Black Belt Learning Strategies and Advice: Stephen Whittier

What do you consider the basics of Jiu-jitsu?
This is an important question for both understanding and training Jiu-Jitsu because there is a critical difference between a basic technique and a fundamental that often goes unacknowledged. A basic may fall into the category of a fundamental but the concept of fundamentals is not reducible to “basics.”
This topic is so important because even most high level Jiu-Jitsu practitioners and instructors conflate the two. If they are already at a high level in terms of their own skills the mistake will probably not be any hindrance for them personally, but it can have detrimental implications when coaching others.
Let me explain.
In SBG we have a criteria for what a fundamental means, and this goes for any aspect of the martial arts (not only Jiu-Jitsu):
1.It is something that everyone who trains in Jiu-Jitsu (or Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Judo, etc.) needs to be able to do in order to train in that particular art.
2.It is something that everyone will perform essentially the same way, regardless of factors like personality or physical attributes (strong, weak, lanky, stocky, flexible, inflexible, etc.)
3.It transcends environment. For BJJ, this means it will function regardless of whether we’re talking about gi, no gi, self-defense, or combat sport (like mixed martial arts competition).
So with this in mind, the prospect of conflating individual techniques typically thought of as “the basics” with fundamentals as defined above starts to break down. Instead, we start to see fundamentals in terms of a universal application of physics (posture, leverage, and movement) necessary to train in the art rather – not just a set of less sophisticated moves that one must know before moving on to more “advanced” moves.
This is not an academic point. The danger of not understanding the distinction between fundamentals and basics is very real, albeit often unrecognized. I’ll give you a classic example:
Instructor X outlines a “basic” curriculum for new students that must be completed before they can move on to the next level. The students learn shrimp crawls, how to return guard from bottom , scissors sweeps and arm bars from guard, cross-body kimuras and americanas from side control, and so on.
This is all well and good until they are moved into the “gen pop,” where now – because they have a solid grasp of the basic techniques – they begin to learn the instructor’s style. Now imagine that that instructor is a champion competitor with above average flexibility who likes to play a lot of inverted guard, reverse de la Riva, is a big berimbolo guy, etc.
Let’s also imagine that he’s got a great, enthusiastic personality and is a very dynamic teacher, so the combination of his skill and his exciting presentation skills in class is very impressive. And, being a champion competitor, he attracts a lot of other athletic types who want to put in the long hours of training to become a champion like him.
Out of this mix, there is no doubt that some students will become very good. That instructor’s technique is obviously valid, and he will have some students with that combination of natural athleticism and the dedication to put in enough mat time to become champions themselves.
The problem is that unless the instructor is primarily training students who are athletic and have the mind and body type to be able to emulate the style-specific game he’s teaching, a whole lot of other students will be left to the wayside and never reach their potential.
Because the instructor taught his own style – the movement patterns and techniques that he uses successfully because they suit his mentality and physicality – rather than teaching all his students core fundamentals, then coaching them individual to develop the style of play that is right for them.
Because even this great competitor and captivating teacher didn’t understand the distinction between a fundamental and a basic, the “basics” were presented of as a list of pre-requisites to be ticked off the list before graduating on to learn the cool stuff. 
In this sense, fundamentals should be seen less as just the foundation to the house and more as the engine that allows students of all experience levels, ages, sizes, and athletic abilities to identify and naturally adapt a game that is uniquely suited to them. 
If you had to choose only three principles, what do you think a white belt has learn as soon as possibly can?
That’s easy:
Base refers to balance as well as control and awareness of your body in space.
Posture, or structure, emerges from that sense of base, and must be learned and mastered for all the various positions in the game.
Pressures are a function of the postures. At any given moment, what pressures are available to me when I’m stuck on the bottom of side control? (For example, bridge, scoot the hips, shrimp/rotate the hips, pendulum the legs, rock the legs up and down, etc. will all be predicated on the correct defensive posture and frames first being established.)
What are some aha moments you’ve had both as a student and as a teacher of our art?
I’ve had far too many to count, and they keep happening all the time! That’s why it just never gets old.
I’ll also say this, maybe as motivation to help people stay consistent and not fade out over time… you learn more after you become a black belt than you ever learn in the years prior to becoming one. In other words, it gets better and cooler the longer you train, so keep at it.
On a technical level most of my “Aha” moments occur in the flow, and nowadays they always seem to involve refinement and simplification rather than accumulation or sophistication. For instance, as a purple belt I was already something of a technique encyclopedia. I was just consuming everything I could from as many sources as possible. But now by comparison the revelations come down to a little weight here, a tiny shift of angle there, a slight adjustment to a frame or my timing. When I pass the guard I don’t think about moves anymore, I only think about a creating a point of connection and finding or creating a slight separation between my opponent’s knee and body.
