10,000 BJJ Hours, Malcolm Gladwell and a NY Times Best Seller

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BJJ and Grappling Study – You can Participate – Posted Dec 1, 2008

I have been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell for a few years now. Since he wrote, The Tipping Point, I have anxiously awaited every book he has written, Blink and his most recent, Outliers. In fact, my subscription to the New Yorker was due to Gladwell being a writer for the magazine.

His latest book is what has driven me to this post. In Outliers he discusses the concept that it takes 10,000 hours to reach elite status in most professions. He illustrates this in a number of ways by giving profiles of Bill Gates, Mozart and a fascinating study of German piano players at an elite music university. He puts forth a pretty convincing argument. Further, Gladwell is not the first to claim this as psychologists and social scientists have argued the same point.

However, Gladwell offers a twist. He states that none of the success that our “greatest” achievers have accomplished could have taken place without a bevy of supporters along the way.

Which brings me to BJJ.

I have to admit, I think about Jiu-jitsu throughout most of the day. I am still able to function in my daily life but I understand what BJ Penn talks about when he said it was all he could think about for years.  But I have not put in 10,000 hours of practice. Not unless blogging, thinking about BJJ, learning from Youtube videos and my King of the Cage fetish counts.

In fact, I did a calculation of all of the classes that I have taken since mid-year 2004 (totals do not include Judo training). Grand total: 205 classes in 4 years. Let’s just say 2006 was a bad year.  I averaged about 1 class per week for four years.  When combining the 60 minute and 90 minute classes it averages to 243 hours of class training. If I add the hours of strict individual BJJ training due to my Jiujitsu365 project then it rises to 301 hours.

Three hundred hours of BJJ training. It was a sober realization.

In reference to Gladwell’s other assertion, there has to be an extensive network to support the person striving for excellence.  In the case of a young person training for some goal such as sports (music) there must be transportation provided, coaches, mentors, financial support, leagues to play in, equipment galore and an infrastructure that supports the goal (i.e., tournaments, summer camps, recitals, competitions).

This applies to Jiu-jitsu as well. I recently read the introduction to Marcelo Garcia’s book, X-Guard, and it talked about how he received an invitation as a high school student to move into an academy and train as much as he liked in exchange for helping to instruct. He talked about how he trained four times a day and also taught classes.  He wrote that it doesn’t matter where you train if you take four classes a day.

Garcia is absolutely right. Training four or more hours a day for about 8 years will easily get you to 10,000 hours.  Throw in classes that he taught which helped hone his technique. What about the sponsors that paid him so he didn’t have to worry about a job.  This also explains why most people never become better than their instructors. Now compare Garcia to most of us for whom, unfortunately, BJJ is not our first, second, third or even fourth priority.  You may get a number like mine of 300 hours in 4 years.

Barring the top-notch elite athletes of BJJ, who wins out in the BJJ support lottery? I would say:

People in BJJ rich areas such as California
High school and College students (without jobs)
People who have academies with morning classes and night jobs
People with a Jiu-jitsu school within 15 minutes of their home or office
Individuals whose school offers multiple classes
People who have part time jobs
People who decide to make it their life’s work
People who have family members who are fluent in the art and willing to work with them
2nd Generation BJJ players

This is just a list I ‘rattled off.’ However, there are counterpoints in my and other people’s favor. The majority of the population doesn’t have my 300 hours of BJJ training and not everyone wants to be a world, national or even local champ. Some do it for stress release, self-defense or the love of martial arts.

Thinking about how Gladwell’s Outliers argument affects BJJ doesn’t dampen my spirit. It just makes me more focused. It means that I have to continue to figure out ways to train more often and in a more precise fashion so I will get the most out of it. It means that I will have to rely on alternative methods such as visualization and creative ideas such as Jiujitsu365. Besides, MMA has taught me that skill and technical ability is great but heart and a never give up attitude is just as important.

* Gladwell reported that in the study of piano players no person who was considered an elite performer cited practicing less than 10,000 hours. Further, no one who was considered average (but good) reported practicing even close to 10,000 hours (they averaged 2000 to 3000 hours).  “Elite performers” had to put in the time.  I actually think this is great for grapplers to know.

BJJ and Grappling Study – You can Participate – Posted Dec 1, 2008