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The Black Belt Blueprint: An Intelligent Approach to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Paperback – February 7, 2015
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Nic Gregoriades, Gracie’s first student to achieve black belt and author of this book, has been called in Internet circles the philosopher of the jiu-jitsu world because of his cerebral blogging about the sport as well as the way he approaches jiu-jitsu not only as a sport and a martial art but also as a spiritual journey. He describes some of this approach in the book, but moreover, and as I will describe in this review, I think this is one of the best books on learning jiu-jitsu that I’ve ever read. And yet, there’s not a single technique to be found in the book.
In my experience, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is taught as a collection of moves. You go to a class and you are taught a technique to add to your bag of tricks. Maybe you are shown several techniques that are related. Then you go to class on another day and are shown another technique, perhaps of a completely unrelated nature to the previous ones. And so on, until your bag of tricks is overflowing with techniques, more than half of which you’ve probably already forgotten by the time you try to apply them when you hit the mat for sparring.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of techniques, and they are organized primarily into just a few broad categories based on position: techniques from mount, techniques from guard, techniques from turtle, techniques from back mount, etc. You could further subdivide these groups based on whether you’re on top or on bottom (or on offense or defense). Some of these categories are extremely broad, and over the years they have been broken down into even more subdivisions. Especially the “guard” position, which is so complex that people have started to gives names to particular variations that occur often (like “spider guard”, “butterfly guard”, “half butterfly”, “De La Riva guard”, etc), just to divide the whole mess into smaller, more digestible bits.
A good instructor can help you fit these techniques together with a bit more than just positional organization (e.g., this is a sequence of techniques that work well together), but the majority of mental organization is left to the student to figure out on his/her own. And this eventually comes to you little by little, through hundreds of hours of drilling and sparring in which you try the techniques and create a web of relationships in your mind, eventually learning to string moves together into a coherent game plan. It’s not dissimilar to how we all learned to speak a language as children: we learn words first, and some phrases, and then through a great deal of trial and (mostly) error we eventually learn to string the words and phrases together into ever more communicative sentences.
Education research has shown that one major difference between a novice and an expert, in any subject, is the expert’s mental web of connections between ideas and the resulting ability to group ideas in a variety of ways. I’ve found, both as a student and as a teacher, that my learning (or my students’ learning) happens best when the instruction is structured around broad ideas and core principles. These principles can then be applied across a wide variety of situations. In my opinion, you should teach the principles, connections, and relationships first, and the facts second.
As an anecdotal example of this, I disliked the way my history classes were taught in high school because they were taught as a collection of dates and events. Because of the focus on facts and figures, I never felt I saw the bigger picture and never appreciated all of the causal connections between historical events (fortunately that’s changed now and history has become one of my favorite topics). It’s the age old case of not seeing the forest because you’re too focused on the trees. Instead, I really preferred the way math and physics were taught to me (and therefore it probably isn’t a surprise that I ended up becoming a physicist), because they were developed in a systematic way around a set of core principles (Newton’s Laws, for instance) that you could apply to a wide variety of problems. Knowing a figure such as the “acceleration due to gravity = 9.8 m/s/s” is not useful on its own, but knowing what “acceleration due to gravity” means and how to apply it is very useful.
Taking this back to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I believe my BJJ education has revolved around this “focus on the facts” approach, much like when history was taught to me as a collection of dates. Finding and seeing the “big picture” is left as an exercise for the student. I imagine nearly everyone that’s in the process of learning BJJ has had a similar experience.
There are apparently an infinite number of ways to twist two human bodies together, and I love that about grappling because it makes it endlessly complex which ensures that it’s always interesting and exciting. However, this means that, when you’re a relative beginner (blue belt) like me, it’s very common that you’ll find yourself in a position you’ve never experienced before. And that’s problematic when your “bag of tricks” is essentially a discrete collection of moves because you then have no idea what your next move should be, because it’s a situation that you’ve never trained for.
