Tag Archives: teaching

Brown Belt Promotion

2014-07-01_03-lex-fridman-brown-belt-promotionYesterday, I was promoted to brown belt in BJJ. I’d like to thank Phil Migliarese, Ricardo Migliarese, and all my training partners and friends at Balance and everywhere else in the jiu jitsu world. In some ways it’s just a belt, just a color, but I think it’s a great time to reflect on what I learned from jiu jitsu so far and how grateful I am to be a part of this community.

I’ve grown a lot as a person in the years that I’ve spent on the mat. Jiu jitsu forced me to be honest with myself. It revealed to me my weaknesses and illusions. It made me realize that there are no shortcuts to success: hard work is always required and those who work the hardest tend to achieve the most (in whatever pursuit they take on).


It also taught me the paradoxical fact of human nature, perhaps best stated by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus:

“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.” – Camus

Happiness is found in the struggle, in the challenge, in the climb. I learned to set difficult goals, but not to dwell too much on them. Life happens in the moment, not in the future. So while “struggle” usually requires long-term goals, happiness is found in the “now”. That all leads to the two things I look for on the mat:

  1. Challenge.
  2. Fun.

My personal goals for brown belt are two-fold: (1) compete, compete, compete and (2) become a better teacher. I don’t think I’ll ever be an instructor, but I do enjoy discussing techniques and principles with people. What I would like to learn is how to better explain what’s on my mind clearly, concisely, with philosophical depth, and a slight tinge of Russian flavor.

I’ve come to a tough spot in my career that requires a lot of dedication and sacrifice. Jiu jitsu for me is a hobby. My life, work, and passion are in my academic pursuits. That is where I believe I can contribute the most to the world, and more importantly, that is what I love doing the most. Still, jiu jitsu is a grounding force, a place I return to time and again to get humbled and to reflect on my place in the world. The challenge is to find a balance: not a lazy balance, but a productive balance.

I will wrap this post up with another excerpt from The Myth of Sisyphus. In this essay, Camus uses the example of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology, who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. This (in a nutshell) is the struggle. It may be meaningless, but still there is fulfillment in it. There is real happiness in it. The essay concludes:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain… This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  – Camus

Congrats to everyone else getting promoted on July 12. I wish I could be there to celebrate, but I will certainly be there to be break in the new belts.


Sharing Ideas: Making My First Technique Video

I am hesitant to make a video showing any kind of jiu jitsu technique for several reasons, mainly because I feel teaching of any kind is for experts and I see myself as 100% a student and definitely very far from being an expert. I’m always learning, trying to figure out little details, trying stuff to see if what “works” on paper actually works in practice. But to be honest, I feel that way about stuff I’ve been doing for 20 years (e.g. programming). So perhaps that’s just a personality trait. I don’t feel comfortable saying I “know” something. This is probably because I work in a field where “knowing” often lasts a very short time until a new discovery turns what I “knew” on its head.

Learning from my mistakes and the mistakes of others

I train a lot with a lot of top-notch black belts, and compete a lot and hold my own against the best purple belts in the world. Through all those tournaments, I’ve made a ton of mistakes, and the reason I keep this blog is to write about those mistakes to hopefully help others in the community to not make those same mistakes, and also to encourage them to write about their own so that I can learn from them.

It’s about sharing ideas

And that’s the point I’m getting to. I believe making a video of a technique is not about saying that you “know” something. It’s about sharing an idea with the community. It’s never new of course. Nothing is new. But it adds to the stream of ideas that everyone is playing with and in so doing helps evolve jiu jitsu one tiny step at a time. There is no doubt that YouTube has revolutionized jiu jitsu. If someone does a unique guard pass, tens of thousands of people across the world will know about it the next day and practice it over the next month, and many will make it their favorite technique, add details, adjust it to their body, etc.

My first technique video attempt

I saw a video contest that Cynergi (gi company) put together, and used that opportunity to demonstrate one of the weirdest techniques in my “game”: a calf slicer (aka calf crusher) from top, which is actually only legal for brown and black belts. Check it out and please click “like” on it on YouTube since the video with the most likes wins some gi stuff:

It looks like YouTube took down the video. I’m trying to figure out why. In the mean time, here’s a video of the Keenan pass instead, that the technique is based on:

I have been doing the “Keenan pass” that I saw Keenan Cornelius pull off against Paulo Miyao in the 2013 European Championships, and this calf crush is off of that. Before training, I asked someone to video me real quick, single take. I didn’t think about what I was going to say, and just did it. For an overly-analytic introvert like myself, that’s a good way to approach anything new: Do it first without thinking and then learn from your mistakes. What I learned is that even a 1 minute video should be planned out at least partially. Teaching is not easy. You have to explain the crucial details, and breeze past the non-crucial ones. I also learned that I should demonstrate with more precision. My hand placement was loose, my triangle was loose, and my movement wasn’t exact. The point of showing a technique is to show it perfect as you believe it should be done. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing a video? I kind of assumed people can read my mind, and unfortunately they can’t.

Anyway, I’ll try to start making such technique videos slowly in the coming months/years to share ideas, and I encourage everyone to do the same!

