Problem Solving, Part 2: Heuristics.

In my last article on Problem Solving I discussed what I called algorithmic problem solving. An algorithm is a finite sequence of well-defined instructions used to solve a class of problems. In jiujitsu you often learn a sweep, then you learn that if they post their hand, you do something else to complete the sweep. However, if your opponent posts their leg, then you do a different move.  Etc.  We have all learned a set of moves and counters and counters to counters.  That is algorithmic problem solving.  Much of jiujitsu is taught and learned this way. That’s great. But at some point you simply run out of storage to remember all the counters to the counters. Also in real time, it becomes impractical to read your opponent and react appropriately and quickly enough to be successful.  

In order to be successful in real-time training, we must rely on heuristic problem solving.  Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us make quick decisions. Using heuristics is often a way to get a satisfactory solution when reaching an optimal solution is impractical. Take for example defending your guard in jiujitsu.  Most of the time you are taught if your opponent does one pass, you use this technique to defend it and if they do another pass you use a different technique to defend it.  While that has it’s place, what happens is  in real time your opponent switches attacks so quickly that it becomes impractical to try to read them and perform the correct defense in the moment. Instead you have to rely on some heuristics or “rules of thumb” to guide you and allow you to defend in a more general sense no matter what your opponent throws at you.  

Examples of heuristics in jiujitsu are things like:   

  • Never lie flat on your back. Always stay slightly on one side of the other.      Always posture up when you’re in someone’s guard   
  • Where the head goes, the body follows   
  • Never cross your ankles when you’re on someone’s back   
  • The person who wins inside position with the feet will win the battle for the legs.   
  • Try to make your opponent’s knees face away from you when you’re passing their guard.    
  • In order to break a joint, you have to control the next joint above it. 

When you begin to think of these rules that you’ve heard your instructor tell you, you can now recognize them as heuristics.  In jiujitsu students take a while to fully grasp these rules and implement them.  As a new student, it is comforting to learn precise techniques and exact rules for how to play the sport.  However, the further your develop, the more you get bogged down trying to remember all the various techniques and the more you have to start learning the broader rules and concepts and then you are able to fill in the various details from the library of moves in your memory or, potentially, make up new techniques on the spot to solve the problem.  Heuristics are the forest and techniques (algorithms) are the trees.  As you develop you realize it is important to balance heuristic thinking with algorithmic thinking.  Truly great jiujitsu practitioners employ both of these methods whether or not they realize it.  

Many moves begin off the grip. And new students struggle because the very first hurdle of a technique they want to use can be impossible to achieve against a resisting opponent that knows you want to get a certain grip. So the student tries and tries and is either lead into a trap by the more advanced student or they plow forward without the grip they want and hope for the best.  The more advanced student knows some basic rules of grip fighting: 1) the person that controls the grip controls the course of the attacks; 2) the best way to control the hand is at the wrist or cuff; 3) two on one is stronger grip than one on one; 4) keeping my elbows tight to my hips is the strongest position; 5) taking an opponents arm away from the centerline or across the centerline are the best strategic options.  

Knowing and utilizing some of these basic rules for grip fighting can lead you to countless ways initiate a solid grip fight with your opponent without an actual “technique.”  Instead of thinking about where your left hand goes and where your right hand goes, you simply try to improve your position by trying to implement some of these heuristics.  Thus you may score any number of good grips and advantageous positions that you can then start implementing one of your favorite techniques from.  Thus learn how to think and solve problems using both a rules-based approach and a technique-based approach for the best possible results.  

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