The Finger & The Moon – how JKD lost its way.

* (The following is a short section excerpted from a larger work set for release next year)

If you’re familiar with my work, or SBG pedagogy in general, than you know that we don’t usually talk about arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Muay Thai, as “styles”; instead, We refer to the fundamentals of those arts as “delivery systems”.

This isn’t just a semantic difference. It goes to the heart of the entire process.

A delivery system, is a series of fundamentals that define skill within a given range. In the case of hand-to-hand combat, that means stand up, clinch, and ground.

Those fundamentals, being not what’s most basic, but rather, what’s most important, will, by definition, transcend:

1- culture (history, tradition)
2- bodies (gender, age, size)
3- geography (location, environment)
4- venue (rule set, stakes)
5- time (decade, century, epoch)

These are the universal truths of combat, which all functional Martial Arts will contain.

There is a trite, often heard fallacy within the JKD world that goes something like this – “All arts have something good to offer”. Or the ever popular: “There are no superior arts, just some that are better in a given environment than others.”‭

Neither of those statements is factually true.

Some arts will make you worse, not better. Ask any coach who’s tried to correct someone’s screwed up body mechanics, and they’ll verify that fact for you. And yes, of course, some arts are absolutely better, more valuable and useful, while others will only teach you what not to do. But even the premise of the question itself, resting on the house of cards that is JKD Concepts relativist philosophy, is misguided. It isn’t about individual styles, Hung Gar versus Wing Chun, or Aikido versus Judo. It’s about delivery systems – the mechanics of a proper punch or throw, which transcend style, culture, and location.

I want you to think of style in a different way.

“Style”, as Bruce Lee rightly pointed out, is completely individual. No two Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts roll the same way. Each has different rhythms, patterns, techniques they prefer, paces, strengths, weaknesses, and routes. If they are good at Jiu-Jitsu, then by definition they will be good at the fundamentals of Jiu-Jitsu, and they will share those as a common denominator. But the application of those fundamentals, the application of that delivery system, that common denominator – that’s as individual as personality.

I call this: The Fighting Style Principle:

Aliveness is the method. The core fundamentals of the delivery system are the material. And style is what you evolves within you when you combine both. It will be as different as every individual, and it will be yours alone.

If you’re a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teacher, should you teach Roger Gracie Style or Andre Galvao Style or Ryron Gracie Style or Marcelo Garcia Style?

The SBG answer is, none of the above.

Instead you should teach the fundamentals of the delivery system, in this case the ground, create a safe environment for the students to train those fundamentals with Aliveness, and allow each student the time needed to develop into his or her own “style”.

Remember, if you can see the fundamentals that drive the delivery system, you can learn anything.

If you know how to train those fundamentals with Aliveness, you can get good at anything.

What are the fundamentals?

Not what’s most basic, but rather, what’s most important.

How do you find them?

By asking what can be removed and what cannot. Where you find necessity you find a fundamental.

A superior boxer or kickboxer can throw pretty much any particular strike, kick, punch, or knee, and potentially make it work. They can make it work because they have ingrained the core skills, the root movements of the functional delivery system. Just as a Jiu-Jitsu black belt can probably make even the most inefficient joint lock work on someone who has no real skill on the ground. That isn’t a testament to that particular movement, but rather the delivery system, the positional dominance, transitions and timing that make up the fundamentals of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And that delivery system is not bound to any culture, any style, or any system. Why? Because any functional thing like that, something that is based in factual truth, transcends culture and geography. Just as there is no such thing as “Canadian geometry”, but there is geometry. We call it “Brazilian” Jiu-Jitsu now, to give credit where credit is due, and to acknowledge the teachings and innovations of men like Rickson Gracie, but the truth is all functional wrestling shares the same principles. And it has been that way throughout the ages.

“I grew up with an impatience with the anti-scientific. So I’m a bit miffed with our current love affair with all things Eastern. If I sneeze on the set, 40 people hand me echinacea. But I’d no sooner take that than eat a pencil. Maybe that’s why I took up boxing. It’s my response to men in white pajamas feeling each other’s chi.” – Hugh Laurie

In a functional Martial Art, form will always follow function. The form the movements take within a given delivery system evolved that way, under the pressure of competition. This is, of course, how evolution works.

