Critical thinking is a cognitive skill that allows individuals to question, reflect on, and evaluate the information presented to them. Why is this important? Because of the overflow of information in today’s world. These days, the problem is never in obtaining the information, it is in filtering through the noise and obtaining the necessary and accurate information.
If you’ve ever watched any legal TV drama, you remember scenes, where some witty lawyers provide the evidence to their counterparts concealed in thousands of useless paper files to make it border-line impossible to find what they actually need. Well, it is kind of like this in real life – too much stuff, and most of it is irrelevant or intentionally misleading.
As BJJ practitioner I personally encountered the very same problem while trying to ‘grow’ within this discipline. We already addressed the virtual infinity of BJJ and the abundance of choice in one of our earlier articles. These days you can learn techniques and variations from multiple individuals, in person, or through digital tutorials, attend seminars etc.
With this in mind, I see three different variations of critical thinking applied depending on where you put yourself on the broad proficiency spectrum.
This is of course where you are the most vulnerable.
- Is critical thinking to be applied to what you learn? Yes.
- Should this be done with every single piece of information you receive? No.
Although there is an obvious necessity to sort through this abundance and find the essential elements for your development, I would urge beginners not to spend too much time thinking about a particular style or technique being 100% great for your body type, or if you are better off focusing on a collar and sleeve vs spider guard etc.
In the beginning, your time on the mats and getting used to mechanics of Jiu-Jitsu by far outweighs any detailed conceptual studies. Find a reputable academy, and trust the instructor do the sorting for you during the first few months to a year.
What you absolutely have to do though, is pay attention to obvious nonsense, if you don’t want to end up learning some mystical non-contact chi fireball dragon monkey stuff, and go viral on Instagram (not for good reasons).
Once you build some base, especially with regards to your body movements, it is time to tune up the critical thinking.
One of the best parts of BJJ is non-choreographed live sparring, where everything is real – pressure, resistance, power, speed etc. There is no hiding – ‘the mats don’t lie’, as we say. You can test anything you learn with an actively resisting opponent, who isn’t playing your game – over and over again until you get better at a particular technique or are forced to discard it as ineffective. So there is an inherent and continuous critical thinking action in BJJ training, which makes it so effective and real.
Experienced BJJ practitioners are in a much better position to make these explorations and ‘trim’ the infinite Jiu-Jitsu to something more personal, try to distill it to the most efficient ways. These attempts will be mostly aspirational, of course – a lifetime will not be enough to figure everything out. We try to become the best and most efficient we can be.
In theory, this is where you are the least vulnerable with ‘lean’ jiu-jitsu, focused on the most high-percentage techniques. You can easily distinguish genuinely effective components from flashy but ineffective ones through thorough understanding of body mechanics and experience.
There are however, two aspect of the development that experts have to pay particular attention to:
- External authority
I’ve seen it many times, when smart and experienced people make bad decisions when persuaded/influenced by an authority figure. There are plenty of these figures in and outside of BJJ world, so pay close attention. Especially if the proposed course of action involves money (in or out of your pocket).
- Existing system of beliefs
By the time we arrive to a position, where we can call ourself an expert in something, we build up a mountain of personal beliefs. It is hard to even question any of those beliefs, because it would potentially result in us admitting to being wrong about something, for a very long time. So instead we rationalise our beliefs and dismiss the alien line of thought.
Keeping an open mind is easy until you actually have to engage in it, until you have to be pragmatic of your own thoughts, ideas, and stories.
As I highlighted above, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a well-built tool to practice critical thinking, a skill you can then apply in all walks of life, but don’t forget.