Inverted Gear Blog / Matt Kirtley

Meet the Pandas – Biomechanical Jiu-Jitsu with Nerd Power – Matt ‘Aesopian’ Kirtley

In this series, we shine light on the many members of the Panda Nation. Last episode we spoke to David Phimsipasom of Maximum Athletics. Now, we focus on black belt Matt ‘Aesopian’ Kirtley: computer wizard, walking BJJ encyclopedia, and unabashed Magic: The Gathering-aficionado.

Back when he was a blue belt, Matt Kirtley (32) almost broke the internet with one of the first great BJJ blogs: Aesopian BJJ, a groundbreaking resource of free online BJJ-tutorials. Ever since then, he’s been known as a highly technical and analytical instructor – who’s embraced his inner nerd.

Did you practice other martial arts before you found jiu-jitsu?

Matt Kitley: Nope. I roughhoused as a kid, but I never got any formal training. My only other contact with martial arts was when a Tae Kwon Do guy came to my school as a kid. He made us all do a horse stance, and that was it. I found jiu-jitsu years later when I started watching Pride on DVD. I got really into it and I wondered what those guys were doing (besides lots of ‘special sauce’). I loved Kazushi Sakuraba and of course the Gracies – who had that whole fighting family image going on. The old Sherdog forum also hosted a bunch of cool highlight videos of fighters set to hair metal, and I’d watch those fanatically. You’d have to download and watch them on RealPlayer. Those were the days.

Were you physically active?

MK: Not at all. I was a computer nerd, and my dad kept pushing me to get moving. Someone on the Sherdog forum recommended Eduardo de Lima’s school. It was Gracie Barra – I had no idea what that meant. But Eduardo happened to be located just 5 minutes from my house. I would drive by his place all the time, and I was oblivious. He had no signs up or anything.

From what I understand, Eduardo is one of those old-school grinders who sticks to a non-commercial approach.

MK: That’s very correct. The school I trained in for years – all the way to black belt – was just a sweaty room in the back of a warehouse complex. It had a rolling door, cement walls, no lobby, and no air conditioning—all in smothering 100 degree Florida weather. It took me a few tries to find the place because it was hidden in between a scrap metal shop and a storage place for air filters.

So you walked into a room with people simulating murder. Did you think: these people are insane?

MK: My first memory of the gym is seeing one of the purple belts catching his breath outside, right after training. It was huge guy with shoulders the size of my head, and there was steam rising off him. Class had just finished, and Eduardo appeared from behind some drywall to greet me. He was extremely welcoming. But I did think, is this place? For the first couple of months, I was always super nervous before training. Not because of any bad attitude, but just because I had never done anything like that: getting thrown around and squashed by strangers.

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What do you remember about your first class?

MK: My sister, one of our friends, and I started on the same day. We all did the warm-up (which was intense, with a ton of calisthenics). And the intro class was getting pulled aside and being partnered up with a blue belt, in my case a skinny tall girl (who turned out to be in the sheriff’s department). She mounted me, and Eduardo asked us how I would get out without doing something nuts. Of course, I was flailing around like a fish out of water. And, of course, she would stay on top and eventually take my back. Eduardo would ask the rhetorical question: “Well, is that good or bad for you?” And then we reversed positions, and she escaped every single time. The whole point was to demonstrate how much you don’t know. Then, we learned the basic bridge escape. So, my first experience was getting beaten up by a skinny girl.

But did it appeal to your nerdiness?

MK: Eventually it did. As a beginner, you’re not able to appreciate the technical aspects. You barely know what’s going on, but I could tell there was a lot to figure out and that kept me coming back. The heat was killing me. I couldn’t finish a class for weeks. After rolling I would almost black-out, stumble back to the line, and walk right into the walls face-first.

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Somewhere along the line, you started one of the first great BJJ blogs: Aesopian.com

MT: Well, I was online all the time. Like many people of my generation, I thought my opinion was worth sharing with the world, so I got active on all the jiu-jitsu message boards. Looking back, it was pretty weird to realize that some blue belt with no credentials or experience started posting so much about jiu-jitsu. But it seemed to have worked out okay. I just got a good start because there weren’t that many people training in BJJ that could also use the internet, make websites, and had a good camera.

Did you go to school for web design?

MK: I did a little bit of that in high-school, and straight after I got an apprenticeship under a web developer. I’ve been making websites and working on internet stuff for almost half of my life. I do a lot for Inverted Gear, and I help them with their marketing – along with Marshal Carper, he’s the adult in the room. I also run Artechoke Media with him

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What was the most difficult thing to learn?

