“You’ll never be a World Class Black Belt as an Australian, living in Australia. It’s just not possible”. These were the words said to me by my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach, back in 2008, after I shared my goals with nothing more than an enthusiastic attitude and a solid belief that anyone can achieve anything with the right mindset. Luckily for me, I always had a rebellious attitude towards authority. If they told me I couldn’t do something or that I wasn’t allowed to, it just made me want to do it even more. So I took the challenge - to be the first Australian world-class black belt or, even better, black belt world champion. So there I was a 22-year-old plasterer by day and footballer by night, starting a completely different sport which later on would become one of my biggest passions. The art changed my destiny from 9 to 5 blue-collar worker to world-travelling jiu-jitsu instructor and competitor.
My Introduction to the Art
I started my days at an academy run by a brown Belt. We had one blue belt and a dozen white belt students. The school was a little smaller than a competition-size mat and I spent 3 nights a week training there for the first 10 months. Mondays I would do BJJ, Tuesday's football, Wednesdays BJJ, some Fridays BJJ then Saturdays I would play a game of football and use the Sunday to recover. Keep in mind that during this time I was working as a plasterer, which slowly destroys your soul. ;) After 10 months I participated in my first competition. It was a small, round-robin style event. I had five fights and won four by submission and one on points. I then went into the absolute division and won that also. I remember people coming up and congratulating me on my wins, it was a feeling I’ll never forget. It was almost as if someone was complimenting me on a painting I had done or sculpture that I had created, and it motivated me to compete more. I received my blue belt the following week. I was very excited about my jiu-jitsu future, but unfortunately, I was injured playing football the following month. The injury was severe enough that I was off the mat for six months.
Reassessing My Jiu-Jitsu Goals
This gave me time to reassess where my life was going and what I wanted to do for the next 10 or so years. I was very good at football and had been selected to play VFL, which is one step below professional, but I had won many accolades in the sport and I felt it was time for a new challenge. My options were tattoo-artist, full-time jiu-jitsu athlete or male supermodel. Due to my short attention span, I ruled out tattooing, and I realised that being 5’8 inches tall kind of stunted my modelling aspirations. So I chose BJJ. I was 23 years old with no more than 11 months and one competitive experience. At that point, the average time to receive a Black Belt was 10-13 years and I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait till I was 36 to compete as a Black Belt. This put me under a lot of pressure and I realised that if I was going to excel in the sport at an age at which my body still worked properly, I was going to have to take a very different approach to learning BJJ. So I decided to use myself as a test dummy.
Outdated Training Methods
It became clear to me that BJJ was approached in exactly the same way schooling is by our outdated, industrial-age education system. In almost all classes we were shown a bunch of random techniques, told to drill the hell out of them until they became committed to muscle memory and finally try to implement them in free-rolling at the end of class. I stopped doing that after one week. Instead, I would always wait until the drilling part of the class was over before I entered the academy, preferring the punishment of push-ups to the monotony of performing the same move repeatedly. The coach at the time never rolled with me, so I just got beaten up by the big, blue belt bully and then went to war with the white belts. I was the newest blue belt at the academy brand so naturally, everybody was trying to kill me. Now you’re probably asking yourself how I learned and practised moves or if I wasn’t drilling? Simple. I used the people I was rolling with that I could control and practised new moves and positions with them. I would then use my best techniques against the big blue belt and every time I achieved efficiency with one of them I would change and move on to something different - from Closed-Guard, to Half-Guard, to Open-Guard and so on… Every week I would switch up what I was working on to ensure I developed a well-rounded game with as few holes as possible. I watched competition footage Galvao, Xande, Garcia and my other BJJ Heroes but I never spent a lot of time breaking them down. Instead, I let my subconscious absorb the information and trusted that during free rolling I would naturally integrate it into my game. This approach worked wonders. Every time I observed a certain fighter or style, the next week I would find myself mimicking their style. Not copying them exactly, but just moving in a similar way. This gave me a lot of confidence to experiment from certain positions, reasoning that if my favourite fighters were effective from there, I could be too. One of the things I noticed early on was that you didn’t have to drill something 100 times to be able to apply it during training. If I understood the basic principles of a movement and winged it, it would usually work. I remember using moves in sparring that I had never practised before and getting them to work. Even ones I had been told were “bad” by the instructor. My reply to him was always the same: “But it works”. I also saw that the most important thing in a movement is not the technique, but the timing. I could do anything, from a cartwheel to backflip over someone’s guard, and if it was done at the right time it would work. Conversely, I could do the most technically sound movement, but miss the timing, and it would fail. Observing these phenomena helped come to the decision to build my game on the foundations of improvisation and key principles, instead of drilled, refined techniques.
