At some point you decided, (or are in the middle of deciding), to improve your skill at, and understanding of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Our reasons for training are no doubt as diverse as we are ourselves. In order to better navigate the path from spectator to practitioner, (since Jiu Jitsu requires partners and we all are traveling that path together), we could clump together a few potential starting points or motivations.
Let's say there is a spectrum that has as ends:
10) I want to be the biggest bad-ass on the planet, and
1) I want to get into shape and this place is super close to my house.
I contend that with a solid group understanding of what we are trying to achieve with our time here, we can all achieve it. I further contend that the manner in which our group achieves their goals is not for the number 10 person to beat the hell out of the number 1 person, nor for the number 1 person to carry the number 10 person up stairs.
How did he do that?
At some point all of us saw some display of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and thought that would be a cool thing to learn. At Praxis we present the material in many different forms varying from formal classes to videos shared online. While instruction is a piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t account for how the user should approach studying the material in an effort to internalize it and make the martial art their own.
Since Brazilian Jiu Jitsu also requires a partner's participation, and varying degrees of compliance and resistance, it would be helpful if we could understand what it means to be a good partner. This of course stems from the idea that we want our partners to stick around, since it’s hard to practice without a partner.
Lastly, there is a lot of information out there that varies widely in quality, authority and accuracy. We need to understand if that fits into our study of Jiu Jitsu and how. Beyond that, we want to devise a framework and method of study/practice that allows us to take examples of Jiu Jitsu that we see, and break them down into easily digestible sections so that we can add new material to our game.
Old school vs new school and a changing of the guard
Everything we do in class from the the way the curriculum and classes are organized to the way we approach sparring, tapping, and warming up are just tools designed to help you learn Jiu Jitsu. Why and when we choose and use each tool isn’t always clear. My goal is to answer a lot of those questions with this workbook and help outline a long range path for everyone’s growth in the art.
That said there is a bit of a small, often overlooked, elephant in the room. As in many other disciplines and fields, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has changed over the past two decades. Also similar to other fields, many of these changes aren’t planned so much as they emerge out of changing habits and behaviors prompted by technological advancements and in our specific case, the growth and popularity of combat sports.
We don’t want to lose the essence of Jiu Jitsu in this changing of the guard. This highlights one of our first challenges; Jiu Jitsu is a fighting art but many people are learning this for many reasons other than how to become a better fighter. Just as I mentioned above, we have a diverse pool of factors motivating our practice. How we address the differences between an old school academy and the modern approach to jiu jitsu will determine what our academy looks like.
In order to get an accurate picture of the differences between the old and new school we are going to review the path that many of today's Black Belts took in learning Jiu Jitsu, the intrinsic pros and cons along that path, and how that path has changed over time.
To start we will first look at how Jiu Jitsu is used, find some good representative examples for each, and take a preliminary guess as to how the chosen example relates to skill building. Students seeking Jiu Jitsu instruction twenty years ago had the same problem students have today; you see a cool example of Jiu Jitsu and wonder how you learn to do that.
There are three basic ways Jiu Jitsu is implemented:
1) defending yourself or others
3) slapping hands on the mat and training until one person taps
Defending yourself or others, this one is pretty easy; is someone actively trying to harm you and are you using Jiu Jitsu to save yourself? This almost never happens, it can come up, but rarely does. This is more of an interesting training problem, and an important thing to remember. It’s a little like how do I prepare myself for my house catching on fire. You’ll probably know if your house is on fire, however you don’t want to set your house on fire in order to get ready for what to do when that happens. That does help us outline our current dilemma though; how do I prepare for a thing, productively, absent that thing.
Competing; again, fairly easy to identify, maybe not helpful in outlining how we get from point a to point b, (not skilled at jiu jitsu to skilled at jiu jitsu). Competition shows you where you are currently at, right? Not really. Competition shows you how you perform under that specific rule set against that specific individual.
Don’t get me wrong, one of the beautiful things about competition is that it does show you exactly where you stack up under a specific rule set and demographic. However, rule sets and subjective refereeing can often diminish the qualitative feedback of “how good is my jiu jitsu”. It gives a more accurate view of “how did I do at this specific game under these specific rules against that specific guy on that day”, that's about it.
Slapping hands and training until one person taps
This is held by many as the highest form of the art, (me being one of those many). Many of the more progressive competitions have gone the way of submission only. With no time limit, and open access to all of the submissions Jiu Jitsu has, You can see what everyone in Jiu Jitsu is interested in; who can make who tap. You don’t need a tournament or special format for this, just a mat. At the end of the day though, whether it’s a friendly roll or the ADCC finals, it is still just competing and holds all of the same limitations as other forms of competing. For now we can say; “who can tap who is interesting, but what does that have to do with me learning the art”?
There is a reason that we have the phrase “it doesn’t matter who taps who in the academy”. Reason being, it just doesn’t matter. There is much more to this type of training and the arguments that come up around it, but we will get into that later.
The show me art
Jiu Jitsu has a solid reputation of being a show me art. If you don’t have kids in the room and want to see what the early marketing program of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu looked like, just video search “Gracie Challenge”. This challenge was used when Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was an unknown art in the U.S.. All the arts thought they had silver bullet techniques that could easily defeat Jiu Jitsu. The Gracies response was to put their money where their mouths were. As a family, they didn’t just put Jiu Jitsu on the map, they put it on top of the martial arts hierarchy.
Fortunately times have changed. We now know that Jiu Jitsu is the best single martial art for one vs one unarmed altercations. Prior to the UFC though, that was unknown. Jiu Jitsu started on the top, but arguably didn’t stay there very long. Now just about 100% of fighters train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Prior to the Gracies no one did.
Do you want to do karate in the garage?
It is easy to find examples of Jiu Jitsu applied, but it is not so easy to find examples of how to learn Jiu Jitsu. You can find a lot of JIu JItsu moves on youtube, however the moves don’t make the art. Anthony Bourdain and I could shop at the same grocery store and purchase the same ingredients, but there are at least a hundred to one odds that in a blind taste test you’ll be able to discern who made what.
None of this really helps if you wish to learn Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu is known as the show me art, not necessarily the show me how art. You are in good company though, this is the boat most prospective students from twenty years ago found themselves in when they realized they wanted to learn the art. Twenty years ago finding a Jiu Jitsu school was much harder, however finding a school didn’t necessarily mean that you were any closer to learning Jiu Jitsu either. There were a few fairly subjective criteria that had to be met in order to be accepted as a student. Sure, you could have signed up, paid dues, and attended classes; but to be truly taken in as a student meant you had to clear a few hurdles.
The history lesson isn’t necessary to learn Jiu Jitsu today, however the presence and absence of specific teaching tools comes from this past. I think there are some interesting parallels and subject matter that come up when you study any martial art, (that has real martial credibility), and the cultures that form around them. Times have changed, we’re not at war with the neighboring tribe, and the quality, (and usefulness) of the culture is what will either hinder or assist your training. If you aren’t interested in the history lesson just skip ahead to the technical section. If you are reading through, let's have a looks at some of the hurdles a prospective student faced when joining an academy 20 years ago.
Hurdle #1) What is a creonte?
Losing a game of checkers might smart a little, but it doesn’t compare with how it feels to lose a fight. It is also a far cry from how it feels to back down from a fight and verbally submit or admit inferiority due to being afraid to fight. The latter two have a very strong emotional weight attached to them.
Jiu Jitsu of twenty plus years ago was intimately plugged into that emotion. Schools were where you went to learn to fight. If you weren’t fighting or competing for the school you attended, it was clearly understood that the training priority was for the fighters and competitors. In the spirit of every able bodied man must fight, or at the very least know how to fight, part of your duty as a student was to assist those getting ready for a competition however it was needed. The idea was, maybe you don’t have to compete or fight, however the physical knowledge we are amassing here is for our team, flag, and country.
