Learning to fight. Fighting to learn.

Submitted by James Nixon on Tue, 10/05/2021 - 07:37

The first time I tapped-out during a fight, my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu coach, a purple belt, locked me in a triangle choke, controlling my movements like a lion chewing on a sofa cushion. As he cinched his legs around my neck, he levered my head into the meat of my shoulder which began constricting the blood flow from my carotid artery to my brain. I was folded and compacted and compressed indiscriminately, and before I reached out with my one free hand and tapped on his thigh to signal my defeat, I remember thinking: how could one person exert so much pressure?  

Since then, I have been tapped-out (because being tapped-out is something that happens to you) by men and women older than me and younger than me, shorter than me and taller than me, lighter than me and heavier than me, slower than me and faster than me. I have been tapped-out by accountants, scaffolders, electricians, and musicians. I have broken the thumb on my right hand. I have dislocated the big toe on my right foot. I have stretched ligaments in my right wrist and torn ligaments in my right knee. I am constantly treating the effects of skin separating from the cartilage in my ears, commonly known as cauliflower ear. Losing hurts.  

Occasionally when training, for a few blissful minutes, I chain together a sequence of moves, transitioning between each with autonomic efficiency, that somehow result in me submitting my opponent. But victory is always short-lived. My partner and I will disentangle, stand, slap hands and bump fists and start “rolling” all over again. The lesson never ends, and unfortunately this is one where failure to learn might incur unconsciousness or your partner walking away with one of your limbs as a trophy.  

At an early stage of my development as a jiujitero, I realised I was learning a new language, not just terminologically, but physically. I needed to know what “armbar” and “ezekiel choke” and “omoplata” meant conceptually, before even thinking about applying techniques with the unattainably subtle combination of balance, force, precision and zen-like peace of mind that the higher belts portrayed when they were ragdolling lower belts. But once I started to get to grips with the fundamentals of the language, I began stringing sentences together. I went from squirming on the ground like a freshly plucked earthworm just trying to survive the onslaught of my opponent’s encyclopaedia of attacks, to learning how to bump my opponent with my hips to create space on the ground, shifting my weight to one side, trapping one of their legs with my foot, clamping one of their arms to my chest and sweeping them on to their back. Switching from defence to attack, I might pinpoint their solar plexus with my kneecap and swim my arm beneath their armpit; I might levitate on the balls of my feet, baiting my opponent into lurching up off the ground while figure-four gripping their wrist; finally, I might carousel and drag my opponent’s elbow with me, their  joint twisting into a “kimura” lock. Although, I grew to know that such dream-sequences depended on my ability to ask questions of my coaches and to express myself with clarity when trying to solve a problematic technique.  

There is nothing you can practice that will make you more competent at everything you do than learning to communicate. This is certainly the case with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, where an adversarial nature, ironically, will not get you very far. A fight between two proficient jiu jitsu players is more like a conversation, an exchange of ideas, a negotiation that equates to a learning process for both individuals. This, and any type of learning, takes courage. It is natural that in some situations, especially in a classroom, we might feel uncomfortable sharing our ideas, but we should never feel as if we do not know enough to interact with our peers; on the contrary, it can be helpful to have gaps in our knowledge, and we should be able to trust others to point them out to us. Communication is learning; at the end of every sparring session, my team will congregate on the sweat-slick mats, exhausted, bruised and sore, and we ask questions, talk about the aspects of a sequence we find challenging. We act as a community where listening and collaboration propels our learning.  

Reflecting on performance and talking about our failures in the context of hand-to-hand combat is a cathartic process. It removes the ego completely. And it might be said that learning online or face-to-face as a student requires the same type of reflection. Consider philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Stupidity. What he meant by this was that in order to learn, we need to accept that failure is a prerequisite of thought. It is important to remember that we rarely know enough to make a problem disappear. Our ideas, when they come to us, are usually dispensable. They are not as well-rounded as we would like them to be. So, humility –understanding the inherent limitations on our thinking as well as the ideas of our peers– is the lens through which knowledge comes into view.  

When we start to understand how collaboration propels learning, we immediately get better at listening, our ears tuning in to a higher frequency. At the same time, we factor the limitations of thought into the problem-solving process. This type of collaborative learning can seem counterproductive, but the alternative is what psychologists call the diffusion of responsibility: the more people there are, the more we rely on others to direct situations. This is debilitating to learning. Circling around our own ideas without outside intervention is inefficient and ineffective. A famous representation of this is Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot, in which the two acts that make up the play are virtually identical – a negative feedback loop. In comparison, the process of collaboration and learning in a community follows a persistent upwards trajectory. We might relate this learning experience to Beckett’s own writing practice, and his advice to: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” He thought it was way better to do something badly, than not at all.  

Collaborative learning is not only productive but meaningful. The alternative is dealing with the consequences of not learning, making yourself smaller and the future harder. I’d encourage you to think about the learning communities in which you’re currently involved and the ways in which you can exchange ideas, voice your opinions and provide others with feedback. Think about when the next time that you’ll get to work in collaboration with your peers –it might be in a lecture, a workshop or in an online classroom. And think about how you can use that time to grow, learn and develop knowledge together. After all, learning is worth fighting for.  


Reflective Writing