Inverted Gear Blog / Matt Kirtley

10,000 Hours is Not a Magic Number

By now you must have heard the "10,000 Hour Rule," the popular belief that mastery in anything is simply a matter of racking up that many hours of practice. That idea -- that any of us could get good at whatever we want --is so appealing, and that 10,000 number is just so perfectly round, it must be true, right?

Let's track down where this 10,000 hour idea comes from and what it really means.

Ten thousand hours enters pop culture with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success, which profiles successful people like the Beatles, Bill Gates, and theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Gladwell pulls 10,000 hours from the work of researcher Anders Ericsson, boldly stating that "ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness."

Let's look at who Ericsson is and what his research shows. Ericsson studies how people acquire skills and expertise in different fields. He studied 40 violin virtuosos in Germany, asking them how much they practiced by the age of 20. Answers ranged from 3,500 hours up to 12,000 hours, with 10,000 or so being the average. That's how we get the number.

So what does a study of a small group of musicians tell us about the path to mastery in BJJ or any other endeavor? Not too much. We already know it takes a long time to get good at a complex activity. Ericsson has since published his own book Peak, which refutes some claims Gladwell made by misinterpreting his research. 

It is also important to note that Ericsson has a different definition for "deliberate practice" than most of us. Not all forms of practice count.

A paper from the Michigan State University titled "Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?" says this about Ericsson and his definition of deliberate practice:

Ericsson et al. defined deliberate practice as engagement in highly structured activities that are created specifically to improve performance in a domain through immediate feedback, that require a high level of concentration, and that are not inherently enjoyable. Ericsson et al. distinguished deliberate practice from two other forms of domain-specific experience–work and play–as follows:
Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.

Focusing solely on deliberate practice neglects other important factors like genetics, psychology, and socio-economic circumstances. The book The Sports Gene by David Epstein takes a more well-rounded look at how all of these factors interact.

In 2012, I reviewed The Talent Code, a book in the same vein as Outliers (it quotes the "10,000 Hour Rule"). My summary of it is still my favorite way to get to the core of what it takes to get good at anything:

“Get someone passionate about something and make them practice for years under an experienced coach and they’ll get good (unless they don’t.)”

Here’s a quick list of “take away lessons” you can get from reading any of these books on talent:

  • The elite got that way through many thousands of hours of diligent practice.
  • High repetition is necessary to gain competency in a skill.
  • You learn the most by pushing yourself to the edge of your ability and paying attention to your mistakes so you can fix them.
  • The learning process is often frustrating and you can’t always tell when you’re improving until you’re put to the test later.
  • A good curriculum “chunks” skills together so they are easier to learn, and the chunks get bigger as the student becomes able to handle the earlier ones.
  • Students should spend a lot of time watching masters practice and perform.
  • Coaches and teachers value hard work and persistence over “natural genius.”
  • A good coach establishes an emotional connection with his students so he knows when to be nice and when to push hard.
  • You can focus on specific skills by doing drills that isolate it for repeated trial-and-error.
  • Those who achieve greatness often started with a humble instructor who fostered a love for the subject.
  • Those who see themselves doing an activity for a long time find more time to practice (and therefore get better) than those who only set short term goals.
  • Kids who feel talent can be gained through hard work have better problem-solving skills and more determination than kids who believe their intelligence or skill is inherited and unchangeable.
  • “Having fun” isn’t the primary goal of people who want to get good, though they find what they do pleasurable on some level (or at least necessary) and push through all the difficulties and challenges.
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Your Guide to the Best of the Inverted Gear Blog

The world of BJJ blogging has changed over the years. I should know -- as "Aesopian" I'm one of the few BJJ bloggers still writing after over a decade, having been active in the online community from white to black belt. Today, most free content has shifted to YouTube channels, BJJ "news" tabloids, Facebook meme reposts, and Instagram one-paragraphers. Thoughtful, in-depth writing is harder and harder to come by. But it's not all dead. Nelson got the kooky idea to round up his favorite BJJ blogs and get them to write for the Inverted Gear blog.

Below you'll find my favorite pieces from the Inverted Gear blog archive, categorized so you can go deep down the rabbits holes. Compiling the links for this guide made me really appreciate the depth and breadth of topics the IG blog covers. This could easily make a book, but we're happy to give it away for free because it's fun to help others and join in the discussions.