Ultimately, what we should be engaged in, assuming we’re looking to reach our potential in effectiveness, is a journey towards efficiency. Since form follows function – the most technical answer will be, by definition, the most effective answer. And the most effective answer will be, by definition, the most efficient answer. To understand Jiu-Jitsu as it is taught by a man like Rickson Gracie, is to understand that there is no distinction to be made between the most effective, most efficient, and most technical movement. The terms become interchangeable. Form follows function.

Evolution requires heritable traits, and three additional things: replication, variation, and selection. Provided all three things are present, natural selection makes use of the design space, and evolution occurs. In evolution by natural selection, the delivery system (plant or animal) serves as a vehicle to pass on the gene. Replication occurs. Variation arises through that process, and through random mutation, and the environment and all that’s arises and occurs within it provides selection pressures.

With functional Martial Arts, the process is much the same. The delivery system, instead of carrying the gene, carries the core fundamentals of animal (in this case homosapian) combat. The variation is the different bodies, temperaments, minds, which use that delivery system. And the selection pressure is the roll, fight, competition process, and theater of operations itself.

#1 Replication: gene – meme- delivery system
#2 Variation: bodies, temperaments, minds
#3 Selection: environmental pressures, the “roll”, the fight

A good BJJ teacher passes down the fundamentals of the delivery system to a room full of people. Let’s call them a “variety”. That variety then competes against each other, and that process forces adaptations. The same choke is used, but each player finds, over time, the best way to apply it individually. If you have a room full of 30 people, you will, given enough time, have 30 different “styles”. Same delivery system, in this case BJJ, but they will all be as different as Roger Gracie is from Marcelo Garcia – each great, each highly skilled in the same core movements, shrimps, hip motions, weight distribution, chokes, etc; and each very different from the other.

That’s how functional Martial Arts work – like evolution – through competition, eventually, creating a variety of species/”styles”.

By contrasting the delivery systems of martial arts with the evolutionary process, we can better understand why certain arts developed the way they have. Alive-functional delivery systems will evolve under the selection pressure the environment provides, so even a minor change in the rules of something like MMA, could have a profound affect if it remained a rule for long enough. In addition, a large cultural change, such as the one that occurred in post WW2 Japan, can also have lasting effects on the way a delivery system is used. That doesn’t mean the core of the delivery system changed, remember, a true delivery system is based on movements and principles which transcend culture and venue – no, what it means is that certain parts of that delivery system will become more dominant, while others may go unused, and over time become lost.

An example is the headbutt. If it were allowed back into the sport of modern MMA it would not mean that Aikido, Silat, Systema, or (insert fantasy based martial art here) all of the sudden became “functional”. We would still see the same core delivery systems of kickboxing, wrestling, and BJJ. It also wouldn’t make a position like the guard (where you control the person on top using your legs) go away. What it would do is change how athletes who compete regularly in that environment played from the guard. That change would remain so long as the environment allowed that selection pressure of ‘headbutts’, something that UFC fighters currently don’t have to contend with.

Another good example of this process is Judo. Remember, it was a Judoka who initially taught the Gracies Jiu-Jitsu. However, Kano, Judo’s founder, was known to favor the throwing aspect of the delivery system to the ground fighting (newaza). That favoritism was reflected in the sport. Time allowed on the ground was limited. And perfect throws could gain you an instant victory. The result? The Judoka developed a great deal of skill in the takedown portion of the art, and in comparison with their Brazilian cousins, limited skill on the ground. Does that mean the art of a well-placed choke on the ground, or a well-timed hip throw standing, changed? Of course not, what it means instead was that a competitive Judo player is more likely to be skilled at throwing someone to the ground, and a competitive BJJ player is more likely to be skilled at choking someone once it hits the ground. Same delivery system, different emphasis and specialty developed, based on the selection pressures (rules), of their respective competitive environments.