For this reason, from day one as a BJJ student I found myself craving and seeking out any core principles of wide applicability that I could find. Over the years I’ve found a few and I’ve clung to those the way a student in freshman physics clings to Newton’s Second Law. But those that I have found are minimal in their number and scope. For the most part, I’ve had to stick with the “skill collector” approach and then work out the overarching relationships for myself.
This book is, in my opinion, the first attempt I’ve ever seen to collect core grappling principles and teach them in a concept-based approach. You won’t find any techniques in this book, and for that reason it has received a few lukewarm reviews from disappointed readers hoping to find new things to add to their bag of tricks. I think this book offers something far more valuable than a few new moves. It attempts to break down BJJ into principles that you can apply not just in situations you’ve seen before, but in ALL situations. If you find yourself in a brand new position, this book has tried to arm you with at least a handful of principles that you can try to apply. And moreover, he has devoted time to not just physical but also (and perhaps even slightly more so) to mental principles.
Accomplishing this enumeration of principles is an extremely tall order and it’s tough to say to what degree Gregoriades has succeeded or not. I think that the fundamental principles that I seek are few in number (and why not? Most of the known laws of physics can be written down on a single coffee mug which currently sits on my desk) and even more difficult to describe, which is why they’ve been so elusive in the first place. I also imagine Gregoriades, despite being the jiu-jitsu philosopher of our generation, has developed an incomplete list. But I don’t fault him – it’s a scholar’s life’s work to take any subject and boil it down to its fundamental ideas. And, bottom line, this book provides the best list I’ve seen to date.
The discussion of fundamental principles is also not the entirety of the book. I really enjoyed the chapter on training techniques, and have found that some of his suggestions, for instance practicing blind fighting (i.e., with eyes closed or covered), have really improved the productivity of my time on the mats. There are some useful chapters on nutrition, cross-training, and even things like traveling to Brazil to train, grappler hygiene, and how to choose a gi (uniform). In a number of places, the book refers the reader to youtube videos with further elaboration, which may be a bit of an inconvenience though I appreciated being able to watch some of the principles be put into practice.
In the closing chapter of his book, Gregoriades admits that “Black Belt Blueprint” may have been a somewhat misleading title. Yet he apparently decided to keep the title. And I think it was a good choice. A black belt (or indeed an expert in any subject) is simply someone that has thoroughly mastered the core ideas and has a deep understanding of how they all fit together. And those ideas are exactly what he’s attempted to enumerate here. If you study these enough, you probably can be a black belt someday. And furthermore, whether you’re a white belt, black belt, or anything in between, this book will have something useful for you. I expect that I will return to it often, as something like an instruction manual, on my jiu-jitsu journey.
Nicholas has a very spiritual and conceptual approach to jujitsu that I do appreciate. He has obviously been influenced by some of the principle of Bruce Lee's, Jeet Kune Do. He also is a big advocate of incorporating yoga into your jujitsu training as a way of balancing out your body (something that I whole heartedly agree with). However, the content combined with the price, does not in my opinion warrant this book 5 stars. If anything, I will say what is worthy of 5 stars is the marketing surrounding this book. Nicolas has done a good job in promoting himself as some type of a BJJ guru, and that the keys to his wisdom are in this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of what he says is really just common sense information worded as if it was profound. When reading the book I found myself getting annoyed constantly because of this.
If you are someone who is finding themselves slowly getting absorbed by the jujitsu world, and you are an avid reader, then get this book. If you are just casually training at your school for fun and fitness, don't bother. However, if you have been doing BJJ for more than a few months now, and want to "turbo charge" your learning, don't get this book. There is nothing particularly insightful about his approach to learning jujitsu. For the price you pay for this well marketed and overpriced book, you could actually get a book with substance and deep philosophical insights, like Saulo Ribeiro's and Kevin Howell's "Jiu-Jitsu University," or "Mastering Jujitsu" by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher.
The book is a good framework and has great concepts, especially if you have not seen his videos or read his posted articles before. If you follow his site, there was a lot of reused information. I was just hoping for a little more new material than what is already posted on his site.
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