(If reading is not your style, check out the Inverted Gear channel on YouTube. We are approaching 200 videos in our "White Belt Questions, Black Belt Answers" playlist!)

Here's what the Inverted Gear blog can do for you:

Put Your Training Into Perspective

We esteem the athletes highest on the podium, but the reality is that most of us are just doing this to have fun and escape from our mundane daily routines. These posts reminds us that we don't all have to be world champs to live the jiu-jitsu lifestyle.

Guide You Up the Ranks

Few things cause more anxiety in BJJ than worrying about belt rank. "How do I get my next belt? Do I deserve it? Do I even deserve my current belt? What does it even mean to have a certain belt?"

You can gain insights from Nelson's ongoing musings from each year as a black belt:

Develop Your Gameplan

What takes you out of "just learning a bunch of moves" and into the big leagues is when you take ownership of what you're doing and develop it into your own gameplan. These guides will help you formulate your personal style:

Be In It for the Long Haul

For supposedly being "the gentle art," BJJ sure is rough on your body. The way to address this is to first gain a healthy perspective on how to train as you age, then to learn self-care. These posts will help you avoid injuries or at least deal with them when the inevitable happens:

DIY Mobility Routines

Panda Nation is lucky to have in its ranks a team of experts on human movement, including a yogi, an acroyogi (that's a thing, right?), a Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist, and a kettlebell swinging panda warrior. Follow their step-by-step guides to improving your strength and flexibility:

 Not specifically mobility drills, but who doesn't like solo grappling drills?

Learn How to Learn

To reach your full potential, you need to become a self-sufficient learner, not just regurgitate what you were shown. Take our crash course in how to be a good learner: 

Get Conceptual

A lot of jiu-jitsu brains talk about "concepts over techniques," but what does that really mean, and how does it apply to your day to day training? We've tackled this subject from many angles so you can build a conceptual framework: 

Do Your Homework

Thanks to the internet, there has never been a better time to learn BJJ. You have resources like this blog, as well as countless videos on YouTube, on-demand instructional sites, and streaming membership sites. These posts will help you utilize these tools to their fullest:

Be a Better Teacher

One day you may find yourself called upon to teach BJJ. Maybe you already do. Teaching is a great honor but it can also be nerve wracking. Get guidance from Panda Nation's experienced coaches:

Soak Up Val's Sagely Teachings

Nomadic black belt Valerie Worthington, Phd. shares her insights and answers questions. Here are my favorites:

Read all of Val's posts here.

Meet the Pandas

Inverted Gear has a roster of sponsored grapplers from all walks of life. Daniel Bertina has the envious task of interviewing them all and sharing their story in his regular "Meet the Pandas" column. You can learn a lot by hearing how others got into this crazy art and how they balance training, competing, and teaching with the rest of their life. These will get you started:

The rest of the interviews are archived here.

Nerd Out

Panda Nation is unabashedly nerdy, and it comes out in our writing. We have compared BJJ to Magic: the Gathering, League of Legends, Metroid speed runs, Overwatch, and many other nerdy endeavors. Here are the highlights:


While the BJJ blogoshpere may not be what it used to be (for example, no one uses the word "blogosphere" any more), the best of it is still alive and well at Inverted Gear.

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10 Things to Stop Doing at BJJ (A Picture Guide)

Meet John Q. Whitebelt. He's your everyday BJJ white belt. John does a lot of stuff wrong -- he is just a white belt after all. But you can learn from John's mistakes. Here are 10 things John does that you should not do at class:

Tying the belt wrong

John forgot how to tie his belt but he's too embarrassed to ask to be shown again. When John gets to that critical moment where he has to tie the knot -- is it right or left or left over right? -- he just loops it through however and tugs on it until he thinks it looks OK. Amazingly, despite the 50/50 chance of getting it right by pure change, John beats the odds and gets it wrong 100% of the time.

Grabbing the skin

When John is desperate for a grip, any grip will do, even when it's a handful of human flesh. John doesn't realize he's sending everyone home with dozen of fingertip-sized bruises up and down their arms and legs. 

Sitting with his back to the room

John is skipping this round of sparring so he figures it's good to just sit wherever while he gossips about BJJ drama he saw on reddit, unaware that if anyone rolls over him and breaks his arm, it's his own fault.

Crossing his legs under side control

John knows getting mounted is bad. He also knows he may be able to stop it by blocking with his knee. But John is also lazy. So he just crossed his leg and rests it there. John is surprised when this does nothing and he's mounted anyway.

