What Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Taught Me About Unschooling

Even though we unschool our children, I myself never experienced what it felt like to be unschooled until I started practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Like most people, I received my education in the traditional way by attending school and college, so all I knew was how to follow a curriculum. The curriculum model felt safe and predictable, and I didn’t know any better. The way I used to learn was starting with the basics and then progressing to the intermediate and advanced levels. I never learned how to explore, tinker, and study in a nonlinear way. Even though I knew that self-directed learning was the right choice for my children, personally for me it was out of my comfort zone … until I started learning BJJ.

When I came to my first BJJ class two months ago, I expected to be taught like I was in college. I thought that I would be put in a beginner’s class, like BJJ 101, then move on to BJJ 102, and so on. To my surprise and shock, students of all levels trained together in the same class. For the first month, I was very uncomfortable and had no idea what to do. My coach and other students gave me occasional tips and showed me some techniques but I would quickly forget them. Nothing made sense to me. I observed other students and asked lots of questions, and then I would forget the answers because it was just too much to remember. BJJ is a very technical sport and I was completely overwhelmed with the names, complexities, and varieties of techniques. Americana? Omoplata?? I felt lost. I would come home from class and complain to my husband that I didn’t understand anything. I even wondered whether I should quit because I felt so out of place. It was only my pride that forced me to stay because I didn’t want to look like a loser. I tried to convince myself that one day I would start getting it.

I had no choice but to push myself to grapple with other students even though I didn’t know how. I probably looked embarrassing because I had no idea what I was doing and was defeated every time, but I quickly dropped my ego and told myself that I should stop worrying about how I looked and instead focus on learning by doing.

Slowly, things became more clear to me. As I grappled with other students, I learned from my mistakes. Some techniques were explained in class, but I would forget them the next day. So I would write down the names of the techniques and watch YouTube videos explaining those techniques. I also bought a grappling dummy to practice at home. I read online BJJ forums and articles by BJJ masters. I read every BJJ material I could get my hands on, such as magazines and printed handouts. Some of the stuff I read was unrelated to my current learning yet I read it anyway, just in case it would come in handy in the future. I watched BJJ fights just to see how fighters move and to try to pick out familiar techniques. My husband and daughter have some BJJ experience so I would ask advice from them. I even tried a class at another school once and learned some new things there.

Knowledge was scattered sporadically, learning was unsystematic. Sometimes I was exposed to advanced techniques, other times we drilled the basics in class. I felt like instead of following a clear path, I was picking up little bits of knowledge here and there, and I was very uncomfortable. I thought that I would never learn anything that way. Eventually though, I started connecting some dots.

I came to realize that training with more advanced students was beneficial for me. I would not have learned much if I was put in the beginner’s class. It was also beneficial that I was forced to look for information myself rather than relying on my coach to spoon-feed it to me. Had I relied solely on my coach, I would have been limited to learning from only one source. But by looking for information from other sources to fill the gaps in my learning, by watching videos, reading material online and learning from advanced students in addition to my coach, I was exposed to a much wider knowledge.

Feeling uncomfortable also turned out to be beneficial for me. It kept me on my toes and pushed me to explore, to work hard in order to fill the gaps in my learning. I came to realize that it’s good to be pushed out of your comfort zone. It’s the only way to really learn something. In fact, it’s the only way to achieve anything in life. I feel like to deserve knowledge, I have to actively work for it, that I have to prove that I want to learn and am willing to work hard to obtain knowledge. True knowledge only comes to those who work hard to find it.

So I guess that’s exactly how unschooling works, not only for me but also for my children and other children who are unschooled. At first, you feel completely overwhelmed. So in the beginning, it’s extremely important to not let that feeling of being overwhelmed intimidate and discourage you. Even if the only thing that keeps you from quitting is your pride, so be it. You must keep going even if you don’t understand. Never limit yourself to the beginner material. Even when you are only starting out, you should expose yourself to all aspects of the subject you are learning, both beginner and advanced. This will help you see the point, the essence, the full picture, the light at the end of the tunnel. When you progress in the traditional way – from beginner to advanced – and when you follow things on order, it may take you years to finally see the full picture and figure out what you are learning. This is discouraging and inefficient. It’s better to see the full picture first, as soon as you start learning something. Seeing the goal will encourage you to achieve it. Then you can get back to basics and fill in the gaps. Seek information from a variety of sources, explore, get lots of hands-on experience. Then things will come in place much easier.

When you learn in a nonlinear way, by hopping from level to level and picking up bits of knowledge here and there, your learning may seem chaotic and unpredictable. That’s OK. That’s an efficient way to learn because your learning emulates real life. Life itself is chaotic and unpredictable, so you need to teach yourself and your children to feel comfortable and to thrive in a chaotic nonlinear environment.