John Danaher is one of the most distinguished grappling trainers of all time. He has coached such legends as UFC world champion Georges St. Pierre, Gordon Ryan, and Garry Tonon.
Moreover, his contributions to the sport of jiu jitsu are legendary. Danaher's innovative leg lock system has fundamentally altered the way athletes train, and has contributed to a massive shift in competitive practice.
Given these accolades, it may come as a surprise that Danaher himself has never competed. After living with severe knee problems and enduring multiple surgeries, he recognized early on that he would never be able to compete at a world-class calibre. What he could do, as a former philosophy PhD student, was to use his mind and superior thinking skills to develop cutting edge strategies and tools to offer his pupils.
More than just components in a philosophy of martial arts, these strategies can be repurposed to suit almost any skill, and can accelerate your own personal journey towards expertise.
Here are five mental models that Danaher uses to propel his disciples to mastery.
1) Opportunity Cost
When making a choice or pursuing a particular path, you give up the rewards and benefits of the alternative.
By choosing to spending thirty minutes watching The Bold and the Beautiful, you forego the option of spending that time casually reading up on quantum mechanics. While you may not discover whether Justin gets arrested after letting Thomas out of the cage he was keeping him in(...say what?), you may learn something new about the Mach-Zehnder interferometer.
All joking aside, Danaher uses the concept of opportunity cost to great effect. In a London Real interview with Brian Rose, Danaher explains how he optimizes training time by having students work techniques—but only up until a certain point of proficiency:
Let's say on a scale of 0 is the worst double leg in the world, and 100 is the most perfect double leg in the world, you could invest a lifetime in trying to get to a level of 100, but if your opponent only requires a skill level of say 40 to be taken down, what's the point of getting a double leg all the way up to a 60 or 70? You're not really getting any return on the investment there.
Opportunity cost is about asking yourself the question: is this the most valuable thing I could be doing with my time?
When you are learning something new, you can make incredible progress in a surprisingly short period of time. As you progress, significant gains become harder and harder to come by. Sometimes, moving across disciplines or combining what you've learned with another area is more productive than mastering a small slice of a single subject.
Most important of all, opportunity cost can help you to establish clear priorities, and stick with them.
Applying force with leverage magnifies the output significantly. Using a lever, you can exert a few hundred pounds of force to generate several thousand pounds of force. Analogously, in the investing world, experts use risk/reward asymmetries to generate 10 or 100 times their initial investment.
On the Lex Fridman Podcast, John Danaher succinctly explains how the principle of leverage applies in jiu jitsu:
Let's say we have two athletes: athlete A and athlete B. Athlete A has 100 units of strength, however we define that overall. Athlete B has 50. Ostensibly, athlete A is twice as strong as athlete B.
The world is full of examples where the principle of leverage can be applied.
A thoughtful, well-timed marketing campaign often yields remarkable results. A single social connection can help you reach new levels of professional success. New technology allows you to reach millions of people that you couldn't reach before.
Using leverage wisely is an art form.
What will you use it for?
Simply put, metalearning is learning about the learning process. Danaher places an extraordinarily high value on deliberate training, and seeks to avoid passive practice at all costs.
He remarks that a lot of drilling ends up as rote learning, which impedes progress:
Drills have diminishing returns. Once you get to a certain skill level, if you just keep hammering on the same thing, in the same fashion, for the same amount of time, you stop getting better...
Danaher's approach to instruction is to build skills from the ground up, and incrementally increase the level of resistance and difficulty.
He also does something that other coaches rarely do—carve out time to explicitly cover the purpose and methodology of drilling:
One of the first things that I do when I coach people is that I teach them how to drill. That's a skill in itself." (2)
Engaging his students in the practice of metalearning allows Danaher to extract maximum value from every available minute of training. When students know how to drill, their confidence increases. They feel assured that the formula they are following is effective.
Incidentally, metalearning is what lead me to discover an incredible method for developing one's writing skills.
4) Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)
Danaher is a proponent of Kaizen—a Japanese system of thought that encourages incremental daily improvements, which add up over time. Books like The Compound Effect and Atomic Habits point out that success almost never happens overnight. More often, it comes from a gradual accumulation of gains.
Expecting major progress in a short timeframe is a recipe for frustration and failure. It is better to find one small thing you can get better at today, and bring that wisdom with you tomorrow.
Danaher captures the essence of Kaizen beautifully:
The whole notion of Kaizen crystallizes this idea that if I can improve my performance in any given area of my life, by even a small percentage point, and then add day by day, you get this compounding interest effect, where at the end of 5 years something quite remarkable may have happened—you may have literally reinvented yourself in 5 years." (2)
To harness the power of Kaizen, long-term thinking and daily reflection are necessary. Think of it as charting a course across a vast expanse of months or years. At times, you will have to course correct, and you may even find yourself swept away by the occasional storm.
What matters is that you seek to continually close the distance between where you are and where you want to be.
Until you get a sense of one day building upon another towards a goal, you'll never achieve anything." (2)
5) Persistence of Thinking
Kaizen only works if you keep at it, day after day.
But persistence alone is not enough. Steadily moving towards the wrong goal, or moving in circles, won't get you to where you want to be. It is only through continually rethinking your approach to improvement that you can begin to build up real skills.
Part of Danaher's edge lies in his willingness to question assumptions in the sport of jiu jitsu. Recently, he has started examining parts of the sport that have been neglected in the past—most notably the standing game.
Making a habit of consistent reflection is critical. It can be as simple as a single page of a journal each night, where you ask yourself: "what did I learn today?".
Add up the lessons over time, and you will reach new heights of achievement over the course of years.
Most people see [persistence] as a kind of simplistic doggedness where you show up every day. That's not it. The most important form of persistence is persistence of thinking, which looks to push you in increasingly efficient methods of training. People talk about the hardest work of all is hard thinking. And they're absolutely right. (2)
As John C. Maxwell wrote, "Experience isn't the best teacher; evaluated experience is." Always thinking about ways to improve is one of the best ways to set yourself apart.
If you want to learn more about John Danaher and his unique blend of philosophy and coaching, his Instagram page (danaherjohn) is brimming with amazing content.
For a more comprehensive exploration, The Danaher Diaries make for great reading as well.