We’ve All Seen it Before...
“What are you looking at, bro?” The Instigator postures up, inflates his chest and holds his arms further away from his body in an attempt to make himself look bigger and more intimidating. His piercing stare is meant to induce fear into his Opponent.
“Huh? Nothing. What’s your problem?” The recipient of this attention is initially taken off guard but is unwilling to concede or lose face to the Instigator in front of the others in the room.
“You’re my problem, bro. Checking out my girl and staring at me like you’re a tough guy.” The Instigator uses accusations to justify his need to initiate a conflict with his Opponent.
“You better get out of my face.” The Opponent is making a stand and showing that he is willing to throw down by making a threat of his own.
“Or what?” The Instigator tries to elicit an ultimatum from the Opponent so he can force him into a position to either put up or shut up. To either fight or lose face.
“Or I’m gonna kick your ass”, says the Opponent, as he shoves the Instigator away with a two handed chest push. Physical contact has been initiated. The ritual has moved into the next phase.
The two men exchange shoves, pokes and maybe even light grabs while they continue to exchange words. Things could end right here, however, the ritual moves on to the next phase when the Instigator pushes the Opponent’s face away with his hand. Interpreting this as an attack, the Opponent retaliates with a Haymaker punch that knocks the Instigator down to the ground. The Opponent pounces on top of the Instigator and they begin to grapple. The Instigator has a little bit of grappling ability, and when combined with some luck he’s able to get to the top position and starts to rain punches down on his Opponent… just as the police arrive.
When the men speak to the officers they both claim that they were defending themselves from the other’s attack and initiation of the fight. So, naturally, both men are then very confused as they are both handcuffed and taken off to jail.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
I have found that most adults I talk to don’t know or understand the self-defense laws of the State they live in. Which, is very bad to say the least. These are the laws that a judge and jury will use to decide your fate should you ever have to defend yourself or a loved one from another person or group of people.
Many people will contemplate that statement and will see how it could apply to others, but not to them. These people are certain that they know the self-defense laws of their State and how they will be interpreted by a jury… even though they’ve never actually read those laws or any jury instructions pertaining to those laws. Nevertheless, they feel as if they innately know the legalities of these matters and choose to rely on their common sense alone to navigate that legal landscape.
This erroneous assessment of one’s self is one half of something known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect (1). The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is.
The cognitive bias of illusory superiority derives from the metacognitive inability of low-ability persons to recognize their own ineptitude; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence (2).
Conversely, the other half of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that highly competent individuals may erroneously presume that tasks easy for them to perform are also easy for other people to perform, or that other people will have a similar understanding of subjects that they themselves are well-versed in (3).
As described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; that is, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.
The Dunning-Kruger effect can be an issue in many other areas where people may think that they know far more than they actually do. In regards to the legalities of self-defense, however, I feel as if the stakes are far too high to be ignorant of the laws that could possibly affect you, your family and your personal freedom should you ever be in a self-defense or use of force situation.
Admitting Your Guilt
From a legal standpoint, to claim that you used force in self-defense is to admit your guilt in having caused harm or death to the other party. What you are telling the court is, “Yes. I did this. But, I did so in self-defense and here is my legal argument as to how I was legally justified in doing what I did.” Your lawyer will present your case and the jury will make their judgement as to whether or not your were in fact legally justified to act in the way that you did.
Remember, whether or not you did it is not what is being argued or decided. You are admitting to the court that you are the person who used force against the other person. You’re guilty of that. However, if your lawyer can effectively argue to the jury that you were legally justified to use the force that you did, and the jury agrees with them, the charges against you will be dropped.
The Five Elements of Self-Defense
In order to demonstrate to a jury that your use of force against another person was legally justifiable your lawyer (you) must be able to argue you in your favor that your actions met the following five elements of legal use of force:
Innocence: You must be able to show that you were the innocent party and that you were not the aggressor or initiator of the assault. Many people are uncertain of what actually constitutes an assault. The vast majority of people are under the false assumption that the aggressor/initiator of the assault is whoever threw the first punch or made the first contact. Therefore, they believe (to their detriment) that in order to be able to claim Innocence, that they must be struck first or be the person who received the contact first in order to then defend themselves. This is a dangerous and at times deadly misconception.
