How We ‘Teach’ Grappling at HHGC

As difficult for me at times as it is to accept, my studies to become a better grappling coach has exposed a nugget of truth–the amount of time I dedicate to instruct a technique or movement (or series of techniques or movements) may be irrelevant and/or indirectly proportional to a student’s eventual successful application of what’s being taught!

Bear with me–and please know that scientific papers help formalize this–but the coordination of our movements and responses toward an opponent is a complex mix of perception, recognition, and action that are NONLINEAR. Why the emphasis on ‘nonlinear’??? This is an attempt to recognize that no single variable has an overriding influence on how we apply our grappling in simulated combat–our movements are more akin to the function of an ecosystem or weather pattern than something more easily modeled, like the response of a motor when the throttle is applied.

Perhaps this analogy is confusing, but I believe most good coaches understand that a student’s growth is a complex mix of the learner’s abilities (cognitive, mental, and physical), the task at hand, and the learning environment we create. When all of these parameters can be adequately addressed, intersections within individual strengths/predispositions are fortified and motor skills (and likely the neuro-plasticity required for increased learning and application in future complex movements) grow.

Returning to the term NONLINEAR, what we hope to achieve with our students–both young and old alike–is for them to adapt and subconsciously self-organize in accordance with a given, instantaneous situation. That is, I want students to eventually have the inherent ability to mold themselves to the context–whether it be during a drill during practice, a tournament, or, heaven-forbid, a self-defense situation–instead of mechanically repeating memorized and out-of-context techniques that I ‘taught’ them.

What does this goal look like in practice??? Check out this series of techniques from Kade Ruotolo (in the black rashguard), which sequence quickly from defensive reactions that are in-turn parlayed into reattacking, all in response to a chain of takedown attempts by his opponent, Mica Galvao (who is an awesome intuitive grappler in his own right)!

My reaction is that Kade’s movements in-the-moment are not forms of conscious decision-making and just mechanically replicating techniques taught to him by his instructor–Kade’s actually acting in beautifully intuitive and adaptive ways during this exchange. This may be the realization of what we often read about (and hope to achieve) as the much-desired flow state, in which skills and problem-solving are expressed in a highly subconscious and embodied manner.

I believe developing such embodied grappling skills like Kade’s requires practice that actually turns the pedagogy of traditional martial arts on its head! Instead of a rigid master barking orders and perfecting technique through formal and repetitive instruction, better results might be achieved by making class student-centered and helping learners to become more independent in engaging with specific movements and technique series. Overall, the mission should be to create an ecological system in which a student’s actions on the mat can emerge, self-adjust, and organize for that specific individual.

So what does this look like in practice at HHGC? We lean into what’s called the ‘Constraints-Led Approach’ (CLA) to help refine our curriculum. Forthwith’s a cool graphic I found that illustrates CLA’s overall ethos.

So, although I do employ what would be considered typical technique instruction during our classes, big swaths of our time training is within ‘grappling games’, where constraints are used to simulate performance context and provide individualized feedback for every student. These games are often narrowed to specific situations or precise phases of a match/fight, like establishing ties, pummeling for underhooks, getting your hips in and dominating an opponent’s centerline, getting out from pins, etc. Rather than spending most of our class time teaching explicitly and telling people how to do the best armbar setup ever (‘make sure you grab with your left hand here, your right hand goes to this side, thumbs orientated in this direction, your center of gravity at a 60 degree angle at this point…’), we try to create games that allow individuals to learn implicitly and produce actions through their own ‘perceptual-motor workspace’, as shown above–the result should not be so much about optimal technique in a given circumstance, but in optimal outcome for each individual learner.

Clear as mud??? This is still a relatively new paradigm for combat sports and martial arts, and HHGC is certainly still learning how to best build the approach within our curriculum, but here’s an additional resource from another grappling school that’s adopting CLA–check it out at the School of Grappling. Or better yet, come visit us during one of our upcoming classes and experience it for yourself!

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