Morote Seoi Nage: Tips and Details

I have the good fortune of knowing, and being friends with, a couple of people who have a deep understanding of their art and the ability to teach and explain it to stubborn assholes like me. Josh Vogel is a good example of that in jiu jitsu. Niko Dax, an excellent judo black belt, is an example of that in judo. He often teaches me tiny details about throws that end up changing the way I see the throw. He did that with koga-style ippon seoi nage, with uchi mata, and now with morote seoi nage.

Morote seoi nage has been a mystery to me. As for many people, this technique when done incorrectly can wreak havoc on your shoulder. Every high level competitive black belt I’ve ever talked to always said that it shouldn’t hurt your shoulder, and yet every time I tried it I could feel how it could destroy my shoulder. As a basic rule I don’t do techniques that have a higher than normal risk of injury. It ain’t worth it. Still, the reason I’m very interested in morote seoi nage is that it’s one of the variations of seoi that are good for jiu jitsu in that the grips prevent the opponent from taking your back on a failed or successful throw. This is in stark contrast to my favorite throw: ippon seoi nage.

Niko explained a lot of details about morote to me, but he also put out a quick video, that has some of the excellent tips we talked about:

I like how he suggests to think of morote seoi nage as more like kata guruma (fireman’s carry). He also emphasizes that the kuzushi (off-balance) is done not with a strong pull, but with a turning of the torso while keeping a strong frame.

Of course, as with all judo techniques, knowing the correct details is just the beginning of the journey. You have to drill the crap out of those details. I’ve been focused on wrestling in past few months, but I will start working on morote seoi nage after the upcoming stint of July tournaments is over.

Here is a highlight of morote seoi nage. Some of the throws here are either variations of morote or not morote at all so take the highlight with a grain of salt. But you can clearly see many of the judoka execute the technique the way Niko explains it. In fact, Niko has worked with and learned from some of the best judo competitors in the world. I think that’s the best way to learn the basics: from the masters who have beat the best in the world using those very basics.

A Quiet Focused Drilling Class

There are many ways of running a jiu jitsu class. You might start it with a warm up or you might not. You might show the same set of techniques every day for a week or you might switch it up more often than that. You might force everyone to be quiet or you might create a more relaxed atmosphere. You might do positional training or you might not. If there’s a training part of the class you might run it as an open mat where everyone pairs up themselves, or you might pick the pairs. You might strongly encourage everyone to get through a fixed set of training sets or you might let people sit-out or leave when they choose. You might start the training from the feet or from the knees or give people the option. And so on…

There are positive and negative aspects to all of these approaches. I’ve trained long enough (which is not very long) and visited enough schools to know that there is no one perfect system. I believe any approach can be made to work by a student for any goal. Some might be tougher than others, but if you’re willing to experiment, evolve, and work together with your training partners and coaches, the sky is the limit.

book-nerd-in-libraryAll that said, I really enjoyed today’s afternoon class. There were probably 40 or so people. All we did the whole time is drill. 5 minute rounds each person. Three simple backtake techniques. Over and over. We weren’t allowed to talk, ask questions (unless we absolute had to), have lengthy philosophical discussions. We were told to drill and everyone did just that. I felt like a book nerd who got to spend the afternoon at the library.

That’s exactly the approach I like when I drill outside of class. I’m lucky to have a close group of excellent drilling partners from white belt to black belt, and the freedom and support from the school to drill to my heart’s content.

By the way, my favorite sight on the jiu jitsu mat is killer brown belts or black belts drilling. It’s rare, because they’re already good enough to where when they roll, they’re basically drilling. But it’s not the same thing, because the amount of reps you get in a focused drilling session is much higher. Anyway, whenever I see people drilling outside of class (especially the higher ranks) I’m inspired to work even harder myself.

Teaching Jiu Jitsu Systematically With Numbers

One of the first postions I was taught in jiu jitsu was the x guard. The person who taught it to me was Ray Huxen. He broke it down into several steps. First, he presented his favorite x guard entry, then the basic details of what makes a good x guard position, and then he went on to the magical system of numbers he follows for the many sweeps possible from that position.

I believe the “magical system” has 5 sweeps with a couple having (a) and (b) options. Of course, a lot of guards have 5+ sweeps commonly associated with that guard, but there is something special that happens when you assign a number to each sweep.

First of all, it somehow makes it much easier to remember. Secondly, the brain can somehow play around with the sweep options much easier when they are reduced to simple numbers. It’s difficult to really explain why it works. I don’t know. All I know is it does works and is the reason x-guard is one of my favorite and most effective positions.

He has taught this “module” in judo and bjj many times over the months and years that I’ve learned from him, and every time something magical happens. The concepts behind the position emerge with clarity. Perhaps the numbers don’t just help me (as a student) learn, but also help him (as an instructor) teach. Perhaps the numbers enforce a certain structure from which a more general system of sweeps can emerge.

I don’t have video of Ray teaching these, but I was reminded of this method of teaching from watching the following video. Steve Koepfer shows his take on straight footlocks by presenting #1, #2, and #3 options for the basic positions he likes for finishing that submission. See the 24:00 mark for the discussion of those three options.

I should emphasize that it’s not the options that are important, but rather it’s the structured presentation of those options in the same way every time. Assigning numbers to each option helps ensure that a system is solidified around these techniques over time.

That said, assigning numbers ain’t easy, though it looks easy. I believe the instructor needs to first have a deep understanding of the game behind each technique before assigning a number to each.