Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why Malcolm Gladwell Doesn't Know Jiu Jitsu

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best selling book called Outliers

And one of the things that book talked about was numbers of hours of practice you need to attain greatness. 10,000 being the minimum. Since then a whole host of other books have come out. From Talent Code, Talent Is Overrated, Bounce, Mastery, etc.

Americans have been using this in sports anyway, starting kids specifically in a sport early and grooming them.

Now with something as simple as a swing a throw, a kick, or certain skills that are needed for one position in the sport, things become a lot simpler. Or if you are practicing an instrument, you just need some time with the instrument to practice.

And even then 10,000 hours of practice (which is a scientific look at talent being acquired not something you are born with) doesn't look into genetics at all or the physical and mental aspects involved.
"If 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary and sufficient for world-class performance, Epstein asks, why do some people reach the master level in chess after 3,000 hours while others require 23,000? The average number of hours needed for many pros may be about 10,000, but it varies widely. 
The research does not suggest that genes are dominant and training is irrelevant; instead, it says that the benefit from training is partially driven by genetics, so that a combination is required for top performance."
Source: Bloomberg excerpts from The Sports Gene

What I mean to say is, for example sprinting. If you practice an insane amount of hours but was born with more slow twitch muscle fibers than fast twitch, you will never be champion (unless everyone else trips). Or you want to be a body builder, only a small percentage of the population were born with the genes to gain that much muscle growth (which requires more than a normal amount of muscle fiber). Well what about steroids? Look if steroids was the secret to body building success, then all the guys on them would be champions. There's not enough titles to go around. A normal guy on steroids who lifted a lot, and a guy who had the right genes to be a body builder was on steroids and lifted a lot, they would look very very different.

In the world of lifting, the best guys didn't lift since they were small boys. Especially not in the Eastern European countries. Their bodies shouldn't lift heavy weights, and they don't have the coordination yet. What they do is work on general physical preparation. Meaning they play everything, and overall get physically prepared, then in their teens they start training specifically in their sport. And often times coaches at that point recruit based on their body types, gymnastics, weight lifting, wrestling, and boxing. If you have a longer reach, you will naturally be a better boxer, along with reach, if you are fast, then you are even more dangerous. So they start their training later than us, but because or our mindset, we assumed oh they must be ruthless and have them training out of the womb. As if they were doing a better version of our system. Also we pick the sport or talent based on what the kids like, or what we want them to like, not based on what they would be good at and help them cultivate a love for it. Another key difference.

So what about Americans who start their kids out really early and they just have more hours of practice than their counterparts from other countries? Well in sports like wrestling, gymnastics, or weight lifting, we are the underdogs for this reason. They are just better prepared for these sports and don't need as many hours as us. More is not always better. There is a optimal effective dosage.

There have been many champions in boxing who started boxing later in life, some even as late as their 20s and they beat opponents who have trained longer than them. You also see it in wrestling, in MMA, in BJJ. There are very few champions at black belt who started training as a little boy, most started in their teens, and a handful in their 20s. Are these people prodigies? Like we used to call BJ Penn? What about Rubens Charles Cobrinha, Marcelo Garcia, Georges St. Pierre, Michael Langhi, Fernando Terere Augusto? GSP started in karate and is the best wreslter in MMA, Marcelo a Judo guy and one of the best guard players, Cobrinha, Michael Langhi, Terere all in Capoeira first and BJJ later in life. With Cobrinha in his 20s.

Was it more hours or they played everything and came in with better physical preparedness, or with better genes and was able to defeat opponents with longer training time? On rare occasions a kid with the right genes will be put into the right sport early on and they will do well regardless. But even with them its probably better to start them a bit later after they learn all their other athletic skills. Unless they wanted to be a pitcher (in which case they need to lengthen out those tendons early, which will also cause a lot of issues later in their life but that's another issue).

Martial arts or any sport for that matter is a small bubble in the huge umbrella of movement. So shouldn't you move better before you learn to move specifically?

