Robert Degle is a student of the famed John Danaher, currently based out of the infamous `Blue Basement` in New York City. A former philosophy major, he is now both an active competitor and coach and has recently completed a short tour of Asia teaching his conceptual approach to leg locks. On the eve of another Asia seminar tour in January 2020 we caught up with Robert on his past year and what his plans are for the future.
BJJASIA- Let’s start with the origins of Robert Degle and his meeting with Jiu Jitsu. How did you come about to training in BJJ and for that matter martial arts?
Degle – When I was 13 I was pretty out of shape and my mom wanted me to start a sport. I had a friend on the wrestling team who encouraged me to give it a try. While I liked wrestling and I’m grateful for it as my first introduction to grappling, I always found something lacking. I can’t speak for how it is in other countries but at least it’s been my experience that in the United States wrestling is taught in high schools as if it’s entirely a battle of wills.
So, basically, they describe it as if really all that matters is how bad you want it. This never really rung true for me. It seemed to me that strategy and the competent execution of technique (things that had nothing to do with heart) were the most important deciding factors in the outcome of a match.
After high school ended, I went to college for Philosophy but found myself wanting another outlet for physical competition. I started training Jiu jitsu and loved the way it was taught. There was an emphasis on the use of technique guided by a rational strategy and very little discussion of proving how much heart or toughness you had. I started competing and got addicted to it. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I had a choice: continue to graduate school in Philosophy like I’d originally intended or more seriously pursue grappling at RGA under John Danaher. I spoke to him about and thought about it a lot and ultimately concluded that I’d find more satisfaction in life from pursuing grappling.
BJJASIA – Did ‘Jiu Jitsu save your life?’
Degle – In a way it did even though I think it’s super corny to describe it that way. I’m someone who really thrives best when he’s given a specific direction. The less ambiguity in my day the better. From day 1 Jiu jitsu helped give me that. I dived in deep from the start. Though there were a few years where I drifted away from the art and meandered around in the NYC rave party scene but ultimately, I found it unfulfilling.
I had this moment where I was sitting in my living room really thinking about what I wanted in life. More than anything I thought about going back to RGA and the blue basement and pursuing the art of submission grappling and seeing how far I could take it. So, I packed up my bags, walked to the train, and went to RGA early in the morning. I renewed my membership and I’ve been there ever since.
BJJASIA – As a coach now teaching in multiple locations around the East Coast how do you find the lifestyle you currently live? Balancing roles as a coach and competitor?
Degle – I think that in Jiu jitsu we always must think of what we do as having two facets: coach and competitor. Unless you’re spectacularly lucky and you’re independently wealthy if you want to pursue a competitive career in grappling that largely means teaching the art to others in order to finance it. There’s money in competing but it’s nowhere near enough to live from (especially in a place like NY). I’m lucky though in that I enjoy both coaching and competing.
I find a lot of satisfaction out of being able to travel and experience new places while at the same time helping people to grow in their capacity to engage with Jiu jitsu. Like I said earlier my original plan in life was to get a PhD in philosophy and become a professor, so I always had the idea of spending my life as an educator in mind. In a sense I still think of myself in that way.
BJJASIA – What are your goals for 2020?
Degle – I have 3 main goals for 2020. The first is that I want to land a full time Jiu jitsu teaching job somewhere. Ideally, I’d like to secure one in Asia (especially Singapore) but I’m open to other places too. I’ve grown up in NY and it’ll always be a place I’ll consider home but I’m ready for a change of scenery. Living in NY is a real grind and the city is a pretty stressful place. I’ve thought about moving for a while now. When I visited Singapore recently, I really thought it would be a great place to live. I like how just as in NY it’s got a very effective metro system (much cleaner than ours as well), the food is great, the weathers much nicer than NY, and the Jiu jitsu community was very welcoming.
So that’s my biggest goal for 2020: land a full-time teaching job in Singapore, and if not in Singapore, then in an Asian city with a good metro system and a welcoming Jiu jitsu community, and if not in Asia, then at least somewhere less stressful than NY. The only downside to leaving is I won’t be able to train at RGA but I’d still make occasional returns to the blue basement (just like many members of the squad who are not American do).
The others are that I want to start getting bigger matches and competing on higher profile events. I’m making headway on this front. I’m starting to get tougher opponents and I’m excited to see where I’m at in comparison to these guys.
