Weekly Blog

The Center of the Universe

(This post was originally published June 22, 2018.)

One of the age-old discussions in the teaching community is regarding the class structure, and whether it should be teacher-centered or student-centered. Each style has it’s pros and cons, and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each helps decide which method will best achieve our desired goals. This common desk layout exemplifies the two styles.

classroom layout

Teacher-centered is a very common method of teaching martial art classes. If you’ve ever been in a Taekwondo dojang or a Karate dojo, (or a high-impact aerobics class) you’ve witnessed this methodology. The teacher is a very strong force, loudly directing nearly every movement of the class. They are often counting every repetition, as the students drill. They are constantly coaching the student body, sometimes individually, frequently collectively, with a barrage of corrections, exhortations, and motivations. This creates a very orderly class, and it assures the class sticks to the plan. It is a great way to control and motivate a large number of people, and get a lot of work done in the process.

A Student-centered approach provides greater autonomy for the students. They interact more with their peers, help motivate one-another, and have the opportunity to work through, or even experiment with the techniques being taught. Instead of taking center-stage, the teacher becomes more of a coordinator, directing the class in the direction it needs to go. This style of teaching also helps reinforce self-discipline, as the students become responsible for their own actions.

Rather than an either/or proposition, these two models are more like the ends of a spectrum. A great class will be somewhere in the middle, utilizing a bit of both styles. In teaching Brazilian Jiujitsu we tend towards a student-centered approach. The instructor, or Professor, directs the class, leading warm-ups, teaching and correcting techniques, and coaching in application. The students are provided the opportunity to practice with partners, and collectively work “through” the techniques.

Obviously, the age of the students also plays a role in where the class falls on the spectrum. Our Little Samurai, ages 4-6, need much more instructor guidance, than do the Junior Jujiteiros, who in turn require more than an adult class. That being said, we are continually pushing our younger students to be the best they can be, and expect them to hold themselves to the highest of standards. Learning to focus, stay on task, and work independently are valuable life-skills which we strive to instill in our students; we teach these ideals, in part, by expecting it of the students. Therefore, we strive to shift from the teacher-centered end of the spectrum to the student-centered as early and as frequently as possible.

The martial arts, whether Karate, Kung fu, Taekwondo, or Brazilian Jiujitsu, are an individual pursuit of excellence. Our parents can’t do it for us, nor can our teachers. They can only support us and help guide the way. We have our teammates to make the journey with, but at the end of the day, it is still an individual pursuit. Each of us has to develop the strength, endurance, focus, and self-discipline to push past our own personal barriers.

See you on the mat.

Let’s Get Busy!

With the New Year, there comes a sense of a new beginning; a clean page on which to write the story we want. People start out with the best of intentions, making a list of their New Year’s Resolutions, and taking the first steps in realizing their aspirations. Yet, while many aspire to achieve their goals, many will quit, and find themselves making the same goals the following year. This is so common that the entire concept has become a well-known punch-line.

One of the reasons some are successful while others aren’t lies in the difference between being interested, and being committed, to doing something.

Those who are simply interested in doing something plan on getting to it when it’s convenient. Whatever the goal, whether losing weight, finding a better job, or finishing a college degree, the interested plan on doing it when they find the time, when everything lines up, or when they “feel like it.” So people interested in getting fit for the new year hit the gym, diligently putting in their time, for a few weeks. Soon, they start finding excuses as to why they can’t make it in as often. It becomes more and more inconvenient, until soon they’re not going at all.

The committed, on the other hand, do whatever they need to do in order to accomplish their goals. They learn everything they can about the pursuit, create a plan, and prioritize their time in order to assure they dedicate enough to the effort. They don’t allow anything to stand in their way. The committed don’t wait until they find the time, they make it. They don’t wait for everything to line up, they line everything up. They don’t wait until “they feel like it.” The committed follow through on the plan knowing the long-term goal will far outweigh any short-term feeling that may come and go along the way.

What were you interested in accomplishing last year, but never got around to? Not sure where to start? Start by writing your goals down, and post them prominently where you’ll see them daily. Join a reputable program or hire a coach/teacher. Surround yourself with like-minded people, and publicly commit to your goals. Then get busy.

Are you committed yet?

Don’t be a Zombie

One of the frequently stated reasons people get into martial arts is to learn self defense. As with other combat arts, there is a self defense component to BJJ, and each school varies in the emphasis they put on this aspect of training. It’s important to recognize, however, that the most vital and powerful self defense skill can be attained long before joining a reputable program.

Awareness is the foundation of all self-defense.

We must first be aware of what risks we face in order to properly prepare our defense. While the media would have you believe our world is becoming ever more violent, the statistical evidence does not support this world-view. Even with the recent slight upticks in violent crime from 2015-2018, and again in 2020, the U.S. is still on a downward trend from the early 1990”s. Furthermore, the recent increases we have witnessed are attributable in large part to specific areas in highly populated cities. While it’s obviously not a panacea, simply avoiding particular neighborhoods goes a long way in decreasing one’s risk of being a victim to violent crime.