Once you see how the evolution of functional Martial Arts works, the reality that the entire curriculum, whether it is for stand up, clinch, or ground, needs to revolve around the fundamentals of the delivery system, becomes self-evident.

Something else about the process also starts to come to light. You’ll realize that when each individual athlete is given the freedom needed to develop his or her own style, they will, over time, come up with one that is optimum for their own body, mind, and temperament, in a way otherwise unachievable if you were attempt to do with a conscious, human choice. In other words, the process is always smarter than you are.

I’ve spent more than 25 years teaching these arts fulltime, and yet, I still have no idea what a Jiu-Jitsu white belt will end up looking like, ten or twelve years later, when they achieve a black belt. I might assume a particular “style” of play based on their size or athleticism, but, more often than not, I’ll be surprised. I’ve seen short stocky people who became phenomenal guard players, and tall skinny people who ended up wrestling and playing for top; the evolution like process that occurs from the selection pressures that arise on the mat with alive training and rolling is always smarter than I am. Never let a coach tell you how you “should” play – learn it all, and let the your opponents on the mat, over time, teach you your body how it plays best.

The reverse is also true. When a coach begins to teach his or her own personal “style”, rather than sticking to the core fundamentals of the delivery system itself, it is akin to inbreeding within biology.

This is the mistake the “Original” JKD people made. They were trying to fight the way a 130lb man who died in 1973 fought – trying to replicate Bruce Lee. If Bruce Lee could fight well, then, like all modern MMA fighters alive today, he would have had a unique individualized style that made use of functional delivery systems – and it’s the delivery systems, and their pedagogy for training, Aliveness, that the Original JKD teachers should have focused on, not one individuals application of them. Said plainly, they missed all the glory of the heavenly bodies because they were too busy staring at a finger.

This brings us back to our JKD endorsed fallacy: In that case, isn’t it all just up to the individual? There are no superior delivery systems are there?

I hope you can see the flaw in their reasoning now. There is a proper way to perform a rear naked choke that will allow you to achieve the desired results as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is simply a reality. Likewise, there is a proper (best) way to throw a right cross. There may be many variations in how it is thrown. This is ‘style’ specific, and every boxer will have his own, but the fundamental body mechanics, the rotation of the hips, the transmission of power from the ground through the body into the target, that’s based on the laws of physics, and that is the delivery system. Whether people choose to acknowledge that reality does not change the truism. Everyone who teaches functional ground fighting these days, meaning every MMA coach on Earth, is incorporating the guard, the mount, etc. They may call it Submission Wrestling, but it’s the same delivery system. Since the Brazilians brought that delivery system to prominence, and since so much of it was perfected by men like Rickson, I feel it’s important to give them credit. But, ultimately, the name is not what matters most; the reality that the delivery system is backed by principles of leverage and timing, and works against resisting opponents; that is what matters.

Delivery systems can be tested. And that testing has been done.

At this stage it’s obvious what works and what does not. MMA has proven the boxing, wrestling, and BJJ delivery systems to be of great value. So that’s what all skilled MMA fighters choose to do. Someone trained in Silat, or Wing Chun, or Aikido, or Systema, without that background in the functional delivery systems mentioned above (kickboxing, wrestling, BJJ), would be unable to compete in MMA. They cannot defend themselves against modern MMA fighters. Instead of a sport, it would become a beating.

However, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t mean all MMA fighters look and fight the same way. Spend some time watching the UFC. Of course, you’ll see many common threads in their movement – again, that’s the delivery systems at work. But you’ll also see tremendous variation – that’s their individual style in action.

Each fighter naturally develops that style, as they practice, drill, spar, and fight.

Take away that opponent process, and you also remove that ‘style creating process’. You’ll be back to a sclerotic tradition – a dead pattern.


Because it is not a matter of taking different pieces from different arts, (the JKD Concepts method), or learning an imitating someone else’s style, (the Original method); rather, it is a matter of learning the fundamentals of the delivery systems, and then training alive.

That process is the real JKD.

A style IS: an individual’s personal method of application of a given set of delivery systems, as developed, over time, through the opponent process.

A style IS NOT: a fixed series of patterns or beliefs, passed down from Guru to pupil.