Knee breaker stack pass

It's John's big moment -- he gets to try a stack pass! Never mind that his partner's leg is bent the wrong way and he's about to torque their knee and bust their hip out of socket. That's their problem. Throw all your body weight into, John! It's your time to shine!

Defensive hands in guard

John is starting to catch on that keeping your arms in when you're in a bad spot is the right thing to do. It makes sense under mount, under side control, and under knee-on-belly. So far so good. John figures he might as well do it when he has guard too. Not so good, John.

Yanking on both lapels

So John recognizes that he was wrong before and he needs to do something with his hands. This time he's going to keep them busy 100% of the time by pulling both lapels nonstop even if that means he can't do any sweeps or submissions and pulls them right through his own guard.

Lounging around during instruction

John thinks "Ooh, this is a comfy way to watch instruction."

Playing hard to get in sparring

John has figured out a fool proof plan to never getting tapped again: If they can't touch you, they can't tap you. Genius, John.

Sitting around like a hot mess

John is overheated and out of breath after one round of sparring (go big or go home), so he does that respectable thing and pulls his jacket half off and turns into a pile of mouth breathing human garbage.


If you see yourself in John Q. Whitebelt here, do not despair. No one excepts white belts to get everything right. You may not realize your mistake until someone points it out to you. We hope John Q. Whitebelt has helped you avoid a few of the biggest white belt blunders.

Do you have a something you'd add to this list? Let us know in the comments and we'll include the best ones in the next edition of John Q. Whitebelt's adventure.

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Game Sense in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Thanks to Black Friday deals, I built a new PC and started playing Overwatch, the team-based competitive shooter. While I’m still a dirty scrub at that game, I have enjoyed looking into the world of professional players to pick up tips. A concept that comes up frequently is “game sense,” and it has applications to BJJ that I want to talk about here. Stick with me even if you're not a gamer -- it will be worth it.

Game sense is the ability to understand the current state of the game and predict what the opponents are going to do so you can act accordingly. Your mechanical skills are your aim, movement, positioning, reflexes, etc., while game sense is the overall awareness that guides you to pick the right strategy to win the match.

In BJJ, a kind of “game sense” is what allows you to pre-position yourself to be ready to stop attacks while giving opportunities of your own. Your "mechanical skills" are how well you execute your techniques, while your game sense is your experience telling you what techniques to go for in the first place. It also includes knowledge about the match itself, like the score, how much time is left on the clock, and the ruleset.

Like the pro gamers and BJJ competitors will tell you, game sense or awareness cannot be easily taught. It is developed through experience over many thousands of hours of practice and hundreds of matches. “Experience” is mostly trying many different things to see what works, learning from your mistakes, and cleaning up bad habits.

That said, you can maximize the amount of “experience” you squeeze out of your training. Mindlessly rolling a lot will not get you as far as you would if you put more thought into understanding what you are doing and identifying and correcting your mistakes.

Try these 4 tips for speeding up your improvement:

1. Keep a training journal
    This simple piece of advice is the easiest to implement but one of the most valuable. You just need a journal to write in or a computer to type at. Ayanthi wrote about this in 6 Tips for Taking Notes in Jiu-Jitsu.
    Here are two specific questions that will help you get started in your journal:
    • Do certain types of opponents give you more trouble (e.g. wrestlers, leg lockers, modern guard player, etc)?
    • Are certain positions a bigger problem for you?
    Give it some thought and write down your answers. Odds are high many other jiu-jiteiros have had those same problems, and you can ask around your gym or search BJJ forums online for help.
    2. Review footage of yourself
      Set up a camera to film yourself sparring (make sure your training partner is OK with it too) or competing. Watch the footage and look for mistakes. Try to stay objective and don’t just watch yourself beat up scrubs. Pick a tough match and ask yourself:
      • What led up to the moment you tapped or got scored against?
      • Did you make any big mistakes?
      • If you didn’t make big mistakes, what did they do to “outplay” you?
      3. Ask for critique
        Often, we are not even aware of the things we are doing wrong (otherwise, why would we keep doing them?) The obvious first choices are the person you just rolled with and your instructor. You can also take that footage you filmed in the previous tip and ask for critiques online at places like reddit’s /r/bjj.
        4. Analyze footage of competitors
          YouTube is bursting at the seams with BJJ match videos these days. Find a competitor whose style is similar to yours or who you would like to emulate and study their matches. The key here is to not casually watch for entertainment, but to put thought into figuring out why they do what they do. Pause frequently, use slow mo, rewind and review, keep notes, and look for details that are not immediately obvious. Marshal wrote a good article about this, titled Supplement Your Training with Competition Footage.

