An Analogy for Risk

Diving further into the concept of taking risks in our BJJ training and how important it is for technical development, I have come to compare it to that of a tightrope walker.  For our purposes here let us say that the purpose and goal of a tightrope walker is to be gracefully balanced and walk end to end with ease.  To remain supremely balanced on the thinnest of ropes. Likewise, our purpose and goal in BJJ is to have the highest technical accuracy that we can attain, and to flow effortlessly between these techniques.  So how can both the tightrope walker and the BJJ practitioner achieve these goals?

The Tightrope Walker

The tightrope walker must start off as everyone else, a novice.  He will start by attempting to walk a wider area where keeping balance is easier.  He may start by walking a plank maybe one-foot wide.

This will soon become too easy for the tightrope walker.  It is too safe and not challenging whatsoever.  To increase his skills (purpose & goals) he will then incrementally narrow the surface he crosses.  He may whittle it down inch by inch to get used to the narrowing surface. Baby-stepping (as it were) to increase his skill.  Or he may take bigger leaps and radically narrow the surface area.  He may then go onto something like a thick rope, with maybe a 2-inch width.

He will certainly lose his balance and fall several times. This “failure” carries with it gifts of knowledge/experience.  His body is learning each time he falls.  With each attempt his skill set increases.  Before too long he will be on the thinnest of wires.

The tightrope walker’s skill has evolved to a masterful level.  Had he remained content walking the wide plank he would never have achieved such heights.  He sought out the challenge and got out of his comfort zone. He did not play it safe.

The BJJ Practitioner

The Jiu Jitsu practitioner must also get out of his comfort zone if he is to increase his skill.  The novice has an incredibly small technical repertoire.  Generally,  he has two paths to choose from: stick with the small number of moves he has learned and may have some success at, or branch out and try new things even if they are done incorrectly.  The safe way (risk adverse) is to remain on the wide plank. To continue on the tried and true path. The growth way (risk accepting) is to challenge yourself with uncomfortable techniques and situations.  To narrow the surface area to the thinnest of wires.  One way leads to masterful skill, the other does not.

At a more skilled level, a proficient practitioner will have a different set of choices.  When he goes up against a person whose skill is equal or greater to his own he may have a tendency to be more conservative (i.e. risk adverse).  He has a choice:  Walk the wide plank (risk adverse) or the thin wire (risk accepting).

The “wide plank” people will only engage their opponent (i.e. training partner) when the path is safe and chance of failure is low.  They are too scared of being  bested.  They don’t want to look bad.  The “thin wire” people will engage their opponent knowing and accepting the risk.  They will walk the line.

Why are some practitioners “wide plank” people while others are “thin wire” people?  Here is my opinion:  WIDE PLANK people value image over substance.  They think of the immediate consequence of failure…looking bad.  Or, they just have an intrinsic hatred of failure.  They berate themselves at any slight mistake they make.  These are the folks who swear at themselves when they get caught in a submission or are swept. They have a fixed mindset.  Conversely, THIN WIRE people don’t think about image.  They think know deep down that mistakes are a part of learning. They keep the goal of progress in the art in clear view and they know that every so-called “failure” has with it an opportunity for improvement.  These people see getting swept or submitted by their training partner as a gift. When a THIN WIRE person gets caught in an armbar,  he smiles, looks to his partner and says, “that was nice armbar!”  They have a growth mindset.

To attain mastery in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (which I assume is the goal of every practitioner) we need to become acquainted with every aspect, position and situation.  We need to be exposed to it all.  Imagine if the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was an elaborate house. A 10,000 square foot mansion.  To really know the house, we would have to explore it. Go into every room, closet , bathroom, pantry, etc.  We could never really know the house by spending the whole time in just one room! We should risk getting lost and explore.  Similarly, we cannot really learn BJJ by staying on the wide plank.  By only doing techniques we are comfortable with or by not engaging our opponent until the path is clear (because against a skilled opponent the path will NEVER be clear).  There is no growth in comfort.


This is a tightrope walker…

…and this is not (below).

Clearly, not engaging keeps you safe.

The safe way leads nowhere.  The dojo is one huge safety net.  Walk the tightrope, take risks and expose yourself to the hazards.  In that way we can explore every nook and cranny in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.








Black Belt

Nearly 10 years of work in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and I have hit a milestone (or so I have been told). This art has given me so much.  It has been the most challenging and rewarding of any martial art I have ever done.  Learning and teaching it has been a blast.  But I could not have done it alone.  I want to take a few lines to express my gratitude to some people.

First, to Jon Friedland, my teacher, whose Jiu Jitsu style and philosophy I find the most appealing.  The countless rolls and technical instruction you have provided are invaluable.  Thank you for honoring me with this rank and allowing me to be a part of the Neutral Ground association.  I will continue to do my best to represent the high standards you have set.

To all my students at Neutral Ground Sheboygan.  A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teacher is nothing without students.  I am happy you have chosen to walk this path.  I will do my part to keep you on it for as long as I can.

To my coaches and assistant coaches. Andy and Josh, my Lieutenant coaches: Without you two helping me teach classes, Neutral Ground Sheboygan would not be as strong as it is.  I can always rely on your dedication.  Not only have you guys become incredible grapplers but have become top notch teachers as well.  A.J. and Chad for stepping up and crushing it with your classes. I’m glad to have you on the team! Jason Fredericks, one of my original students from the ‘old’ days when I was a fresh blue belt.  You have stuck with me since 2011.  If you had not stuck to it with your fierce smile and wonderful friendliness I would probably thrown in the towel on teaching (or running a dojo at least) a long time ago.  You kept the life in the dojo at its weakest point, so now it can be strong and thriving. I look forward to strapping a Black Belt on you someday. John Brigham, thanks for being a good friend and helping me to prepare for “the test.” You took literally hundreds of high falls on my behalf. I will return the favor someday. Tom, for being an outstanding assistant. A great deal of our students came to me expressing how helpful you have been getting them acclimated to BJJ life. I have no doubt a big part of our student retention is because of you. Andrew, for your dedication, enthusiasm and cleanliness. You are always on the mats and you always make sure the dojo is clean! Thank you all.

Most importantly I need to thank my wife, Rachael, without whom none of this would be possible.  In the last 10 years I have spent almost 9,000 hours dedicated to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. All this time, you sacrificed for me. You supported and encouraged me. Countless times have you said, “go train” knowing how passionate I am about Jiu Jitsu. You took up all the slack at home when I was away.  With a career of your own and 5 children, this wasn’t easy.  You have also kept me centered and balanced.   Not only does Jiu Jitsu make me a better person, so do you. You are the most wise and humble person I know (or will ever know) and I have learned so much from you. I am so grateful to have you as my partner and the mother of our children.  I love you so much.

Black belt.  Just a symbol.  The hard work continues to discover more about this incredible art.  The wonderful thing about BJJ is that the mats don’t lie.  There can be no resting on our laurels. It is still, and will forever be, business as usual.  See you on the mats!