Finally I want to continue to refine my game and start to settle into it. I think in this last year of competing I’ve really matured a lot as an athlete and I’m feeling more confident than ever in my ability to mix it up with the best in the world. I have a lot of work to do still and a lot of technical development to be made but I really enjoy that process so I’m not shying away from it.
BJJASIA – Out of the competitions that you have entered which was the most important to you personally?
Degle – Maybe it’s recency bias but I’d say my last competition in Maryland. Specifically, and this may seem weird, just because of how unremarkable and unexciting my performance was. I went out and submitted 4 out of 5 of my opponents (with the other win coming by way of a lopsided referee’s decision) and felt very centred and calm in my abilities as an athlete.
It’s not so much about the wins and losses to me (though I do still care about this) but more so about feeling myself coming into my own as an athlete.
BJJASIA – I believe John Danaher eventually finished his academic career with a MA in Philosophy. Do you find your similar educational background has helped to shape your approach to grappling?
Degle – Philosophy done within an academic setting in the English-speaking world mostly amounts to a series of attempts to solve complex problems of little value to anyone outside of the tradition. That being said: trying to solve these problems can sometimes lead to someone attaining a greater capacity to exercise precision and clarity when going after problems in general.
One of my favourite philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote: “Philosophical problems can be compared to locks on safes, which can be opened by dialing a certain word or number, so that no force can open the door until just this word has been hit upon, and once it is hit upon any child can open it.” That’s how I think about Jiu jitsu as well. We’re being confronted with a series of problems that are best solved using precise technique. Ideally it should be the case that if a good technique is used it ought to act something like a key opening a door. Anyone who holds the right key can use it to open a door regardless of body type, gender, age etc. Now of course strength and athleticism do factor heavily into the equation but as practitioners of Jiu jitsu the ideal of technique over all is a good one to have if we want to increase our odds of success.
“Philosophical problems can be compared to locks on safes, which can be opened by dialing a certain word or number, so that no force can open the door until just this word has been hit upon, and once it is hit upon any child can open it.”
It’s possible that in philosophy or in grappling that we can find success without technical clarity and precision but it’s a lot likelier that we’re going to fall into aimless meandering than if we emphasized precision and clarity the whole time. My preferred way of framing both disciplines is that they present us with a series of problems needing to be solved and that the best way to solve these problems is using efficient, precise and clear technique.
BJJASIA – Where do you think this maturity has developed from in the recent year? Would say you made specific changes to your training regime (S&C, nutrition) or was it more of a psychological change?
Degle – It’s mostly technical maturation and a little psychological maturation as well. In a way they’re connected. I study a lot of tape and I’m starting to feel very secure in my conceptual understanding of what I take to be the most important features of competitive grappling. In addition, on the psychological end of the spectrum I’ve learned not to focus on my mindset heading into a competition because I think ultimately, we have little control over whether we experience anxiety beforehand. If I try and mitigate my nerves, I’ll wind up focusing on the fact that I have them and can’t get rid of them and get stuck in a negative spiral. Instead I focus on what I need to do on a technical level.
The analogy I give people is this: Imagine you worked for the police as someone who diffused bombs. This is a highly technical task which requires you to understand exactly what you need to do in a specific order of operations. The right thing needs to be done at the right time in a highly intense and sensitive situation or things will go very sour. You’re about to go out into the field and defuse a bomb you are somewhat unfamiliar with and you ask your supervisor for some of the intricate details of the operation you’re about to perform. What are the specifics of the circuitry, wiring etc.? Instead he says: ‘just go out there and relax, let it all flow out.’ This is totally empty, ‘I can relax when I know what I’m doing’, you think. And that’s just how it is in Jiu jitsu too. It doesn’t matter if you’re stressed or not if you know what you need to do to get the job done and you’re competent at doing it you’ll get it done.
Some people will always be nervous and anxious before competing, some less so, it doesn’t matter. Just as with defusing a bomb winning a Jiu jitsu match isn’t about what’s going on inside you; it’s about the extent of your technical and conceptual knowledge and your capacity to performatively express that knowledge as skill.
BJJASIA – You recently finished a seminar tour around Asia. What are your thoughts of the current scene of Jiu Jitsu in Asia?
Degle – There are a lot of good things to be said but also a lot of work that needs to be done if Asian countries want to produce athletes competing on the highest stages in grappling and Jiu jitsu. There are a lot of tough and skilled athletes, but I think that the wider Asian Jiu jitsu community is a bit behind in terms of the awareness of the overall competitive meta.