MK: I’ll flip your question. As a beginner, most people have a problem with remembering all the moves. But I lucked out in that department: I was always really good at retaining all sorts of insane details. I watched every DVD out there, and I read every instructional thread. I got caught by the Blue Belt Curse, as I was constantly collecting techniques. It was a total information overload. For me, the hardest thing was to get away from that hoarder mentality. At a certain point, I realized that you don’t need a million techniques in jiu-jitsu. The goal is to create a solid core game and not to show off how many cool techniques you know.

Can you describe the biggest evolution in your game?

MK: When I started to move away from just collecting techniques, I began to focus on the biomechanical concepts that underlie the moves. When you understand how to manipulate the opponent’s spine, shoulders, and neck – to make him unable to move in a certain way, you can predict the ways he can turn. Using that biomechanical framework allows you to control the opponent and guide him into traps, and it allows for faster improvisation. That’s way more efficient method than trying to remember a specific technique for each situation. This big change happened at brown belt. Weirdly enough, I feel I knew more at purple belt – in terms of volume. But I got better at brown belt by getting rid of a lot of that stuff. Now I do just enough to get one of about four of my best positions to work.

So all roads lead to the crucifix?

MK: Yeah, that’s always been a fun position to me. As a matter of fact, I put out a crucifix instructional a while back. The crucifix as a whole is considered an advanced move – because you need good leg control and sensitivity, something that a beginner might not have. But hooking your leg around someone’s arm isn’t that complicated. If you already like taking the back and clock-choking people you have most of what you need to develop that game. Once you recognize the trigger positions there are many opportunities. Then it just expands out.

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Do you compete?

MK: I’m not a very competitive person, so that was never really my thing. I think I competed once in each belt up until purple, and then just I stopped caring. Every time I would train hard for a tournament I would also get sick or injured – which sucked. When I talk to fanatic competitors they all have broken bodies, and that wasn’t really the price I was willing to pay.

Who do you try to emulate in the art?

MK: I like instructors that have a deep understanding, but don’t over-explain things. There’s a guy named Jeff Rockwell who’s also been online forever. He has released a great instructional on the sit-up escape. Jeff always posts really smart things, and I’ve stolen a lot of his techniques over the years. When it comes to teaching methodology, I really like Bruce Hoyer. He’s got a cool teaching system called the ‘flipped classroom’. When you come to class, he doesn’t actually teach anything. He’s planned and filmed all his lessons, so before class you watch your lesson online, and then you step on the mat ready to practice. All the belts work together on their own moves. It’s the ultimate systemized, technology driven, and highly individual teaching method.

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What’s your home base?

MK: A fear years ago my wife and I moved up to Pennsylvania. There wasn’t really any jiu-jitsu here, maybe just a couple of MMA gyms with purple belt instructors. I would either have to open up my own school – which I didn’t feel like doing – or train with other people and I would be the most experienced guy in the room – which is okay, but not ideal. By chance, Jeremy Henderson, a brown belt from Robson Moura’s RMNU, had just moved to the same area to open up a school: Zombie BJJ. I started training with him the week his school opened. He’s now a black belt under Robson. So, we’ve trained together for four years, and as the school grew I got involved with teaching classes. I also help out with the curriculum and a few things around the school.

How has teaching BJJ changed you view of the art?

MK: It makes you consider a lot more than just you own way of doing things. I won’t name names, but back in Florida I once met a black belt who was asked to show a basic side control escape. He went blank. The only thing he could show was his own, super-fancy-attribute-based version. It’s a cliché, but as a teacher you have to focus on fundamentals. Moves that work on most people most of the time, regardless of age and physical attributes. That helped me expand my understanding of the art. It’s ironic. Back in Florida I was the ‘new move guy,’ and Eduardo made sure we were doing our basics. Now at Zombie BJJ, I have the role of old-school instructor. I make them do the technical stand-ups, the punch block series, and all that. Showing the new-school competition game is Jeremy’s thing.

There’s a beauty to how cyclical it is.

MK: Definitely. It’s funny how things revolve. What people are doing nowadays to counter the De La Riva guard and the Berimbolo is to pass really low, or drop to both knees. So what’s the solution to passing on the knees? Butterfly guard, knee shield, all those moves that sort of fell out of favor. I find great satisfaction in sticking to pure 1996 jiu-jitsu.