To be clear, there is no jurisdiction in the United States that requires a person to first be struck, injured or even touched by another party before they are allowed to legally and reasonably defend themselves. It is possible and very common to be assaulted long before the assailant ever makes physical contact with you. Understanding what constitutes assault and being able to articulate why you did what you did can allow you to preemptively defend yourself with reasonable force.
Imminence: The threat that you used force to defend yourself against must have been imminent. As in, there would be no delay between a person’s threat to use force and their application of that force.
An example of Imminence would be if a person was standing in front of you with a gun and said, “I’m going to kill you with this gun.” Because of their proximity to you and that they seem to have everything they need to do the job already in their hands, the Imminence is very high. However, if they said, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to go out to my car and get my gun, then I’m coming back here to kill you. Wait right here.” We would have to think that the Imminence is low. The attack is not immediately pending. It is in fact several minutes away depending on where they parked. In the meantime you could lock the doors after they leave, or remove yourself from the area. In most cases like this there would be a lot of things you could do in the delay between their threat and their returning with a gun. Shooting them in the back while they’re leaving to go get their gun is probably a very bad choice in this particular example.
Reasonableness: This is the criteria of whether or not it is believed by the jury that you had “a reasonable belief” that you were about to be either seriously hurt or killed by the assailant. Typically, to determine Reasonableness a three pronged test is used: Ability, Opportunity and Jeopardy.
Did the assailant have the Ability to do physical harm to you? Yes, they are a human adult with all their limbs and had the ability to harm me. Or, no… it was a 90 year old invalid grandmother in a wheelchair with the brakes locked on. She did not have the ability to do me harm.
Did the assailant have the Opportunity to do you harm? This can overlap with Imminence in that it can become an issue of proximity. If you’re on the porch of your house and you spot a person with a knife is running towards you from a block away, the smart thing to do would be to go inside and lock the doors. Yes, the person clearly has the ability to hurt you. They are an able bodied person carrying a knife. But, because of the proximity issue they lack the Opportunity to actually harm you at this time.
Are you in Jeopardy from the person with the Ability and Opportunity to harm you? If you walk around larger sized towns and cities you walk by people everyday who have the Ability and Opportunity to harm you. They are able bodied, they are carrying guns and often knives as well, and they are at times in very close proximity to you. They’re called police officers, and unless you present yourself as a threat that is trying to seriously harm or kill them, you aren’t in any Jeopardy. Even though the officer has a gun, they aren’t just going to shoot you because you happen to be near them, even though they possess the capability to do so. Jeopardy can also be viewed as the Intent of the person. Does the officer have the Intent to harm you? No. Then you aren’t in Jeopardy.
Avoidance: This may not be a requirement in all States or in all situations as some States have Castle Doctrine and/or Stand Your Ground Laws which can remove this element as a requirement in some specific situations. However, it is very important and should be discussed because even if you don’t HAVE to demonstrate Avoidance, if you can demonstrate that you tried to avoid the situation it could only serve to help your defense.
Avoidance can be lumped into the concept known as Preclusion. Preclusion as defined in self-defense law means, “What else did you try to do besides use the level of force that you did?” Were there any safer options available to you? Could you have retreated? Could you have used a lower level of force? Could you have safely barricaded yourself and waited for the police to arrive?
What’s being determined here is whether or not there were safer and possibly better options available to you that you either did or did not exercise.
Herein lies the concept of “Had To” vs “Wanted To” that I originally learned from Chris Fry of MDTS Training (4). Chris wants his students to always be aware of this concept when training or acting in self-defense. Did you punch the guy who was pushing you around in the parking lot because you had to, or because you wanted to? Can you articulate your reasons?
Proportionality: Was the level of force that you used proportional to the level of force being used against you? Or, was is it excessive? After using a jab right cross combo and stopping the threat by knocking them out, did you escape to safety (and call the police), or did you stomp on their face and groin, ala Master Ken style?
A reasonable level of force is one that is appropriate for being capable of stopping the threat and nothing more. In most cases it is not a proportional amount of force to shoot someone for slapping you. You are using a lethal level of force to stop a very non-lethal level of force.
However, within the element of Proportionality is the concept of Disparity of Force. Disparity of Force is most obvious whenever a victim uses a firearm against an unarmed attacker. This may be legally justified due to special circumstances with the victim. For example, let’s say a large adult male - a professional football player, who weighs 280 lbs, was about to slap our 90 year old invalid grandmother in a wheelchair from earlier. But, before he could do it she shot him with her pistol that she always carried with her and he died as a result. It could be argued that the level of force she use was proportional because if a person in her state received a slap from a man that sized it would likely cause her serious bodily harm or death.
Another example might be if multiple assailants were unarmed but attacking just one individual. The level of force being used against that one person can not be matched proportionally by that one person alone, and a group of people can do far more serious damage to a person than just one person can. Therefore, the person may be legally justified to use a weapon to defend themselves from that group of unarmed people.
The Monkey Dance & Social Violence
If we return to the initial scenario at the start of this article and apply what we now know about the legalities of self-defense we can see how both men involved are wrong in their assessment of the situation and their mutual claims to self-defense. Both of their claims will most likely fail to meet the elements of Imminence, Reasonableness, and Avoidance/Preclusion. The Initiator will also not be able to meet the criteria of Innocence while his Opponent will have a tough time arguing Proportionality (remember how he pounced and continued to beat the Initiator as police were arriving?).
These men were not involved in a self-defense situation, they were caught up in a ritualized form of social violence that males of many species find themselves caught up in. Male primates, and humans in particular, have evolved over the course of millenia to engage in this ritual and find it incredibly difficult to avoid. It is the way that males will establishing a pecking order/social hierarchy when in groups. In some cases it is non-physical but with implied physicality or other form of dominance - such as the hierarchy that can exist in the boardroom. At other times it is very physical and violent. I prefer to use Rory Miller’s term for this form of social violence amongst males and call it the “Monkey Dance” (5).
The Monkey Dance as used in the example is ritualized, follows a particular type of choreography and is by nature meant to be non-lethal. Perhaps I’ll write more about the specifics of why this is the case in a future article. But, for now consider this example from nature. Adult male Grizzly Bears are one of the most fierce and deadly animals in North America. A swipe of their paw can easily decapitate an adult human. Needless to say they are very capable of killing other animals and even each other. However, when the males battle for mates and territory the results of their fights are rarely lethal. Why is that? It’s because the dangers posed to both combatants are far too great in a lethal encounter. It does the species little to no good to have regular lethal combat amongst its members. Even the winner of such an engagement may very well die from their injuries before they are able to successfully reap the rewards of breeding with the local females. In short, it’s not a very good survival strategy for the species, the herd, the tribe or the group to solve these sorts of issues lethally.
The downside to the Monkey Dance is two-fold. First, most males are unaware that they’ve been drawn into this ritualized battle. From an evolutionary perspective, males who are susceptible to getting involved in the Monkey Dance have been preferentially selected to procreate and pass along their genes. However, as the saying goes, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Most males who get sucked into doing the dance don’t realize it and interpret the signals as a legitimate threat to themselves that must be physically defended. However, by instinctively following the choreography of the ritual we can see that they are operating within the confines of the evolution of the ritual and are agreeing to play by its rules. What I mean by that is they are generally not exceeding the level of force necessary to simply win the contest. Also, because the Monkey Dance is often done in front of an audience, if a combatant does exceed the level of force the group deems acceptable, the group usually intervenes and stops the ritual. We usually see this when a combatant gets knocked out or when a fight goes to the ground.
The second problem with the Monkey Dance is that it’s illegal in most Western cultures. In the United States it’s usually seen as assault by both parties upon one another. That’s why in the example I used both men were taken to jail.
Using “Mutual Combat” as a Legal Defense
If you’re going to attempt to claim “Mutual Combat” as a legal defense, good luck with that. While it has been successfully used, even recently, it can be a slippery slope. One well known instance of this being used was in 2012 when MMA fighter Phoenix Jones was involved in a fight in Seattle. The fight was caught on video and showed the police just standing by not breaking the fight up. Later, the police defended their choice to not intervene by proclaiming the fight to be Mutual Combat (6).
I don’t think this particular instance should be misconstrued to be a legal defense of Jones’, but rather an example that demonstrates the nature of the law and the legal obligations of the police in the performance of their duties. Many people are under the false assumption that the police are the personal bodyguards of the citizens of their jurisdiction. This is another dangerously false assumption.
