The path that takes you from observing a new activity to effectively practicing that activity is often not the simple short and direct route that many of us wish it were. I have become a bit fascinated with kayaking since I moved to the PNW. Not fascinated as in this is my new hobby that I practice all the time, but rather it is something I have seen and would like to learn. This came up in conversation with my Jiu Jitsu instructor and his only comment was "get lessons".

"Get lessons, and a good boat?" I asked.

"Get lessons" was his only reply. He knew that I wanted to talk about different boat styles and gear. He also knew that if we were to talk gear that I would focus on things rather than skills.

Seth Godin once said something to the effect of "It doesn't matter what kind of pen Stephen King used, it matters that he used it". Point being it is the person that makes the craft, the gear is supplementary. While gear might be cool, having the skill to use it is much cooler. Skill is something you either have or do not, you can't fake it long. Gear can be lost and replaced.

What are we getting lesson in/What are we trying to do

Learning Jiu Jitsu can be difficult. One of the things that makes it difficult to learn is that we don't have a great model for it because it is so new. If someone wants to get good at gymnastics or football there are very clear progressions lined out. Jiu Jitsu is a relatively new martial art and though it is a martial art, it is a grappling art. The overwhelming majority of martial arts examples are of striking arts, so in general when someone thinks of martial arts they tend to think of application of force through the lens of the most prevalent example - striking arts. Since most people here are properly proud science dorks I think a graph is in order. 


That is the classic energy diagram for getting into the correct position and then punching someone in the face. When you listen to boxing pros talk about boxing they often emphasize good footwork and movement over punching power. So even though the pros try to draw attention to the finesse of the set up and defensive skills, the casual observer is still so wowed by a display of powerful strikes that they do not see the footwork and body positioning that make the punch possible.  

The interesting thing about that graph is that I got it out of an old Judo textbook. It was meant to show the amount of energy it takes to get into correct position and then execute a throw. Since my Japanese is nonexistent I could not tell if the author fleshed out the idea of optimal set up and timing greatly reduce the amount of energy needed to execute a throw. 

If application of force is different in grappling than in striking you would think that the Judo text would reflect that. Judo though, while cool, is quite limited in it's application similar to how boxing is. Two people are standing directly in front of one another both with the same goal, so while the methods are different the application has much in common. 

Positional Hierarchy

One of the qualities that makes Jiu Jitsu different is the idea of positional hierarchy. For instance in arts where participants more directly position themselves in the line of their opponents force, such as in Judo or Boxing, their ability to apply force is more often a function of their own personal physical strength. In contrast Jiu Jitsu uses the concept of mismatched positional pairs, so instead of measuring my strength versus your strength we become more interested in the inherent advantage or disadvantage of my position relative to yours. The basic positional heirarchy looks like this:


But that representation doesn't show the whole picture of mismatched position pairs, it just shows you a quick road map of where you are and which direction you should try to go. Using the mount position as an example let's look at the idea of mismatched position pairs and it's implications a little closer. 



The goal of boxing is to punch and not get punched. In Judo it is to throw and not be thrown. Jiu Jitsu doesn't share that limited relationship, but rather uses position as a means to stay safe, establish control, and eventually finish. This means that the Jiu Jitsu player has to be concerned with attacks to his or her position AND be aware of potential submissions. If I can obtain a superior position I don't have to be as concerned with submissions however my opponent has to be worried about both AND he or she is burning energy at a faster rate than me. While being on the bottom of mount doesn't count as a loss, it is definitely a rest stop on the road to losing. The person holding mount can generally maintain mount using much less relative force than required to escape from being on bottom.

The physical movement, balance, and timing required to execute Jiu Jitsu technique is at the heart of the art. No human amount of energy spikes will save you in Jiu Jitsu if you don't understand how to navigate the positional hierarchy. The take away from this is that the more proficient we are at the set up and entry phase, the less energy we need in the execution phase. If you hone your Jiu Jitsu skills enough you can trick your opponent into providing the energy for the execution phase. 

This requires that we learn a new skill set. We have to learn how to move well on the ground. We have to learn where leverage does and does not exist on the ground. Finally we have learn the conversation of Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu involves a physical interaction with your partner and looking at Jiu Jitsu as a conversation provides many useful analogies that can help us understand the art.

Since we are going to be doing a lot of learning let's take two whole minutes and watch a video about the oldest learning metaphor there is, learning how to ride a bike. If you can't watch both minutes of the video just up the playback speed to 2x so you can get the point. 