We are much more likely to experience and/or die from accidents. According the CDC, in 2019 over 60,000 people died annually from unintentional injuries compared to a little over 14,000 homicides. The top unintentional injuries in the U.S. are poisoning (drug o.d.), automobile accidents, drowning, and falling. These are the wolves we truly need to be wary of.

The bottom line: the vast majority of viable threats to our well-being are easily avoidable, if we know what they are, and pay attention.

Zombies, Sheepdogs, and Wolves…

The problem is, too many of us are oblivious to the world around us. We get so caught up in our routine, our thoughts, or our phone, that we tune out the world around us. We become zombies, walking and driving around in what law enforcement and the military term “Condition White,” mindlessly unprepared for the unexpected. By developing the habit of paying attention whenever we are out and about, we can greatly decrease the odds of being a victim of wolves, whether they’re an assailant, a car crash, or stumbling off the curb. Each of us needs to be in “Condition Yellow” whenever we are driving, shopping, or walking down the sidewalk. We need to put the smartphone away and practice the habit of maintaining situational awareness.

Be a zombie in the safety of your own home.

Belts in BJJ

Who remembers this iconic scene from the movie Karate Kid (1984)? After the fight in which Miyagi saves Daniel San’s butt, demonstrating some old-school martial skills, Daniel (Ralph Macchio) inquires, “Hey, what kind of belt do you have?” Miyagi replies,

“Canvas. You like? JC Penney, $3.98. <laughs>. In Okinawa belt mean no need rope hold up pants! <laughs>”

Miyagi then goes on to clarify that karate (and by extension, martial arts in general) is about what’s in one’s head and heart, not about the belt somebody wears. I have yet to meet a long-time practitioner, whether in Aikido, Karate, Taekwondo, or Brazilian Jiujitsu, who wouldn’t agree with this sentiment. Training in the martial arts is just as much about who we are mentally and spiritually, as much as how capable we are physically. We want to develop the mind and spirit of a warrior, by conditioning them along with our bodies to be tough, resilient, and ever-improving.

While it isn’t about the belts,  all martial art schools have some sort of belt system, with any number of various color belts incrementally dividing up the years prior to black belt. As tools, these belts serve a few purposes. They provide a framework for instructors to work within, developing expectations and curriculum appropriate for the different levels, as well as helping track students’ progress. They can also be used to create more equitable divisions in competition. Finally, belts can help students’ motivation by providing shorter-term goals to work toward.

At Werneck Family Jiu Jitsu, we utilize the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation belt system.

BJJ belts 4-15

The above colors are further divided into approximately quarterly stripe tests. Stripes are awarded after a student has attended the required number of classes, maintained a respectful, hardworking attitude in class, and demonstrated the appropriate techniques at a satisfactory level. After enough stripes are attained the student can promote to the next belt.

At the age of 16, and at the instructors discretion, a student that holds a Grey, Yellow, or Orange belt would transition to a Blue belt, and those who have a Green belt would transition into Blue or Purple.

Adult belts

The biggest pitfall of belt systems, as Karate Kid’s Miyagi-San reminds us, is the tendency for students to focus on the belts as opposed to the learning. Students can get caught up in achieving the next belt rather than being a martial artist; they can worry too much about the destination, instead of enjoying the trip. When somebody tells me that “after getting their black belt they were ready to move on to the next thing,” I realize they missed the entire point of the martial arts. Getting a belt isn’t a box on a checklist. It signifies a step up in training; it represents increased responsibility to one’s self and their commitment to excellence.

At the end of the day it should truly be all about living the BJJ lifestyle.

See you on the mat.

Sticks and Stones

While teaching English in Daejeon, South Korea, I found myself out late one particular night with a number of students. We were sitting around a Pojangmacha (포장마차), enjoying whatever various Anju (안주) were being served, along with some cheap Soju (소주) and good conversation, when this rather intoxicated fellow sat down next to me, and started intensely telling me what it was he had to say. My Korean skills at that point consisted of asking directions, and ordering food, so his diatribe was all but lost on me. His tone and body language clued me into his intent, but it wasn’t until his friend had taken him away that the students would tell me what he’d been saying. He was trying to insult me, derisively commenting upon all the standard topics á la Junior High: my appearance, my heritage, my mom. His intent was to hurt my feelings and make me mad, but as ill-intentioned as he was, I remained unscathed.

Of course it was easy to dismiss what he was saying; I couldn’t understand a word. Even after I was told what he said, I still was simply amused by his antics. The things people say have zero impact on our well-being; it’s only what we hear that matters. How we receive the message and process it is really what dictates its effect on us.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

As adults most of us are pretty adept at filtering the things people say. We are confident enough to not worry that much in the first place, and smart enough to recognize that the source, the intent, and the setting all play a role in how we accept it. A close friend making a snarky comment about our hair is much different than an acquaintance at work saying the same thing. Still, we all know how hard it can be at times, to not take some people’s words personally.

It is even more challenging for younger people to navigate these waters. Even with the frequently heard, “just kidding,” or “it was only a joke,” often times children’s feelings get hurt. They simply haven’t had the time and experience to develop effective discernment, and thus struggle with the nuance of sarcasm, hypocrisy, humor, and teasing.

