John Danaher: The Squad Leader
John Danaher is known for many things within the jiu-jitsu community: the mastermind behind no-gi wizards Garry Tonon, Eddie Cummings, Gordon Ryan, and Nicky Ryan, grappling coach to UFC Champions Georges St. Pierre and Chris Weidman, and the guy who wears a rashguard to mostly all occasions, on and off the mat. But however you’ve come to hear about him, it undoubtedly originates from his expertise and mastery of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
No longer able to regularly train or compete, Danaher has elected to contribute to the art by sharing his broad and highly cerebral understanding of jiu-jitsu with his students. The New Zealand native possesses an inquisitive mind and deep passion for understanding the subtle nuances of the martial art. He approaches jiu-jitsu as an intellectual, akin to a scholar striving for even the slightest grasp of advanced astrophysics.
His tireless study of the art of jiu-jitsu has earned him the position of head instructor at the world-famous Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan and coach to some of the best grapplers and fighters the world has ever seen. His prowess is sought out by those fighting for and defending world championships, yet he shares his knowledge with every man, woman, or child who steps on his mat.
The respect for Danaher within the academy is palpable. His physical limitations, namely hip and knee issues, restrict him to a sitting position throughout the duration of class. Small movements to illustrate technique are made, but much of the class is spent sitting against the wall with a quiet watchfulness. Students understand the privilege of learning from Danaher, however, and crowd attentively around the soft-spoken black belt as if receiving divine wisdom from the jiu-jitsu gods themselves. The same level of reverence is seen at the class’s end, as a long line of pupils wait patiently to thank their cross-legged guru.
Preparing for this interview was met with apprehension, as the standard getting-to-know you questions to glean background info, favorite techniques, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu generalities seemed unfit for one of the greatest minds in the sport. The questions presented were asked to challenge our interviewee, clear up misconceptions, and shed light on some of the profound concepts he alludes to in his numerous Facebook and Instagram captions. Incidentally, small bits of significant news were gleaned amongst broader riffs of valuable concepts and insight. So, take what you can from the thoughtful information that lies ahead.
You’ve trained a lot of athletes. Georges St Pierre, Chris Weidman, Garry Tonon, Eddie Cummings… What qualities make a world champion?
First, I don’t believe you can say there is a cookie cutter mold which creates world champions. I’ve seen world champions in jiu-jitsu with every type of psychological makeup and every body type. I don’t believe there is one particular mindset or body type that dominates. I believe any type of mindset and any body can do it provided there are certain other elements in the picture.
I’ve always believed that, ultimately, your ability to get towards whatever goals you have, not just in jiu-jitsu but in life in general, comes down to your ability to solve problems. Life is pretty much a series of problems thrown at you day by day. There are short term problems or goals and long term problems for goals, and the issue is how to get to those goals. The difference I see with world champions is not that they do anything differently, it’s just that they do it better. They’re better at solving problems, and what’s more important, they’re more persistent.
A lot of people in a competitive setting experience failure and stop. What I notice in world champions is that they have a mindset geared towards problem solving. They have a certain goal… to be a world champion… they identify the problems on path to that goal, and they form rational solutions to overcome them. And they have a persistence to push through, in this case, failure. They have mental resilience. So, really they do the same thing as everyone else; they just do it a little better, and they do it longer against resistance.
Most of your athletes are known for their no-gi skills. Do you still value the gi game?
Absolutely! Roughly two thirds of the classes I teach any given week are taught with the gi. I think there’s this widespread misconception that I only teach or train no-gi. That’s not the case at all. There are definite benefits to gi training. I also think there are some myths about gi versus no-gi training…that somehow gi training makes you more technical. That makes no sense whatsoever.
What it does do when you put on a gi is increase the friction between you and your opponent, which slows things down. It offers a much larger variety of grips, and the grips tend to be more resilient, they’re harder to break. And of course, it offers many more options for strangle holds. So really three things change between gi and no-gi. The basic mechanics of the game, however, remain unchanged.
