Saturday, January 3, 2009

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Hammer and Nail, Moo Ridge, and the need to keep learning

I am in the process of learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I love it so far. I think BJJ is a great sport in of itself, but I also love the process of learning something where you are a complete novice.

Some parts of the sport are easier for me to pick up than others. The moves make a lot of sense to me- partly because I have some background in wrestling, partly because I have a very strong academic background in biomechanics, and partly because I've watched enough mixed martial arts (MMA) over the years to have some familiarity with basic terminology.

By far the hardest part for me is learning how to not rely on my size advantage. I am probably the biggest guy in the dojo, and in most cases outweigh the people I am practicing with by at least 50 pounds. Because of this, the temptation is to simply overpower people or muscle through. When I have sparred before, even with very skilled combatants, I have been able to succesfully use my size to overpower opponents. What I am trying to learn in BJJ class is that you can't simply do that with a skilled opponent. Today, every time I lunged forward, the people I was rolling with were able to grab the sleeve of my gi and start working a wrist lock or arm bar. At first, I was able to fight them off, but eventually I just gassed out.

This reminds me of one of my favorite medicine cliches- to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. What this means is that physicians tend to know that the things they know, and oftentimes we don't think outside of the box enough to consider options outside of our base skill set.

One of my favorite anecdotes related to this point dates back to my grad school days. Even though my PhD research was related to sports biomechanics in female athletes, many other people in my department did research on the anatomy of fossils. So one summer I was part of an expedition in western Colorado, looking for fossils that were part of the initial mammalian radiation.

When I tell people I was on a fossil dig, they find that incredibly interesting. It wasn't for me- it is probably the singular task that I have the least talent in the world. Also, these weren't big fossils- these were very small mammals the size of a mouse, so the bones we were looking at were smaller than my thumbnail.

I remember one day in particular that highlighted how bad I was at fossil collecting. I was looking at a patch of pebbles that was about 1 yard by 1 yard for what must have been several hours. I kept staring at the pebbles, and I couldn't see anything- they just looked like pebbles to me.

Then our expedition leader, Maureen, came by and looked at the same 1 yard patch I had stared at for the past several hours, and within 30 seconds picked out 3 or 4 fossils. It was humiliating, but it was also one of the greatest lessons I have ever had in my life- you can't find something if you don't know what you are looking for.

My lone contribution to the 6 week expedition is that I came up with a clever name for the fossil site. The whole time we were looking for fossils, hundreds of cows would walk over and stare at our team, so I called the fossil site Moo Ridge. I think Moo Ridge may even be referenced in some Paleontology journal somewhere.

The reason I bring this up- when relate this story to medical students and residents, I make sure they understand that everyone has their Moo Ridge- we all have weakspots where we can't see things that are right in front of us, because we don't know what we are looking for. Sometimes we learn to compensate for our blind spots by relying on some other strengths to compensate. But just like my experience in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class taught me today, eventually your strengths aren't enough, and you need to learn new skills.

I am reminded of this every week when I attend the Sports Medicine faculty's weekly case series. The great Freddie Fu, the chairman of Pitt's Sports Medicine team, likes to hammer home the point that being good is not good enough- that we always have to ask the question- "what can I do better?"

It's a great question, and it's one that I, and every physician, needs to be asking themself every day. And not just when they are getting choked out on the BJJ mat.

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