At that time, one of the worst things you could be called was a Creonte. A Creonte was someone that hopped from school to school. It is the equivalent of being called a traitor. If you are fighting my enemies with me, it is easy to tell who’s side you are on. If you are showing up, trying to learn all about my game, but not competing or flying our flag proudly enough……. Well, then who are you and what are you doing here? Are you a Creonte? Kryptonite for a suspected Creonte is to not really show them much and don’t invite them to key training times. Another way to deal with them, (or to help us figure out what side you are on), is to kick the crap out of you and see how you handle it, which leads us to the next obstacle.
Hurdle #2) Ego check
There is much talk of ego in Jiu Jitsu, which of course is not uncommon for any sport or activity that requires any effort. People seem to have a very non humble manner of self congratulating any effort that requires getting your clothes dirty or breaking a sweat. That is why I personally don’t find the term very useful in the broad sense. Pop culture tends to sell it as the ego is a bad thing, and if you somehow defeat that monster you will walk the rest of your days as some sort of zen warrior incapable of having his feathers ruffled. I also find this to be equally useless. Unfortunately for me though if I say something puts your ego in check you know generally what I am speaking about.
Jiu Jitsu is said to check egos. Aforementioned exceptions aside, I guess you could say that. I think there are many other factors that go into into it. For now I would prefer to say; do you have manners and can you be honest with yourself? If the real answer is yes, then you would have no problem in the schools of 15-20 years ago. The funny thing though, is that having manners is a little like being a good driver. We all like to think we are competent drivers, however no one is really protesting self driving cars, not always due to self reflection upon our own driving skills. But only because “you know, all those crazy drivers out there”.
Feedback from the world
The best definition of mental health, (talking about mental fitness, not mental illness), I have ever read goes something like this;
“There is what you believe about yourself, and feedback from the universe that confirms or debunks those beliefs. The manner in which you process that feedback defines your mental health.”
The quote, (unattributed, can’t recall), doesn’t imply divinity or damnation to either party, yourself or the universe. It does say though that how you handle the discrepancy says a lot about your ability to adapt, overcome, or strengthen your resolve.
Imagine that you grew up around water, believing you could swim, but having never swam. One day someone challenges you to see who can tread water the longest. You sink, they tread. What do you do with that information? That is a little what it is like to think you can fight on the ground only to find out that you are actually cannot.
If you were able to process that correctly and wanted to learn to swim, you would probably do just fine. If you rationalized that you could have lasted longer had the water been warmer then you would probably just leave the school, or not last long if you joined.
Hurdle #3) like a bunch of puppies
One difference with the Jiu Jitsu school though is that the other kids in the pool are actively trying to push your head back under the water just as soon as you think you know how to swim. This is where the true lessons of Jiu Jitsu are found, testing your resolve. The mat is said to be a mirror and it shows you who you are. If you give up easy, it shows. If you find excuses for why things aren’t going your way, it shows. If you try and try again until you get it, it shows. If you tell yourself that you are going to figure it out, and you stick around until you do, it shows.
Finding a Jiu Jitsu school 20 years ago was rare. Finding a school with much more than 50-60 active students was unusual. Everyone knew where they stood in the hierarchy of the school. Being that schools were primarily competition schools, you were either getting ready for a competition or helping your friends get ready. Either way, if you had some experience, you were training hard on a regular basis. If you were giving a half-hearted effort it showed and no one, including you, was confused about what that meant. The Jiu Jitsu Academy didn’t exist just to teach you Jiu Jitsu. One of the functions of the school was to toughen you up and get you ready for competition. That process would reveal quite clearly who could beat who within the academy.
It’s the show me art, not necessarily the show me how art
Jiu Jitsu didn’t easily earn the reputation as a show me art, it had to be fought for. The teaching method that emerged from that time worked well at disseminating a specific physical knowledge and ability to a select few people. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has a rich history of competition. All academies began as a place where you learned how to defend yourself, however the focus soon became how to best compete with neighboring academies. Competition made it necessary to save the meat of what worked for your best, most loyal, lions. That was a station that was earned and that typically took a while. This system works well for slowly handing out information to a select few. It does little for educating large groups effectively. While the classic presentation of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu does present a few obvious hurdles to learning, there is a tremendous amount of merit in the base structure and organization.
We still use many of these methods today in our classes. However, the curriculum and classes at Praxis are organized and presented in a way that will not only give you a solid handle on the basics, but allow you to understand what makes moves work or not work. While our framework begins with self defense in mind we do not dwell on it long. Instead we revisit it at key intervals where you are most likely to integrate it with the strong technical base you will be building. There is also a strong emphasis on how to train in a safe and productive manner. We also address the mental aspect along the way, because as previously noted the physical and mental games go hand in hand.
But first a word, or several, about safety.
The word safety is kind of like the word ego. Broad enough to be generally helpful, but so broad that it isn't very useful beyond that. The individual elements that comprise the idea are needed to give the concept utility. Safety is often looked at the through the lens of what not to do, however safety isn’t a list of things not to do, it is doing a thing correctly, efficiently, and mindfully.
In general most people are not paying attention to what is going on around them. People are distracted at such a high level that it seems to be the new accepted baseline resting state. I wish that I had coined the term “safety last,” however I am blatantly ripping it off from Mike Rowe. He is the host of the Discovery Channel show, Dirty Jobs. The gist of his “safety last” speech is that your safety is probably the last thing most people are thinking about, so it should probably be the first thing you are thinking about.
We are here to train awareness, this is martial arts. You’re not learning to be hyper-aware, it's just being present and paying attention. You are responsible for you. I want you to be responsible for your partner also. With practice a good practitioner can do both. Just like everything else, it takes practice and paying attention.
Safety starts with Self awareness
My teacher had a great answer for me when I asked him about my constant injuries. It was a great answer not just because it solved my problem, but it taught me how to troubleshoot similar problems down the road. The issue was that I kept breaking my toes during training. Instead of asking me to demonstrate where or how I was doing it, he simply said that there is no move in Jiu Jitsu that involves injuring yourself as one of the steps to completing the technique. Basically there is no move that is A) setup B) Hurt self C) move is completed.
He told me to evaluate where in the moves I was hurting my toes, and look at the rest of the mechanics involved. I was consistently hurting myself because I was consistently doing something wrong. When I explored the moves that were causing me injuries it became clear that I wasn’t very focused on my own body mechanics. There were about three different positions that the injuries were happening in. I found flaws in my technique in all of them.
Awareness of how your body does, and does not move is one of the first steps in not hurting yourself when training Jiu Jitsu. Solo drills, such as those done in the warm ups of our classes, help develop the awareness, coordination, and strength required to safely practice. One of the non-obvious ways to improve your skill at jiu jitsu is to work at mastering the warm up exercises. When you are trying to acquire a new technique or troubleshoot old ones, try working on the movements alone before adding your partner in. When you are doing this be sure to carefully think through your start and stop positions. Movements, (transitions), flow well when you have a good grasp on where you are going from and to, and aren’t just focused on the middle.
Much of martial arts is about self control. The better control you have over your own body, the more possible it becomes for you to control another person. To try and work around that fact turns your martial arts practice into football practice. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not about bigger, stronger, faster. It is about doing more with less. Efficient purposeful control over one's own movements is where it starts. An added benefit is that the better you and your partner understand proper body mechanics, the less likely you are to hurt yourself or others.
Awareness of your own surroundings
I made the floating floor without boundaries on purpose. You should be aware of where the edge of the mat is, and where the other people are. Hopefully you don’t live in a sumo suit or in a bubble. One of the responsibilities that comes with that is being aware of where small ledges (curbs) are, and where other people are. Awareness of your environment can be a tough skill to acquire as you are already paying attention to many other variables, but it pays huge dividends and is something that becomes second nature quickly.
