Matt Kirtley of Aesopian.com fame visited Pittsburgh to give a seminar for the Martial Arts Club at California University of Pennsylvania (Cal U), a club that I founded as an undergraduate and now instruct. For my students at Cal U, a seminar from Matt was an opportunity to experience black belt level jiu-jitsu and a chance to see a different perspective on grappling. For me, Matt's visit was a chance to spend time with a friend and to repay him for the years of free jiu-jitsu that he had shared through his blog. He accepted payment in the form of sushi and burgers, which is a form of currency that resonates with me as well.
First of all, Matt's instruction is as good as you would expect after reading his blog or watching his videos. His seminar at Cal U focused on the crucifix and the reverse omoplata, and he was able to breakdown what some would call advanced techniques, making them as accessible as armbars to students that were relatively new to grappling. Since his seminar, I have been receiving texts and emails about people hitting their first live reverse omo or finishing one of his choke variations. Matt's ability to clearly explain highly technical movements and details is impressive, and I absorbed a great deal of technical knowledge from him, but the most important lessons I learned from Matt were more abstract and more important than any individual technique.
1. Accept and Make the Most of Your Genetics.
My knees are a mess; that's no secret. What I haven't told you is how bad: triangle chokes are no longer part of my game. If I am cinching a triangle choke and my opponent begins to stack or twist, the integrity of my knees immediately begins to fail. Matt and I have talked about injuries at length. His shoulders and lower back are his major problem areas, and like all grapplers, he has a slew of other minor nagging injuries to compliment his major ones. Like me, Matt's injuries have influenced the way he grapples and the techniques that he prefers, and we have talked on multiple occasions about how we are jealous of the genetically gifted, the people that can do the same sport as us but are held together by more than bubble gum.
Though I have accepted that I will never compete again, that acceptance has not been easy. My injuries have frustrated me and have at times made me hate jiu-jitsu. Working with Matt showed me that being an incredibly technical and intelligent grappler was still within reach, and that my injuries can actually help me to explore depths of technique that the physically gifted may take for granted or overlook.
2. Difficulty is Often a Matter of Perception.
Matt prefaced his reverse omoplata demonstration with an anecdote. He said that many people think that reverse omoplata is advanced and is difficult, but he learned it in one of his first white belt classes. At the time, every technique was hard to him. His body was unfamiliar with jiu-jitsu, and he had no preconceived notions of what techniques were simple and what techniques were complex. "When you're a fresh white belt, every move is hard," he said. To white belt Matt, a reverse omoplata was as difficult to execute as an Americana. With proper instruction, he was able to learn the reserve omoplata and use it in live matches. It's been one of his favorite moves ever since. Had Matt been told that the technique was too difficult or impractical, he may have never tried it, and it may have never become a staple in his arsenal.
Hearing this story has made me reevaluate the way I talk about techniques with students. If I tell someone that looks up to me that something is inaccessible, I may be perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, I need to reinforce the idea that learning a new move is like starting over at white belt for that one particular technique. It's always going to be hard.
3. Do more and do it better.
After Matt and I rolled, he pointed out that I was timid, hesitant. He chalked it up to my being overly respectful and my being somewhat afraid of reinjuring myself. As it turns out, fear was more of a problem than I had realized. I was not committing to techniques, and I was not confident in my movements. This is probably natural for someone coming back from an injury, but it was a problem that I was having even before my injury. My apparent lack of progress against certain sparring partners built frustration and made me over-wary of what my opponent was doing when instead I should have been sharpening my own techniques. When I asked Matt what specifically I could do better, he smiled and said, "Everything."
I pressed him for details about certain techniques, and he gave me some useful tweeks, but his ultimate advice was to keep drilling and to keep perfecting what I was already doing. If it worked for Matt, than I am more than comfortable taking that advice myself.