On a teaching level, the biggest “Aha” relates back to the fundamentals conversation. It was the realization that the less I taught my personal game and the more I focused on the fundamentals of pressure and posture, the better and more creative my students became in a shorter period of time. Whereas being limited to the “basics” would be restrictive, the universality of fundamentals actually provides infinitely more freedom for students to determine what works best for them.
When it comes to teaching, what are three of the most common issues you’ve seen new students encounter, and how do you address them?
There are a bunch of common issues, but these are some of the big ones:
First, they want to go too fast. Their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. I actually like it when they have drive and enthusiasm, but we also need them to trust our process because we know what we’re doing and our method has evolved through years and years of testing. Knowing what I know now, I try to get my students to learn how Jiu-Jitsu works as early on as possible rather than just think of it in terms of techniques. A lot of times this process doesn’t occur until purple or brown belt at the earliest, so the soon we get them thinking like scientists as well as artists the better. 
Second, is getting new students to prioritize safety. This of course is directly related to shelving your ego and being more invested in long-term growth than short-term victory. It’s easy to tell a new white belt “you need to relax more,” but not everyone can just do it. So we’ve implemented a philosophy, a vocabulary, and training methods specifically to help students to train relaxed and under control. Your body is your vehicle, and even in the most selfish terms you need to look out for your training partners because no one develops great skill alone on an island. 
Third is this: maintaining a healthy perspective…. Fairly often I’ll talk to my students about staying consistent over time and not losing sight of the feeling you had when you were brand new to Jiu-Jitsu and it all seemed like magic. Over time the newness wears off for most people (except for the true diehards), and it’s not necessarily because they’re lazy or mercurial; in most cases it’s because their perspective has shifted. 
A lot of times they let their self-doubts, fears, or unrealistic expectations get the better of them. This isn’t chest-pumping macho ego, but it’s still a form of ego; they have an idea of who or what they should be when it comes to Jiu-Jitsu, and when they don’t match up to that image they rationalize reasons for dropping out. I consider these casualties of the art because they essentially talk themselves out of something they once loved based on a broken idea.
The solution is to focus on Jiu-Jitsu rather than on your ideas about yourself doing Jiu-Jitsu. 
One saying I have on the mat is: “reality is always good enough.” Had an off day on that mat? It is what it is, don’t make it more than it is. Tired or stressed and a lower belt is about to submit you (even though you’re really trying)? Don’t start coaching them mid roll to make it seem like you were letting them do it all along. Just be honest, focus on your Jiu-Jitsu, and don’t let any temporary “slump” in your performance seem like it’s a permanent condition. Besides, the phenomenon of beating certain training partners who then figure your game out and start to beat you is very, very common. Instead of letting it crush your ego and lead you stop training or avoiding them on the mat, be thankful that you have people who can adapt – and therefore force you to adapt – and push you to become better.
Moral of the story: the less you make Jiu-Jitsu about you the more satisfaction you will gain from it and the better you will be.
And one final thought. I’ll share a perspective shift that I’ll always remember. I had completely blown out my knee years ago and was looking a surgery and a long layoff. At that time I was devastated, like it was the end of the world. All my close training partners would be way ahead of me and I’d be left behind. I was voicing all this frustration to my instructor, Roberto, after class one day and he said: “Don’t worry too much about it, man. Jiu-Jitsu is forever.”
To him it was just an offhand comment meant to give me a little encouragement, but at that moment his words connected with me, hit me square between the eyes really – it was a total reframe in my perspective. My mindset had become so narrow that I lost the big picture. Being injured was a bummer, of course, but the reality was that I had the rest of my life to practice Jiu-Jitsu. That moment really reminded me that this journey is a marathon, not a sprint.
When you compare how you were taught with how you teach now, what have you changed for the better?
My approach has evolved a lot over the years. I think it’s important to be scientific, test and evaluate, and be and willing to look beyond our assumptions to figure out the most effective ways to train. Unfortunately I think a lot of instructors adopt the mindset that they should just teach however they learned, often with the rationale that they trained under so-and-so, so who are we to question it. This is a logical fallacy of course, but people do fall prey to it nevertheless.
For example, after the warmup most BJJ classes start off with rote repetition of BJJ techniques, often in a series of moves, occasionally do some situational sparring but often moving straight from technique to competitive free rolling.
By contrast, we stick to focusing on the fundamentals of posture and pressure as I mentioned above, and do a lot of live drilling with progressive resistance so that students get a lot of flight time building a logical, real-time bridge between cooperative execution of technique (theory) and the adaptations required to make it work in real time (practice).
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