One custom we use to help reinforce the habit is yielding way to higher belts. For instance, if you see two blue belts rolling next to two purple belts, the blue belts will move their training over if they encroach on purple belts training, even if it was the purple belts who moved into the blue belts territory. Higher belts shouldn’t take advantage of this right of way, (and I think typically don’t unless there is a particularly hard training happening), but everyone should be aware of the rule and practice it.
This custom isn’t for form alone, it is for function. If I am aware that I am attempting to complete a throw, but recognize that to do so would be to throw my partner into two other people training, I should change my plan or approach. The awareness required to train with that level of control and intention is the same level of awareness that would allow you to drive an attacker into an obstacle or be aware of his accomplices attempting to join.
There is little reason to not pay attention to your surroundings. We don’t need to live in a hyper vigilant ninja like state. You should however know what you are trying to do and who it is going to affect. This goes for training in the academy as much as it does for walking through your neighborhood. We all have a limited amount of focus and attention so it is imperative that you train yourself to not get so caught up in either what you are doing or what is going on around you that one of the activities threatens the safety of the other.
Awareness of the other person
One of the ubiquitous principles of grappling arts is to use someone's energy against them. You can’t really do that if you are not aware of what their energy is doing. It is hard to know that if you are busy trying to overpower your partner. One of the things missed in the whole “grips” and gi vs nogi discussions is that point. When I connect with my partner, any grip or touch, gi or no gi, one of my primary objectives is to read their energy. I don’t mean that in some sort of hocus pocus sense, I mean; are they pushing into you or pulling away. You should be able to tell if your partner has good base or is off balance.
One invention that should exist, (or if it does exist someone should tell me about it), is an app that brick and mortar businesses opt into that allows the consumer to know what is in the current building they are in and where it roughly is. For instance, when I walk into a store and want to know where a certain product, service, or even the bathroom is, I just look at the app and can quickly figure it out instead of walking around like a lost puppy. Now imagine that your Jiu Jitsu partner did the same thing for you, not tell you where the nonfiction section is, but what they were planning on doing. What is their intent. The connection you have to them does this for you.
Is a throw forward possible? If they are pushing into you, probably, if not, probably not. Are they going to pull guard, the connection and their posture often tell you. What throws a lot of people off is that connection is also the thing that transmits energy between partners. So the thing that tells you what is going on, is also the thing that has a tremendous part in making the moves happen. This is an easy thing to confuse and takes a fair amount of deliberate practice to master. This is the reason we start our Intro course curriculum without the gi.
I allude to this briefly when we covered limitations of the positional hierarchy tool. Where you are at in relation to your partner is great information to have. How stable are they, how stable are you and what options are open, that is also great information. Too often though the brainpower that could be used to determine this is busy looking at the positional hierarchy scoreboard contemplating who knows what. It is common for practitioners to tense up grips, arms, and core when this happens. All this does is dampen your ability to know what options are available, make your intent crystal clear, and makes you easier to move.
Give them everything they want, and a little more.
One advantage of reading your partner's intentions through the connection is that you can use that information to set up your moves. You’ve seen this in the fundamentals class scissor sweep. If you feel your partner push into you, you yield-pull them forward off their base, (more forward than they intended on going), and sweep them. If you feel them withdraw from the same position and shut down the scissor sweep, you yield and roll like a log to their back.
With a little deliberate work you can train this attribute. It is one that will stay with you late into life. Your martial arts practice will be much more enjoyable if you start working on this principle now. It will make your partners experience more enjoyable as well as long as you learn to yield a little bit and not explode and throw them across the room.
Positional hierarchy, submissions, and how to organize the material for study and training
The basic idea is to segment out techniques based upon position. The segments that make up the curriculum are then studied in a rotation where the area of focus changes every two to three weeks. Our curriculum rotation for the fundamentals and intermediate classes is shown here;
We work on each position for two consecutive weeks, except for guard which we work on for three weeks.
As we move through the curriculum rotation we teach to the needs of the students who are currently in the class. We do not cover all of the material for a position in any one block. For instance, during the side control block we may only get to a third of the total material on the curriculum for side control.
We try to teach to competence. I want students to have enough material that they struggle to grasp it. I try to keep everyone just a little on the confused/struggling side. So when you are in class and feel confused about how the moves work, relax and know that many others feel the same way. Take your time, work diligently and try to see what works and what does not. Jiu Jitsu requires productive struggle, (which often just feels like struggle when you are experiencing it), in order to progress. Don’t short your training by trying to see the big picture while you are working on the small picture. Aha moments will happen when you let them. The first step in that direction is to get sweaty enough with the work that you allow them to surprise you.
Navigating the positional hierarchy
Let's take a closer look at the positional hierarchy, beginning with a review of what we said about it in the intro class handbook.
This is a categorization method used by Jiu Jitsu practitioners to qualify the general strength of their physical position relative to their partner. Each position has an opposite. The combination defines who is generally said to have the advantage. The primary objective of each position is to maximize safety and maintain the best base possible. Once that is obtained the goal is to methodically advance your position to a better position. The final objective is to finish your opponent.
The basic positions, their complements, and respective (secondary objectives) are:
Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear (aka: don’t celebrate until it's over)
The positional hierarchy is a rough guide because you can further qualify the position with degree of control. Is your position really secure or are you barely holding on? There is much more to position than limb placement. A really secure side control is one in which I am in no danger whatsoever, my partner is carrying as much of my weight as possible, and I am free to advance the position while they are worried both about my positional advancement and about my ability to threaten submissions. A sloppy side control on the other hand is where I am unbalanced and not connected well to my partner. Maybe they are carrying my weight, but most likely they are not, or it is grossly unbalanced. To make the tool more useful we are going to consider each position as pretty secure.
Something to note about this model is that it provides a scoreboard of sorts that lets students know whether or not they are “winning” the game. This is not always helpful in that when you are training or competing your mind should be on the action, not the scoreboard. Particularly if it is a scoreboard that exists mostly in your mind. It is difficult to run your best race if your head is turned sideways to see how the competition is doing. Remember that the positional hierarchy is simply an outline to allow discussion of moves, positioning, and strategy. It gives us a common language with which to reference technique and strategy.
Position before submission
The general objectives in each position are the same. First you want to stay safe. This means three things that apply to all positions; 1) don’t get finished, 2) don’t allow your position to be degraded, 3) take as little damage as possible. Once these three objectives are covered you can try to advance your position up the ladder.
This basic concept is often the source of debate within the Jiu Jitsu community. Like many arguments this one has a little merit and a lot of people, not productively engaged otherwise, looking for something to argue over. To me, it means the car can’t get us very far if you wreck it so be careful. Jiu Jitsu is an amazingly versatile martial art that has incredible offensive and defensive capabilities. Both should be balanced to conform to the situation at hand, some situations require more offense and some require more defense. The strategy provided by position before submission is what made Jiu Jitsu famous.
Cool, now teach me the death touch
Many students when starting out are naturally attracted to the strong offensive components of Jiu Jitsu. Those students often find themselves on the bottom of mount where there is not a vast array of offensive options. The way they typically got there was by losing focus of the big picture.
Similarly there are many other students who want to be safe forever no matter what, which just isn’t possible. They work on their defense and work on their defense until one day they find themselves on the bottom of mount where they have built up a solid submission defense, when the safest place they could have been was on the other person's back choking them.
Learning the balance is part of the fun. Until you intuitively know that your current position is stable and secure you probably shouldn’t try to jump on submissions. Even then, the window to escape often occurs when the aggressor is in motion. The more unnecessary motion you have during offense the more windows you risk leaving open for the defender to escape. While submissions naturally attract more attention, positional stability allows them to occur in the first place. Slower, more deliberate motions set up submission opportunities well. Jumping on a submission, (unless you are very skilled), generally sets up good opportunities to escape rather than bring the contest to a close.
