Monkey see, monkey do, white belts look a lot like blue. Now before all of my fellow blue belts take offense, the blue belt that I speak of in this case is me. Last Saturday marked my two year anniversary of practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at Marcio Cruz BJJ Academy. It’s been a long, fun, hard, and at times painful experience. Today I am feeling the aftereffects of one of those painful experiences that occurred on the mats during last Saturday morning’s class. Lesson learned from that experience; don’t use your neck as the lever or your head as the fulcrum, because your neck is bound to go “pop”, which mine of course did, again painful. But of course being sucker for BJJ, I showed up to class today regardless. This time however, I kept my promise to myself, and to my adoring, supportive wife that I was going to abstain from drilling, specific training, and sparring. (Well 2 out of 3 isn’t bad!) And so, after drilling the technique a combination x-guard sweep that we’ve been working on for the past two weeks, I sat and observed.
At first, I sat in the corner of the mats like someone had just pee’d in my Cheerios. (A term used by philistines that I picked up in the Marine Corps.) I was tempted to roll, but I resisted to the benefit of my neck, and my own jiu jitsu. Do you recall the aforementioned monkey? Well like I said before, I am that monkey. And guess what? So are you! At least you probably are if you don’t happen to be autistic. The reason is that me, you, and most everyone learns in this way thanks to the help of our friend the mirror neuron. “Mirror neurons are brain cells that are located in your premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex” (citation omitted), basically the part of your brain that processes movement, and motor skills. The cool thing about these tiny brain cells is that they activate, and respond in the same way as motor neurons, (the brain cells that work when you are actually doing an activity), except in this case the mirror neurons are working when you are just watching. To your brain, you watching the activity is almost no different than you doing the activity.
Do you have an uncle who watches boxing and throws combinations from his Lazy Boy? Well it’s his mirror neurons forcing his motor neurons into action. He’s just so rev’ed up that he can’t help but let his hands fly, especially if he used to box, too. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he’s reliving those boxing days. This appears to be supported by a recent Penn State Medical School Study that found that the correlation between mirror neuron activity and observation of a specific task was higher in people that were familiar with that specific task. Simply stated, a person who plays a sport learns more out of watching others participate in that specific sport, than someone who doesn’t know the sport at all. Similarly the more a person uses their motor neurons while they participate in jiu jitsu, the more that person’s mirror neurons activate when they watch it. That’s why fans of a sport usually enjoy the sport more when they participate in it. At least physiologically there is more activity there.
So as I sat there and observed, I kept saying to myself “damn”, over and over again. I would watch the white belts leave their arms behind when trying to pass guard, only to get caught in an armbar (this monkey still does that). The white belts would often try to compensate for technique by using their speed or power (this monkey still does that). Then I observed the other belts for fixes to those mistakes, and though they weren’t flawless, there were fewer mistakes. The funny thing is that these are mistakes that I am either acutely aware that I make, and others that I must still make because of where I end up repeatedly. I am that white belt, and I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m going to be that white belt for life, no matter what belt I am promoted to. Oh and there’s also a bit of bad news that you may or may not have caught. The inference that these neurological studies make is that the better that you are at doing something, the better you get just by watching others do it, but this relies on the fact that you have to actually be good at it first to improve. So needless to say there’s no way around it. I’m going to have to nurse this neck quickly and get back to rolling because I won’t ever be able to monkey see my way out of a rear-naked choke.
© J. Manuel Writes