To Win or Learn? Competing Commitments

All students oscillate between being the hammer and the nail. Idealistically, we aim to be the hammer any time we choose against anyone we choose, but few ever arrive in that place without strain. 

When we are the nail, it often feels like we are desperately fighting to survive, which makes it difficult to build technical aptitude or quality movement. Who cares about quality when choosing to defend ourselves or die? 

When there are competing interests we often lean toward the one that is most urgent. Our urgent need under thrashing pressure is to win—to survive. Do we fight, fly, freeze, or fawn? Do we care if the fight is ugly? And what becomes of learning, the quiet interest that is commonly drowned out by our desire to win?

Beyond survival, I believe that grapplers want to develop skills and mastery of those skills. It may not always be defined as the primary goal, but I believe this is what drives us to continuously expose ourselves to punishment on the mats. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an immersive problem-solving game that many yearn to understand deeply, so we attempt to see how much we grasp when we choose to spar. The trouble begins when the temptation to roll and express what we think we know is not framed with a productive mindset. Training can quickly devolve into gnashing, unrefined, explosive fury where every roll is a dangerous one, and collecting taps is valued more than demonstrating actual proficiency. This route, often by default, can also leave a student feeling untethered and destitute because they struggle to win or learn. 

I am always impressed when I observe a student who exhibits self-awareness and is willing to embrace their opponent’s energy when they engage. Too often I witness a complete rejection of the battle, where both students clash and try to suppress their opponent’s will vs. feel, study, learn, redirect and manipulate. The superficial signal to win is so strong that it prevents their progress. 

In sport as in life, how much more efficiently can we grow when we dissolve the armor and invite moments of reflection and feedback? When we accept that winning your training all the time is a competing commitment to acquiring more knowledge? We cannot internalize new movements if we don’t allow ourselves to practice them in supportive, then increasingly challenging scenarios. Attempting to perform a new technique successfully against a competitive teammate is too much of a challenge early on. 

Too much support, not enough challenge, or too much challenge and not enough support leaves us with little to gain. We heap on the challenge by parroting phrases such as:

“You have to earn your respect on the mats.”

“It’s a small person’s game.”

“Leverage over strength.”

“It’s all technique.”

In reality, yes, all these things are true, but only when skill is near equal. Even then, size and strength do matter. It’s a bit delusional to ignore the fact that they do, but with tactical, technical focus and deliberate practice, we greatly increase our chance of achieving a desirable outcome. 

We can win and learn at the same time. We could be more mindful of all the variables we must manage in a round of free rolling and calibrate the intensity, position, or purpose of each round. By bringing more constructive attention to the task at hand, we create opportunities for more success.

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