You will reach a much higher level of skill, and a develop a much more cohesive game, if you match the intent and focus of your training in line with the classic BJJ self defense strategy. The endpoint of that pathway is having a choke secured from a dominant position. Jiu Jitsu has a vast library of “finishing moves”. Nothing in Jiu Jitsu’s arsenal can be counted on to cease a violent encounter the way a blood choke does. It is easy to lose sight of the end goal if you get caught up chasing everything you think might make your partner tap. You may not see it right away, but from day one our curriculum is designed to train you to follow that classic pathway from start to finish.
So how on earth can I submit someone if I am new and moving slowly?
One attack is often easy to stop. This is one reason we learn the techniques in combination. Your moves are open to a change in plans midstream, in fact this is typically how they are executed; You begin with one technique in mind, but finish with something different once the initial effort is thwarted.
That of course is the idea, you obtain a superior position and work on two or three attacks, intentfully, at the same time. If you get what you want, then good for you. Just like everything else though, that isn’t always how things go. That is where one of Jiu Jitsu’s key rules of engagement comes into play; position before submission. It is essentially a value statement that could be written as position>submission.
For the initial framework of our curriculum and instruction we use this assumption; If I lose the current position I have the other guy is going to try to harm me. This makes for very methodical Jiu Jitsu. Some would call it boring. The thing is this though, time and time again we see that people do under duress what they do in training. There are a shockingly high number of practitioners who have never worked on controlling the tempo, rhythm and pace of their game. They just go go go until the match is over because it is fun.
If you look at the sub only tournaments you see that competitors give up position all the time. That is a high level submission only game. If you look at the UFC you’ll see that no one ever gives up position for any reason whatsoever. That is what adding effective striking does to the game. I want everyone to enjoy Jiu Jitsu and have fun. I also want to make sure that you have at least basic self defense skills before we go too spider monkey.
Don’t buy the hype
One of the most underrated skills a Jiu Jitsu practitioner has is the ability to hold someone down who is much larger and stronger than you. When you look at fighting contests or submission contests the focus gravitates towards the most spectacular of finishes. Keep in mind that those are sporting contests with rule sets designed to find who is the greatest finisher or deliverer of damage. When you shift the focus back to what you realistically might face under the heading of a self defense situation, the ability to safely hold someone down is exceedingly powerful. It may not always be the most practical or prudent course of action, but it should be one of the more readily available tools in your hammer/nail/escalation and scale of force kit. What if your friend wants to drive home hammer drunk…. Are you going to kick him in the head?
This is a vital concept to delineate and own. Martial arts are often portrayed as that thing people do to impart damage to another person. Combative sporting contest, (MMA/UFC, kickboxing, wrestling, Judo , Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), champion winners. They are intentionally selective contests designed to find the person with the greatest ability to best another competitor. Neither of those things are self defense. In actual self defense there is a solid chance that you will be talking to Law Enforcement Officers after the fact. It is much easier to explain “he was threatening me and I was afraid, so I held him down (maybe had to choke out) until you guys got here” versus “he was threatening me so I broke his arm and punched him in the head until someone peeled me off”.
Jiu Jitsu offers a very metered response to individual encounters. Positional dominance doesn’t just exist to set up cool submissions. It’s there in the name, dominance. When you start training and someone holds you in a mount that you can’t escape at all it is demoralizing. Demoralized and maybe unconscious is what you want to be able to tell police you were aiming for, (self defense), not beaten to a bloody pulp, (assault).
Finishes often don’t, chokes always do
Often glamorized, many finishes don’t finish fights. At the least, there is a spectrum. There are two components to non-choke finishes; 1) the skill of the finisher and 2) the ability of the guy getting finished to ignore the fact that he has been “finished” and continue fighting. On the finishers side you have a spectrum ranging from a goofus who trains out in the garage or club with his friends, letting youtube be his guide. At the other end there is someone like Damian Maia. You have to pick one of those guys to grab hold of your arm and see what he can do with it. Who’ve ya got?
On the potentially getting finished spectrum there is Urkle at one end and Quinton rampage Jackson on the other. Urkle will submit if you stare at him hard, while Rampage will power bomb his way out of most submissions.
Just like the death touch myth, there is a mystique surrounding finishes. The uninformed believe that with little training they can gearshift an assailant's arm and leave them helpless. If you are defending yourself from unathletic mentally stable folks that might be the case. Krav maga is building an empire on the mistaken belief that you can Steven Seagal an assailant's arm if you just get real aggressive with it. I believe that in pre-gracie USA the idea of an armlock was not novel-Judo guys did it. However extending an arm in a very controlled and specific way required to make someone quit in an actual fight, it was not seen until the Gracies and Japanese shoot fighters showed us. If it was easy to do, everyone at UFC 1 would have been doing it. Following the protocol position > submission is what gave early BJJ fighters the finesse to execute.
Especially at the beginning levels of training it just isn’t that difficult to make someone tap, nor should it be. Non-choke finishes are great and when effectively combined with a good positional offense strategy they can be fight enders. Nothing ends fights like unconsciousness. There is no arguing about it, there is no hobbling around on a leg that I kinda foot locked. If you choke someone unconscious that ends the fight.
Speaking of self defense
One thing that is often left out of the positional hierarchy is the stand up phase of the contest. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu follows a well tested self defense strategy that works very well for one on one physical contests. The pathway is as follows; out of danger range -> clinch -> dominant position -> ground -> finish.
The ambiguity and infrequency with which some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools reference back to this strategy is something that degrades its effectiveness as a martial art. It is important to remember in your training that while the ground training is fun, the stand up phase is what enables the ground phase to occur.
From the clinch you proceed to a takedown, and progressively obtain greater degrees of control. In class we approach this a few ways. We outline the process in the intro class and teach a variety of standup techniques throughout the curriculum.
But don’t Jiu Jitsu guys have poor takedown ability?
It is important to understand the difference between practicing stand up grappling, (Judo, wrestling), and the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu approach to self defense. Jiu Jitsu has an ever evolving stand up skill set. Judo and wrestling are pretty far removed from their combat roots. Jiu Jitsu is not. The reason that many find the stand up lacking is because of the UFC. Jiu Jitsu dominated the early UFC, in part, because no one knew how out of your element fighting on the ground was if you didn’t have a skill set to deal with it. I am not sure which Gracie said it but the phrase that was infamous at that time was “the ground is like the ocean. Most people don’t even know how to swim and I am a shark”.
The tagline of many Jiu Jitsu schools at this time was “90% of all fights end up on the ground”. It was true then and true now. It is hard to keep the fight off the ground if one person wants it there and knows how to take it there, hence the success of many wrestlers in the UFC once they learned to stall out most submission attempts. It was only after a large volume of skilled MMA fighters trained specifically to avoid the ground and stall opponents out once there, that you began to see holes in the takedown abilities of the average Jiu Jitsu fighter.
Fascinating, but does any of this make me better at Jiu Jitsu?
In a sense yes, because training is often more productive when you understand the context and purpose of it. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is, first and foremost, a self defense martial art. You don’t have to focus on the self defense aspects of Jiu Jitsu on a constant basis. The ideal is to build a solid base that you can draw from on an as needed basis. In your training it is a good idea to routinely revisit the self defense concepts and strategies until they are internalized. This gives you a solid base upon which you can build your uniquely “own” martial art.
If you are interested in further hands on study of the self defense aspects, let myself or one of the instructors know. If you wish to read more about the history and validity of this approach please pick up a copy of John Danaher and Renzo Gracies book on the subject, Mastering Jiu Jitsu. This book changed not just how I looked at Jiu Jitsu then, but how my jiu jitsu developed going forward after having read it. Where so many people focus on who has the greatest collection of moves, Danaher and Gracie focus on the point of the moves and the strategies that tie them together.
