The “Simpler” Gentle Art: Applying Occam’s Razor to Jiu-Jitsu

Have you ever seen something and thought, “There’s got to be an easier way to do this”? A recent post from a friend and fellow Jiu-Jitsu coach, Scott Ferguson, and a rereading of Old School Jiu-Jitsu Manifesto made me want to discuss applying one of philosophy’s tools to martial arts, primarily sport Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

This little tool, known as Occam’s razor, is a way to find the easiest, simplest way of doing something. Think of it as a blade that shaves away non-essential parts or ideas. The device gets its name from William of Ockham, a fourteenth-century Franciscan friar. He argued that adding elements to something should be a matter of necessity instead of wanting to fluff things up.

Occam’s razor does not imply that the simplest way to do something is always best. That can lead to oversimplification, which has its own issues. For example, the often-used “I’d just stand up” when a person who doesn’t understand grappling thinks he can get out of side control with no trouble or effort. Just standing up is the simplest way, but that technique also assumes having the ability to do so. That assumption cannot apply when a skilled grappler is pinning you down.

Occam’s razor suggests, however, that when looking for a solution to a problem, the one with the fewest variables is likely the best option. In the case of side control, fewer variables might be framing––getting an underhook––then standing up.

A more convoluted pathway might be framing––shrimping––getting to guard––sweeping––then standing up. This might mean more points in the sport application, but it also means more opportunities to lose the game.

I attended a seminar once where the instructor taught a leg-lasso defense and pass to side control. The series of moves was 7-8 steps long. There are numerous issues with the process, primarily based on several assumptions:

  1. Leg-lasso and other guards such as spider-guard generally require the uniform.
  2. Such guards typically don’t account for strikes.
  3. They assume that a person can remember and apply such a chain of moves in stressful moments such as a fight or match.
  4. They also take for granted that the other person wants to engage in a ground situation.

First, a series of techniques or applications that rely solely on the uniform and cannot be performed without it are problematic because they over-engineer the system. (For more on systems thinking in Jiu-Jitsu, check out Ryan Hall on Lex Fridman’s podcast.) Jiu-Jitsu and other martial arts were formed on the basic concepts of self-defense. They later evolved into sports, but still retained much of their martial essence, such as prioritizing top positions over bottom. But with the hyper-focus on various guards, lapel games, and the “look what I can do” mentality in recent years, being on top is taking a back seat to these sport applications. Without the uniform, many of these innovations no longer work.

Second, the Gracies and other Jiu-Jitsu pioneers saw Jiu-Jitsu and Vale Tudo (no-rules fighting) as synonymous. To learn one was to do the other. Striking was an essential part of that system. Sport iterations of Jiu-Jitsu often do not account for this mentality. Instead, they create and evolve without the danger of strikes, weapons, or multiple attackers. While this is not necessarily wrong, it illustrates the over-complication of the system due to the addition of rules. A simpler approach would account for a “no-rules” application.

Next, having scenarios with many steps or numerous variables creates a problem with both memory and application. Due to limited working memory at any time (see Cognitive Load theory), attempting to memorize multiple steps is complicated and taxing on our minds. Not to mention, when we are stressed during a match or fight, keeping these steps in proper sequential order assumes we have either drilled the steps thousands of times or we have an uncanny ability. Both of these assumptions are likely not applicable to the average practitioner. Simpler moves and sequences are easier to remember and apply during moments of duress.

Lastly, we circle back to the “just stand up” phrase. While just standing up may be difficult, it implies a simpler solution than the phrase, “let me see how many ways I can almost get swept or submitted.” Many open guards and fancy moves assume that the other person wants to be there. That might be the case in a sport application, but probably not in most others. This also assumes that the person on bottom wants to be there (issues with this idea listed above).

From a wrestling perspective, we used to say, “cut him” when one of our guys was wrestling with a better bottom player. Cutting him loose and getting back to our feet meant we could work for another takedown instead of giving up a reversal to the better bottom player. Cutting the opponent loose was easier than trying to engage with him.

My point is not to say that the rules and innovations aren’t fun or exciting in some cases. It’s also not to throw away the sport of Jiu-Jitsu. I merely want to illustrate that there is a history to the art that was much simpler and easier to apply in more areas. We don’t need to overcomplicate the gentle art, or any art for that matter. Humans have been fighting and wrestling for millennia and likely will continue, even as the rules change. Occam’s razor is a useful tool to keep in our pocket as we move forward with the changes.

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