There is no shortcut. No hack. No secret words, obscure forms, or magical Gurus that can bypass the work, sweat, and effort.

You have to EARN your style.

Helping people earn their style is what JKD should have been – and what SBG is.

Governing Fear

Learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations is one of the greatest lessons Jiu-Jitsu teaches us. During Rickson’s recent visit to Oregon he shared a story about overcoming a great discomfort, one that I’ve seen a lot of students struggle with – claustrophobia.

He’d been rolling for sometime already that day. Just before he left the mat, he decided he’d have one more match with a much larger opponent. And on that day, the bigger guy managed to hold Rickson down. He smothered him under his weight.

Feeling like he couldn’t move, feeling like he couldn’t breath – Rickson panicked.

Rickson tapped. And as he slowly stood up, he knew he never wanted to experience that again. He never wanted to feel like he couldn’t take in a breath. He never wanted to panic.

He needed to come up with a creative way to try and overcome this anxiety. At home that afternoon he saw a large carpet spread out in the back yard, and that’s when the idea made itself clear.

Rickson called his brother into the backyard, and explained his strategy. Arms by his side and legs straight, his brother rolled Rickson up tight inside the carpet. So tight and so wedged in, that unrolling himself would be impossible. Rickson gave his brother very specific instructions. Under no circumstances was he allowed to let him out, until 30 minutes had passed; no matter what Rickson yelled or said.

Following Rickson’s instructions, his brother left the backyard.

At first, he said, it was hell.

It was hot.

It was dark.

It was so tight, even wiggling his fingers was impossible.

He began to panic.

Then something interesting happened. Recognizing that his brother wasn’t going to return to let him out until a half hour had passed, his breathing slowed down, his chattering mind slowed down, his heart rate slowed down, he started to relax.

Like clockwork, 30 minutes later his brother returned, unrolled him from the carpet, and according to Rickson, he’s never panicked in a match since.

I’m not recommending this specific technique to you. Do not try this at home. Rickson is Rickson. But, there are a lot of lessons to pull from that short anecdote. *(note: real mental illness, beyond the normative fears we all deal with, is illness, and should always be treated with professional medical help). To begin with note that Rickson ran towards his fears, not away from them. He chose his own variation of what would now be called ‘exposure therapy’. Everyone I’ve known who has overcome a specific fear, has done so using that path.

Second, make note of the time restriction. Rickson took away his own ‘out’.

At first, taking away your own out seems like it would inspire more fear and panic, and in one sense there is no doubt that it does, for a moment. In fact, that’s part of its benefit; but there is another way to look at this. By taking away his ‘out’, Rickson took away his decision. Once his brother walked out of the backyard, Rickson knew he wouldn’t come back for at least a half hour. There was nothing he could do about that, and so, there was nothing for his mind to deliberate about. It was out of his hands. As a more religious person would say, it was now in ‘God’s hands’, or at the very least, his brothers hands.

One, non-religious, variation of this that some of our coaches’ say to their athletes is – the work is done. As in, there are no decisions left to make. It’s just time to do your thing. That’s a statement that, if believed, lends itself to surrender. And by surrender I don’t mean quitting. I don’t mean surrendering the objective. To the contrary, I mean surrendering the debate about the objective. I mean accepting what actually is – right now. It’s not if you are going to fight, or how you are going to fight, it’s just fight. The work is done.

The third piece that can be easily overlooked is trust. Rickson trusted his brother enough to be able to put himself in an extremely vulnerable position. After all, what if his brother wandered off, got drunk, forgot, and Rickson had been left there for a day or more? But Rickson isn’t dumb. He put himself in an extremely vulnerable position so that he could make himself stronger, but he did it with the help of someone he could really trust.

There’s a formula here. It’s one all of us in this sport, and field, use a lot.

The willingness to engage in competition and the willingness to be vulnerable, exist in equal measure, if the competition itself is a worthy one.

I was at a social event recently when someone brought up the subject of Conor MacGregor.

He just doesn’t seem to be frightened about anything”, they said.

