Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Groundhog day

One of my ideas for a theme of the month was "Groundhog month", a month where we focus almost exclusively on groundwork.  I have decided against it since I think that it is too much -- more on that below -- but tonight instead I tried out "Groundhog day", an occasional session (maybe once a month) with a groundwork focus.

After the warm-ups we skipped throws and did a few restraint-and-control techniques, most including a throwing component.  From there we went into a solid hour of groundwork:
  • Offence: The first four immobilizations
  • More offence: Immobilizations six through eight
  • Theory: How control of the opponent's hips (and to a certain extent the shoulders) establishes dominance in groundwork
  • Basic defence: A mount escape; two guard passes and a counter to a guard pass
  • More defence: One-and-a-half counters to the first immobilization: kesa gatame (the scarf hold)
All of this was interspersed with short sessions of groundwork randori.

It went well.  Everyone had fun, no-one was hurt, much was learned, and the randori at the end of the class was much smoother and more dynamic than at the start.  The more experienced students appreciated the opportunity for concentrated work on one part of jiu-jitsu, and the new students made impressive progress.

So why "Groundhog day" rather than "Groundhog month"?  Long, circuitous answer ...

I think of Jiu-jitsu as having roughly the following breakdown:
  • 30% throws
  • 30% restraint and control
  • 30% groundwork
  • 10% special sauce: reflexive self-defence, striking techniques, weapons, etc.
Because my class is dominated by lower grades, I probably teach closer to 40-50% on throws.  Why?  Because throwing (and falling) teach most of the body movements characteristic of Jiu-jitsu, make for good self-defence, and develop positive physical attributes, all leading to a strong physical and technical foundation.

Now, here's the nub of the issue:  I reckon that it is easier to make faster apparent progress by focussing purely on groundwork than -- say -- purely focussing on throws or on restraint and control, let alone pursuing all three at once.  [Hello Brazilian Jiu-jitsu!]  With groundwork everything can be taught (and learned!) a little more statically than with throws, and there isn't as much fine detail as in the restraint and control.

But just because something is easier, doesn't mean we should let it dominate our approach.  In fact the opposite pertains.  In order to get evenness of development we need to spend coresspondingly more time on the more challenging -- but still valuable -- parts of the art.  Incidentally, that is exactly what judo founder Jigoro Kano recommended: He warned against the practitioner who, encouraged by relatively rapid progress in groundwork, neglects his or her standing techniques.  Instead he encouraged biasing deliberately towards standing techniques at the early stages of learning, and play catch up on groundwork technique later.

So there it is.  While I am intentionally devoting more time to throws in most classes, the occasional short, sharp burst of groundwork will allow us to catch up in that area from time to time.

Also: If you haven't seen the movie Groundhog Day, you should. I thoroughly recommend it.  Not that it has any particular relevance to this post, other than lending its catchy title.


Andi said...

Mmmmm. Special sauce.

Littlefair said...

I was told by a more experienced Kenshi that ukemi may well be the key to self defence in older age. Huh? I said (or something similar.)

The argument is that you are more likely to need to know how to fall correctly as you get older than be able to immobilise a potential attacker.

Cheese for thought anyway.

Ben Langford said...

Nice post.

I do have to disagree however - mind you, I'm a BJJ coach so you might expect me to - I don't think it's what you study that determines how fast you become effective in it. A judoka can be as effective at throws as a BJJ practictioner is on the ground in around the same amount of time and they can both be just a useless as the other in the alternative medium. One is not inherently easier or less complicated than the other.

What matters is coaching method and even poor coaches can make good headway with groundwork as ground randori is more compatible with high levels of resistance whilst being less hectic allowing new moves to be introduced easily. Where as it takes a skilled coach to bridge the gap from introducing a technique to performing it in randori whilst practising throws and other standing techniques.

Hope I'm making sense and not just blathering.


Dan Prager said...

Hi Ben

Thanks for stopping by (and taking the bait ;-).

Thank-you for challenging my assertion and inspiring me to think a bit further on this point.

Your comments make sense to me, especially after a second reading. I agree with most of your points (although I'll spin them a bit):

1. "Coaching method is important": I agree, and would add coaching ability, attitude, personality, and experience.

2. Groundwork is less hectic than stand-up, allowing new moves to be introduced more easily. -- Agreed. [I am not really interested in the scenario of poor coaching so I'll leave that alone, and the use of resistance in randori and other practice is a whole of other discussion.]

3. A skilled instructor can help with the transition from learning techniques in a controlled / cooperative fashion to their effective deployment in randori (free practice) - especially in stand-up. Agreed.

I think that the disagreement is therefore minor, but interesting. I claim that progress in stand-up is necessarily somewhat slower than in groundwork at the outset, while you reckon that they are roughly equal (given a good standard of instruction - which is the situation that interests me).

My evidence is based on my own impressions, together with anecdotes of others' experience, so it would be nice to either firm it up (or revise otherwise revise it).

With my scientist's hat on I wonder how one could devise an experiment to compare rates of learning, while controlling for factors such as teaching method and individual variation and preference. Tricky! And suggestions welcome ...

In the meantime, judgements of this kind clearly impact on teaching/coaching strategy -- what to teach, how to teach it, and in what proportion and sequence -- but that is a topic for a whole other post!