The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the police are under no obligation to protect you (7). Therefore, when faced with men pummeling each other, and posing no threat to the general public, the police may feel it is far safer to let the men continue to fight rather than to try and wade into the melee and get seriously injured themselves.
The Mutual Combat defense can get pretty convoluted. In 2010, Justice Ternus of the Supreme Court of Iowa wrote in the case of “The State of Iowa vs Christopher Spates”, the following (8):
“Mutual combat is more than a reciprocal exchange of blows. It requires a mutual intention, consent, or agreement preceding the initiation of hostilities. A charge on mutual combat is warranted only when the combatants are armed with deadly weapons and mutually agree to fight. Thus, an express or tacit agreement to engage in violence, while sufficient, is not required; it is enough that there was a concurrent or mutual expectation that a street battle would ensue....
"To constitute mutual combat there must exist a mutual intent and willingness to fight and this intent may be manifested by the acts and conduct of the parties and the circumstances attending and leading up to the combat."
Christopher Spates’ defense of Mutual Combat was not accepted by the court and he was sentenced to life in prison for 1st degree murder.
Martial Arts & Self-Defense Training
Most people who are taking martial arts classes are usually not learning either sufficiently adequate self-defense techniques, and/or, self-defense techniques that are not legally justifiable (see Master Ken for more info).
Martial arts systems are merely just a collection of ideas that form a theory on how to solve a particular set of problems. In some cases the problems they are trying to solve are ones of self-defense. In others they may be based on sport. Historically, most martial systems are derived from the desire to solve the very real and necessary dilemma of defending oneself.
Moving forward along that line, if we want to be training to adequately and sufficiently defend ourselves, we should assess whether the approach to solving the self-defense problem, and the solutions derived, are based on current reality or not. Martial systems not based on current reality can still be fun to practice from a historical or sportive context, but may lack real world applicability when it matters most.
I think it is important for a person attempting to learn how to defend themselves that they learn how to do so based on the current situation and environment they are operating in, not a historical one. This is an incredibly relevant and important aspect to consider, otherwise you may wind up an expert in something that’s completely irrelevant to your needs.
The self-defense requirements of a citizen of 16th century Japan are likely to be very different from a modern day American citizen in a metropolitan city. These days in the United States the variables of a criminal assault are different than one from 500 years ago. Therefore, we must have a skill set that will perform optimally where we need it most - which is Here, Now, Today.
Aside from making sure we train techniques and tactics that fit the current reality, we must also make sure that what we are training ourselves to do is legally defensible these days. Most martial arts in practice today predate the current interpretations of self-defense laws in the United States. Following the advice on your Sensei who advises you to do 20 groin stomps after you eye jab and rip out the throat of your attacker will most likely land you in jail. One thing to consider when seeking out a self-defense instructor is their familiarity with your State’s self-defense laws.
Discussing Self-Defense Professionally
When I talk about self-defense I’m talking about the use of reasonable force to protect oneself in a legal justifiable manner. I am not talking about a match between two sporting athletes. I’m not talking about a Monkey Dance, a bar fight, a “street fight” or even a Gracie Challenge match. When discussing self-defense scenarios and situations professionally, we should both have an understanding regarding modern day self-defense situations as well as the legalities of self-defense.
If you ask me what I would do in a “street fight”, my first answer will be that I will probably not even be in that situation to begin with. I don’t “street fight” and I don’t train to. It’s a foolish situation for one to be in and a waste of time to prepare for. I do however practice and prepare for de-escalating situations where I may be the intended opponent for someone’s attempt at the Monkey Dance. That’s definitely worth preparing for and something very few martial arts instructors know how to do or are capable of teaching.
Clarifying what actually constitutes self-defense is important if we are to talk about it and better understand it. For those truly interested in self-defense there are educational and training opportunities out there. At Iowa City Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu our fundamentals classes will help students learn effective self-defense techniques that take the legalities of self-defense into consideration. We also conduct and host various self-defense seminars and courses throughout the year. Contact us for more information on what we can do for you.
Let’s take a look at a Muay Thai technique called the Front Clinch, or the “Plum Clinch”, and its potential effectiveness as a self-defense technique or as a defensive tactic in the modern world.