In this particular case, they meant that as a compliment. What they were trying to point out is, who else out there has the balls to consistently step outside of their comfort zone the way Conor does? And they’re right, in that sense. But I’ve heard variations of the “he isn’t scared by anything.” – “he seems fearless” comment, about one fighter or another, for decades. And more often than not, the person making the statement is missing something huge.

Whether someone recognizes it or not, these ideas of ‘fear-less-ness’ are variations on the “why take this fight out of his weight class with Diaz?” Or, “why take a boxing match at all, it’s just about money.” While one set of statements may seem like a compliment (fearless), and the other set of comments more of an insult (bad judgment or cynical) – they all share something in common – they miss the same, in fact identical, huge piece.

What piece?

The reality that everyone, even a great fighter, gets scared.

That is in fact, the point.

That’s why we watch.

Conor doesn’t take these fights because he’s fearless, short sighted, or greedy. He takes them because they’re a challenge. He takes them for the same reason Rickson had himself rolled up in carpet.

It isn’t brave if you’re not scared. It isn’t scary if you’re not pushing your limits – if you’re not vulnerable to loss. If you’re not putting yourself in vulnerable positions, your choice of competition isn’t a worthy one. And if you are putting yourself in vulnerable positions, and you’re intelligent, than well – at some points you will be destined to feel ‘vulnerable’. You will experience fear. That’s a good thing. It means you’re doing your job.

Training grants confidence. But it doesn’t eliminate fear. Everyone feels fear. The difference is, some just refuse to let it diminish them.

Many years ago I asked Randy Couture how he stayed so calm. If you go back and watch his fights you’ll find him smiling, in the cage, before each battle begins. He told me it was always scary to hear that door latch shut – but he wasn’t going to let his opponent see that.

All athletes who’ve challenged themselves know this secret. You never eliminate fear. You learn to carry on in spite of it.

Marcus Aurelius said, “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

He didn’t say look away and pretend things were what you wished them to be. He said look them in the face and know them for what they are. That’s what combat athletes do to fear. That’s what all warriors throughout the Millennia have done to fear. They’ve looked it in the face and known it for what it really is. That’s what courage is.

Confront your anxiety. Look your fear in the face and know it for what it really is. Put yourself in vulnerable positions. Be willing to lose. That’s step one in the formula.

Step two is harder to name, and almost impossible to quantify. It’s what Rickson felt when he finally let go his fear and relaxed inside the carpet. It’s what focused athletes achieve when they are performing at their best. You can call it mindfulness. You can call it the zone. You can call it detached, or you can call it dialed in. It appears as a form of control. But control is the wrong word. I’ll quote again from Aurelius, because despite living over 1800 years ago, I’ve yet to hear a better contemporary version:

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

There is much to be said for Stoic philosophy. Yet distilled down, it’s little different from what the best of us do when the circumstances, the challenges, dictate it. Steel your mind to things that lay under your control, and let go of things that are not. Is there any doubt that our grandfathers who stormed the beaches on D-day knew, or quickly learned, that?

Is there a better word for the moment that Rickson resolved himself to the fact that there was no way for him to escape the carpet, than ‘surrender’?

I’ve not found one.

I know fighters who hate the word. They equate it to tapping out, to loss. But we could just as easily say ‘accept’. Accept what? Accept what you have no control over. In that acceptance there is great strength.

John Kavanagh told me once that despite being an open atheist, he had no problems using the phrase “it’s in God’s hands”, assuming that athlete was religious, as his final words before they stepped into the cage. It makes sense.

All the work has been done”, is another version of the same truism. The hours have been logged. The grueling sessions completed. The dieting over. The strategy considered. The technique refined. The movement polished.

Let it go now.

Get out of your way.

Let your body do its thing.

That act takes the anxiety that occurs when the brain is stuck in decision mode, should I do X or Y, and dissolves it. Fight or flight is replaced by doing. And that can take the human animal into one of its most graceful, and effective states.

One of the remarkably beautiful things about Jiu-Jitsu is that people of all ages, all backgrounds, all athletic abilities, from competitor to desk jockey, can experience that zone, that realm of perfect focus, that space of letting go – by rolling.

