Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Billy Joel Was Wrong: You Should Ask Why

Billy Joel once said (sang):

Don't wait for answers
Just take your chances
Don't ask me why

These three lines reveal why Billy Joel's jiu-jitsu career was brief and troubled (this is even referenced in his Wikipedia entry). Billy, despite his natural talents, struggled to look beyond the surface level details of a technique. He quickly became a master of the how, but he could never bring himself to address the why. Because he avoided the why, Billy could not explore the depths of jiu-jitsu, and when he spent a brief stint as an instructor, his inability to explain his decisions on the mat crippled his ability to teach.

Billy was a failure, which lead him to begin a less difficult career in music.

Ignoring the why at the white and blue belt levels is forgivable, but as you enter purple belt, exploring the why behind the techniques that you use can help to propel your game and combat plateaus. For my first year at purple belt, I didn't realize I was ignoring the why.

The realization actually came when I was working on BJ Penn's next instructional, The Open Guard. It was early 2011, and I was in my makeshift office two miles off of the Las Vegas Strip. I was tasked with structuring the book, determining how we should present the techniques to readers, and as we worked through each chapter, I recognized that I was asking one question over and over: Why? Why? Why?

Why, in this open guard position do you go for this grip first? Why do you do look for this next technique and not that one? Why do you prefer this position to this different but very similar position?

After a month of these questions, I found myself turning the questions on myself and my own jiu-jitsu. Why do I look for the arm drag first instead of a collar grip? Why, when I am passing guard, do I look for the cross knee before the x-pass? Why do I put my leg here and not here when I do an armbar?

In many areas, I didn't have an answer to the why. I could explain the how of my techniques, breaking them down into minuscule steps and details, but I sometimes struggled to explain the function of these details. I couldn't always verbalize the purpose of my positioning, from a functional, tactical, and strategic level like the great martial artists that I was writing with could. They had a reason for everything they chose to do, and they could explain the logic behind the smallest decisions.

Two years later, forcing myself to explain why for every technique in my arsenal has given me a deeper appreciation for the art and has elevated my ability. As I learn a new technique, exploring the why behind the movements helps me to retain what I am practicing, and it activates a type of learning that is deeper than rote memorization. Asking why also motivates me to experiment with different variations of small details, which helps me to uncover the mechanics on which I should be focusing and also makes it easier for me to identify details that I may be missing. Because I question everything about what I am doing, from minor points on pressure to big picture issues of overall strategy, I know my own game better and my technique is sharper for it.

So don't make the same mistake that Billy Joel did. Ask why.

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