How Bodies Learn: A Wonderment

I never used to have deliberate aspirations for improvement with any physical activity I undertook. In the past, I have gone through periods of cycling, walking and swimming, but I had very little interest in becoming good, or even better, at any of them. BJJ has rules, countless techniques and the opportunity to test one’s skills at every class or for those brave enough, actual competitions. And for me, BJJ is different: I want to become good at it. Or better, better than before. But it’s not only about learning the gentle art itself: I’m still learning how it is I actually learn.

In academic subjects, I have a pretty good memory and a knack for understanding large amounts of information and to apply it to my own work. It’s probably in part a lack of experience, but with anything kinetic, all of that flies out the window. I’m the one that needs to be shown a technique “just once more”. I more often than not place my extremities in the opposite direction I’m supposed to, or forget steps in some fancy multi-part technique. I’m better than a year ago, of course I am. Nevertheless, I still struggle with simple laws of physics, like seeing the weak spot in my opponent’s base. Or most chokes, they are my personal weak spot offensively (well okay, armbars too and leglocks, but I’m a white belt, deal with it). It’s been more than once that I’ve seemed physically incapable of finishing a choke, with both my drilling partner and the instructor trying to coach me through it. We do tend to find out what it is I’m not getting about the technique at some point and manage to give me some sense of accomplishment. Still, sometimes I think that it would be cool to be a fast learner. I already have my unconventional, broken body working against me, it would be nice to have even average spatial awareness to make up for it.

But of course we all have our strengths. Mine are my size, my loyalty to what I love and my ability to bounce back from feelings of frustration pretty quickly. I come to the gym every week I’m not ill, sometimes 4 times a week these days. I don’t ask myself if I feel like going to BJJ, I just go. I very rarely regret going. I write notes from every class in my special BJJ notebook. I have no idea if my notes make any sense, but the routine helps me process the techniques I’ve been taught and that might be beneficial in the long run.

I’m good at looking miserable after a good training session.

And every now and then, things just click together. “Sohvi, do you notice something?” one of my favourite brown belts asks during a round. “No, what?”, I snap back, a bit too briskly. I can be an annoying talker during sparring, no problem about being asked a question, but I have no clue what it is I’m supposed to be noticing.

“You have a guard. You just retained your guard.”

For the past 15 months, my open guard has basically consisted of sitting down and letting people walk past me. At some point Jyri managed to drill into me to keep my heels pointing against each other. Some time later, I understood that placing my own feet between my opponent and my upper body would be a nifty idea. And now, without realising it myself, I had reached the stage where I could sometimes follow my opponent’s movements and stop them from passing my open guard. Un-fucking-believable.

My open guard game still needs work and will require to do so for years to come, I’m sure. Like, the next step will be to always keep that leg close to my belly I’m not using to retain guard. I still frequently end up under my opponent’s side control. But it is peculiar and joyful, slowly becoming better and something you have struggled with for ages. I mentioned at the beginning of this text that I do not know how to learn a physical skill, but that’s not really true. I’m very slowly becoming better at BJJ by showing up to train and trying not to backchat the instructors too much. I do not know how to learn BJJ fast. In the end, very few do. And that’s fine by me.

1 thought on “How Bodies Learn: A Wonderment”

  1. Loving your blog, as always. Congrats on having a guard(!) You might enjoy the book The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (chess master and martial artist). I would recommend it since you have been tuning in to how you learn. Cheers!

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