A Way With Words: John Danaher and the Transmission of Knowledge

John Danaher is arguably one of the best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coaches in the world. He’s known for his incredible insights in BJJ and martial arts in general. He has a philosophy degree, which adds a feather to his cap to me.

Danaher’s teaching method is something that martial arts coaches and academics alike should study. He breaks down deep concepts and difficult techniques in a manner that works for new students and star athletes.

Thumbing back through an old Jiu-Jitsu Magazine from 2017, I stumbled upon an interview with Danaher. I’ve read it before, but something in it caught my eye this time.

Over the last year, I’ve been working on my master’s in communication. Much of my focus has been on rhetoric, media, and how language shapes the world in which we live. Invariably, language creates our reality, if you maintain a rhetorical viewpoint. Danaher hints at that concept in the interview.

He says, “I believe that learning efficiently is strongly related to language acquisition… one of the distinguishing features of humanity is that we have a language by which we can translate knowledge over time,” creating a compounding effect of information and utility.  

Danaher understands that without language, we can’t pass on what we know. Words are simply symbols of ideas in our heads. We can’t share those ideas effectively without communication.

Danaher takes it a step further when he says, “the transmission of knowledge is directly proportional to your precision with language.” Essentially, the better words you have to use, the clearer the information you are trying to share becomes.

To illustrate, Danaher says we wouldn’t be able to explain “higher mathematics through barking.” It would be best if you had a much more precise language to describe the finer details.

Marshall McLuhan, media scholar and critic, was famous for the phrase, “the medium is the message.” He meant that certain technologies, media, or means of expression lend themselves to various messages while some do not.

I’ll cite an example from McLuhan’s friend and fellow media critic, Neil Postman. In his book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Postman wrote that smoke signals used by Native Americans sent messages from one place to another. These messages were important, but not poetic or philosophical. The person would run out of wood before he could wax poetic trying to get his point across. In this manner, the medium used was appropriate to the message being sent. Were the native to have an existential conversation with his neighbor across the mountain, the medium would not suit his purpose.

Back to Danaher. The reason he is so critical of language precision is that as a coach, he has to be able “to transmit information in a short period of time to someone in a crisis situation.” Put another way, he has to communicate to one of his students during a match while the clock is ticking.

Some people ask Danaher why he uses specific terms when he teaches, commonly the Japanese terminology found in traditional styles and Judo. His reason is precision.  

By being clear and precise with the words he uses, he finds it easier to pass on knowledge to his students.

If you are a coach or a teacher, you may follow his lead and pay attention to the words you use to describe your art. You can also apply Danaher’s concept of precision in your professional life. Words matter. Use them wisely and precisely.

(Photo from John Danaher’s Instagram)

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2 thoughts on “A Way With Words: John Danaher and the Transmission of Knowledge

  1. I’ve heard that John places a huge emphasis on the acquisition of the appropriate nomenclature with his students so that they all have a shared language. He truly is a masterful communicator to study.

    Liked by 1 person

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