Level Up: The RPG Training Model
I grew up playing games. Final Fantasy. Chrono Trigger. Secret of Mana. Dungeons & Dragons. Pokemon. Ultima Online. I spent so much of my formative years immersed in these worlds that they have imprinted themselves into the way that I perceive reality, and that ripple has touched the way that I think about jiu-jitsu as well.
In role-playing games, you have your character, and how that character grows and evolves oftentimes depends on your play-style preferences. If you like to charge into combat with reckless abandon, you may want to build a barbarian. This would mean building up your strength stat and investing skill points into hand-to-hand combat, perhaps two-handed weapons so that you can wield an enormous axe. A rogue, on the other hand, will spend more points on agility and likely build up stealth-related skills like sneaking and archery.
Jiu-jitsu training is not so different. We are the character, and the skills we invest in largely depend on our grappling styles and preferences. Someone who plays a De la Riva-based game will likely find him or herself preferring leg drags because many of the new De la Riva sweeps that are in vogue lend themselves to finishing in a leg drag position. If you prefer to play butterfly guard, however, you might end up focusing more on cross knee passes as the finish to a butterfly sweep often warrants a cross knee pass to achieve a dominant position.
In this way, you can sketch out your game and evaluate how the pieces of your jiu-jitsu connect and support each other. Just as you would if you were looking at a D&D character sheet or looking at the make-up of your party in a classic turn-based RPG.
Thinking about jiu-jitsu through this lens has implications beyond game-planning, however.
White Belts versus Brown Belts
Stephan Kesting, a longtime blogger and instructional designer, once wrote a post about his experience learning the Sao Paulo guard pass. Back in 2009, when Kesting wrote his piece, this pass received a brief flurry of attention in part because it looked incredibly precarious—you essentially sit into your opponent’s overhook control to set-up the pressure and stability that lets you open the legs and complete the pass.
Kesting, then a black belt and already a seasoned grappler, admitted that a brown belt tapped him out twice while he worked on the pass. He also admitted that a blue belt tapped him out as well a few weeks earlier and was happy about this. He was learning, and he was making progress with his technique.
Intuitively, we understand what is at play here, but the vocabulary of gaming can help us articulate it. Kesting, despite being a black belt overall, was a white belt in Sao Paul guard passing. When he put his white belt technique against a brown belt in guard retention, he was not surprised that his technique failed. He understood that he needed to level-up in this new skill before he could expect it to perform against higher level opponents.
In other words, of course a level 10 attack lost to a level 50 defense. Just as we are surprised when a brown belt loses to a white belt, we should not be surprised when a white belt technique loses to a brown belt technique.