Occasionally I listen to students of arts such as Tae Kwon Do or Kempo and am struck by comments such as “for my next belt I have to learn 3 new kata and 7 new self-defense techniques.” It strikes me that am doing something fundamentally different from what they are. I don’t mean am practicing a different martial art. I mean I am practicing a different learning process. They seem to be collecting discrete units of knowledge. In contrast, I am building a map.
Imagine you are visiting a strange city with no map and no GPS. You are given instructions to get to your hotel: “get off the highway at exit 134, turn right, go 6 blocks, turn left, drive for 2 miles, turn right at the Shell station, 3 more blocks and it will be on your left.” That’s all well and good, but what if the exit is closed for construction? What if you miss one of your turns? What if the Shell station has been replaced by a BP? What if you come into town on a different highway? What if you lose your map and are relying on memory? Can you remember how many blocks before your next turn?
It seems to me that some people learn martial arts as if they were memorizing lists of directions in a strange city. Here’s how you get to the hotel. Here’s how you get to the park. Here’s how you get to the stadium. Once something goes wrong with the directions, they are lost.
Compare this approach to the process of handling directions in a city that you are familiar with. You know the landmarks. You know where they are in relation to each other. Someone can tell you: “start from the university and head north on Main. Turn left a block before you get to the stadium. Go down to where the Toyota dealership used to be.” You’ll be able to find your way even if you’re coming from some place other than the university and even if traffic is blocked on Main.
When you become really familiar with the city, it’s like having a roadmap in your head. you know major and minor landmarks. You know multiple routes from one to another. You know the traffic patterns and the shortcuts and the shops and the bad neighborhoods. You can adjust your route on the fly to deal with changing conditions, even while thinking about something else. If you do somehow get lost, you know the quickest way to get back to familiar territory.
This analogy is useful for martial arts training in general, but particularly so for jiu-jitsu, because of our emphasis on position. I’m caught in side control? No worries. I’ve got a shortcut to butterfly guard. From there I can take a right turn to x-guard, which gives me a straight shot to top control. Once I’m on top, I know my opponent’s available routes of escape and can lay a trap in each one. Alternatively, I can completely shut down every escape route except one and then wait for my opponent to go the only direction I’ve left open for him.
The implication of this metaphor for teaching and for training is that isolated techniques devoid of context aren’t much use. Techniques should provide a connection between one situation and another. Students should be working towards understanding the big picture and building a roadmap that will allow them to head for an appropriate destination, regardless of where they start out and regardless of the roadblocks that an opponent might throw in their way.