Road Maps

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 What if the Shell station has been replaced by a BP?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.


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2 Responses to Road Maps

  1. Jason Brinn says:

    I have to disagree with you here Tony. The best way to learn a new city is to have a trusted resource (friend) give you the guided tour and tell you what you need to go to get up and running. As you go along the route they showed you after awhile you build confidence in what you know and start to take side ventures off the beaten trial to experience more and make your own ways. If something goes wrong you make a trail back to home and learn from it.

    The HARDEST and LONGEST way to learn a city is to start wondering around and gaining your experiences the hard way. This is how I was taught BJJ in the early days (97 and on). Most of my friends (instructors) would come along and say hey you should check out the restaurant on 5th street it has great steaks (some new technique). I would head there but since no one gave me the guided tour I would get lost along the way.

    It is a shame to think of all those years I wasted fumbling around chasing great restaurants without really know the lay of the city first. As boring as it sounds learning the basic streets and having a map to start learning the side streets is the most efficient and safest path to learning and it is why most martial arts systems have them (and why the better BJJ systems do as well).

    • tonydismukes says:

      Actually, we’re not in disagreement at all. What you are talking about is the natural implication of the roadmap metaphor. First you learn the major landmarks and the main streets and where they are in relation to each other. Then you can start filling in the gaps and the side streets. When I teach students, I try to give them the general lay of the land, then introduce them to the major landmarks and show them how to find their way from one to the next. I don’t send them down the obscure back alleys until I am confident they know how to find their way around.

      The problem arises when people learn techniques in isolation with no sense of the big picture. To continue with your continuation of my metaphor, that would be like knowing there’s a great restaurant here and another one there, but not having any idea of where they actually fit into the city.

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