One of the biggest deciding factors when seeing whether any competitive community is going to produce world class athletes is whether they have access to tournaments where that get to interact with the international meta. So, for instance in NY you can find competitions in a variety of styles (sub only, IBJJF, ADCC etc.) almost every weekend within a few hours driving distance. On top of that you have a ton of gyms where you can train with likeminded people with similar competitive aspirations and are in touch with the modern meta.
If Asian countries want to produce athletes on par with those coming out of the US and Brazil, there definitely need to be more tournaments and the only way to do that is to have a greater demand for them. The demands only going to come when people are excited about grappling. That’s something I’d like to help contribute to the local community: bringing in some of the technical developments that have shaped the modern meta (especially the leglock meta that dominates major aspects of the sub only and NoGi game nowadays) and help to generate more excitement about grappling on the whole. Hopefully I can succeed in that and help Asia produce more international level talent.
BJJASIA – It has been a recent development that Jiu Jitsu has become a nationalised sport in the South East Asian countries. Would you say that there is a need to have a counter balance with submission grappling?
Degle – I think Gi and NoGi are both interesting sports which give rise to deep competitive metas. Neither is inherently better than the other. That being said what attracts me to NoGi is that it’s a little harder to stall and on the whole the game is more dynamic. That’s what drew me to wanting to focus on NoGi. Submission happen more frequently and in general it tends to be more exciting. It’s possible that including Submission grappling into the games as well could generate more excitement and in turn lead to the growth of Jiu jitsu in general being amplified.
BJJASIA – What drew you to travel and conduct seminars in Asia?
Degle – In NY it’s pretty much impossible to grow up without being exposed to a variety of different cultures. One of the areas in NY I lived in was the lower east side of Manhattan. Specifically, I lived in Chinatown because the rent was cheap relative to other areas in Manhattan. I’d go for walks after training or class and liked how different the cultural environment was from my own growing up.
I’ve always been really interested in other cultures. I had a conversation one day with a woman and her daughter who were visiting from Singapore and they really sold me on the idea that I had to visit it one day because it was one of the best countries in the world. Years later my friend and teammate asked me to come to Singapore to coach him in an MMA fight he was having. I booked some seminars in the area for when I was town and enjoyed the overall trip so much that I decided to book more seminars in Asia only a month and a half later. I guess the trip made me believe that the Singaporean woman was right, haha.
BJJASIA – How do you find the training environment abroad in comparison to that of gyms in the US?
Degle – I actually don’t think the difference between training environments abroad and in the US is quite as different as the one between an elite academy such as RGA and most other academies. I have a friend at RGA who was once an international level wrestler for the United States who lived at the Olympic training centre and he said to me that training at RGA under John Danaher is the closest he’s felt to that environment in the Jiu jitsu world. I think as the Jiu jitsu and grappling communities grow in Asia it’s only natural that such elite academies will emerge here as well, and I’d imagine the training environments probably wouldn’t be too different from the one we find at RGA.
BJJASIA – Are there any similarities or distinct cultural features gym to gym in the various regions you visited so far?
Degle – It’s not in Asia of course but I thought it was interesting how different London’s Jiu jitsu culture was from NY’s. It seemed that in London cross training was much more widely accepted. Cross training is not unheard of in NY but you definitely tend to stick with your own team more often than not (especially if you are training at one of the elite competition schools as MGA or RGA). In London it seemed people bounced around a lot. I haven’t visited enough Asian countries to give you a fair answer on that but after my January 2020 tour I could probably give a decent answer to this question. I’ll let you know then, haha.
BJJASIA – Lastly, who would like to thank? (Sponsors, Team mates)
Degle – I’d like to thank all my main training partners: Desean Oliver, Ethan Gumin, Thang Nguyen, Joseph and Anthony Gojani, Yuting, Outside Ashi Joe, Slim, Grant Kabol, Pete Pisarz, Placido Santos, Garry Tonon, Frank Rosenthal, Damien Anderson and countless others. They’ve put up with countless instances of me requesting ‘one more rep’ and helped me to satiate my obsessive need to drill and do extra rolls. My students: Max Meenan, Jason Rosati, Steven Rothman, Sidd Sharma and Joyser Velasquez for believing in my abilities to aid them on their journeys down their own paths. My coaches: Brandon Bennett for always encouraging me and of course John Danaher for expanding and illuminating my view on really what’s possible in grappling. Without him I’d almost definitely not be on the course I am right now. I don’t know how I could effectively describe the positive impact his thought has had on inspiring my own but I’m very grateful for it.
His recent instructional on effective Heel Hook Defense can be found here.