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March 12, 2019

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a Conversation: How Learning Jiu Jitsu is Like Learning a New Language

Nick Mavrick

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a Conversation: How Learning Jiu Jitsu is Like Learning a New Language

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a Conversation

How learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is like learning a new language

Nick Mavrick

It has certainly been said by other instructors, so I won’t pretend that it is an original concept. I have been saying it a lot to my classes lately. Learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is very much like learning how to speak a new language.

At 25, I moved to Spain all by myself. It followed the dramatic break-up with some girl (who would become my wife shortly thereafter), and I needed some adventure! I thought that I spoke some Spanish. It became quickly apparent that I was wrong. After spending a few weeks in Madrid, I could bumble through the obligatory exchanges because of the regal (and decidedly more navigable) Castellano dialect employed by Madrillenos. When I got to deep south Andalucía, however, I knew I was in for a rough couple of months. I wasn’t immediately convinced that it was even the same language that they were speaking.

I was enrolled in a language immersion program through which I also got an apartment with other students: Dutch and Japanese, mostly. Once I settled in, I went about life as a foreigner with a rudimentary grasp of the language. I barely even had that where the local dialect was concerned. I felt like an Eastern European immigrant living in Louisiana.


Every time I went anywhere, to buy stamps, to get groceries, to order a coffee, I would practice the conversation the whole way there, mumbling as I walked.

 I’ll say, “Good morning.”
They’ll say, “Good morning.”
I’ll say, “I need to buy some stamps.”
They will either say, “How many stamps?” or “You can choose from these different stamps.”
Then I will say, “I need 10 stamps,” or I will say, “Any stamps will do, thanks.”
Then they will say “That will be 16 Euros,” but they might also say, “Writing home?” or perhaps make a joke like, “Why not just email everyone?” ….

I tried to conceive of and prepare for every scenario that I could. I put so much pressure on myself to have a conversation go well. What I found, though, was the that better my opening, the more serious my Spanish was taken. This resulted in even harder-to-understand responses, followed by drowning in a sea of unknown words and phrases. Then…I’d tap: “Lo siento, no entiendo.”

The conversations, by the way, never went as planned. Rigid focus on single isolated phrases-like memorizing a single technique-will only get you so far.

Now, let me translate my metaphor…

The layered complexity of learning a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is very much like those involved with learning a new language.

I choose a training partner and before we slap-bump, I say to myself: Get hold of his sleeves and then work into the grip set up for an open-guard omoplata. Then he will either bury his right elbow in his hip or he won’t recognize what I am doing. If he buries the elbow, I’ll go to de la riva hook and start working the weave; if he doesn’t, I’ll shoot my hips and bring him down into me. When I rotate, he will either try to jump my torso or roll out of it. He tries to jump my torso, but I catch him with the arm around the waste. When he rolls over the inside shoulder, I have to follow with my own roll; if he rolls over the outside shoulder, I have to be ready for a scramble….

Meanwhile, he is having a similar internal dialogue. If I make my guess here, his fluency on this topic may not match mine. He may not have an answer for my re-roll after his defensive roll. This is the point where he has to say, “Lo siento. No lo entiendo.” He does so by tapping to a Clark Gracie choke.

I have made this analogy before, but it bears repeating. At a certain level: jiu jitsu is a conversation. I’ll do this; then they’ll respond with one of these two things which will leave me with the following three options…and on it goes. In the same way, when you are rolling with a player who is more fluent than you are, the better your opening, the more serious your jiu jitsu is taken and the harder to hold off those complicated, high-level reactions.

Rosetta Stone can’t help you here…

Have you noticed that higher belts start their rounds with a much more measured and reserved attitude and intensity level than when you were a white belt? I certainly have. My conversations basically went: Me Nick! Me tough, too!! Me not be so easy to tap!!! Then I would dive in with a senseless level of intensity that played more into their game than mine.  Meanwhile, my training partners, who were much more fluent in the language of jiu jitsu than I, could choose how and when they would dispatch me.

Not until I started learning the appropriate responses and applying them confidently did, I start having sophisticated jiu jitsu “conversations” that were longer than one or two exchanges in duration, but that were also informative and productive for both participants.

Yes, it is like chess; but for me Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is more like a physical conversation that can play out in unlimited combinations and it can be just as educational in myriad ways.

Concepts and Context: a Faster Route to Communication than Phrases

When I started to participate more comfortably in conversation with those Andalusian Spaniards, by the way, was not when I began to master single, linear phrases. It was when I could open with one and understand the broader concept of what was said back to me. I could pick out one or two key contextual details-words, but not always just the words. Only then could I ascertain in real time what was the gist of their reply.

I could pick apart the details later.

In this same way, it has benefited me to abandon unrealistic real-time analysis of what is being done to me by a skilled player

and, instead, pick out the bits that make sense to the devotion of my immediate focus in order to continue to move the interaction forward.

Next time you get on the mat with your favorite training partner (that one who is about the same level as you and with whom you like to try out new stuff), try focusing more on the overall possibilities of a position. Respond fluidly to his or her replies, even if you are forced to uses phrases with which you are less comfortable. Perhaps even pass on submissions upon which you would normally pounce. You may find that you have shorter routes to new favorite techniques. When you have a broader conceptual comprehension, and not necessarily one built upon rigid single phrases, you may find that more opportunities open up for you.


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