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How has jiu-jitsu influenced your life?

MK: I try not to get too stressed out over things, but I guess that’s my general personality. Jiu-jitsu has mostly taught me a mindset of persistence. There will be always be challenges. But if you stick with it, you either figure out a way to deal with it, or the problem will solve itself. You don’t have to be a super genius. The only thing that’s required is commitment and the willingness to ask questions.

What do you do off the mat, to stay sane?

MK: Back in Florida I did a bunch of paddle boarding, bike riding, and kayaking. The last few years I’ve gotten really into Functional Range Conditioning, a joint mobility system by Dr. Andreo Spina. My friend Josh Vogel of Balance Studios turned me on to Spina’s work, and I also learned a lot about FRC from Sam Faulhaber, another black belt from Philadelphia. FRC is aimed at healing and strengthening connective tissues, and to improve your ability to control your joints. And it’s great to both speed up and guide your recovery. It’s not based on astrology or mystical stuff, but it relies on state-of-the-art science. In the long run, jiu-jitsu is just really bad for your body – if that’s all you do. A lot of combat sport athletes have very bad posture, and we constantly put stress on our bodies in weird ways. It’s very unnatural. If you were a caveman getting in this many fights a week, your family line would probably not have evolved… So yeah, I got super deep into FRC, got certified, and now I’m looking to do the next level of certifications.

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What has kept you fascinated with the art?

MK: Usually, I tend to get really deep into a topic of interest for about three months, and then I jump over to the next thing. But that didn’t happen with jiu-jitsu. The art allows me to follow that super-focused-and-then-distracted pattern over and over again, on any sub-topic in the art. With jiu-jitsu I can constantly feed my ADHD, so I guess I’ll never need another hobby.

Matt Kirtley teaches at Zombie BJJ in Allentown, PA, blogs at aesopian.com, and co-runs artechokemedia.com. Follow him on Instagram: @aesopianbjj

Daniël Bertina is a journalist & writer based in The Netherlands. He is a 1st degree black belt under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram: @joyofirony

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Real Learning is Not All Smiles

Years ago, I read an article about video game development at Valve Software, the makers of Half-Life and Left 4 Dead, that changed how I value the feedback I get as an instructor. In the interview, Valve game developers talked about how they changed how they do playtesting.

Initially, a Valve employee would sit down with a playtester and have them give live commentary as they played the game. This lead to a lot of animated and exaggerated reactions by the player and lively interactions with the observer. The Valve observer would finish the session feeling like it was productive, but the data collected was often too superficial and did not reflect how a player would play the game on their own.

To fix this, they switched to putting the playtester in a room alone, like they would be at home, and watching with a hidden camera. The player would silently stare at the screen with a bland expression on their face--or even a look of frustration--that the observer could interpret as being unhappy with the game, but when finished the player would come out and say they had a lot of fun.

The lesson was that how someone acts when they want to show you they are having fun and how someone acts when they are actually having fun are two different things.

As BJJ instructors, we can fool ourselves by looking for big reactions from our students. We can think a class was good because students praised us for showing a cool move or going gasping with amazement when we show a key detail, when the true face of learning may look a little frustrated and need to chew on the new information a bit.

In a similar vein, as instructors or students, we can trick ourselves by thinking improving performance and improving learning are the same thing.

By “performance,” I mean performing a technique or skill in controlled circumstances, such as in drilling. Learning is acquiring a skill so it can be used at a later date in real life circumstances.

Watch researcher Robert Bjork explain the difference between the two:


(I highly recommend you watch these videos of Robert Bjork talking about many misconceptions about learning.)

Training methods that improve learning do not necessarily improve performance (and vice versa), as counter-intuitive as that is. Modern research also shows that frustration as you work to acquire new skills is usually good because it means you are pushing yourself to the edge of your ability.

Changing my mindset about this has been a challenge because I have always been a big advocate of high rep drilling. Like many, I was brought up on the mantras “drillers make killers” and “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Repetition is and will always be necessary for learning, but how you get these reps in and how “clean” the practice looks may challenge your preconceptions.

As an instructor, once you change your mindset about the value of superficial positive feedback from students, you can disregard methods that pad your ego but fail to meaningfully better your students' learning and instead focus on what really matters.

And as a student, accepting that frustration is an important part of learning can take the string out of an especially tough night of practice. Learning is often happening when we do not know it is.

All of us can benefit from putting our emotions and preconceptions aside to reevaluate if what we like to do is really the best for us, and I hope this article has helped you do that.