Positional Hierarchy: a closer look
With all of that in mind let's revisit the positional hierarchy and try to reframe it a bit so we can get more out of it as a training model.
Time is on your side
When asked about his jiu jitsu, Helio Gracie once said that if two people were dropped off on an island with only one able to leave, the Jiu Jitsu guy would be able to outlast anyone else and emerge victorious. His philosophy on defensive technique could be summed up with another of his well known statements; “if we fight to the finish and my opponent cannot finish me at all that only leaves one option, I finish him”. Helio’s branch of the jiu jitsu tree is famous for being almost all defense, implementing offense only when safe and prudent. It is to Helio and his legacy we attribute the idea of staying safe first and then progressing from there.
As I mentioned before, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a very dynamic art with lots of offensive and defensive capabilities. It pays to know both. It will help accelerate your rate of growth in the art if you can be conscious of how much energy you expend in each situation and for what period of time. In order to have amazing defensive capabilities like Helio suggested, you have to be able to defend yourself with minimum energy expenditure. A lot of Helio style defense is simply monitoring and tracking your partners moving rather than active attempts to escape or advance position.
It was Helio’s son Royce who did a good portion of the actual leg work that put Jiu Jitsu on the modern martial arts map. Royce did well with that strategy against a wide range of opponents. While the UFC has evolved considerably, the average person you may have to defend yourself against, (if there is such a thing), has not. Having the skill set Royce had walking into the octagon the first time is an enviable benchmark.
Not everything is a move
If you evaluate the one armed passing the guard drill we do in the intro class and sometimes fundamentals, you’ll notice that there is a lot of energy being expended. When you switch to pass the closed guard it is often still a high energy position. While there is often a great deal of energy being spent, not a lot of productive work is always being done. If you were driving a car and could hear the engine redlining, but the car was hardly moving, you would know that something is wrong. The same can be said for your Jiu Jitsu.
One of the first ruts new students fall into is trying to execute techniques at a rate faster than is productive. Much of practicing Jiu Jitsu effectively and efficiently is learning how to meter your output to match the required task.
One of the easiest ways to start recognizing and building that skill is to look at all of the set up portions of the technique you are practicing. Then don’t focus on completing the technique, focus on the set up and let your partner react. When they react, don’t try to overwhelm them, fight force on force, or escape, instead use just enough energy to re-establish the set up and let your partner adjust accordingly. If you can do this well, you won’t need to worry much about technique completion. You will find the opening becoming more and more obvious, then you can casually finish the move.
Swimmers drill/Economy of motion
Swimmers have a drill to build this efficiency of motion. They swim a lap in the pool and count their strokes. Then they swim another lap and try to complete it using fewer strokes than it took to complete to previous lap. To complete this task you have to not only become more and more efficient with every stroke, you have to try and get more out of each stroke by gliding at the end of each stroke as long as you can before beginning the next movement.
This helps swimmers learn to move only when the movement assists their efforts. Students starting Jiu Jitsu often report that the training exhausts them. Rightfully so, however many times we have unproductive or conflicting movements in our technique. If we take a cue from the swimmers we can allow ourselves to slow down a little bit and evaluate our movement for purposefulness and utility. You should, at every point of technique execution, be able to identify what you are doing with each of your limbs and why.
With regards to the positional hierarchy, the aim is to move definitively from position to position with no room to slide back down the ladder. If you scramble up to the top of mount only to lose it and end up back on the bottom then you just put yourself in a position where you have to try and climb the ladder again, only with less gas in your tank. In order to have defense like Helio described you need to have a solid knowledge of how much fuel you are burning at all times and why. In that style of Jiu Jitsu you are attempting to empty your partner's gas tank while yours stays more or less topped off.
How to get the tap, how to accept the tap
A well executed submission is the hallmark of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The idea of learning how to pull off an armbar or a choke is what brings many people in the door. Unfortunately it is also what keeps a lot of people from walking through the door in the first place. The uninformed view would be that practicing submissions is dangerous and likely to produce injury. Good students know this isn’t the case.
One of the big things we stress in all of our classes is control. Something that helps build that control is knowing the difference between a finishing position and a finish. The finishing position is a combination of two elements: 1) you being in a position that allows you to produce the most force with the least effort and 2) your partner being held in an inherently weak position that is exceedingly difficult, (almost impossible), to escape from.
The armbar from mount for instance is a combination of those two elements, not one or the other. A finishing position means that I have secured that relationship to my partner; my strongest part (hips) against his weakest part (arm), and I can follow him wherever he goes without having to apply force to the arm. Your legs hold the armbar position, your arm holds their arm in place. It can be a struggle to get to the finishing position. Getting the finish from there requires very little energy and offers a great deal of control.
The Jiu Jitsu phrase, position before submission, doesn’t imply that you are going for one or the other. It means that you get general control of a person before seeking specific control over one of their limbs. As explained previously not all positions are equal; mount is not mount. There is a good example of mount (bottom person is essentially immobilized and cannot move), and a horrible example of mount, (bottom person has lots of space to move). You never move from a poor mount to jumping on an armbar. The transition to mount typically involves at least a decent level of control over the person. By the time you transition to mount, you should probably have at least the beginnings of a submission setup established. Position before submission is a triage term, not just an order of operation. I don’t sacrifice position while seeking a submission.
Ultimately tapping isn’t just a safety mechanism, it is a training method. The more controlled and understood the tool is, the more useful it is. Understanding the tap isn’t just about knowing when to tap yourself, it is understanding that the tap is an off button to training. When you feel a tap, you should stop and assess who is tapping you and why.
Often times the teacher will tap a student on the back because they want the action to stop. Sometimes, not often, the person receiving the tap doesn’t stop. One of the most common reasons this happens is that they were not “tuned in” to the tap. By this I mean, sometimes new students are only on the lookout for the tap at times they think that one is coming. You should tap anytime you want the action to stop, hence you should be aware that your partner will also do the same which means that you might be tapped anytime, not just when you think you have a submission close. It takes a little deliberate awareness to build, but the sensitivity needed to immediately identify the tap and cease action will pay off in happy training partners.
What are you trying to get good at
Fighting out of submissions is a little like surviving a car wreck because of your seat belt and airbags, then rationalizing that it is ok to drive like a maniac because you will probably survive a crash. With rare exception, it is better to accept the sweep, or submission and try to understand how it happened, rather than getting really good at surviving crashes. If it is a submission you have to tap, then you get to play the game again. The more you play the game the better you get. In the case of the sweep or throw, the sooner you accept the sweep, the sooner you can work on your escape.
It works both ways
Understand that your partner is giving you a great deal of trust in allowing you to work the finishing position. Don’t misuse that trust by cranking on their arm to get the tap. Hold the position and very slowly increase force until your partner taps. If you aren’t getting the tap, don’t apply more force, adjust your position so that your partners limb is more fully exposed. If you still don’t get the tap move on to the sweep. The more flight time you get in finishing positions, the smoother you will be at finishing. So there is no benefit in trying to rush through that phase of the training.
Rolling, or slapping hands and training until someone taps, should be part of your training regime after you have learned how to use that tool safely and productively. Rolling is fun and unstructured, this could account for how much people gravitate towards it. In a less organized setting, you will see people do a warm up, maybe show a couple of moves, and then spend the rest of the time rolling. While this might be fun for some of the students, it is rarely productive, often unsafe, and leads to losing a lot of students who might have otherwise benefited from Jiu Jitsu training.