          Whether or not you are a gamer, my hope is that you can see how raising your awareness of what you are doing and how you are winning or losing your matches will develop the mental traits it takes to keep improving your game.

          Do you enjoy the mash up of gaming and BJJ? Check out How to Pwn Mat AwarenessRebuild Your Jiu-Jitsu DeckReal Learning is Not All Smiles, and Parallels Between BJJ and Magic: The Gathering.

          If you want to play Overwatch with the author of this article, add Aesopian#1325 on Battle.Net and send a message to let him know what you thought of this article.

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          The Four Stages of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

          Your progress in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be roughly measured by your development in these four stages:

          1. Survival
          2. Defense
          3. Control
          4. Offense

          Like you can see in the diagram above, these stages are built one on top of the other, starting with survival and defense at the bottom and progressing up through control to offense. This framework will help you understand what you or your students need to work on at each stage in your journeys.

          Survival is the sub-foundation that everything else is built on top of. You could lump survival and defense together because they usually go hand in hand, but I like to put survival as its own category below everything else. Survival skills include:

          • Breathing OK under pressure (not holding your breath or hyperventilating).
          • Keeping your arms in and protecting your face and neck.
          • Not panicking, berserking, or gassing yourself out.

          You can think of survival as happening below technique, or only using very simple "techniques" like a defense posture under bad positions. You are preventing yourself from dying, but not much else.

          Defense begins in earnest once you understand the techniques that are being done to you and have your own techniques to respond with. For an in-depth look at the defensive concepts, check out my article Becoming a BJJ Houdini.

          Control is a broad category of skills that include keeping guard, passing guard, achieving and maintaining dominant positions, and anything else you do to gain control and advanced your position.

          Offense is the realm of submissions and finishing fights. This is the icing on top of the cake, but you need to remember to bake the rest of the cake that goes under it.

          If we wanted to get very specific, we could break this down into a few more stages, such as defensive control and offensive control. Just understand that the edges of each stage blend together, and sometimes a technique can accomplish defense, control, and offense at the same time.

          These four stages can be mapped to a student's progression through the belt ranks:

          • White belts start with survival and defense as their primary concern.
          • Blue belts still have a strong emphasis on defense but can now develop control and even some offense.
          • Purple belts need to be able to control everyone to the point that offensive opportunities naturally present themselves.
          • Brown belts are so solid in their foundation of defense and control that they can focus on offense and submissions.
          • Black belt is reaching a high level of proficiency in all four stages.

          You may be wondering, does this mean that white belts should not learn submissions or even sweeps and only do escapes from side control? No, of course not. There are so many techniques and skills to develop and it takes years of practice so beginners need to be exposed to everything, but they are expected to work on survival and defense the most.

          Looking at jiu-jitsu as progressing through these four stages, we can address some problems students have as they move up the ranks. A very common complaint by blue belts (and some over-eager white belts) is that they have a hard time getting submissions and finishing fights. When I hear this, I’ll ask these questions:

          • Are you escaping bad positions easily?
          • Are you getting tapped out quickly?
          • Are you able to maintain your guard?
          • Are you gaining dominant positions and keeping them?

          If they answer yes to all of those, then I tell them “Sounds like you’re doing exactly what you should be doing.” Being able to get out of bad positions and into good ones is what I expect of blue belts, and submissions are not especially important yet. I will tell them to keep at it, and to pick one or two basic submissions to work on for the main dominant position they most commonly get to, such as a collar choke/armbar double attack from mount.

          When a purple belt comes to me with the same complaint, I am less concerned about their defenses. Instead, I want to see how they are chaining their techniques together to create opportunities to attack. In particular, I want to see an offensive guard that is hard as hell to pass and high-pressure guard passing.

          A brown belt will have a highly developed game without any big holes, and should constantly be finding ways to advance position and threaten submissions. Black belts are much the same, just with more experience.

          If this framework for thinking about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu opened your eyes to anything new, I would be happy to read your comments below or on whatever social media post you found this article through!

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