One of the greatest tools we can give our children to help them weather this learning period is self confidence.

Being confident in who we are is like being vaccinated against the terrible things that people say.

Training in Brazilian Jiujitsu is a sure-fire way to develop a strong sense of self. As students repeatedly drill their skills and continually put them to the test, the grind makes one physically, mentally, and emotionally tough. Successfully “tapping out,” or submitting training partners with an ever-refining, ever-increasing arsenal builds confidence. Simultaneously, getting tapped out teaches resilience; our ego can take a “loss,” and thrive. Additionally, people who train in this manner are in little need of validation from others, thus what they say carries less weight.

It’s important to note that the most serious forms of teasing are committed by those who wish to build themselves up by tearing others down. Whether they’re seeking attention, or trying to establish their superiority, the perpetrators are looking for a victim. Just like bullies and criminals, they look for easy marks – people who appear unable or unwilling to stand up for themselves. The body language of a jujiteiro/a says, “I am NOT a victim.” It is a subconscious deterrent to predation.

If you want to teach your child how to effectively deal with people teasing them, get them into a jiu jitsu class. They can train BJJ and learn to handle the trash talking with aplomb.

See you on the mat.

photo credit: kT LindSAy

To Those Who Gave All

In honor of those who gave all they had for the rest of us, we’re keeping it brief today. What better way to honor their sacrifice, than by enjoying our freedom of choice, including how we spend the holiday. Whether bar-b-queing with one’s family, rolling at an open mat, or attending a civic celebration, we hope everyone takes a moment to contemplate the magnitude of what the day means, and give thanks.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Abraham Lincoln

Attitude of Gratitude

As we head into week #10 of this state wide “stay at home,” many communities are slowly moving into Phase 2. This step in the right direction provides a welcome bit of relief, but we’re still a long way from any sense of normalcy. The indefinite nature of this entire affair only compounds the stress many are feeling in the midst of so many live lost and the horrendous economic impact. It can be difficult to keep a healthy perspective, but it’s times like this when we need to maintain an “attitude of gratitude.”

At the end of every Jiujitsu class, the students and instructors bow, and repeat the school motto, “Força e Honra,” or Strength and Honor. We then shake hands, and thank one another with an “Obrigado/a.” Obrigado is short for the more formal Eu sou obrigado, or “I am obliged.”

While this little ritual is part of the daily routine, with the tendency for participants to simply go through the motions, the hope is that this demonstration of gratitude helps remind us to be thankful for our time on the mat. Obviously we want to thank our teachers and training partners, for without them we wouldn’t be training in jiu-jitsu. We’re also quite fortunate to train in the facilities we have. (Ask Cassio some time about the canvas mats he used to train on in Brazil!)

As a parent, I’m keenly aware of how vital the idea of gratitude is. We are bringing our children up in a time and place of unbelievable wealth and prosperity. Living here in the burbs of NorCal means we have immediate access to food 24 hours a day. Today’s children have television, the internet, smart phones, and swimming pools, while living in houses with running water, flush toilets, and a/c. Needless to say, such a luxurious lifestyle is lost upon someone who knows no different, which makes it easy for people to be unappreciative. Honestly, which one of us doesn’t take these things for granted?

Consider the early immigrants to this country, or to what was at one time simply thirteen colonies. Those people left Europe with nothing, risked a months-long ship ride, starving conditions, exposure to new diseases, knowing there was little to no infrastructure awaiting them. They came with nothing, knowing it was all on them to make a new life for themselves. If they wanted a house, they had to build it. If they wanted to eat, they had to hunt or harvest it. There was no safety net, no agency for them to fall back on. Can you imagine how they would perceive the world we now live in, with the comforts we take for granted?

It seems like forever since we’ve been “on the mat,” and many have expressed the same frustration we’re all feeling, not being able to train. Maintaining an “attitude of gratitude” can help each of us weather this storm.

We look forward to seeing you all back on the mat!

Certainty in Uncertain Times

Unprecedented. Such hyperbole has become common recently; we’ve heard it in the news, read it in headlines and in the weekly updates from various government agencies. As we all do our best to keep abreast of the quickly changing landscape, it is natural to approach the unknown with a particular amount of skepticism, apprehension, or even fear. Our anxiety can get the best of us, and such hyperbolic language only exasperates that tendency.

It’s important to remember that while we may not remember anything quite like this pandemic and the quarantine conditions we find ourselves in, it is far from being unprecedented. Our understanding of infectious disease has come a long way since The Black Death. Not only have we been here before, but just as with all the other diseases we’ve dealt with over the past seven centuries we’ll get through this one too.

In his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World-and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling reminds us that “things can be both bad and better.” Here are a few fun charts to help maintain a little perspective; to remind us of how much we’ve already accomplished. (click on them to link to the interactive original)

Take a deep breath, and remain calm. People have been screaming, “THE END OF TIMES!” since forever. While we may have some work to do, we’ll get through this. Keep moving forward as best as you can. And don’t forget to wash your hands.