Saturday, October 21, 2017

Creativity and Martial Arts Training I

The Natural Order of Things?

A recent seminar with John Will brought home to me the value of imagination and a creative approach to martial arts training, and, specifically, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The seminar was on half guard on the bottom - more specifically, a type of Z guard - and we were looking at how to attack from there with a kimura.

As white belts, students are usually taught to force the opponent to put his hand on the mat, and then grab the wrist with the same side arm, then sitting up and overhooking the elbow, securing the kimura grip, and applying the kimura submission.

John explained that this hardly ever works on an experienced grappler, as they will rarely put their hands on the mat, or allow you to grab the wrist, as they have seen that setup so many times before. And even if you do manage to pull that off, you may still have to contend with them grabbing their belt or inner thigh to avoid being submitted.

John's alternative was to overhook the elbow first, kick the top leg out and rip the elbow away from the hip and rib cage as he flattens out. Then grab the wrist. This will significantly reduce the size of the window of opportunity he has to grab his belt, and give you a significantly better chance of completing the submission.

John discussed the possibilities involved in kickboxing when, instead of stepping into range, then throwing the kick; instead, throwing the kick, while/then sliding or hopping towards the opponent. Old-time greats Bill Wallace and Chuck Norris' premier fighter,  Chip Wright, both employed this tactic to great effect.

More generally, by changing the order in which things are done, we may end up with a significantly better result. It doesn't always work, but when it does ...

This seemed to be a good jumping off point for a wider consideration of creativity and its role in martial arts training and evolution.


From a strict psychological perspective true creativity is very rare. In this context, creativity can defined as your ability to, from one idea, come up with a number of ideas that are both useful and novel. "Novel" here meaning ideas that that not nearly everyone else will come up with in the same situation.

Monetizing your creative output to any meaningful extent is extremely difficult and rare. The number of people who can make a decent living solely from their creative output is vanishingly small.

One of my intellectual heroes, Dr Jordan B. Peterson, discusses these issues in considerable detail in this video:

About 45 minutes, worth it if you have an interest in this area

The good news, however, is that just about everybody can - and does - harness their creativity in everyday life. Much of it is extending pre-existing ideas or concepts in various directions, or combining them in different ways. There are heuristics and methodologies for this which we all can employ. 

If you don't think you have a creative bone in your body, the book "Steal Like An Artist" may change your mind and give you some confidence. No Jiu Jitsu in here ... not specifically, that is. 

This applies to  Jiu Jitsu and other martial arts training, and indeed just about all areas of life.

Creativity and Evolution in Jiu Jitsu

Many Jiu Jitsu positions and techniques have been invented through necessity. The mother of invention. As John Will states often, it helps to understand the origin of how and why techniques and positions originated. Also, finding out how a top Jiu Jitsu player learned a technique, rather than how they do it now, and only then learning about the steps in between that led them to the current way they do, may be highly instructive to understanding that technique fully.

The de la Riva Guard (as one story goes) was invented out of necessity because people got really good at blocking Ricardo de la Riva from putting his feet on their hips in open guard. Swinging out to the side and getting an outside hook is one counter to that strategy.

The X guard came about when opponents started standing up to avoid the butterfly guard.

You don't need the berimbolo if you can sweep them to their back from DLR guard and thus just lie there. You can go to mount. It's when they begin to struggle to get back up, and that mount is no longer an option, that the berimbolo and subsequent back take can come into play.

Many chains or groups of techniques come about as responses to counters that people developed to an original lone technique. The techniques John Will showed at the most recent seminar at Red Boat were an example. 

From Z guard, you kick up and get the underhook and frame on the opposite elbow. Then:
  • If he does nothing, come to your knees, drive him forward and go to his back
  • If he whizzers to stop the back take, go to tthe Dogfight and take him down with the Dogfight Double (Eddie Bravo calls it the Half and Half)
  • If he whizzers to avoid the back take, and stands up on his far foot to stop the Dogfight Double, you roll under and sweep him over you with the Plan B.
There are more techniques from Dogfight - limp arm out from the whizzer to take the back, a triangle entry called the Powder Keg, and a roll to the Spider Web position called the Drowning Wizard. And more, much of which is still to be invented, no doubt.

Z guard itself is arguably the solution to a common problem, the battle for the far side underhook in half guard. If he wins the battle, he can flatten you out and will probably pass. If you get the underhook, you get to try your stuff. Using Z guard rather than the flat style of half guard increases your chances of getting the half guard from 50/50 to 80/20 ... or thereabouts.

These are a series of creative solutions to a succession of related problems. One problem arises, you find a solution. Somebody counters that solution, they present a new problem. You work out a solution to THAT problem, someone will eventually come up with yet another counter. And this arms race continues, indefinitely. In this way, Jiu Jitsu becomes truly endless.

Creative Problem Solving

I bought a book back in the early 1970s called "The Universal Traveler", by Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall. The cover blurb goes on : "A companion for those on problem solving journeys, and a soft-systems guidebook to the process of design." It is still in print today. The fact I still own and use it 45 years later indicates that I continue to find it significant.

 Jiu Jitsu is, at one level at least, a continuous process of problem solving.

The Universal Traveler describes creativity in this way:
The 'design process' is a process which demands creative, constructive behavior ... it is an exercise in the activity of attempting to improve existing conditions. 
... Although  partially necessary, problem solutions which merely 'work' and last for a time do not represent what we refer to as 'creative solutions'. Creative problem-solutions are those which lead, which inspire, which provoke; those which help us to imagine more advanced problems or which provide us with the models for solving other, similar problems, and which generally turn others on to the correctness or appropriateness of themselves.
Essential to creativity, the book goes on to say, is an attitude of constructive discontent.
... constructive attitudes are necessary for a dynamic condition; discontent is prerequisite to problem solving. Combined, they define a primary quality of the problem solver: a constantly developing Constructive Discontent.
Martial arts training is a constructive activity. Being unable to complete a sweep from half guard because the other person counters it, or getting swept yourself from half guard, are pretty strong sources of discontent in my experience.

I discussed above how problems posed by the opponent in Jiu Jitsu obligate creative problem solving. One of the reasons Jiu Jitsu is so attractive to "assassin nerds" like us.

We also briefly discussed one method we can try to solve a common problem, where the most common entry to the kimura, grabbing the wrist. results in the common counter of the opponent grabbing their belt. John Will's solution to this problem was to REORDER the sequence of movements in which we applied the kimura, resulting in significantly reducing the window the opponent has to grab his belt and shut the submission down.

What other methods are at our disposal to creatively solve Jiu Jitsu problems? I'll discuss that in part II of this article.

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