Solving the Equation
If you look at each situation in jiu-jitsu as a something akin to a math problem or equation, then a technique is just one of several possible answers to that particular equation. Not only that, but in BJJ things are never quite the same. Something is always shifting or moving, so to apply the same answer to an equation that is forever in flux will lead to failure more often than to success. But if you learn the formula (the underlying concepts or principles), in turn, you can calculate the equation, using the formula in the moment to come up with your own solution. Using this approach makes you unpredictable and relaxed in even the worst positions. Knowing you have the formula to find a solution, all you then need is the right timing. Understanding this enabled me to use different solutions for every problem and become unpredictable and innovative.
Everyone is inventing some new move or variation these days. The list of techniques keeps growing and it complicates BJJ. Can you possibly fathom learning or drilling every single technique or position out there, in one lifetime? I can’t and with good reason - it’s impossible. Look at the Miyao Bros for example. They train more than anyone I know. They’ve been training for over five years, and are fantastic competitors, but their game is what most would say ‘one dimensional’ - great for competition, not so great if you ever want to teach something other than the Berimbolo and leg drag. It’s easy to over complicate things, but to simplify things takes intelligence. For example, there are over 400 ways you can pass an open guard. But if you try and remember all these you will probably have a melt-down. And good luck recalling them during the heat of battle. But if you become familiar with the key principles and use them to tailor a different solution which you implement with the correct timing, you can pass anyone’s guard. After a short time of training, through trial-and-error, you will become more and more efficient at solving these problems using the solutions of your own discovery. And these solutions will usually be better than the ones you have been shown because you will understand them on a deeper level and they will be suited to your body and abilities. This is how Leandro Lo’s developed his knee cut or Torreandor passes, and how Marcelo Garcia’s got his amazing guillotine etc. These guys have come up with their own expression of jiu-jitsu through experimentation, creating styles that are true representations and expressions of themselves. So instead of cluttering up the hard drive of your ‘jiu-jitsu computer’ by trying to memorise thousands of techniques, instead consider installing a ‘faster processor’ by understanding and internalising 50 or so principles or concepts.
Being limited to 5-6 sessions a week in between work, football and a social life, I decided this approach was best for me. It allowed me to excel at a rate that made it possible for me to compete internationally against world-class competitors and hold my own in just over 4 years. In this time I won 2 x World Pro Golds, 2 x World Pro Silvers, 1 x Brazilian National Title, Asian Open Champion, Pan American Bronze, multiple Pan-Pacific competitions and the Australian Championships. I was also the only Australian to be invited to the prestigious Copa Podio in Brazil. So here I am, Kit Dale, 28 years old achieving a Black Belt in 4 years without world-class coaches, without world-class training partners and in a country that has never produced a World Champion Black Belt. I’m living proof that you don’t have to have the best coach, nor the best training partners or facility or a million different techniques. All you need is an intelligent approach, an open mind, and a belief system stronger than your loudest critics.
Great article. I too have always believed it is better to understand the concepts and principles behind techniques rather than the techniques themselves as it teaches one to adapt to the situation instead of trying to remember which technique to pull out the hat. I also insist on keeping it simple and dispense with overly complicated techniques as we tend to lose a certain degree of fine motor control when we are in an excited state of combat situation.