There are many famous athletes who were equally effective gi and no gi, and their games did not change that much between the two. There are others who tend to specialize in one or the other, but the basic mechanics of the game don’t change. So there’s no reason why an athlete can’t excel at both. I’m hoping in time some of my athletes will. I know Nicky Ryan and Gordon Ryan have expressed a lot of interest in competing in IBJJF competitions in the gi in the next few years. They have certain goals they want to reach with no-gi first before they attack the next task.
How do you feel about the name Danaher Death Squad?
You know it’s the funniest thing, I never use that name because I fu**ing despise it! (laughs) I remember my mother being horrified because she went on Google to look up my name, and the first thing that came up was Death Squad. She said “What have you done!” and I said “Mom, it’s not me!” (smiles) One of my students made a joke about it because one weekend they had submitted a huge number of people and he goes “Man, you guys are the Danaher Death Squad!” and everyone laughed. The next thing you know it’s online and people are talking about it like it’s our name! I used to just call them “The Squad” and then it was a funny joke…”the Danaher Death Squad,” and then it stuck! So yeah, now I don’t know what to do with it…. Poor Mom.
Alluding to a previous interview… Why is it important for students to know the names of positions?
I believe that learning efficiency is strongly related to language acquisition. If you look at human beings in nature, one of the distinguishing features of humanity is that we have language by which we can translate knowledge over time. So one generation can transmit information to another generation, and you get compounding knowledge over time. So the human beings of today know considerably more than the human beings of 300 years ago… The transmission of knowledge is directly proportional to your precision with language. Animals have a hard time transmitting knowledge because their communication methods are rather vague, rather rough – calls, barking, quacking, and what have you. You couldn’t transmit knowledge about higher mathematics through barking. So, a huge part of human advancement has to do with language acquisition. This is true especially when you’re trying to transmit complex information.
[JD then goes on to explain how difficult and inefficient it would be for two people to rebuild a car engine without knowing the names of the parts. It would take twice as long, needing to describe each part to one another during the process.]
As a coach I need to be able to transmit information in a short period of time to someone in a crisis situation. I can’t be saying to them, “Ya know, grab em around the wrist and thread your left arm through…” No, it’s Kimura. One word, he knows what I want. So, this ability to provide a complete nomenclature makes it very easy to transmit knowledge. One person can teach another much more efficiently, and in a fight situation, I can transmit knowledge to an athlete to make him perform better on stage.
When should someone start learning and practicing leg attacks?
I believe that jiu-jitsu is the science of control that leads to submission. One of the great clichés of our sport is that you must get position first then submission second. But you don’t really hear me talking much about that. I prefer to use control rather than position. Position is one form of control, but there are many other forms of control. The higher you go in the sport, the more you start to realize this. Most great world champions are masters of many forms of control, not just the basic position and submission. So really, what I’m looking to get into students first is a sense of control. The easiest one for students to learn is position. It’s easy to explain, it’s easy to visually identify, and it works well with the point system of our sport. But in time, they’ll have to go beyond that.
I believe students must have a sense of how to control the whole body and how to move around their opponent’s whole body before I will begin teaching them the leg lock game. I don’t want students who can only fall back onto the legs. Then they’re only attacking half of their opponent’s body. The idea is always for a student to be able to attack an opponent’s whole body. A critical part of that is the ability to get past your opponent’s legs and onto the upper body, preferably towards the back. I put a disproportionate emphasis on back attacks. As a result of that kind of thinking, I prefer to see my students working on their ability to pass the legs and get around to either top pins or pins from the back. Once I see them mastering that to a satisfactory degree then I’m happy to teach them the leg attacks. But the ability to move around and control the whole body must come first. Only then will you have a student who can attack 100% of their opponent’s body’s rather than 50%. And that’s very important as you get higher in the sport of jiu-jitsu.
To the uninitiated, the leg attack game may appear cheap, or a quick way to a submission without advancing position. What would you say to those people?