When the subject of rolling too much or too soon comes up, those who disagree will often reference Jiu Jitsu schools in brazil as an example of places that roll a lot. Those same schools though have students who more or less live at the academy and for every hour they spend rolling, they probably spend 2-3 hours drilling, reviewing technique and doing calisthenics. This isn’t practical for most of us. As we did with training in general above, I want to go back a little bit and look at some of the changes “rolling” has gone through over the past 20 years.
Bring your VCR over so we can copy this tape
Live training has been affected by technology and the popularity of Jiu Jitsu more than most people think. The first time I rolled with actual Jiu Jitsu players it was at a seminar held by a blue belt, and a purple belt. At that time, having a blue belt was equivalent to Tom Douglas level famous. It meant that everyone local knew who you were and no one questioned that you had skill. Having a Purple was like being Jeff Bezos level famous before AWS blew up. Beyond Purple meant you were Brazilian.
A few of us wanted to train with the guys running the seminar. At first the training started off as mellow, until I realized I couldn’t mellow-ly win, then I am sure I escalated. Much to my disappointment, they didn’t have to escalate, but continued to win. As the rolling continued it became apparent that I was trying hard to win, and not only not having any success, I wasn’t even doing anything that looked like forward progress.
The end of my roll came when the blue belt, (about 150lbs), held mount on me, (at this point without using his hands and just sitting upright), and interrupted my flailing about trying to escape by very yoda like saying; “before you try to do something, you should know what you are trying to do”. At that point I understood that he was better than I was and it was quite on purpose. It ended the debate.
That is often what rolling in your intro class was back in the day. If you wanted to know if the teacher was legit, you rolled with them. The harder you would roll, the harder they would roll. Many times it would just turn into an ass kicking. Not everyone needed this intro, however many asked for and received it. This tradition has deep roots. It is not just a testament to the effectiveness of Jiu Jitsu and its history as a show me art, but to the devotion the teachers had for the art. They believed so much in what they were doing that they would slap and hands and roll to the finish with whomever walked in the door. Occasionally it resulted in a new fan of Jiu JItsu, more often it resulted in fear based respect of Jiu Jitsu.
One thing that made this type of introduction possible was the small class size. One thing that made it sometimes necessary was that no one had seen the UFC. Both of those things have changed. Something that is often overlooked in this tradition is the amount of self control and awareness required by the teachers in this scenario. I never got hurt training with my teachers, and I know it wasn’t because of my self control and body awareness.
Once you had your initial, prove that it works, roll with the professor, you didn’t go back to rolling with the teacher all the time, you learned to pass guard. In the guard of more advanced players was where much of the new students training occurred. Essentially you were fodder for those more experienced than you. Often you were given little instruction and told that Jiu Jitsu was a puzzle and you should try to figure out how to get around the legs. You would be given one or two passes and expected to work on them until you showed that you had patience and self control. Those without adequate patience and self control would often get hurt at which point they would be told to relax, calm down, and try to think through the puzzle.
All of this was pre-internet, so there was no going home and looking up the moves on youtube. You had to write it down if you wanted to remember it. You could tape moves and put it on a vhs tape, however back then moves were a commodity. Few teachers wanted to be filmed. You didn’t want your moves getting out. Teachers also didn’t want their students to be bad, so through whatever method of curriculum rotation they were using they would present a few well thought out moves and sequences. How did you know if you were getting good at that technique? It worked in training. If you started pulling it off in training enough, your teacher would often pull you aside and give you a few moves that worked well with what you were already doing.
Moves remained a commodity for some time, and to an extent they still are, however no where near the level they were 15-20 years ago. There was a certain amount of reverence held for the process of your teacher giving you moves. It was, and should be, a sign of trust. If you have seen the insightful documentary kill bill, you know that five point palm exploding heart technique is not taught on day one. You earn the right to learn that technique by learning all of the other techniques before it. Just like most other forms of organized knowledge, demonstrated competence with current material is required before new material is introduced.
So how does technology tie in
When we would roll, unless your teacher was messing with you, they would often finish you with the same few moves or sequence of moves. It was often because either that is what they were working on, or because that is what they wanted you to work on. Jiu Jitsu brain existed back then also, (where you find yourself thinking about moves all the time), except you would be focused on the 2-3 moves your teacher or the upper belt kept catching you with, not the thirty you watched on youtube the day before. When you would daydream about technique it would be variations of same 2-3 moves, details of the set up, or what you were doing wrong to allow the window in the first place.
If it was an instructional tape that had your attention, your jiu jitsu brain would be focused on that one instructional series that you had because it cost $200. If it was a match you’d seen online (56k dial up), it was something from OTM, (onthemat.com), that took twenty minutes to load so you watched it several times before moving on. The point is back in the horse and buggy days of Jiu jitsu you just didn’t have the overwhelming volume of technique videos you have today.
There was also more of a point in your training back then. Students wanted to get really good. Today you often find students who more or less want to have fun. While that is a part of training, it is not the point. It can be the point some of the time, but that should be breaking up the work done on the path to get good. It can be enjoyable to come in and try to emulate the latest thing on the web. If you think about it though, that is you emulating someone else's art, not yours. Your art is created through your work, your effort, and you getting to know how your body does and does not work. Technology can provide a nice adjunct to the learning process, however it’s presence and the wealth of information made available by it does not mean it is a primary or even preferred teaching tool. You are paying for very individualized, heavily vetted material and hands on instruction. Do yourself a favor and get a good working knowledge of the curriculum.
Uke & Tori
When a move is demonstrated for class the person executing the technique, that is the person who is demonstrating the thing we are currently studying, is called the Tori. The designation comes from Judo and the Japanese terms Uke and Tori. Uke is the person having the move executed on them, and Tori is the person who is completing a move or sequence from start to finish.
The concept of Uke and Tori gives us another very useful training tool. Designating one person to be given the opportunity to execute the move perfectly takes the competitive element out of the introduction or learning phase of process. This allows both students to focus on what they should be focused on, what specifically is happening in the move sequence. The Uke has a tremendous learning opportunity of their own, how to present the perfect energy and posture to allow Tori to do the move perfectly.
Once both partners can play Uke and Tori well, it can be assumed that they have a cursory knowledge of that technique. The analogy that I like is the window of opportunity in which you can complete a move. Initially Uke is just opening the window and allowing the designated Tori the opportunity to go through the window unchallenged. Respecting this, the Tori can focus on perfect execution of the technique with minimal force required. Once basic proficiency is acquired we can further increase our skills of execution by asking Uki to slowly open and close the window of opportunity. That gives both players the opportunity to work on timing.
For instance, when you took the intro class you learn to go to the back from double unders, no resistance. The very next step is your partner leans into you and you accept the pressure. The only way you can accept it is to push back a bit, (which normally would be a bad habit, but we look past that temporarily so that you can each learn the lesson). You push back just enough to stop their forward motion and to feel the pressure for a moment. Then you move out laterally, hips first, and go to your partner's back. The slight addition of force and yielding to it at the correct time makes it feel like a different move.
We then take turns pummeling and achieving double underhooks. When Uke presses into Tori, Tori yields and goes to the back. What we are doing is asking the Uki (the person having the move done to them) setting up the Tori (the person executing the technique) for success.
The training method is very effective. It allows two novices to essentially jump through that one window of opportunity with a somewhat high level of force in a short period of time. It is important for us to add new moves and options to the drill and the same low intensity pace that we started the initial double underhook drill with, essentially no resistance, and not where we ended the move with, a fair amount of force being applied.
Our goal is always to understand:
1) What makes the move work
2) What resistance allows the technique to exist and what resistance makes the move not possible
3) When we select one technique over another technique
What we are looking for in our pre-live training is:
a) a high level of proficiency in Uke/Tori single technique
b) the ability to identify the force presented that allows the technique to occur
c) doing both a & b listed above when selecting the correct technique in a more open environment where more than one technique option might exist
Task C is where most learning falls apart, most injuries happen, and where most students get frustrated.