What is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) is a combat sport that can be traced to the middle of the 18th century. It has always been a combat sport involving empty handed one-on-one combat between two fighters. It’s known as the art of eight limbs because it uses eight points of contact to strike the opponent: hands, elbows, feet and knees. Striking the legs as well as clinching and tripping are legal techniques.
Because Muay Thai is a striking combat sport, the techniques and strategies that lead to victory for a fighter are such that both fighters must risk standing directly in front of one another in order to throw combinations of legal strikes. While certain types of clinching is allowed, striking from behind is not. If a fighter falls or is thrown to the ground the action is stopped and the fighter is allowed to stand back up to continue the fight.
For 200 years or more, Muay Thai has been developing, evolving and improving on the techniques and strategies for it’s specific sport. It’s arguable that Muay Thai and its variants (Muay Boran, Lethwei, Pradal Serey, Tomoi, Muay Lao) are some of the most effective striking systems in the world.
What is the Muay Thai Front Clinch?
The Muay Thai Front Clinch (MTFC) involves pulling the head of the opponent downwards, which is easier if the hands are locked behind the back of the head instead of behind the neck. Furthermore, the arms should be putting as much pressure on the neck as possible. A correct clinch also involves the fighter's forearms pressing against the opponent's collar bone while the hands are around the opponent's head.
The Front Clinch keeps both the fighters facing each other so that the dominant fighter can throw strikes (usually knees and elbows) at their opponent’s head, torso and legs.
While this is all well and good for a combat sport, it doesn’t necessarily support what we should be doing in a self-defense situation.
Primer on Modern Self-Defense Situations
If you’re in an altercation with another person and you are attempting to use force against them, you need to be legally justified to do so. In most States this is written into the criminal code as “Use of Force” statutes. I’ll write more on this topic later, but what I want you to first consider is that in terms of using force on another person, there are times when you legally can and times when you legally can not use force against them. Understanding the difference between these two situations can shape not only the tactics you might need to utilize, but it can shape what you train and how you train it.
Types of scenarios you might find yourself legally using reasonable force against another person are: To prevent an assault against your person; To prevent a criminal assault against you or another; To prevent a felony from being committed against you or another person; To prevent the loss of life, limb, eyesight or permanent physical injury against yourself or another person.
What I didn’t mention was using force to see if you were the biggest, baddest, toughest monkey in your local bar; or using force or intimidation against another because they cut you off in traffic. So if we can eliminate these types of social violence scenarios out of the realm of things we are willing to fight over, then the actual list gets shorter and we can focus on the more serious issues of criminal assaults and felonies possibly being committed against us.
The Criminal Assault Paradigm
In regards to criminal assaults, felonies and other types of Asocial (AS) crimes that could be committed against us we can look at the data and research about these crimes and notice some commonalities. These commonalities can help us choose not only our tactics in how we might best deal with these situations and survive them, but how we should focus our very limited time training and preparing for them.
One core theme with most criminal assaults is an unequal initiative between the victim and the criminal. This means that the criminal will set the time and the place for when the assault will kick off. In essence, this is an ambush, but it can at times contain an element of social deception. It is the intention of the criminal to catch you off guard and in a vulnerable state or position. This means that it is unlikely you will find yourself going toe to toe with a violent criminal actor (VCA). The VCA doesn't want to have a fair or honorable fight with you. In fact, they don't want a fight at all. They want either what you have or they want to do very bad things to you that you might not walk away from.
Another core theme with a criminal assault is unproportional armament. There usually is a weapon involved in most criminal assaults. Even while you may be armed yourself, the criminal will usually have their weapon in hand when they make contact with you, or will produce their weapon at such a close range to you, that you will not be able to produce and employ your weapon without a very serious risk to your life.
In addition to the two core themes of a criminal assault, research has found three common elements to most of these assaults:
Training for defending against a criminal assault must take the core themes and common elements into consideration.
The Purpose of the MTFC
The purpose of the MTFC is to control the head of the opponent as well as their range from you. The force applied to the the opponents’ head can be downward, lateral or with torque. The forearms in the chest can be used to push the opponent into a corner or up against an obstacle so as to pin them and inhibit their movement. As discussed earlier, the clincher’s primary options are to throw knee strikes at the head, body and legs as well as to throw their opponent to the ground.