BJJ is a Brazilian art, but a lot of the best weren't born a Gracie. Their parents didn't teach them. A lot of them played soccer, foot volley, surfed, and even Judo. And then by the time they started BJJ they were primed and ready. I talked about genetics and when the Gracie brothers first came to the US, from Relson to Royce, the family champion, the best was Rickson. He started early right? But he was the only one who was naturally strong, naturally muscular, naturally flexible, and basically had the best genes out of the family. They picked Royce not Rickson for the UFC because it wouldn't look as impressive if this Brazilian beach body came into the UFC and choked every one out, people would say it was because he was so athletic. So was he the best because he started so early? Well all the brothers started early, his older brothers trained even longer than he did. Or was he the best because he was the one born with the best genes. There's a reason the only one in the family with a 6 pack was also the best. Good genes and athleticism count for a lot.

If a young boy started boxing at age 5, by the time he's 20 how much head trauma has he sustained? If you take a kid who can't tell his right from his left, or can't even stand up straight with good posture, and throw them into BJJ, will BJJ correct those athletic weaknesses? There's a reason we crawl before we walk, its part of development and if you try to get them to walk too early, it detriments the development not only of their brain but their athletic skills. They need maximize their skills and nervous system conditioning from crawling, and once they have exhausted that they can move on to standing, then walking, Because once you move on ahead, you can't regress backwards and try to gain that knowledge you skipped over.

You see it in MMA all the time as well, "I've been training MMA since I was 5, my dad got me started." Or "I've been kickboxing since I was 6." I don't know how many times I've seen guys like that get knocked out in the UFC by a guy who's only been training for 5 years but was an athlete in every sport growing up.

So what about hours developing physical preparedness? Where does that go into the equation?

I saw guys at my gym doing something called Deliberate Practice. Which is, you practice a skill as slow as possible and you drill it as such until you know it inside and out. This type of training is what's recommended in all the talent books from piano to soccer. Well what happens when you only have a limited amount of time? For instance in BJJ what if you only have 5 minutes to drill each move. What if you and your partner got 3 reps in each, while the guys next to you got 15 each, who's better off? Even with the piano, how much can you get done in a 24 hour day if you only play fragments and as slow as possible?

Combat sports also needs a partner, and you have to take into account their schedule, and the schedule of the gym. Is it better to do it this deliberate way or to try to maximize whatever time you have with your partner? Also is rolling part of practice? Because in the 10,000 hours theory, the actual game itself or playing the whole song is the least beneficial form of practice.

But what if you have to kick a game winning kick, shouldn't you train to do it the way its going to happen? With the helmet and pads on, with maybe an audio recording of the crowd, on an actual field? Because that's what ALL NFL kickers do. So if you are training to compete, shouldn't you also put in a certain number of hours practicing live rolls that are as close to competition rolls as possible, counting points, and using the same time limits?

Boxers train 3 minute rounds because come fight time they will be fighting 3 minute rounds. BJJ and MMA is a newer sport so they don't know better yet, so they assume oh well my time limit is 5 minutes, so I will train 10 minute rounds. But the adaptations your body will make will be specifically for 10 minutes not for 5. It's like you're going to get ready for a 100 meter dash by running 5ks. It will not be the same.

I tell people all the time, you are never too old to start martial arts. There is such a thing as starting too early though. Kron is super good at BJJ, so are all the Gracie kids. And they have all been beaten. And all been beaten by guys who haven't even put in half the time as they did. So maybe they blame the rules. But maybe its not the rules, maybe they just started training BJJ too early.

Let me rephrase that, you can start a sport early, but you shouldn't get sports specific and only dedicate to that sport until your teens.

So what's the magic formula if its not as simple as a number of hours? Nothing in life is simple, its all a game of maximizing time, allocating skill sets, and mitigating weaknesses. I am sure if you are born with the right genes, was athletic growing up, started BJJ and drilled, rolled, competed often, you will be a great BJJ player.

Here's the other thing. You see these genetically gifted champions and you see them do a new strength program, a work out, a supplement. You can't make money off of genetics, but you can through endorsing products and say that's how you got so good. But for them to be in a position to get those endorsements or sponsorship, what got them there? If they get to train for free and are sponsored by a certain strength facility, well how did they get enough notoriety to get noticed by that strength gym? Because they weren't training there yet right? Would some of these guys be good no matter what supplement they took, sports drink they drank, or where they do their strength and conditioning?