Less gear is generally better.

Training wheels enable kids to go faster, but without the skill to control it. Then they get a bike with training wheels and have to learn two complex tasks in tandem - balance AND navigation while pedaling. However since the child learned to ride with training wheels on they naturally want to travel at a speed they cannot yet control, so when they fall while learning to balance they do so at a greater speed.

On a balance bike children are focused on balancing rather than pedaling.  As a result they are more prepared for an unexpected loss in balance and are much less likely to fall.  This is deliberate practice. They are isolating the most important skill, don’t fall off the bike, and not just working it but working on it with their feet out ready to catch them if they fall. So using the balance bike method the first thing they learn is the most important, don't fall.

Once they have that down they naturally want to go faster and further, so the child's natural curiosity leads them to push those boundaries and as the boundaries are pushed the skill is further developed.

The take away here is that the learning process is segmented. The child is learning the elements of riding a bike either individually or in closely associated pairs, (balance and steering),  so that he can develop proficiency faster. Still though, it's just a kiddo riding a bike and maybe it is tough to see the correlation between that training method and what we are doing in Jiu Jitsu class. Let's look at some video of iron Mike Tyson training and see if we can find any similarities.

Don't watch the whole video, just watch enough for you to see the point of the practice. See if you can figure out what skills they are working on. 

What are they working on?

It would be odd to overlook how powerful Iron Mike punches, however that is not the point of the practice shown above. Footwork, timing, and positioning is what he was working on there. Tyson was known as having impeccable defense and the ability to throw effective strikes AS opponents were trying to hit him. He was a master of position. He had a HUGE foundation of defensive movement and worked diligently on a very specific style. The punching in that video is done only because; 1) the power of the punches effects timing and follow up - doing the drill AND throwing the punches makes the drill more useful to him, 2) Because he has already worked defense in isolation and punching power in isolation this drill allows him to put them together.

The point of showing it is to show that the model for skill acquisition at the most elite level is very similar to learning to ride a balance bike; isolate the desired trait and train for that specifically. There is a ton of footage of Tyson working all of the attributes he is known for in either isolation or in specific pairs. Working skills and attributes like this allows you to give them your full attention so that your body functions on autopilot when more complex tasks come up.

To reiterate, in boxing outsiders tend to look at punching power while insiders look at footwork, timing, positioning, defensive skills and execution of strategy. Here is a little montage of Tyson training skills in isolation and then using those skills in matches. Please note that in the video Tyson says that he trains this so much that he can feel himself start to evade the punches at the instant they are headed his way.

Note: this video is a minute and a half long, ignore the timestamp. Also this is Iron Mike we are talking about here, watch it at normal speed - he moves fast enough as is. 

There is another very relevant training, (and execution) method used by Tyson. He doesn’t use ALL the weapons of boxing, he uses HIS weapons of boxing. You see this concept in just about every field and sport. Masters make maximum use of minimal tools. Less gear is generally better. It’s the person that makes the craft, the gear is supplementary. For our purposes gear = more moves. For students learning Jiu Jitsu there are two well known pitfalls; 1) adding more moves to account for not being able to pull the initial move off in training, and 2) muscling a technique. Before we focus on why more moves often stifles growth, lets first examine muscling a technique.

Part of learning Jiu Jitsu is learning how amazing leverage is. When you do martial arts correctly you are using the power of leverage, not the power of you. If we physically load boxes on a truck by picking them up that is “you” moving boxes. If however you place the boxes on a dolly and then push the dolly up a ramp, that is leverage. You are technically still moving the boxes, but the power of leverage is making that task much easier.

The way your brain arrives at the conclusion to muscle a technique is not an inherently bad thing. What happens somewhere in your mind just before you muscle a technique is a simple rough math equation; your body recognizes that the previous effort didn’t produce the desired result. When you re-calibrate to try to successfully perform the technique again your mind attaches to the first variable it believes will change the outcome, the size of the force spike so you try again, but with more force. Sometimes you get hurt, sometimes your partner gets hurt, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. The worst thing that could happen here though is for it TO work because then your brain was just conditioned Pavlov style to put more of a power effort into all techniques. This makes seeing leverage much harder in the future.