Entanglement and In Fight Weapons Access
The MTFC is a clinching technique, or more generally known as a type of entanglement. When entangled with a threat at close range the primary concern must be about weapons being introduced into the fight. You must be concerned with this from both your perspective and theirs. By that I mean, your tactics must address their ability to access any weapons on their person, their ability to access any weapons on your person, and their ability to inhibit or foul your access to your weapons.
One of the best ways to address all three issues is to effectively control the hands and/or arms of the threat so they can’t access any weapons or inhibit your access to your weapons.
Unfortunately, the MTFC isn’t able to address this issue because the clinchers’ arms are committed to controlling the threats’ head, all the while the threats’ hands are free to access weapons and use them against the clincher. The number one reason why the MTFC fails at this level is because it was never meant to deal with a real self-defense situation involving weapons. It’s a sporting technique for a combat sport that has historically never used or dealt with any weapons.
I recently made two videos with the ICBJJ Muay Thai & Combat Jiu-Jitsu coach Damien Roth. In these videos we demonstrate some of the shortcomings to the MTFC being used in a self-defense situation for civilians as well for Law Enforcement attempting to use the MTFC as a defensive tactic.
You should begin to see an alarming theme in the videos regarding the dangers of not controlling the hands of the threat from accessing weapons. At the end of each video I demonstrate an alternative entanglement to the MTFC, which does address the critical issue of in fight weapons access.
These videos are a must watch for civilians who are concerned about self-defense, especially civilians who are legally carrying a knife or a firearm (CCW/CPL) for personal protection. Police/Law Enforcement will also want to watch both videos so as to see the full scope of this topic.
Video 1: Using the MTFC in self defense
video 2: le defensive tactics: limitations of the MTFC
Here’s the scenario: You’re curious about training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) for one reason or another. You contact an academy and set up a trial class so you can get on the mats and see what you think about it. Afterwards, the Instructor or Program Manager sits down with you to go over the schedule and membership rates. You may be unsure of how often you're expected to train, or how often you should be training for the best rate of progression. Or, you could be one of those people who are either "All In or All Out". In any case, let me shed some light on starting out in BJJ and optimal training frequency for new students.
The All In/All Out Student
After the staff member goes over the schedule with you, you realize that you’ll only be able to make it to four out of the 16 different classes they offer each week. Seeing as how you can only attend 25% of the classes they offer you make the decision that it’s not worth it to you. As an "All In or All Out" type of person there’s no way you're going to go into this sort of training with anything less than a full commitment on your part. But here’s the problem with your logic: You have no idea what you don’t know about training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It’s called Unconscious Ignorance, and it happens to the best of us.
To begin with, very few people in the world who train BJJ have the luxury of being able to attend every class that their academy offers. At my academy, Iowa City Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we offer 13 classes per week to Adults as well as 11 Open Mat sessions and one Competition Training Session per week. Nobody has ever attended every session available to them in one week.
The average person doesn’t have the time available to train 25 sessions per week, nor should they. Doing so would increase your chance of injuries and lead to a rapid onset case of Burn Out due to over training.
That’s just looking at the physical aspect. There are two other dimensions not being accounted for by most new students - the mental aspect and their ability to learn and retain complex information that is being taught to them both verbally and visually.
When you first start at a BJJ academy as a new student, you are stepping into another world. You will be doing things you’ve probably never done before, wearing a uniform you’ve probably never worn before, trying to follow etiquette you’re unfamiliar with, and hearing words and terms you’ve probably never heard before. You might as well have been kidnapped, thrown on a plane and dropped off in another part of the world. Needless to say, the odds are you’re going to be completely overwhelmed by all of this and will need some time to let it all sink in and understand it. So go slow at first and let yourself get comfortable with things.
Ultimately, it’s not about how many days per week you come to class. It’s about how much you can retain. With so much else going on at the academy that’s new to you, the actual lesson can seem like just one small wave in a sea of the new and unfamiliar. It might be a while until it’s the only thing that’s new for you in the academy to remember.