This is step two in our formula. First you confront your fear by putting yourself in a position where by definition you can, and in most circumstances will, repeatedly lose. Exposure – exposure to what? Exposure to failure, exposure to conflict, exposure to contact, exposure to stress – that’s the inoculation against denial that works. That’s what Aurelius meant by looking things in the face. And that’s found in every combat sport. Stepping onto the Jiu-Jitsu, MMA, Judo, or wrestling mat, and having to deal with another human being who is really trying to choke you, or put you in a position where they can break your limb; someone really fighting with you, while your peers watch, while your coach observes, while your mind does what it does, whether that self talk is positive or negative, whether that body is amped up or warming up – that practice – heals the human animal. It teaches you that being ashamed at how your body reacts is silly, and that ignoring the intentions of others because you don’t want them to be true is anything but helpful. It makes you stronger.

Tht leads to step two, once in the arena, whatever that arena is for you, be it a rolled up carpet, anxiety ridden confrontation, or physical fight, you focus only on what’s within your control, and let the rest, for that moment, go.

As Aurelius said: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

I want to stress, before moving onto our last piece of the puzzle, the variety of arenas people have. You never know what struggles other people are dealing with in their own lives. Suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, PTSD, financial stress, sick children, dying spouses, cancer, even eminent death. Everyone has his or her own battles. People have different strengths, and different failings. Giving a speech to a crowd might be a day at the office for one person, and a journey into sheer terror for another. You don’t know their wiring. You don’t know their history. You don’t know their battle. That alone should give us pause before we cast judgment. But it doesn’t change the formula.

I grew up an introverted book worm who was scared of physical contact. Martial Arts, and ultimately Jiu-Jitsu, changed that for me completely – through exposure.

My wife never had the safety and stability as a child that she and I now provide our children. The consequence of that is that she often wrestles with persistent anxiety in social circumstances. That’s very common. More common than many people may realize. The prescription for overcoming it is the same. Exposure. I nudge her into social situations that might require a bit of confrontation.

With our daughters we do the same. Though neither has any anxiety about talking to strangers, learning how to do it properly, meaning, with a demeanor that is both respectful, and politely assertive, is something I try and help instill in them. How? By having them engage in interactions with strangers while their mom and I observe. Every time we go out, they’re training.

This brings us to the last piece. The role Rickson’s brother played. The role a good father plays. The role a mentor plays. The role a good coach, or team, plays. What every successful fighter and trainer share. What exists between Conor and his coach, John Kavanagh, the last piece of our three part formula – trust.

When I first started teaching, more than 25 years ago, training consisted primarily of conditioning exercises, alive drilling, and lots and lots of sparring. We rolled, we did MMA, we boxed, we fought on old mats, we fought on concrete, we wore all forms of assorted safety gear that we would procure from other sports, and we hit each other, full power, with fists, feet, knees, elbows, rattan sticks, and wooden knives.

I did a lot of things wrong in those years. There was no such thing as an MMA gym at the time. We were the first in Oregon. But that doesn’t excuse it. The mistakes were no one’s fault but my own. I was still in my mid twenties. I was immature. And above all else, I was selfish. I wanted my students to be good fighters, yes. And I taught them everything I had learned up to that point to help make them so. But I wanted them to be good fighters mostly because I wanted them to be good sparring partners for me – to make ‘me’ better. The undeniable responsibility that comes along with being another human being’s coach was lost on me. Too often I used sarcasm and ridicule where positive support would have been better served. Too often the training was too rough, the strikes too hard, the rolls too brutal, the head trauma too pointless. Knockouts happened. Knees to skulls happened. People were weeded out, and like an idiot, I thought that meant progress.