It depends on the scenario, but in many cases those people are right. When I go to a local submission grappling tournament you see people who clearly have no conception of how to control a body or lock down a limb and hold it in place. They are just kind of flopping into a submission hold here and flopping into one there. It just looks random, and it looks awful to be honest with you. That’s NOT my vision for jiu-jitsu. I want people to attack the whole body and control the whole body, and that’s a very different thing from someone just flopping around from leg to leg. They’re not controlling anything. So in that sense, yeah, I can
understand the grievances that some people have with modern submission grappling because there is a lot of this flop and dropstuff.
But you’ll notice when my athletes go out there they don’t really do that. They go in and they’re purpose driven and when they get a hold of a leg, there’s real control. If the criticism is out towards naive leglockers, then sure I understand that, but that doesn’t mean you should besmirch the whole leglocking game based on the errors of a few beginners. There is a depth to leg locking which is every bit as profound and useful as the upper body submission game in traditional jiu-jitsu. So many times we’ll have opponents who will come to the gym or compete against us and say, “You know, I just don’t fear leglocks. No one’s ever leglocked me,” and then they’ll get leglocked in 30 seconds and you’ll see the look on their faces like “what just happened?” They’ve felt something they’ve never felt before. So, I can understand the criticism but it depends on context.
Do you have a favorite rashguard?
Are you kidding? That’s like asking me if I have a favorite parent or sibling. I treasure all of my rashguards.
How many do you have?
Long sleeve or short sleeve?
I despise short sleeve rashguards!
You recently spoke about studying military strategy to improve one’s jiu-jitsu,
can you elaborate on that?
Yes, I believe jiu-jitsu is combat on an one-on-one scale. It’s one individual against one individual. It mirrors many of the elements we find in mass combat – between armies…even between nations. So many of the profound thinkers in the history of combat concern themselves with combat on a grand scale, namely military combat. These outstanding thinkers have written about it in a very profound fashion. Many of the lessons they derive apply just as well to single combat as they do to what they talk about in mass combat.
Often if I find myself bereft of ideas or stunted in growth…I’m not progressing in certain directions…I will draw inspiration from people like this. And very often it jolts my mind to directions I hadn’t investigated, or I had forgotten about, or I hadn’t paid enough attention to. And then, of course, you have to bring it back in a practical fashion to the sport of jiu-jitsu. It can’t just be abstract thinking. It has to be brought back to concrete results and actually enhance the performance of the jiu-jitsu athlete. So, I use them for inspiration to make me think about things differently, and then it’s up to me to make the abstract thoughts practical that will improve jiu-jitsu competition.
What are some other things athletes can do off of the mat to improve their jiu-jitsu?
Well on the one hand, I think there is an industry in jiu-jitsu of people who try to imply that they can make you better at jiu-jitsu through things that have no relevance. So, I see a lot of that in the sport and I’m turned off by it. But on the other hand, you can never be too strong, you can never be in too good of shape. So there are exercise regimens outside of jiu-jitsu that will definitely help. I do believe that a deep understanding of the human body is very useful for the practice of jiu-jitsu – a study of rudimentary medicine is useful. I’m not a huge believer in diet as absolutely critical for performance, but I do believe it is important for longevity in the sport. I’ve seen world champions that have atrocious diets. I’ve seen judo champions that smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and they’re still world champions. So there can be a wide variation, but those things aren’t conducive to longevity in the sport. If you want to play the sport for a long time, a healthy lifestyle is important. So yes, there are things that you can do off the mat to help but be weary of those who promise tremendous results from things that clearly have no relevance to what we do on the mat.
Turning GSP and Weidman into UFC Champions was a goal of yours as was creating an elite squad of submission grapplers. You’ve achieved all of the above. Do you currently have any other goals?
Yes, I have many of them. One is to have a squad of athletes who represent themselves in the gi and are highly successful. I think I
can definitely do that; however, it’s not my prime focus right now, but I’m confident I can do that in time. Some of the other goals are somewhat up in the air because there is uncertainty about the career of George St. Pierre. He could be going back into a second phase of his career, making a comeback. So there would be certain goals set for him, but I can’t make concrete goals at this point. But for now, the next goal would be the gi squad, and again I’m confident in time they will do very well in competition.