The new student who tries to train too much won’t get the time necessary to think deeply about what they’ve learned that week because their mind will be flooded with far too much for them to digest. The tsunami of information that never gets properly digested, understood and retained accumulates in the brain, and unless it can be properly categorized, serves only as cluttered static to block new information from being processed. These students remain scatter-brained for the majority of their short time on the mats and never really understand any one technique at a basic level of competency. This leads to frustration for them, obviously, and when it’s combined with the physical fatigue and injuries they’ve possibly accumulated, it’s little wonder that they no longer see the value in training. They've burned out.
On the other side of this “All In” coin is the “All Out” component. Some of these prospective students won’t have an opportunity to go All In because their schedule doesn’t allow them to. In these cases they figure that if they can’t go All In they just won’t train at all.
What happens in the All Out scenario is a completely missed opportunity for the individual to better themselves at all. In the beginning of a person’s Jiu-Jitsu journey, any opportunity to be on the mats will likely lead to a dramatic increase in their familiarity, competency, understanding, proficiency and confidence in their Jiu-Jitsu. These gains may seem small to those who have yet to start training, but those of us who have spent a few months or more on the mats know that progress made at this stage is happening at an incredible rate.
However, the All Out prospective student is unable to see this version of their future or even understand it. They truly have no idea what they are missing out on. Because they are unwilling to even begin training, they will never achieve the benefits for which they initially sought out Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. They will wake up the next day in their beds the exact same people they were the day before. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Your Best Approach to Beginning Training
I recommend that for the first six months to one year of training that the average person attend two classes per week on average. Some students may be able to handle three days per week quite early on, but two days per week seems to be the best for most people.
Two days of training per week will allow you to focus on learning a small set of moves each class, and then spend time between classes to reflect and think deeply about what you’re learning. I also recommend attending one to two Open Mat sessions per week. I prefer Open Mat sessions over Sparring sessions for students because it gives them the freedom to either practice techniques, do drills or spar. I don’t like to force sparring on new students or have new students neglect an opportunity for deliberate practice for the excitement of sparring.
By the time you reach one year of training you should look to add an extra day to your regular training schedule. By now you’re probably proficient with basic movements (hip escape, forward roll, etc.) and are getting pretty decent at escapes and maybe some submissions. Adding another day is probably the right choice for you at this point. If you’ve been consistently training two days per week you’re probably about a year out from your Blue Belt. Adding another day at this point will really help increase your competency and proficiency. This is where being a student at an academy with a lot of training options in the schedule is great.
As you increase in experience you will be able to add more and more classes to your weekly schedule. You will be very familiar with all things Jiu-Jitsu and you’ll be training a lot smarter - which will hopefully help prevent silly injuries and keep you on the mats.
It's Called Life
Those of us who reach a high level in BJJ are not special or leading a particularly blessed life. We have the same crammed schedules and difficult situations that everyone has. In the 20+ years of my Journey, I've gotten injured, been sick many times, been deployed, gone to school, worked three jobs at once, had friends and family members pass away, moved several times, had relationships start and end, as well as innumerable other commitments and constraints that I had to deal with and work around in order to train. It's just life; and we all have to live it. Some weeks you can't get on the mats. Sometimes you're out for a month or more. Other times your schedule opens up and you're on the mats every day. At times it can be feast or famine. Peaks and Valleys. But, if Jiu-Jitsu is something you want in your life then you'll find a way to get it and keep it. If it's not something you really want, you'll find an excuse as to why you can't start or why you can no longer continue.
The Journey & A Better Version of You
In the end, regardless of how long you’ve been training Jiu-Jitsu - first class or your 500th class, pace yourself. Just try to improve yourself by 1% every time you’re on the mats. Avoid the trap of comparing yourself to other students. Only compare your current self to the person you were the moment before you walked into the academy for your very first time. Because that’s the only comparison that matters. After a year of training twice per week (2 x 48 training weeks per year), you ought to be close to a 100% better version of yourself from a year ago.
Jiu-Jitsu is a journey we undertake in an effort to improve our lives and accomplish our goals. You owe it to yourself to train smart so you can stay the course of this journey and see it through. You can be this current version of you now - a police officer, a banker, a cook, a doctor, a store owner, a venture capitalist, a stay at home mom. Or, you can be you, but with a Blue Belt, a Purple Belt, a Brown Belt, or a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I know which version of myself I prefer.
Good luck to you on your Journey!
Owner & Head Instructor, ICBJJ