For the sake of a more in-depth discussion we will call this option C and it will be our homage to old school multiple choice exams, where when you weren’t sure of the correct answer you were told to chose C. This is relevant to us in that when someone comes to me injured or frustrated it is rarely option a or b that are the culprits, it is almost always option C.
Mastering option C.
Let's break down options a and b a bit more before delving into option C. A is what makes the move work, absent energy or resistance. A is the simple mechanical breakdown of which limbs go where. B is the energy or resistance required to make the move work. A is like a railroad spike lined up against a railroad tie. B is the hammer that drives the spike in. What are the two next variables that come into your mind with that analogy. I would guess it is how hard you hit the spike and how often you hit it. How hard is easy and we have covered that. How frequently though is an interesting variable.
Tempo as a variable
In the intro class you probably worked on the basic bull fighter guard pass. Uke is laying on their back and instead of holding an actual guard they just have their knees bent and Tori stands at their feet facing Uke. No resistance is given from Uke. All Tori has to do to pass guard is to take two steps to knee on belly. With this presentation we challenge Tori to fake Uke out as to which side they will be passing to. Uki designates their choice by pointing to the side of the pass as soon as they identify this.
Variables that Tori can control are; 1) shuffling Uke's knees side to side, 2) shuffling Tori’s feet side to side, 3) faints to pass by Tori, and finally 4) where Tori looks (are they looking at the side they pass to).
With little work this becomes a fairly safe and competitive drill. If you add one element only it becomes one of the most successful competition passes of all time. That element is to allow Tori the ability to walk one way, (until Uke begins to follow with their legs), and then pass to the other. If Tori is able to grab the pants and attempt walking one way, (prompting Uke to follow), he can then jump back to the side they were walking from in an attempt to pass. If Uke successfully follows, Tori simply jumps back to the other side.
The interesting quality of this strategy/technique is that success lies in tricking your partner, not in overpowering them. This is what works at the highest level, which is why you see it reflected in our curriculum. It isn’t a cursory knowledge of many techniques, it is mastery of a few. This drill starts in our intro curriculum and remains intact all the way through our advanced curriculum.
Another example of controlling tempo is found in our basic foot sweep drill. Initially we ask students to perfectly match the tempo as Tori leads Uke either left and right or forward/backwards. It takes a fair amount of practice to get the tempo matched perfectly. Tempo however isn’t the point of this drill, timing is. However without a perfectly matched tempo, it is very difficult to recognize and practice the timing. Tempo is to recognize the rhythm, timing is to take advantage of it.
Tempo is a skill that can be trained from day one, but most people don’t. Lack of tempo awareness and control though is a tell tale sign that separates a trained from an untrained individual. Tempo is different than speed. Speed is the rate of motion. Tempo, (for our purposes), is the frequency with which motion occurs. What often happens with untrained students is that there is a momentary quickening of tempo from one moment to the next, by either the Uke or Tori, and suddenly both people are going as fast as they can go. That is not taking advantage of tempo, that is trying to be faster than your partner, which tends to only work as long as you are faster than your partner.
Martial arts is about how to beat someone who is faster than you. In order to master martial arts, you have to master tempo. In order to master tempo you have to be aware of it. To become aware of it we match it and mismatch it intentionally. Watching this variable closely allows you to progress as a martial artist. We are not just trying to be bigger, faster, stronger. That isn’t martial arts. The goal is be able to lead your partners tempo and break it at will, without them being aware of it. This very rewarding and difficult. The best part though is that you can begin to develop that skill right now.
Tempo is rhythm not speed
A common mistake made when learning tempo is to increase speed and force. If you have done the foot sweep drill you know what I am talking about. You are marching back and forth or side to side with your partner, looking intently at the foot you are planning on sweeping. As you are counting out tempo in your head you are eyeballing that leg like a cat watches birds playing outside the window. You get to when you think it is time to sweep and give a tug on the gi and a prompt sweep of the foot, only to be greeted by a perfectly planted foot.
The point of training tempo is to recognize it, lead it, then break it. Success in tempo training results in a surprised partner. All you need to do is surprise your partner, not necessarily throw them. A student who masters the basic guard pass taught in the intro class, (example given in the Uke/Tori section above), can appear to walk very casually around your guard. That is the goal; have your partner defending attack #1 when you are attacking with attack #2. That is the essence of martial arts; to misdirect and confuse so that you attack something not being defending, not overwhelming something that is defended So when you catch yourself trying to add wind sprints to tempo training, take a breath, readjust your focus and begin again. The pitfall of not learning tempo, timing, and technique is that you end up trying to replace efficiency with force and more moves than necessary.
Option C revisited
As we move back toward the difficulties with Option C, I’d like you to reflect back on all of the elements that go into solid A and B. If we remove all of those elements from option C we are essentially left with move selection and transitions. This is pretty helpful. Knowing this, we can train this specifically and in isolation.
You have most likely seen this in class as the following drill. Tori passes guard standing to a light knee on belly. Uke then turns into, or away from Tori. Upon identifying the cue Uke gives, Tori must either take the back or advance to mount. We have these types of drills peppered throughout the curriculum. First you learn to make decision a/b well (pass the guard, left/right). Then you learn to make decision c/d well (take the mount/take the back). Then we put the drill together. That is really all there is to it, kind of.
Factorials are a mathematics tool that caps the number of options you can have depending on the number of variables. It is designated by the ! sign.
The concept is pretty straight forward 2! =2. So if I have two variables a/b, they can be arranged two ways, either a/b, or b/c.
3!=6. If I have variables a/b/c, they can be arranged six different ways a/b/c, a/c/b, b/a/c, b/c/a, c/a/b, c/b/a.
Why do we care?
Solid question. We care because this lets us know how much information we are trying to digest or compute. It helps us know what is reasonable, and what is ridiculous. Using this tool we can see how the number of options becomes unmanageable when you increase the number of variables. 4!=24 5!=120, 6!=720, 7!=5040.
Looking back at the pass guard and take the back drill from above we see find two decision point each with two options. In the first decision fork there is pass the guard left or right. Then there is either taking back or mount depending upon if the bottom person turns into or away from you. From the standpoint of factorials that gives us 4 distinct outcomes, (2!=4). Those options are; Pass left-go to mount, pass left-go to the back, pass right-go to mount, pass right-go to the back.
That seems reasonable and manageable. The difficulty comes when you want to add just one option to both ends of that drill. That changes the number of potential outcomes from 4 to 24, (2!=4 vs 4!=24).
Looking at Jiu Jitsu through the lens of factorials could make learning it seem daunting and almost impossible. Knowing how quickly the number of options at your disposal can get out of hand shouldn’t discourage you though. It is just a reminder that you can only learn so much at one time so don’t be impatient with yourself when you aren’t recalling a 100 moves off the top of your head. Be patient and diligent with your practice and you will make progress.
Tempo, Option C, and factorials; tools at your disposal
If the following doesn’t make sense to you then I definitely have not done my job;
“You can’t do the wrong thing fast enough, or often enough, to make up for not doing the right thing”
Jiu Jitsu is about identifying the problem, and applying an appropriate solution. We started this workbook with the thought “how did he do that”, referencing a cool display of jiu jitsu you saw that inspired you to learn the art. Often, efforts to duplicate what we saw focus on the speed and intensity of the move, while the mechanics and strategy of the technique are overlooked. Acquiring skill in the art can be done much faster and more efficiently if we a) practice a small number of effective techniques, (as is presented in our curriculum), and b) from the outset of your training you give just as much attention to often overlooked elements of technique such as tempo and timing.
