Jiu-Jitsu Letter

Hippo Teaching Baby

A book I read at least once a year is The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey. Every student, teacher, coach, and/or parent should own this book. I get something new out of it each time I open it.

It’s like reviewing, teaching, or learning a jiu-jitsu technique multiple times. You’re a different person than you were the last time you learned or taught it.


Fortunately, most children learn to walk before they can be told how to by their parents. Yet, children not only learn how to walk very well, but they gain confidence in the natural learning process which operates within them. Mothers observe their children’s efforts with love and interest, and if they are wise, without much interference. If we could treat our tennis games as we do a child learning to walk, we would make more progress. When the child loses his balance and falls, the mother doesn’t condemn it for being clumsy. She doesn’t even feel bad about it; she simply notices the event and perhaps gives a word or gesture of encouragement. Consequently, a child’s progress in learning to walk is never hindered by the idea that he is uncoordinated.

And later:

Once when I was walking through the San Diego Zoo, I had the chance to observe a mother hippopotamus giving her baby what looked to be its first swimming lesson. At the deep end of the pool one hippo was floating with just its nose above the surface. Soon it submerged and sank to the bottom, where it seemed to rest for about twenty seconds before pushing off with its hind legs and rising again to the surface. Then I watched a mother hippo, which had been nursing her baby in the sun, get up and begin to push it toward the pond with her snout. When the baby toppled in, it sank like a rock to the bottom and stayed there. Mother sauntered casually to the shallow end of the pool and waded in. About twenty seconds later she reached the baby and began to lift it upward with her nose, sending it toward the surface. There the young student gasped a breath and sank again. Once again the mother repeated the process, but this time moved off to the deeper end of the pool, somehow knowing that her role in the learning process was finished. The baby hippo inhaled on the surface and sank again to the bottom, but after some time, it pushed itself toward the surface with its own hind legs. Then the new skill was repeated again and again.

It seemed that the mother knew exactly how much it needed to “show,” when to encourage and when encouragement was no longer needed. It knew it could trust a great deal in the instinct of the child, once it was “jump-started.” Though I would not go so far as to say a topspin backhand is already imprinted within your genetic structure, I would say that the natural learning process is so encoded, and that we would do well to acknowledge and respect it. As either teacher or student we will be most ourselves and most effective only to the extent that we can be in harmony with it.

One of our beginner students currently struggles with some techniques, and it could be that he’d learn faster with a different approach. He’s overthinking and too stiff.

Gallwey would say Self 1 (“teller”) isn’t trusting Self 2 (“doer”).

We1 are taught how to teach a certain way. And it’s a good way. I’m better at teaching subjects other than jiu-jitsu because of my training.

But some people respond better to another way.

If you have trouble with a technique, or have trouble teaching a technique, start at the end and don’t talk so much. Emphasize how the move should feel, rather than the step-by-step detail to get from start to finish. Get the ego-mind (aka Self 1) out of it, and go by feel.

And remind yourself (or them) to breathe.2

  1. Gracie-certified instructors. Specifically, Ryron and Rener Gracie’s affiliation. ↩︎

  2. Telling someone to “relax” is useless. ↩︎

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