I see so many people seduced by a big name endorsing a new thing. And they go from thing to thing. Crossfit, to kettlebells, to acai, to this or that. I'm a strength and conditioning guy myself, but I am also a man of science. We put too much emphasis on the crap we can buy and not enough on the stuff that person was born with. The best supplements, work outs, rehab programs are the ones with the best marketing machine behind it.

Sometimes you can do a lot more with less. People are so afraid they are not doing enough. Fight the right optimal dosage of training. If you are 50, you would be far worse off training twice a day every day in comparison to training 3 - 4 times a week hard.

Outliers and the 10,000 hours idea was popular and did well because it exploited a weakness in our psychology. We are mostly control freaks and want to believe everything is in our control. Eat this, train at my gym, watch that, read this, sign up for this newsletter, join my millionaires club, buy this bridge in Louisiana, if you do this it will supplement and improve your BJJ game and take it to the next level! You all need to relax and do what you can when you can. Instead of signing up for more stuff, save your money, stop living off your parents, save for retirement, use recovery as your friend, drink more water, sleep better, and go make some non-BJJ friends.

1 comment:

  1. I read "Outliers" about four years ago, but from what I can remember the system of attrition in most sports led to the best athletes being chosen at an early age (when it came to sports like hockey) and as the athletes continued to play (just like everyone else) they received the best resources and support. This complimented their genetics or as Gladwell cited their size advantage due to them being born earlier than most of their peers who weren't chosen.

    The stats for sports like these suggested that people born in the first three months of the year fared better than those in the last.

    Gladwell offers a twist. He states that none of the success that our “greatest” achievers have accomplished could have taken place without a bevy of supporters along the way."

    Gladwell asserts that there has to be an extensive network to support the person striving for excellence. In the case of a young person training for some goal such as sports (music) there must be transportation provided, coaches, mentors, financial support, leagues to play in, equipment galore and an infrastructure that supports the goal (i.e., tournaments, summer camps, recitals, competitions).

    Since he is a major sports fan I believe Gladwell factors in the idea that genetics plays a major role. However, the main thrust of his book was that success doesn't occur in a vacuum. Most of the stories in his book try to illustrate that fact.

    This applies to Jiu-jitsu as well. In Marcelo Garcia’s book, "X-Guard," it talked about how he received an invitation as a high school student to move into an academy and train as much as he liked in exchange for helping to instruct. He talked about how he trained four times a day and also taught classes. He wrote that it doesn’t matter where you train if you take four classes a day.

    Garcia is absolutely right.

    Additionally, training four or more hours a day for about 8 years will easily get you to 10,000 hours. Throw in classes that Garcia taught which helped hone his technique. What about the sponsors that paid him so he didn’t have to worry about a job. This also explains why most people never become better than their instructors. Now compare Garcia to most of us for whom, unfortunately, BJJ is not our first, second, third or even fourth priority.

    Barring the top-notch elite athletes of BJJ, who wins out in the BJJ support lottery? I would say:

    People in BJJ rich areas such as California
    High school and College students (without jobs)
    People who have academies with morning classes and night jobs
    People with a Jiu-jitsu school within 15 minutes of their home or office
    Individuals whose school offers multiple classes
    People who have part time jobs
    People who decide to make it their life’s work
    People who have family members who are fluent in the art and willing to work with them; and
    2nd and 3rd Generation BJJ players

    I agree, training 10,000 hours won't help you all of the time, but it doesn't hurt. When more athletes such as Jon Jones enter the sport of MMA a lot of the top notch guys will fall by the wayside too. Yet, just like any sport you will always have an Andre Agassi who's father had him hit over a million tennis balls or Monica Seles who hit 500 forehands and backhands, each, per day as a child. They weren't the best athletes but their hard work and thousands of hours paid off in titles and notoriety.

    Gladwell's popularization of academic's work sounds gimmicky now, but he set off a revolution of new material that explored the subject to the point that it seems elementary now and sometimes a little over-generalized. However, to those outside the training world it was great news.

    *I've been reading Gladwell for over a decade, so understandably I am biased.




Affiliate links are used and I may receive a commission if you click.

Inner BJJ is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to