A Week With Henry Akins

I’ve done plenty of seminars and have studied many different resources for my jiu-jitsu. Nothing has resonated with me like the last week of training with Henry Akins.

I’m writing this from Costa Rica, where the Sub and Surf camp is held. The format is fun in Costa Rica during the day, and serious three hour training sessions in the evening. My wife Amy and I looked at this training camp and thought it would be fun and informative. Every video I’ve seen from Henry has been useful, so I figured getting a series of sessions with Henry would be like having 5 back to back good seminars, along the lines of individual ones I’ve done with other excellent black belts. Doing it all in Costa Rica with my wife as a vacation was a great perk.

Although I knew I would be getting good information for sport jiu-jitsu and that Henry teaches from a self defense standpoint, I had no idea that I’d be getting this training in a way that was as if it were custom tailored for how I think. While everything was presented as drills and technique, the real goal was to present concepts and a game plan that are both simple and effective.

We started with some general defensive things like standing up in base and discussing what a good base looks like. Then we moved on to safely engaging an opponent and taking them down with the least amount of risk to ourselves. We moved on to cross side control and Henry’s unique take on this position. We then covered guard passing, which started with how to keep your posture and ended with a brutally effective method of opening up the guard in preparation for passing. Passing various forms of open guard were all distilled into a series of drills that helped everyone understand that pressure and angle are key to most easily working against any guard. Finally, we had a Q&A session where everyone asked technique and general non-technique questions.

If a handful of specific techniques were all I got out of this training camp, it would be worth it. What I really got from this camp were critical abstractions. Everything was laid out in a logical progression that made you understand not just the how, but more importantly the why of jiu-jitsu. Everyone in the room, from white belts to black belts, was floored that such simple ways of looking at things provided such effective results.

For example, Henry’s use of weight and deflection of roadblocks provides a template for working against any guard. I saw elements of Andre Galvao’s and Marcelo Garcia’s guard passing despite the technique looking completely different. It’s as if Henry taught the template that other black belts use for specific instances. Yet now I feel like I can build my own responses without relying on practicing dozens of variations of guard passes.  One of the students even said he felt like he should never watch another technique DVD again.

I was also shown that many of the concepts that I had known before had many subtle features that I never knew or practiced. All my students know that I constantly remind them “butt down, head up” when they are in the guard. Henry showed a series of enhancements to that concept that made my white belt wife feel like a black belt in my guard. Henry’s lessons showed how to structure your back, arms, and head to produce ideal positioning to both defend against attacks and to progress your position at the same time.

Henry’s side control is a crushing experience. Although I have a different style that has always worked well for me, his approach feels like the logical conclusion to things I discovered on my own. I know that focusing on the shoulders is the best way to control opponents in side control, but Henry shows how to drive incredible pressure into your opponent while preventing them from getting off their back or easily regaining guard. It’s like I got to learn the things that I would eventually discover on my own as I refined my own style of side control.

Ultimately, so much of the week could be summed up as pressure and redirection of resistance. It is an offense based mindset that adapts easily to unforeseen circumstances and depends on sensitivity to build the correct response on the fly. It’s not a game of baiting and subterfuge, faking one way and going the other. It’s direct, simple, adaptable, and effective.

I feel like everything I’ve learned and abstracted up until now has been preparation for what Henry taught me this week. It’s actually going to be a bit of a setback for me to fully incorporate what I learned. It won’t come overnight and there will be many failures as I adjust my style.  It’s frustrating and exciting.

I never thought I’d run into someone that thinks about jiu-jitsu the way I try to think about it. For me, so much of jiu-jitsu revolves around reusable concepts that let you take general principles and apply them to specific situations. I’m still in the phase where I’m building up this grand abstraction of what jiu-jitsu is, and Henry appears to be what I hope to achieve in another ten or fifteen years. His approach is like that of a fine craftsman; aware of the possibilities, yet distilling them down into a functional work of art that derives its beauty from its simplicity, utility, and effectiveness. Just as I strive to do the simplest thing that can possibly work, he eschews complicated concepts when simpler ones will work better.

If I had any complaint about the week, it’s that while I am oriented primarily towards a sport jiu-jitsu style with a mix of self defense, Henry is primarily oriented towards self defense with sport technique being a side effect of his style. He stays true to jiu-jitsu as a martial art. I can’t fault him for this, and I constantly have to make an effort to keep self defense in mind.  Ask me again in five or ten years if I still have this complaint.  It’s entirely possible I just don’t understand jiu-jitsu well enough yet. [2017 update: I have a much better appreciation of self-defense, even in the context of being primarily sport oriented.]

If you have an opportunity to train with Henry, don’t pass it up. Even if it’s just a short seminar, he will show you jiu-jitsu the way it’s meant to be understood. Jiu-jitsu is not merely a collection of techniques, kata-like and static. It is a way of thinking and adapting. It never loses sight of the fundamental principles of position and leverage, which are just instances of the fundamental truths of body mechanics and physics. He is a dedicated instructor, clearly intent on not just refining his own view of jiu-jitsu, but also focused on refining and presenting his knowledge the most effective way he can.

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