Often times when you muscle a technique you can tell that something is amiss. In the analogy of moving boxes the person moving the boxes by hand can tell that they are working hard. If you didn’t know that dollys existed you would end up working on body mechanics to make the task easier. You might try to lift with your legs and not your back, keep the load close to you, and not look down. You would use basic body mechanics in an attempt to be efficient. In loading a truck you would be correct, however for martial arts we need to learn to see the dolly. The dolly is the leverage that exists between my partner and I. Just as proper leverage can make my workload easier, it can make my partners more difficult. Learning how to decrease how hard you are working and simultaneously increasing how hard your opponent has to work is a fundamental principle of Jiu Jitsu.

Find the open door, don’t knock louder on the closed one.

In order to become proficient at pulling moves off in training you need to become an expert in casual observation while training. What this means is that you are not waiting for your one opportunity to hit an energy spike and then hitting it, but rather you are keeping a good eye on where and how your partner is moving and trying to find openings within that. The more emphasis you put on following your partners movement and energy the better you will get at seeing openings. This requires that you switch your focus from “can I do the move” to “what moves are open and can I test my partner a little bit at those openings”. If you can redefine success to that standard you will find that you are pulling off moves much more quickly than you will by trying to pull off moves. It is a bit counter intuitive and it’s often not the answer that people want, it is however the answer. Learn to casually observe and test while training.

I think that one of the most difficult skills to learn in Jiu Jitsu is recognizing that part of what constitutes observation (as just described above) is recognizing pressure and space. It is tactile acuity not visual acuity. Because most of our cultural exposure to martial arts, (and fitness), highlights the energy spikes it is easy for the newcomer to approach training as if he or she were waiting to deliver a definitive energy spike that settles the match. As I hope you are seeing the goal is to read your partner's movement and energy and select a technique with that in mind. Remember, Jiu Jitsu can be described as a conversation. It is an interaction between two people.

Let’s look at when the window of opportunity to execute a technique comes up. Imagine all of your martial arts skill and attributes represented by a sphere. The sphere is defined by and filled with all the individual elements that allow you to execute a technique.

Please note this is a different model that what you probably have for martial arts. Moves are NOT a thing I do TO you. Moves emerge out of the interaction we have with each other. If two dudes from Braveheart fight from a distance and one shoots the other with an arrow, that is an assault with a projectile weapon, not Jiu Jitsu. If those two dudes decide to pull out knives instead and see who can cut the other one up first; NOT Jiu Jitsu. A move is NOT a thing I do TO you. Moves emerge out of the interaction we have with each other. It happens when my sphere of martial ability intersects with your sphere of martial ability and it looks like this.

potential for moves occurs here.png

One thing I hope this model allows you to understand is that as we are all individuals our spheres are of different size or area of potential. The various elements that comprise the sphere all count to it’s area. The greater the size of your sphere in relation to your partner, the easier it is for you to execute moves. For instance maybe I am new to the sport, of medium athletic build and ability, and I have not internalized the idea of the positional hierarchy. Let’s say that by contrast you have been training for eight months, you have the same build but are in better shape because you train. Additionaly, because you train you have greater fluency with the positional hierarchy and the ability to navigate it. In that case the relationship between us will look skewed, and the intersection of our spheres take up much less relative volume of your sphere than it does of mine. It might look like this.

One thing this mismatch means is that you are going to be able to pull off moves on me easier than I can pull off moves on you. It doesn’t mean that I can’t be successful in pulling off a move on you, but it does mean that doing so will take much greater focus on my part and a more perfect opportunity and execution. By contrast you can pull moves off on me in a much more casual manner. Since many of the elements that make up the individual spheres require presence of mind, the more frantically I try to execute the less success I am likely to have. I “could” get lucky, but I will most likely just make reading and predicting my movement easier and give you and even greater upper hand. If, in this scenario, you are able to keep a level head while I am trying to energy spike my way out of the situation you will enjoy a pretty straight forward success while I just get more tired and frustrated.

Size and strength

How do size and strength affect the size of the sphere? They belong in the bucket of martial ability as your body is the tool being used to engage your skills. The larger and more fit the player the greater the advantage. This can complicate training a bit for both larger and smaller people. The smaller in stature have to have a greater technical understanding of the technique if they are to make it work while larger stronger players can get often get away with less skill. That is NOT to say that smaller players are more technical and larger players are not. It is to say that building skill presents unique challenges to all players. The larger players have to choose to focus on timing and technique. The smaller players have little choice.

