Guest Post: Steve Kwan From BJJ Mental Models
A few weeks back, a friend of mine turned me on to the BJJ Mental Models Podcast. Hosted by brothers Steve and Matt Kwan, it’s a show (and website) that looks at BJJ in a way that should be very familiar to High Percentage readers.
BJJ is constantly being framed and re-framed. Some people frame it as a fight, an all or nothing gladiatorial struggle. Others frame it as a lifestyle, akin to a form of therapy, giving us larger lessons about acceptance, commitment, all that crap. Of course, we at High Percentage frame it as a game, where you can use science and strategy to play optimally.
And of course, none of those frames are wrong. Jiu-jitsu is many things to many people, that’s why it’s popular.
Listening to the Mental Models Podcast, it’s clear that Matt and Steve has come up with a framework of their own: BJJ as a series of learning mechanisms. Listening to them breakdown guard passing into phases, makes me question whether I ever really understood it to begin with. They take a very concept based approach to the art.
At High Percentage, we focus on the data. We don’t necessarily tell you what to do with it. In that sense, BJJ Mental Models could almost be a companion piece to our content.
And that’s something we need in BJJ. As the art becomes more professional than ever, smart people will begin to reverse engineer every last piece of it. Steve and Matt aren’t just aberrations, they’re the future.
Steve was gracious enough to write this guest post, I hope it’s a good primer for their site:
Chances are, you're not learning Jiu-Jitsu efficiently.
When studying a field as deep and complex as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you've got two options:
Cramming. This means stuffing as many techniques as possible into your brain, in the hopes that at least a few of them stick.
Systems thinking. This means focusing on the core concepts and patterns underlying all techniques.
Cramming is a terrible approach because it's all about working harder instead of smarter. In addition to being an inefficient use of your time, cramming also makes it much harder to retain knowledge. This approach wasn't effective in high school, and it's not effective in Jiu-Jitsu either.
Systems thinking is more strategic and efficient, but interestingly you don't hear it discussed much in Jiu-Jitsu. There's a huge opportunity here: if you learn to think in systems, you'll improve much more rapidly per session than your peers.
As a hobbyist practitioner who doesn't compete, systems thinking has been critical for me. Jiu-Jitsu professionals, such as gym owners and competitors, are going to spend a lot more time on the mats than I do. I can't match the pros in terms of mat time, but I can definitely learn more rapidly through systems thinking.
So assuming you're now on board with systems thinking as an approach to Jiu-Jitsu, you're probably wondering how you do it. The answer is through mental models.
An introduction to mental models.
Charlie Munger, the business partner to Warren Buffet and one of the most successful investors ever, is a strong advocate for mental models. Charlie used mental models to drive tremendous results as an investor, but this approach will work in any area of life that requires rapid and effective decision-making - and if that doesn't describe Jiu-Jitsu in a nutshell, I don't know what does.
So what is a mental model? I define a mental model as a piece of knowledge that describes how the world works. A mental model may be universally true, or it may at least be generally true enough that you can rely on it in most cases.
The most famous mental model is probably the Golden Rule, which your parents surely taught you about: "Treat others as you would want to be treated." This is a mental model because it's a piece of knowledge that is applicable in all situations. The Golden Rule gives us a quick and easy way to determine how we should behave in any social interaction.
Mental models are powerful because you can use them like building blocks. When you know enough of them, you can rapidly dissect new ideas into the associated mental models and understand them at a fundamental level.
How mental models help your Jiu-Jitsu.
The art we train is incredibly complicated. Whether you're conscious of it or not, sparring requires dozens of decisions per second, and the person who makes more correct decisions wins. There are so many possible scenarios, so many specific techniques, and so many steps to each technique that you simply won't be able to memorize everything. The good news is, you don't need to.
Anyone with public speaking experience will tell you it's folly to memorize your speech word for word. You'll inevitably forget something, stumble over your words, or get distracted by an audience reaction. And even if you do somehow succeed in memorizing and delivering your speech, it will come across as robotic and rehearsed. A better strategy is to identify your key points, understand them intimately, and fill in the details as needed. This requires a degree of improvisation, but if you have a fluent understanding of your key points that should be no problem. Jiu-Jitsu is the same: know the core concepts, and fill in the details on the fly. Mental models are those core concepts.
As Saulo Ribeiro said, "If you think, you are late. If you are late, you use strength. If you use strength, you tire. If you tire, you die." Attempting to learn Jiu-Jitsu by rote memorization means you'll always be probing your memory banks for the correct answer while you're sparring. At best, this means delayed reaction time, and at worst, you'll encounter situations where you have not memorized the correct response. It's better to carry less in your mind when fighting. Use the limited mental bandwidth you have to understand mental models.
Some practical examples of BJJ mental models.
"Position over submission" is probably the most well-known mental model in Jiu-Jitsu. It's a strategic principle that tells us to prioritize positional control over submission attempts. But you probably already know this one, so let's talk about another.
There's a mental model in Jiu-Jitsu known as the elbow-knee connection. The concept is simple: keep your elbows close to your knees, and it's harder for your opponent to break your structure. You don't necessarily want your elbows and knees actually touch; the goal is to keep them contracted and deny access to your belly. This sounds incredibly simple, but in practice, it has hundreds of applications and can dramatically improve your game. Here are some examples:
When your opponent is passing your guard, keep your elbows and knees close together. This makes it very hard for your opponent to expose your belly, and if that doesn't happen, you won't get passed.
When your opponent has side control, turn toward him/her and connect your elbow to your knee. This is the first step toward recovering your guard or getting to turtle. Your opponent's ability to break you down from side control requires putting weight on your belly to separate your arms from your legs. If you can connect your elbows and knees, there is no side control.
When your opponent has mount, turn to your side and connect your elbow to your knee. This prevents your opponent from being able to put a leg on the floor, which makes it easy to lift him/her and re-guard.
When standing in your opponent's open guard, connect your elbow to your knee. This makes it far harder for your opponent to pull and torque your leg or arm, which reduces the effectiveness of attacks such as arm drags and De La Riva guard.
Once you've seen the elbow-knee connection, you can't un-see it. It has far-reaching implications for many positions and submissions. And if you understand how foundational this mental model is, you know to apply it even to techniques where you weren't explicitly taught to do so. That kind of compounding knowledge leads to dramatic gains in your performance.
If you're interested in learning more, my brother Matt and I have built a database of BJJ mental models on our website:
We don't claim to know them all and we're discovering new ones all the time, so the site is continuously updated.
We also host the BJJ Mental Models podcast:
It's available on iTunes, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
Steve Kwan is a black belt under Don Whitefield. Steve trains at Ascension Martial Arts in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada.