It seems that everyone is doing it: Keenan, Rickson and Kit to name just a few: teaching ‘concepts’.
But what is it? Should we be doing it? Are all other training modalities now obsolete?
In this article, we will delve into the ‘concept of concepts’ and help you to decide if it is an idea that will help take your game to the next level.
What is a concept?
Some words, although we know their context and meaning, escape our accurate and definitive description: concept is such a word.
One dictionary gives this description:
‘an abstract or general idea inferred or derived from specific instances.’
Another resource tells us, in contrast, that opposite words to concept are ‘being and concrete’.
What does this mean to us?
Dictionary terms help little in explaining what this new wave of ‘concept’ teaching actually means to us, as Jiu-Jitsu lovers, and so, after much brain-rattling, I have finally arrived at a BJJ definition of ‘concept’ that I think works: ‘The root and heart of any given BJJ technique or tactic’.
To illustrate this definition, let’s use the Rear Naked Choke as an example. The choke itself has lots of little steps and instructions necessary to make it a success (run through them all in your head and attempt to list them); however it only has one key concept (and a few other facilitating concepts, but we will sideline these for the time being): the concept of simultaneous compression of the Carotid arteries in order to halt blood flow. The concept of compression is the ‘root and heart of this BJJ technique’.
Up until this period of ‘concept based’ instruction, the most prominent teaching style found in academies globally has been ‘Explicit’ teaching: what I like to call ‘flat-pack’ teaching.
‘Flatpack’ refers to items that are usually bought in DIY stores that you take home and attempt to build yourself- tables, cabinets, shelving units etc. (the ones that almost always result in swearing, arguing with your partner and/or throwing the product out of the window- or is that just me?)
Think back to the instructions that come with these sort of products: itemised, detailed, accurate; if not a little boring, and, at times, complicated in their intricacy.
For many of us, this is how we gain our knowledge of BJJ techniques: a comprehensive list of things ‘to do’, given to us by our instructors, that we go off and practice with a partner.
Ups and downs of ‘Flat packing’
This type of teaching, like all things in life, comes with both its ups and downs.
The positive side of this style is that it is very direct, clear and unambiguous. The students know what it is that they are expected to do and it is their job to reproduce the instruction as accurately as their abilities allow.
It is an excellent style for working with beginners who, initially, may lack confidence and welcome a very direct ‘hand-holding ’ teaching approach.
The downside of this style is in its rigidity. Its precision stifles creativity, open-mindedness and invention. This is most apparent during the ‘free rolling’ part of the lesson; how many times have we all failed to integrate a ‘flat-pack’ technique once our opponent is fully resisting?
The unpredictable world of BJJ
One of the massive strengths of BJJ is the ‘pressure testing’ of its students through high amounts of ‘live rolling’. By its nature this environment is alive, fluid and unpredictable; it is the thing that makes so many of us fall in love with BJJ over other more stylized Martial Arts systems. This free rolling represents life itself with all its myriad expressions.
The demands of this type of activity, then, must be matched by a teaching style that encourages free-thinking, creative problem solving and the ability to come up with something ‘on the spot’ when the environment no longer matches expectations, e.g. your opponent throws a move on you from an angle you have never experienced before or, until now, even knew existed!
With these types of challenges, it was clear that the expansive and creative world of BJJ would migrate toward a more ‘open’ and concept based teaching style- whether they realised it or not!
Concept-based teaching (also referred to as Principle-based learning), is not a new phenomenon: visit any academic institution and you will see it in action in every classroom at some point during the day.
Sheri Lennon, BJJ student and headteacher of Early years education at a London school tell us,
“Concept-based learning is one of the key styles of teaching we learn at teacher training college. It is fundamental for creative learning and problem-solving. It helps the student to make sense of the world around them by teaching them to comprehend and recognise similarities between groups of information. Conceptual learning helps students to create order out of chaos.”
How concepts can help you
Bjj is a hugely diverse, complex and ever-changing activity. It seems that there are endless techniques to master, tactics to consider and lessons to assimilate. It is a daunting and often overwhelming experience fraught with, at best, frustration and, in the extreme, the cause of some to give up on their learning.
Concepts can greatly alleviate this problem. One of the keystones of concept-based teaching is how it identifies the ‘root’ of a technique and encourages the learner to recognise this root in other techniques.