This can be more frustrating to the smaller person initially however they are often rewarded with a very technical game, meaning they have a solid handle on the details, timing, and finesse it takes to execute technique. The stronger person doesn’t get a hall pass. Often times they work hard to lighten the pressure and strength output so they can train effectively with smaller players only to get further down the road of progress  and eventually bump into a larger and stronger player than themselves and then at that later state they have to try and figure out what the smaller players have been working on all the time.

All of this is to say that you want to make the Jiu Jitsu fit you, not you fit the Jiu Jitsu. You shouldn’t neglect your physical being and stature. It is a great idea to develop your conditioning and physical attributes alongside your technical Jiu Jitsu skills. The trick is to work technique when you are working technique, and work fitness when you are working fitness. However when you are training Jiu Jitsu, the technique should be the spearhead of everything you do. You start and end with technique. Try not to rely on attributes and energy spikes to make techniques work. There is a whole lot of hustling and go go go to be done in Jiu Jitsu, however learning the technique looks way more like the kid learning to ride the bike than like Mike Tyson hitting the heavy bag. The child looks focused and happy. Mike looks pissed. You should look focused and happy while you train, so should your partner.


Redefining failure

Remember the kid on the bike? How many times did he fall? None that we saw but it fair to say that he probably got twisted up and fell a few times. Falling is not the failure there. Falling is a result of losing your balance past a point you can control, AND no one or nothing else catches you. The attribute the child is training isn’t not falling. The attribute being trained is not losing your balance. He doesn’t have to fall all the way to the ground after losing his balance - he just needs to recognize what unbalanced (and about to fall) feels like and then correct it prior to falling.  He lost his balance many times more than he fell, his leg just prevented the fall. All too often Jiu Jitsu practitioners use the wrong set of metrics for training or don’t understand what specifically they are training.

Take getting swept for example. Over the course of time I have been teaching I have witnessed many students who are supposed to be working pass the guard instead hunker down in the guard really tightly as though they were trying to either smother the person on bottom or protect them from a stray meteor should it happen to hit the earth while they are training, I am not sure which. Mr. or Mrs. should be working on passing the guard will no doubt at some point brag to me about how well their training is going; “yeah, it’s really hard for anyone to sweep me anymore, I mean sure a good purple belt will but I can hold off most blues and some purples”

Previously I have tried to convince the student that the point of training pass the guard is to figure out where you lose your balance, how to relax and find base in a variety of seemingly unstable positions. The goal is to learn to read your partner's energy so well that you don’t really pass guard but give the bottom player a host of bad decisions so they zig when they should have zagged and you effortless pass guard. However I have seen enough of these folks that I am kind of coming to the opinion that when someone gives me their academy record at anything as proof of their progress I liken it to someone telling me that they have cancer and instead of seeing a doctor they will be using energy stones, leeches, and fire-walking to rid themselves of the disease. Well, I think your chances of fighting cancer with those tools will probably yield the same success rate as a person trying to learn Jiu Jitsu with the mindset of “the more people I shut down in training the better I must be getting at Jiu Jitsu”

You have to understand failure in order to move beyond it. Being afraid of spiders is not cured by avoiding all spiders forever. It is cured by working through it not working around it. Similarly if you want to learn how to not get swept you need to put yourself in a position where you get swept often (try to pass deliberately and not in a rush), then work backwards from there. That is not the only way, however if I tell you to start from a position of safety and slowly extend yourself until you do get swept you will naturally gravitate towards the safer less exposed position and never log the time with failure needed to understand what does and does not allow you to get swept.

Also commonly seen among those on the path of perpetual lack of progress are the people that slap hands to train and then wrestle like bear cubs to see who can get top position first. If you are so afraid of the bottom position that you have to frantically fight for top position then guess what? That is exactly where you need to be and what you need to be working on. Jiu Jitsu is about exploring and dissolving fears. It is about working hard and intelligently to improve yourself. Too often though people have the 80’s action movie mindset to training; one of us will win, one of us will lose and that proves who is better. Note: that is a competition mindset, not a training mindset. While some competition training should like that, most of your training should not.

Let’s dork out on another graph and see if we can better understand the difference between the two approaches to training.

levels-wrong idea.png

Action hero movie model of training

This is not to say train this way if you want to be an action hero. It is to say that training with this mentality will make most people not want to train with you and will most likely make everyone want to kick your ass.

In this model of training you assume that everyone has a skill level that can be assigned on a linear hierarchy. The belief is that skill is a fixed level and that if you beat someone at a higher level you capture their mojo highlander style and can forever beat them.


