first time around. Once you're happy with that, either switch to another of Marcelo Garcia's actions or switch entirely to Xande Ribeiro's side.

Liam "The Part Time Grappler" Wandi

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Georgette said...

OMG. Best article plus best timing ever! This was perfect for what I have been thinking about lately. AWESOME!!! I totally need this kind of advice. I get lost when I watch high level grappling (live or youtube, either way) and the concept of anchors is amazing.

Liam, please move to the US and come train with me :)

Liam H Wandi said...

Haha you are much too kind Georgette. Thank you so very much!

They say if you break a joke down, it stops being funny. Likewise, it's sometimes fun to just enjoy the grappling match without trying to make too much sense of it.

However enjoyable that may be, it's not the best way to learn from watching grappling.

Anchors are great fun. I use them when learning (teaching) anything and everything new and they even provide great progressive reward system. For example, last time I competed, my goal was simply to establish my grips before the opponent then NOT get taken down. I lost my first match by armbar and the second by advantages, but I got my grips and did not get taken down so I achieved my objective :)

AS for moving to the US, well that's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me :)

I look forward to at least visiting ;)

Okke said...

Great post! I have the same issue watching higher belts... it's so far above my level that I don't `get` what they're doing or why. But focusing on one person, and then specific movements, is a really good idea. I'll definitely try it out!

Combat Sports Review said...

Anchors. I'm currently thinking, if I had known that... ;-)

Great advice. I've often tried to watch upper belts roll, but I get distracted by "Circus in my head" (ADHD). I think the approach you described will help me to focus and learn from watching these amazing players.

Thank you.

Megan said...

Liam. This is brilliant.

I used to do this for myself listening to Chinese radio. I'd pick 10 or so words and listen for them throughout the day...great for the radio since I knew the names of countries and celebrities as anchors. I don't know why I never thought to apply it to BJJ. You need to publish a watchers guide or something.

Off to hunt for underhooks! Great post! (And I second Georgette's request for a hop over the pond.)

Liam H Wandi said...

wow. such a fantastic response. Thank you all for this, it really made my day :)

Liam H Wandi said...

@Okke, Thanks for the kind words. Remember that you don't need to understand ALL the "why's" to begin with. Just keep your eyes open for patterns.

Inside tip: When you notice a pattern like how everytime a player stands up inside closed guard, they try to control a sleeve first (example), bring it to your instructor's attention. Just say: "I just noticed that... Is that important?" and watch their proud face. Serious browny points :)

Liam H Wandi said...

@Combat Sports Review: Thanks Jodi. I remember the first time I attended a No-Gi session. I was still a new white belt and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. All I could see was handsfeetelbowskneeshipsshrimpingpostingframingsprawlinggrabbingsqueezingtaptaptap!

Let us know how it goes ;)

Liam H Wandi said...

@Megan. Thank you very much for inspiring the post in the first place :) I'm not the most experienced or advanced BJJ player/instructor by far, but I try to bring in ideas from other waters I've dipped my toes in.

It'd be a pleasure to visit all these amazing places I'm getting invited to and one day I will :)

As for the Watchers Guide, such a fantastic idea. Off to hunt for publishers!

A.D. McClish said...

I got a lot out of this post. You said, "One of the best habits I have for learning languages is looking for patterns but also being very relaxed about rules." Sometimes when I watch guys who are black or brown belts roll it seems like they accomplish their feats via magic! There's so much going on, it's hard to break down how they're moving. But your idea of focusing on specific things while you watch is really great advice. Thanks so much!

Liam H Wandi said...

Thank you Allie. It's very important to always remember that just because you understand how it's done, it doesn't cease to be magic :)

Why else do you think we do it :)

graham cooke said...

Another classic example of why I love this blog! Thanks for this Liam, I will watch the video at home later.

Liam H Wandi said...

Ha thanks a lot Graham. Let us know how it goes :)