One of my biggest epiphanies in developing wrestling technique came from a book about chess.
In Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, an insightful retelling of Waitzkin’s journeys to world class performances in two seemingly unrelated fields (chess and tai chi push hands), I found many insightful gems on how to reach optimal performance. In one particular passage, Josh Waitzkin recounts his early study of chess. This passage particularly struck me at that given point in time.
“Let’s return to the scholastic chess world, and focus on the ingredients to my early success. I mentioned that Bruce [Pandolfini] and I studied the endgame while other young players focused on the opening. In light of the entity/incremental discussion, I’d like to plunge a little more deeply into the approach that Bruce and I adopted.
Rewind to those days when I was a six-year-old prankster. Once he had won my confidence, Bruce began our study with a barren chessboard. We took on positions of reduced complexity and clear principles. Our first focus was king and pawn against king- just three pieces on the table. Over time, I gained an excellent intuitive feel for the power of the king and the subtlety of the pawn. I learned the principles of opposition, the hidden potency of empty space, the idea of zugzwang (putting your opponent in a position where any move he makes will destroy his position). Layer by layer we built up my knowledge and my understanding of how to transform axioms into fuel for creative insight. Then we turned to rook endings, bishop endings, knight endings, spending hundreds of hours as I turned seven and eight years old, exploring the operating principles behind positions that I might never see again. This method of study gave me a feeling for the beautiful subtleties of each chess piece, because in relatively clear-but positions I could focus on what was essential. I was also gradually internalizing a marvelous methodology of learning- the play between knowledge, intuition, and creativity. From both educational and technical perspectives, I learned from the foundation up.
Most of my rivals, on the other hand, began by studying opening variations. There is a vast body of theory that begins from the starting position of all chess games, and it is very tempting to teach children openings right off the bat, because built into this theoretical part of the game there are many imbedded traps, land mines that allow a player to win quickly and easily- in effect, to win without having to struggle to win. At first thought, it seems logical for a novice to study positions that he or she will see all the time at the outset of games. Why not begin from the beginning, especially if it leads to instant success? The answer is quicksand. Once you start with openings, there is no way out. Lifetimes can be spent memorizing and keeping up with the evolving encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ECO) They are an addiction, with perilous psychological effects.”
-Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
So, how well did this approach work for Waitzkin? In the early stages of his chess career, he’d fall behind in the beginning where he had less experience. Opponents would catch him off guard with moves he wasn’t quite familiar with, but due to a deep conceptual understanding of how the chess pieces worked individually and in relation to each other, he could outmaneuver his opponents in complicated positions in the middle and end games. This led to massive early success and many national championship titles. In short, there’s some merit to gaining a deeper understanding.
Back to Wrestling and Grappling
“Techniques may change over time, but the principles remain the same!”
While watching 2-time Olympic freestyle wrestling champion John Smith explain a certain technique, he briefly mentioned the same idea, and that sparked the idea to dig deeper. Focusing on principles over specific techniques allows for deeper understanding and accelerates the long term learning process. Timeless, tried-and-true principles can be applied to new and unfamiliar positions, which allows for more extensive development over the long term. Mentally, you’re filling the gaps much quicker than had you not understood the underlying concepts.
This approach has proven successful in other grappling arts like jiu-jitsu. For example, Nic Gregoriades and Kit Dale both got their blackbelts in only four years (significantly faster than conventional standards) by focusing on the concepts more than the individual techniques. Gregoriades has written about this extensively on Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood and teaches this approach to his students.
Does this mean you neglect to learn actual techniques entirely? Certainly not, but focusing on these principles helps you learn quickly. By understanding not only how to execute techniques, but also why certain techniques work, you can develop an intuitive understanding of what to do in a position despite never having practiced a specific technique in a given position.
Since this has been mostly theoretical, let me show you what I mean. In the rest of this post, I’ll apply these principles in the context of my medium of expertise: wrestling takedowns.
Wrestling Takedowns: The Principles
So, what exactly are you trying to achieve with a takedown?
The main objective of a takedown is to take an opponent to the mat in a way that gives you positional advantage. In Olympic wrestling, this would be to pin your opponent down to the mat. In submission sports such as grappling, jiu jitsu, and catch wrestling, the goal is put oneself in a better position to submit the opponent. In mixed martial arts, you might look for a submission or you might also simply look to be able to control your opponent while striking (referred to as the “ground and pound”).