This recognition allows the student to subconsciously group similar techniques eradicating the need for the memory of hundreds.
Consider ‘chokes’ again: there are many, each with a comprehensive list of actions to follow. Let’s say that three chokes (RNC, Bow and Arrow and the Ezekiel) have, on average, six steps of instruction each; this equals eighteen commands that a learner’s brain must process. This is a lot of ‘stuff’ to remember!
Now say, for this explanation, that this same group of chokes shares one concept -as mentioned before- the concept of compression; This is a lot less information to process.
Of course, there may be other concepts that are needed to support your attempts to ‘compress the Carotids’, but even if you needed another two supporting concepts for each of the three chokes, the learner is still only having to process nine pieces of instruction as opposed to eighteen!
The teacher who doesn’t teach
The ultimate goal of a teacher- like riding the perfect wave- is to be able to teach a student to success with as little instruction as possible.
Initially, whilst learning to teach, and latterly, after twenty years of teaching I have discovered that, ultimately, a teacher’s role is not to teach but to put his/her students in an environment in which they will discover the lesson automatically: the great Albert Einstein tells us, ‘I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.’
Concept-based teaching allows just this. Let’s refer to our chokes one final time: if you understand the concept of compression, you may find yourself in a position, during live rolling, in which you are unsure what to do next. Although unclear of a definitive technique, you do however recognize that you have access to your opponent’s neck! Remembering the ‘concept of compression’ you apply duel side pressure to the Carotids and, bingo, your opponent taps.
It is very likely that you have pulled off a move that, as yet, you have not been formally taught (or maybe even invented yourself) by applying a single taught ‘concept’ (in my humble opinion, this is how the likes of the ‘Shawn Williams guard’, the “de la Riva’ and much of the ‘Tenth Planet’ techniques have been ‘discovered’).
Concepts at the highest level
The most obvious and prolific example of this style of ‘invention’ is Keenan Cornelius: watch any of his fights, DVD’s or YouTube offerings and you will see him, time and again, create, invent and reinvent Jiu-jitsu. He is the epitome of a ‘concept’ fighter.
As creative as he is though, his fundamentals and his understanding of concepts are amazingly sound. This makes his ‘inventions’ high quality, effective and reproducible.
This type of learning is here to stay and will evolve over time making learning easier, more effective and, possibly, shorten the time it takes to improve.
The future of concepts
More and more students and instructors are beginning to fully appreciate the use of concept-based learning and teaching.
We may well see the more ‘forward-thinking’ academies considering their syllabus and possibly rewriting them from a ‘concept perspective’.
There is however still a place for ‘Flat Packing’. As already mentioned, beginners need this style of teaching early in their development; so do more advanced students when they discover a very specific problem in their game.
I can use my own inadequacies to highlight this: Right now, in my tournament career, I am getting arm barred left, right and centre. I fully understand the ‘concepts’ behind the attack, but at this stage, my brain is not computing, for whatever reason, such abstract notions: I need to be given step-by-step, ‘Flat Pack’ instruction until I learn an effective defence of the ‘elbow killer’.
‘Flat Packing’ also helps when you need a more ‘closed’ teaching structure, where high levels of control and discipline must be maintained: particularly when teaching challenging groups of children.
The ultimate learning environment will, ideally, include a balanced blend of both styles of teaching.
This article is not meant to be a sales platform for any concept based resource but I list the following because I think they successfully demonstrate all that this article speaks of:
Stephan Kesting: Black belt grappling concepts- online course and DVD
Rickson Gracie: http://www.graciemag.com-online article and videos
Keenan Cornelius: Breakthrough Jiu-Jitsu concepts- DVD
The last resource is this image (thank you to Gartista) that I personally used to finally and fully grasp the ‘concept of concepts’.
The three stones in the centre represent the ‘concepts’ central to, and at the ‘heart of the action’; they create the many ripples that emanate as multiple techniques, tactics and ideas.
It is a perfect representation of ‘concept-based learning and teaching’ and I hope it helps clarify these ideas for you too.
Matt Jardine is an author, writer and Martial arts teacher. He wrote for Jiu Jitsu Style magazine and is author of The Hardest Path-a journey outside to answer the questions within.’