I woke up this morning thinking about John Frum. That name probably won’t be familiar to you, and I was stumped for a little while as to why it was in my head. Don’t look him up in the phone book mind you, because John Frum doesn’t exist. You may have heard this story before, but bare with me.
John Frum is the name of a deity, one of the more recent as deities go, having been anthropomorphically conjured up in the middle of the last century by island tribes, confused by the mysterious goings on in there previously quiet community. You see, one day men started arriving on these primitive islands in boats, and soon they were cutting down vast swathes of forest and jungle and creating long strips of flat land with lights and buildings beside them. Then something even stranger happened: strange machines began landing on these strips, and best of all they brought with them food and supplies the likes of which the islanders had never seen before, being used to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. However, just as the men had descended suddenly, they vanished almost as quickly, abandoning their huts and towers and leaving the islanders no wiser for the experience.
In case you hadn’t already figured it out, these strange men were the Allies of World War 2, and the islands were those strategic points in the Solomens in the South Pacific that were required for the war effort against the Japanese; used as supply drops for the ground troops and launching pads for the bombers. Once the war was over, these airstrips were no longer required, and the effect on the islanders was quite odd. They had little or no concept of a world outside their community, and certainly no concept of air travel or machinery. Once the Allies left, desirous of the precious cargo the strange men had brought down from the sky, they began to construct airfields, towers, huts and even wooden planes, in the hope that the planes would once again land and bring with them the food and materials they had seen before. In one community, they even created a deity- John Frum (the parallels with most other, more ancient, deities are best described in Richard Dawkins The God Delusion so I won’t go into them here).
Once I remembered why I knew the name John Frum, I knew why he had been on my mind. I had been reading some of the lectures by the physicist Richard Feynman* and he refers to the South Sea Islanders airfield attempts several times as an example of something that cosmetically looks like the real thing, but has no understanding of the actual inner workings or methods. Feynman was referring to pseudoscience versus real science, and perhaps it’s too much of a leap to jump from the rigours of the scientific method to martial arts, but, well, here I go. Don’t try this leap at home, I’m a professional.
Reading of these islanders, I was struck by how disingenuous the martial arts can be. I’m sure this strikes a chord with some of you before even reading another line. We don’t have to look far beyond our doorsteps to find martial arts instructors who for all intents and purposes don’t really understand what they’re teaching. In fact, don’t move from your computer, just go on youtube and you’ll find them. There’s a world of difference between knowing the essence of a movement and knowing what it’s supposed to look like. Let’s take the humble flower sweep from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I don’t want to libel people, and I don’t have any money to pay out for law suits in any case, so let’s do it this way. Go to youtube, type in “Breaking Posture From Guard” and then look down the list of videos. Well one of those videos is horseshit, and contains “expert” instruction that has all the appearances of looking correct and perfect, but is actually ridiculously bad technique. Yet the people putting this video up may not know how ridiculous they are. They may well be the equivalent of the Solomen Islanders, knowing that it should work, but not understanding why it does.
What you are getting in this case is a wooden plane. It looks right, it seems right, but it’s missing the engine, the flaps, and when push comes to shove, the ability to fly. This isn’t just happening on youtube, it’s everywhere. There are schools and gyms opening up every week it seems with “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu” or “MMA” on the curriculum. Now of course I started that way, but when I began my training there was the sum total of 2 BJJ schools in Dublin, neither of which were near me. The situation is different now. If you live in Dublin there is no excuse to begin a training group or gym unless you truly believe you are better qualified or can do a better job than the 10 or so schools around Dublin. Yet people are, purely because it’s seen as a moneyspinner. I have no problem with people making money teaching (I try to), but I really think the experience of training with bad instructors and coaches turns people off who might otherwise go on to compete or just participate for a long time.
So what’s the point here? What you’re getting when you get coached BJJ in Ireland isn’t for the most part what you would describe as source material. By that I mean no offence, it’s just that your coach isn’t competing in the mundials like some coaches in the USA or Brazil or the UK are, or isn’t a black belt. But maybe they travel to train with their coach who is, and as such what you get is one step removed. After that, if say I teach what Drysdale showed to me, and one of my students passes it on, then what he’s showing is 2 steps removed. We can safely assume that some detail gets lost in the process. If you’re lucky enough to be training with a black belt coach, you probably don’t have this problem as such.
It’s probably not an issue for those who are reading this blog, based on my email and social network site feedback, most people who read my blog aren’t in this situation. But I felt an attack of the ranties coming on and I thought I’d like to put it down.
End of, see you on the mat.
*I love an oul asterix. Feynman was one of the men called upon to help create the first Nuclear Weapon. He also won the Nobel Prize for Physics. I can’t understand a word of what he got it for, but he was a witty, entertaining speaker and his lectures on the importance of science are a good read for the scientist and Joe Soap alike.