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5 Tips for New Instructors

While at the BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp in Maine this past weekend, I talked with a brown belt who was anxious about teaching at a school he was going to visit as he continued his trip through America. He had only taught a handful of classes before, so he was not sure what he would do yet. Should you find yourself in a similar predicament, here is the same advice I gave him:

Stick to the basics.

You do not need to impress students with how many cool or strange techniques you know. You just need to make them better at grappling. The basics will get you far. Even the advanced students who may be tired of practicing the fundamentals will still benefit.

Speak loudly and confidently.

Students respond to instructors who are engaging and seem to know what they are talking about. If you mumble and act uncomfortable in the spotlight, students will zone out or not take you seriously. Develop a convincing “I know what I’m talking about” voice. Even if you’re not that confident, fake it til you make it.

Do not over-explain or show too much.

Similar to not teaching anything too fancy, do not try to be “too smart” when explaining your techniques. Of course you should be detailed, but most students reach information saturation. It’s better to show the move briefly and highlight the key points first, then come back to it in more depth after your students have had a chance to practice it.

Copy lessons by your favorite instructors.

You can get overwhelmed by the prospect of coming up with a good class if you have not had to make one from scratch before. Instead of stressing over how to be entirely original, just recall your favorite lessons by your instructors and copy those. There is no shame in copying a good thing here.

End with live training and people will forget your minor mistakes.

As long as you make people break a sweat and put in some good rounds of rolling, most students will forgive minor mistakes. Keep an eye on who is partnered with who if you have any concerns about safety.

As you can probably tell, the trick to starting as a new instructor is the same as it is with anything: start simple, don’t overcomplicate it, and copy someone who knows better when you’re unsure what to do.

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The Balancing of Opposites

In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we are in a constant struggle to balance opposites. For example, you need to train hard enough to get better, but not so hard you get burnt out and injured. We’re constantly told to leave our egos at the door (whatever that means) but we should also take pride in our progress. We each need to seek the right balance to get the most we can out of our training.

Below are some of the main “opposites” I feel most of us could benefit from striking a balance between:

Focus on using technique over strength…

…but don’t let that be an excuse for being weak.

In BJJ, we love the idea that us weaklings can defeat those big, dumb meatheads without breaking a sweat. That’s what the Gracie marketing teaches us. That is what got me into BJJ, so I’m not one to knock that fantasy too hard, but it’s not the complete truth.

Strength matters. The purpose of BJJ is to try to make it matter less, but you can never get away from it entirely. When solving BJJ problems, the best answers come from pretending you have minimal physical attributes (i.e. strength, speed, power, flexibility, weight, etc.) and finding a solution that works because it is smarter.

My main reason for saying you should get stronger is because injuries are the biggest reason most of us have to take time off training, and strength is the main attribute associated with lowered risk of injury. You do not need to become a powerlifter but a basic fitness program that aims for general strengthening and healthy joints will keep you in the game longer.

Learn to stay calm under pressure…

...but don’t let that make you lazy.

As an instructor, I want beginners to think about what they are doing so they can try doing real techniques instead of some untrained, instinctual reaction. At the same time, I do not want them to get paralysed by overthinking it. In the end, they will find the right balance after going too far in both directions and ending up somewhere in the middle.

Where I think many of us go wrong in BJJ is going too far in making ourselves and our students too chill while rolling. You run the risk of killing a beginner’s survival instinct by making them too relaxed. Sometimes the best thing you can do is decide you don’t like what’s going on and just get the hell out.

Dedicate yourself to mastering what your teacher shows you…

...but also explore what other teachers have to offer.

Every day, the options for outside instructional material expand: YouTube, DVDs, membership sites, apps, and more. Access to detailed instruction by world champions has never been easier to get.

The problem with having access to so much information is that you can take your everyday teacher for granted. That is unfortunate because the most important learning you will do is still done the old fashioned way: on the mats, with your instructor, one class at a time.

Appreciate the instructor you have and focus on the lesson of the day. Then, in your free time, pick a topic to research and study instructionals on it to work on at open mat or after class.

Develop a gameplan around your signature techniques…

...but don’t become a one trick pony.

More techniques exist than any one person can master. For most of us mere mortals, we need to pick those techniques that come naturally and devote ourselves to mastering those. Every successful grappler I have ever met has developed “their game” and they have a distinct style.