As I look back on it now I cringe. We’ve learned so much in the two decades since. I’ve learned so much. We didn’t know then, half of what we know now about traumatic brain injuries. But there was enough science for me to have known better. Still, each year that went by we did improve. Little by little, step-by-step, lesson-by-lesson, we changed. We evolved. The workouts became more scientific, and by definition, safer and more efficient. The skill sets became more defined. The psychology of everyone involved grew healthier. And finally, after years, the message beat its way through my stubborn personality and thick skull – being a coach was a massive responsibility. You could say the smallest, and in your own mind most innocuous thing, and the athlete would end up feeling like a superhuman, or, hate you forever. Right or wrong, warranted or not, such was the power of a coaches words in our sport. I wasn’t ready for that as a young man. I work every day to live up to it as an older one.

What I wasn’t always doing then, and what I strive to do daily now, is maintain an earned trust between myself, and my students. They know that their safety is my prime concern. One of my biggest failures from years past was keeping guys on my mat, or in my organization, that didn’t feel the same way.

By way of example, one such person, who left my school as a purple belt, was the type who would ask you to “slow roll” in a passive aggressive/creepy way, and then moments later try and break your arm. We, meaning myself and the other coaches, didn’t bother too much with it because we could always beat him down. And when I was around, he was better behaved. It was only after he left my gym to teach in Texas that I fully realized how badly I had failed as a coach. Person after person, everywhere I would go, every seminar I would teach, would come up to tell me their own personal horror story of rolling with this guy. I never asked, or brought the subject up. They always volunteered the information. Now that he was gone, they wanted me to know. It was always some variation of the same thing – he’d approach asking to roll, in a very meek way. They’d let their defenses down. He’d go hard, slap a submission on, and hurt them. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve had dozens of people relay these kinds of encounters with him to me.

Why did I keep him around? There is no excuse. But by way of an explanation that may serve as a lesson, it was a combination of sympathy and apathy. Myself and the other coaches felt some empathy for him because it was clear he was somewhat emotionally disturbed, and somewhat socially awkward. I’ve always held out Jiu-Jitsu as a great healer for people like that, and part of me was always hoping Jiu-Jitsu would provide a vehicle by which he could change. The less exculpatory reason was that he was never a threat to myself and the other coaches. And therein is my greatest failing. I didn’t put the least skilled, the most vulnerable of my students first. By keeping someone like him on the mat, I put them all at risk.

I made a similar mistake, organization wide, by keeping on a stand up coach who was just as emotionally disturbed, and even more of a bully. Again, there was no excuse. If you’re a coach or leader within a gym or academy, you have to do two things. First, you have to lead by example. Second, you have to police your mat. You are responsible for your culture. As former Navy SEAL Leif Babin says, when it comes to leadership, it’s not what you preach it’s what you tolerate.

To be clear, neither of the people mentioned above have stepped foot in an SBG for at least a decade, and neither would survive in one now. Not because we would beat them up, but because they’d be walking into an environment that has zero tolerance for the kind of behavior they exhibited. That’s the kind of culture you want to build.

In today’s SBG, creating an environment where everyone can feel vulnerable, where people aren’t afraid to lose, where challenges can be met safely, and intelligently, is our chief mission. And our staff worldwide does a great job of making sure that’s true. As one of our mottos’ proclaims:

This is SBG – you’ll be okay.

This brings us full circle to our 3rd and final part of the overcoming fear formula. As a coach, leader, and gym owner, your #1 responsibility is the creation and maintenance of an environment where people feel comfortable being vulnerable.

Let me repeat that.

Your most important job is maintaining a space where people feel okay being vulnerable.


Without that people will be afraid to lose. And if people are afraid to lose, they won’t take risks, they won’t step outside their comfort zone, they wont learn to govern their fear.

Part of the reason why Conor feels comfortable stepping outside his weight class to battle a phenomenal fighter like Nate Diaz, or outside his own sport to battle the number one boxer alive, is because he has a team and coach he trusts. He knows John will put his safety above all else. They’ve built a relationship – a bond. John has created an environment where his athletes and students feel safe losing. And that is the final, crucial piece to our three-step formula. Yes, you must be willing to let yourself be vulnerable, let yourself lose. And yes, once engaged, you have to get beyond fight or flight, let go of what you have no control over, and go right into do. But, to achieve that, you need to be in a place filled with people you trust.

You have to have a brother who you know, no matter what, will unroll you from the carpet.