Dojo Life: Learning How to Learn
When I started training in American Jiu Jitsu in September 2008, I was 58 years old, female, overweight, and knew less than nothing about self-defense. For the first couple years I could not hear instruction beyond the first step because of the white noise in my head—that’s how scared I was. I needed remedial help just to survive! I remember crawling home after class in those days, discouraged, sore, and exhausted. Eventually I was able to keep up with the class, though, and now I am looking at a black belt test as a real possibility in my future. (I write this during the pandemic.) What did I learn those first few months that allowed me to keep going in the face of fear and hopelessness?
Here are five of my big early lessons. While I can’t say I have mastered any of these, I am now comfortable with them. These principles guide my practice and hold me steady when I get discouraged. I hope they will be useful to you too.
1. Learning how to fail. There is a saying in martial arts that goes: “Fall down seven, get up eight.” I hadn’t heard this before I started training, but one of the first things I learned (albeit reluctantly) is a fundamental law of training: you have to be willing to mess up many times before you can actually perform an action, let alone perform it well, let alone understand it. I was so afraid of looking bad! I was so easily shamed! But with help and encouragement from my many instructors and the elements of time and practice, eventually I was able to do the techniques that were needed to earn my yellow belt; and then I just kept going—failing, failing, and eventually making progress.
2. Break it Down. The techniques seemed so complicated to me at first! It took many classes for me to take in the idea that when a technique is too hard to perform all at once, the way to work is to break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. And if they’re still too hard, break them down even smaller! I still have problems understanding techniques, and sometimes the only way I can learn them is to break them down into their smaller components and build from there. (See also principle #1.)
3. Ask Questions. You have to understand what you’re doing if you intend to learn something, and when I started, this very physical world was entirely new for me. Training has its own, different kind of intelligence that took me a while to accept. But asking questions was a great way to find out how much I understood and to learn new things. You can gauge your own progress by the questions you ask and how much you understand the answers—and your instructors notice, too, as your questions change.
4. Practice/Repetition. One thing I learned very early on is that a physical art like Jiu Jitsu is not an intellectual exercise; it’s very much centered in the doing. The more you repeat a movement while paying attention, the more precise it can become and the more you can hone it into the effective kind of movement you are looking for. Eventually you will find a flow and be able to choose from many techniques, according to the situation you’re in. And that’s when you will know you have made progress.
5. Keep Showing Up. In those early days, I attended a seminar taught by American Jiu Jitsu’s founder, O’Sensei Joe Puleio. I thanked him for coming after the class, and as I left, he called out to me to “Keep showing up.” I smiled and replied “I will,” and went home. That brief exchange seemed like a promise to me, and has kept me showing up for over twelve years now, in spite of fears, injury, and all the many barriers that could have kept me away. The most important thing is to keep showing up, to keep coming back, to start again and again, every time. “Some days you do well, some days you learn something” (thank you, Sensei Jelani), but always, no matter what, “take it to the mat” (thank you, Sensei Andrew).