A few textbook examples from my Instagram feed:
Leg attacks, when rules permit, are the takedown of choice for many grapplers. For that reason, we’ll look at the principles within the context of leg attacks. However, on the macro level, the principles apply to other forms of attacks as well such as throws.
Deconstructing the Takedown: The Principles
Takedowns can be broken down into three main parts: set up, attack, and finish.
In terms of setups, these principles aren’t necessarily in chronological order. You also don’t need to have done all of them to create an effective set up. Think of it as a checklist for best practices. The more of these you can do at one time, the more successful your set up will be.
Break your opponent’s position. Throw jab fakes, pull their head down, snap them down to the mat, push them, make them step forward by circling or pulling them, etc.
Put yourself within shooting distance. Close the distance on your opponent and get a good feel for how far away from your opponent you need to be in order to fire off a successful attack.
Clear your opponent’s head/hands defense. Lower your level and clear your opponent’s hands for a clear shot to your opponent’s legs.
Close the distance with your hips while maintaining athletic position.
Principles behind the specific attack may vary based on the attack of choice but in general, you’ll be closing the distance on your target while maintaining athletic position. In the context of leg attacks, this means that your head is up, your back is straight, and your hips are underneath you. The penetration step in wrestling is popular for this exact reason- you’re effectively closing the distance with your hips while putting yourself in an athletic position to finish the takedown.
Additionally, you’ll want to work towards making sure that you are using your whole body in an attack. Just because you’re grabbing your opponent’s legs doesn’t mean that your own lower body is inactive. Approach any takedown attempt as a full body movement.
To finish a takedown, displace their center of gravity relative to their base support. This is an unclear point, so let me explain.
In a neutral standing position, your opponent’s base support consists of their legs. The center of gravity will be their hips and core. The hips and core connect all the limbs of the body while also generating force.
To visualize this point, think of a well-placed rugby tackle, which is quite similar to a double-leg takedown. To control the opponent, you’re controlling their base and driving through them in order to knock them off balance and onto the ground. In other words, you’ve pushed their center of gravity to the point where their base support can hold them up (because in this case) you are in control of their legs.
This concept can also be applied to trips and throws. In some cases, you’re using your leg to disrupt your opponent’s base while standing up. In other cases, your own lower body disrupts the base while you pull them over your torso.
In other words, block your opponent’s base and move your opponent’s hips in a direction where their base can no longer support them.
Now that you’ve been exposed to these principles, here are two more examples with explanations of the key technical points in the description.
The Learning Process: Expectations
First, start with the principles or the big picture. Figure out what exactly you’re trying to achieve.
Then, without getting too deep into the details in the beginning, just practice an application of the technique to get a feel for it.
After you have some base level understanding, it’s time to dig deeper. Now you’re moving from macro to micro. This is where it’s time to perfect those technical nuances to the furthest extent possible. This will often take the form of minor tweaks and adjustments, so attention to detail becomes important.
To bridge the final gap into optimal performance, you’ll need to integrate those micro details into your subconscious so that you can reach perfect execution without conscious thought. This is because conscious thought tends to slow you down (and don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for that) and hinder your ability to enter the flow state.
From the outside, this sequence is misleading because the two extremes don’t seem to be putting much thought into the technique. However, to bridge the gap between beginner and expert, you need to cross through the intermediate stage in which you focus on the details. Since you’re actively thinking instead of focusing on executing, you may actually see a temporary plateau or drop in performance. This is natural. Josh Waitzkin refers to this as “investment in loss” in which you allow yourself to fail in order to learn.
Discovering and applying principles on your own takes a huge amount of deep thought and understanding, but you can also work around this by seeking out an instructor who knows the differences between principles and techniques. However, some instructors are just good due to a very extensive amount of time invested in any given discipline without paying much attention to the speed and efficiency in which their students or athletes develop. Since that’s out of your control as the student, you can prod them a bit with seemingly innocent but thought-inducing questions such as, “What’s the ultimate goal here?” or “What exactly am I looking to achieve here?”
It’s time to dig deeper into your technical approach.
Che’s Ultimate Guide to the Single Leg Takedown
Want to see an extensive application of this learning approach?
If you’d like to see this principles-based approach applied even further, you can view my free ultimate guide to the single leg takedown here.