Where this goes wrong is when your game becomes stale and you fail to evolve and adapt to new strategies. Especially at the lower belts (though it remains true even at black belt) your game is still developing too much to be able to confidently say you’ll never need a certain technique. You need to experiment and sometimes return to old material to see if it has a place in your game now.

If you plan to teach, you need to at least be able to demonstrate a much greater amount of techniques than you necessarily need to have built into your “A game”. For example, I can teach a complete leg lasso guard game but I do not use almost any of it personally (because I don’t like how the grip wrecks my fingers).

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When we are faced with two seemingly opposite but equally valid arguments, the truth usually lies somewhere in between. We each have to find out how to strike that right balance and hit the sweet spot for us. Accepting that not every question has a single correct answer may be uncomfortable at first, but by examining each possibility, you will get closer to the answer that is right for you.

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The 4 Stages of Learning

Over the last decade of writing about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, much of my work has been dedicated to understanding how students can learn faster and how instructors can teach better. We all only have so much time to spend on the mats and we want to make the biggest strides we can.

That trend continues today because I want to talk about an idea from psychology that will help you at any stage in your BJJ journey. It is called the four stages of competence.

Per this learning model, you pass through these stages as you learn a skill:

  1. Unconscious incompetence

  2. Conscious incompetence

  3. Conscious competence

  4. Unconscious competence

Put another way, the stages of competence are:

  1. You do not know the skill exists, or if you do, you do not see the value of it.

  2. You knowing the skill exists, but you are bad at it. You see its value but are struggling to learn it. You could also know the skill exists but refuse to learn it.

  3. You know what you are doing but still having to concentrate to do it. You can perform the skill but need to focus.

  4. You know what you are doing so well that it comes naturally without much thought.

This model can be applied to any skill, but seeing as you are reading the Inverted Gear blog, we are going to use it to better understand what we go through as we learn BJJ.

For many old school grapplers, the original UFCs forced them out of stage 1 (unconscious incompetence) and into stage 2 (conscious incompetence). This was the first time the public saw ground fighting was real and could beat most of the martial arts world. They were faced with the choice of either seeking out grappling instruction or remaining willfully ignorant, like many traditional martial artists chose to do.

Many self-trained garage grapplers live in the bizarro zone between stages 1 and 2, wanting to know how to grapple but not being competent enough to see how bad they are, especially if they got “good” enough to beat up their untrained buddies. The Dunning–Kruger effect kicks in here, which is where someone feels a false sense of confidence because they are too incompetent to know how bad they really are.

The first time we roll is where many of us are shocked out of stage 1 and forced into stage 2. Some new students need this experience or they won’t see the value of BJJ. The job of the “gym enforcer” can be seen as smashing cocky new guys who are stage 1 until they become humble enough to enter stage 2 where the real learning can start. I’m not saying all noobies need to be smashed, but some guys are really asking for it, like those garage grapplers we just talked about.

As a beginner, you will spend your time in stage 2, feeling confused and overwhelmed. Accept this sense of frustration as normal and try not to stress out too much. This stage is about learning from mistakes. You need to try many wrong things so you can see why not to repeat them in the future. The struggle to get out of stages 1 and 2 into stage 3 is where most people quit (not counting all the people who do one class and never return). What’s funny is the white belts who look up to the blue belts do not realize those blue belts are struggling to climb out of stage 2 themselves.

Stage 3 is where things start to get fun. You know what you are doing, even if it takes some effort. This is where you can work to refine your skills. Getting to stage 4 is mostly about dedication, experience, and repetition. It just takes time.

Realize that these 4 stages can apply to specific skills. Even black belts will need to work through them again on neglected skills like takedowns, leg locks, or a newly developed guard. Leaving the comfort zone of your stage 4 skills can be hard but it is how new skills are acquired.

One of the valuable uses of this model to you as a student is that it gives you a way to put your experiences into perspective. Feeling frustrated and clumsy is a normal part of the learning process. Just keep working on it and you will get through it and into the next stage.

As a teacher, we can use this model to evaluate where our students are, both broadly, or in specific skill sets. Students may not take to learning a skill until its value is really demonstrated to them. This is where rolling with your students and using techniques from your curriculum on them can “sell” them on the need to practice what you teach -- or put another way, show them they were in stage 1 and push them into stage 2.

The 4 stages model gives us a clear picture of what it takes to improve any skill. If this was a new idea to you, I hope it helps you make sense of your journey. I would love to hear about any insights you gained from reading this in the comments below.

Graphic uses graph by Wikipedia user Kokcharov. Used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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