A Tale of Two Systems: The Importance of Systems-Based Jiu Jitsu
When beginners first step onto the jiu jitsu mats, the almost universal reaction is one of confusion.
Our natural reactions to the attacks and traps we face lead into submission after submission after submission. For many, their journey into the "gentle art" ends in frustration. For those who stay and persist through the long hours of mat time, the road is winding and seemingly random until we can categorize the main positions. Once we build a personal roadmap from the first fifty or so fundamentals classes, we begin to piece together an interpretation of what our disconnected techniques mean in context. Traditional "three technique" classes seldom answer the questions a beginner has.
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Fortunately, professors such as John Danaher and Priit Mihkelson have begun to present their curriculum in a way that contextualizes technique within a clear system. Systems are not totally new to jiu jitsu. Master Helio Gracie collected his techniques into Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in 2005, and Saulo Ribeiro took one step further by sorting techniques into belt colours in Jiu Jitsu University in 2008. While both of these books presented a series of techniques, the technique was the main content and it was presented in the traditional "when he does this, then do that" format.
In 2018, John Danaher took a completely different approach to instruction with the first video collection in what would become the Enter the System series. With Leglocks: Enter the System, Danaher placed himself at the vanguard of instructional jiu jitsu videos. Instead of merely explaining how to hit a heel hook from cross ashi or to offer four ways to escape a foot lock, Danaher presents his system in terms of dilemmas, sequential skills, central problems and core principles. The first difference that most students notice when they begin watching any of John Danaher's videos is that there is a lot of theory and instructional monologue presented at the onset. As a blue belt, I found the extended explanations of central problems, subsystems and the heuristics behind what I was about to learn something missing from almost all of the classes that I have taken during my studies.
How does an open system approach like Danaher's benefit the student? Any open system interacts with its environment based on inputs and outputs: when your opponent does this, you do this. What is unique with Danaher's approach, however, is that he provides big concepts and heuristics for his student to understand why he needs to control the bottom leg and how that connects to the central problem. The great benefit of this is that the student can adapt the system independently because he fully understands the central problem of controlling the back, attacking the triangle or securing a kimura with technique so that it is not just a strong man's submission. His philosophies are complete, deep-reaching and comprise of more information than most of us can easily retain.
Following completion of the Enter the System series, a second systematic approach to jiu jitsu appeared on the radar. Coming from across the Atlantic Ocean, Professor Priit Mihkelson filmed the first of two video collections: The Grilled Chicken Guard Retention System. Unlike Danaher, Mihkelson may not have the fame of the Danaher Death Squad behind him, but what he does have to offer students is the presence of an instructor who has a pragmatic methodology that demands questioning, observation and the collection of data. It is a living and open system. Based on his observations and hypotheses over eighteen years of jiu jitsu in Tallinn, Estonia, Priit sets out the initial foundation for what is becoming a complete defensive position from the bottom. His theories are simple, deep-reaching and are easy for a student to keep in mind while under pressure from above.
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Right from the beginning of the first video, Mihkelson sets up the premise that his approach to the bottom game has been one of exploration through systematic trial and error. He readily asserts that he sets out to challenge what has remained unquestioned in traditional BJJ. During his second series, Protecting & Generating Dynamic Offense from The Turtle, he posits that Turtle is an undervalued position, which has only been used extensively by Eduardo Telles. One reason is that many practitioners are initially taught the position with "seal" or "ballerina" feet placed flatly on the mat. Once we "fix our feet" so that the toes are flexed into the mat, The Turtle becomes a fluid and dynamic position. After hearing this argument, I immediately began to develop my toe flexibility with great rewards in a short time frame.
Like Danaher, Mihkelson takes the time to talk about meta-concepts and the purpose of the positions that he teaches. His system is also taught as an open system, but with even more of an attention to what is fundamental to survival on the bottom. From elbow placement to the usage of active toes, Mihkelson reminds his viewer to secure the position essentials and then transition to the next position as confidence and space develop. The Grilled Chicken and his Dynamic Turtle are secure stances to be attacked from by using the jabs and crosses inherent to jiu jitsu. As Mihkelson's system for the bottom game becomes further documented in video, it is becoming clear that his instructionals will soon become go-to material for both beginners and upper belts. Why? Because the system works, it is open, and it is easily understood; once understood there is also the reward of many minor epiphanies as to why the system works and where the traditional explanations may have faltered in their communication.
The Grilled Chicken Guard is perhaps less of a position than it is a foundational stance from which to attack and defend on the bottom. During the opening volume, Mihkelson compares his Grilled Chicken Guard to a boxer's defensive stance, and after experimenting with the guard myself while training at 3D Treening in Tallinn, Estonia for a week, I can attest to its effective nature. What becomes obvious in its practice, however, is that timing and learning to connect it with his Dynamic Turtle, Running Man and Panda positions that creates a simple system for survival that all beginners desperately need to feel safe on the mats in their first formative months of training. If Danaher is the philosopher king of Brazilian jiu jitsu, then Priit Mihkelson is the iconoclast whose approaches are equal in their importance despite their unorthodoxy. These are exciting times for jiu jitsu practitioners around the world who aspire to roll with understanding and purpose.
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