There is an old saying regarding teaching Jiu Jitsu, ‘if you want to teach someone nothing, teach them everything”. While it is tempting to surf a catalog of moves, try to consciously have techniques you are working on as a matter of routine. You will develop lasting skills if you always keep a little bit of new material on your plate, and consistently practice with respect to tempo, mechanics of the technique, and logical selection of the technique.
With regards to your day to day training remember the phrase, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. Don’t try to be fast, focus on being smooth. Over time, that turns into fast. Trying to rush technique is something people do when they are not confident the move is going to work. The more time you spend focusing on executing technique smoothly, the more your confidence will grow. Even if you feel hopeless in efforts to gain skill, just keep showing up and diligently practicing. Sooner than you think, (but probably longer than you would like), your technique will begin to resemble to initial display that inspired you to start.
Rules of thumb
Beyond the positional hierarchy and the concept of position before submission there are some guidelines that if followed will make your training more effective and enjoyable. Let's go through the positional hierarchy position by position for a review of what to do and not to do.
Someone has your back
If your back is on the mat your opponent can’t be on your back also. So when looking to escape try to put your back on the mat. Better yet, if you feel that someone is about to take your back, just put your back on the mat.
As with all defensive positions keep your elbows in and don’t reach out for your partner. You can grip the arm that is attempting to choke you, but your focus should be on getting your back to the mat. Use your legs to do the work and make a point of trying to get your head to the mat on the safe side, (away from the choke).
You are mounted
Though the mount may make you feel claustrophobic do not try to push your partner away from you. The space between you and your partner belongs to them. The space you need to escape is underneath you and bridging is a good way to uncover it. If you are having trouble with the bridge then step your foot out to the side and “pull” your hip up on that side. The motion is similar to sitting in a rolling chair and using one of your feet to reach out and pull yourself sideways, however instead of pulling your sideways you will be pulling yourself onto your hip.
It is pretty easy for the top person to transition to your back if you try to rush the escape, so don’t rush the escape. Buck and roll is a solid escape and works great, however what you see consistently at the higher levels is for the bottom person to get onto their side, hip out, and get a knee in, then turn to the other side and recover guard. Just like with the back position listed above, when you feel that you are about to be mounted proactively begin the escape rather than waiting for the position to be set. As your partner mounts just get on your side and get a knee in. It is easy to learn and will stay with you a long time.
Bottom side control
This position is universally described as miserable and difficult to escape. As with the preemptive escapes listed above, the adage with side control is “you have to be on your side to escape side control”. That isn’t bad advice at all however I think that bottom side control is where you learn a) how to stay safe and b) how to proactively wait for the opportunity to escape.
What I mean is this, in some respects side control is similar to a prison cell. You can sit on the floor and wait for someone to open the door. That probably won’t get you out. You could also wear yourself out by banging on the doors and walls trying to get out. Might actually work if someone didn’t lock the door, however it won’t work over and over again. Lastly, you could understand that unlike a prison cell, side control has many doors to escape and it is very difficult to lock all of them at the same time. If you methodically check the doors, not one by one, but in combinations of two at a time, you will learn to find which ones aren’t being guarded.
We talked about this earlier when I said not everything is a move. Somewhere between thrashing wildly and not moving is just casually moving and trying to see where your partner is guarding or not guarding. Then systematically try to make some motion and space for yourself to get out.
Mechanically speaking the two basic styles of escaping involve either the frame or pummel and being on your side. Learn to efficiently move back and forth between the two while also being able to stay on your side. Make sure to get a knee in if your partner rushes to mount.
Train yourself to think of one hand on your collar as halfway to choked out. It applies in all positions, but I think it is more recognizable when passing guard. Your opponent gets a hand on your collar, you think nothing of it, and then pass into a choke. Clearing the choking grip before passing is generally a good idea. You will often see high level players not do this and pass, however you will also see them not clear the hand and get finished instead.
Keeping your elbows below your partner's beltline and hands off the mat is generally a good way to keep your arms safe. You arms would be safer if you passed to side control but you are going to have to move in order to make that happen. Try to pass with an underhook or you will most likely slide back down the positional hierarchy ladder. All of that together is a tall order so try to approach passing the guard in a fashion similar to how I suggested escaping side control, aware of the danger, keeping the initiative of motion on your side, and not forcing the move.
The more you want one specific thing, the easier it is to identify and shut down. Good guard attacks are often never what they first seem to be. Good armlocks come off of good sweep attempts and vice-versa. Just like escaping side control you should learn to knock on all the doors to see which one is open. The goal is to keep your partner busy defending his or her base, arms, and neck so that one is eventually overexposed. If you feel like you have to rush the attack then it isn’t set up well enough.
Top side control
Within reason, (less than 20-30lb weight difference between you and your partner), balance your weight on your partner. Anytime you are on top of your partner it is generally a good idea to make them carry your weight. From there you want to try and separate your partners elbows from their side and/or point their hips away from where their chest points.
Contrary to much internet advice the goal of side control isn’t to make your partner miserable. Your goal is to make them tired and out of position so that you can expose a limb and/or advance to the mount or the back. Please note that the ability to hold side control on people that do not know how to escape is the card equivalent of playing go-fish. It isn’t hard to do and it isn’t high level. The exception would be if I outweigh you by 50lbs, but you can make my life hell from top side control….. That is a skill worth developing, but only to a point. If I am brand new and you have more than four years experience it isn’t as impressive. Generally speaking, if holding side control is boring for you then you need to move on with your life. Mount and back are the real dominating positions, but many people don’t develop those skills because they are too busy playing go-fish.
I am always surprised to hear the number of advanced practitioners confess that they do not have a solid mount game because it is “hard to do”. Mount is different than side control in that when you lose side control you are often still on the top. With the buck and roll escape you often end up on bottom. It is hard to get buck and rolled if you are just holding on and not attacking. So the energy from your mount attacks, (forward and down), often lead to you getting buck and rolled. This is what keeps many people away from it. The trick with mount attacks is that there is no trick. The attacks come off of the details of holding positional dominance. When you get reversed it is often because you are rushing the attack.
Just because the position is dominant doesn’t mean that physics no longer applies, or that you somehow just got stronger. If you put all of your energy into holding your partner so tight that they are immobile you're missing the point. A feature of the positional hierarchy is that you use as little energy as possible to maintain a dominant position while your partner gasses themselves out trying to escape. Learn to hold mount in that semi-reactive state where you let your partner attempt to escape then shut it down, not try to attack-just shut down the escape with as little effort as possible.
Your partner will tire from attempts to escape and will leave larger and larger openings for you to compromise their structure. That is where the attacks come from.
The strategy for attacking the back is the same as attacking the mount, however the person who has their back taken often is very eager to escape so they move with more continuous urgency. In mount, the bottom person often relaxes and waits for an opportunity to escape. So when attacking the back you often need to be that much better at following the position and shutting down the escape. You should also be able to hold the back with out hooks (seatbelt) and follow the attack wherever it goes. Because the defender cannot see where the attack is coming from the attacker has an additional advantage. Train yourself to attack where you partner isn’t defending. If they block the choke then you attack the arm, if they defend the arm-you choke. If they block the choke then you put in a hook or reposition your hooks, trapping one of their arms.
In the end
You are building the tools required for your own game. The phrase: “don’t make you fit the jiu jitsu, make the jiu jitsu fit you” is what we are going for. That takes a lot of trial and error and a lot of deliberate practice. People often get frustrated with jiu jitsu because they are trying to force results rather than focus on process. Results will come if you focus on process. We’ve laid out a solid road map for you here. The more diligently you follow the map, the greater results you will have.
I like the phrase anything worth having is worth working for. Building any appreciable skill at jiu jitsu is something that takes a lot of work and requires extending yourself on a number of levels. If you put in the work you will see the results not just in your jiu jitsu, but in your life as well. It is hard to stay on the road if you don’t enjoy it, so do the work, but remember to have fun and enjoy the journey.