In reality your martial ability, just like all abilities, can vary widely depending upon how you are feeling, the amount of rest, nutrition, and hydration you have. Learning how to beat someone when they do not want to be beaten is part of Jiu Jitsu training, however just like Tyson you need to spend a large volume of training working on all the little details, skills, and attributes that go into obtaining and executing martial skill.

You gotta slow down before you speed up

I wish that I came up with that phrase but I did not. One of my training partners did. His explanation was that most people try to go faster by speeding up. What happens is that all the little things they did wrong at the slower pace are compounded with the attempts to go faster. His advice was to slow down and work on being smooth instead. A common view among experts is that advanced moves are simply the basics put together very well. One way to become proficient with the basics is to help those newer than you learn them. This is the opposite to the approach taken by the wanna be action movie star. So if you are at level three you focus not on trying to beat all the other threes and fours, but help the ones and twos level up. A pleasant surprise to this approach is that you eventually level up without trying to level up. When you "try" to level up progress often seems like the watched pot that never boils. 

An example of slowing down to speed up would be to work pass the guard of someone who's guard you know you can pass. Then, Let. Them. Sweep. You. Correct, let them sweep you. Then slowly adjust your technique until they cannot. Where most intermediate level people mess this up is that they will mistake their advanced martial skill for moral superiority and then act in a condescending manner towards the newer student. I don't really see this at our academy, but I have seen it enough to recognize it when I do. Be grateful for your training partner, they are helping you learn as someone once did with you. Once you think you've made progress in your guard passing posture, let them sweep you again, (just to keep you humble and them guessing). Now let them work mount attacks. Let them finish you. When you have had enough, recover your guard. Now that you are tired and they are confident, you can begin to use the same minimal effort level to try and sweep them. That is how you get better.


Do you see what I did there?

I was going to edit this out but there is more value in breaking down this error as it is common and directly relates to your ability to improve at Jiu Jitsu. Near the beginning of this article I highlighted three things we need to learn in the process of learning Jiu Jitsu:


  1. We have to learn how to move well on the ground.

  2. We have to learn where leverage does and does not exist on the ground.

  3. Finally we have to learn the conversation of Jiu Jitsu.


I started to break these things down, then I got ahead of myself and focused on the the conversation of Jiu Jitsu and jumped into hacks to master that conversation. The conversation of Jiu Jitsu is the actual match or contest of Jiu Jitsu players. The result of that conversation is what everyone is interested in, who can beat who. However the conversation is an amalgamation of all the elements that define it.  Moves might equal “more gear/better gear”, but the conversation of Jiu Jitsu is essentially a catalog of how to put the gear together. It is much easier to focus on the match and the moves used during the match than it is to take the time to develop appreciable skill in the basics.

As I teacher I want to address the needs of the student. The needs of the student though are not always the wants of the student. If I am unable to maintain your attention, focus, and efforts it is difficult for me to help you progress. As much as your ego wants you to get better at Jiu Jitsu, my ego as a teacher wants to help you get there. Often times students don’t want to focus on the elements of the process of success, they just want success. Reverting to the action hero method of training is a very easy trap to fall into. It is also often counterproductive.

Don’t misunderstand me, one of the most beautiful things about Jiu Jitsu is that it is the show me art. We can slap hands and figure out who can finish who right now. It is a necessary part of training. The focus though should be on the word “part” and not on the word “necessary”.  When you have a good run and string together enough academy wins your mind will naturally focus too much on the how good am I question (rarely important) rather than the “am I getting better” question, (always important).

Your skill level is important but it is a little like the speedometer in your car, watching it doesn’t make you go faster and when you are looking at your it your eyes are off the road. A better question is am I having fun and are the people training with me having fun. To improve you need to focus on all the details that go into increasing the size of your sphere of skill and ability.


Doing more with less

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

We do not allow guillotines, kimura's, and the fan sweep in the fundamentals program. They are techniques that often result in injury when introduced too soon in a students Jiu Jitsu education. While keeping injuries low is important to me, of equal value is teaching Jiu Jitsu that works at the highest level. If you look at the number of wins shared by Roger Gracie, Damian Maia, and Jacare that did not include those techniques you would see an incredibly impressive list of wins all of which showcase perfect Jiu Jitsu. Just like I mentioned  above when looking at the Tyson highlight, “Masters make maximum use of minimal tools”. The aim of the fundamentals program is to give you a solid working knowledge of essential Jiu Jitsu tools and methods. Having high student proficiency with carefully selected tools is of greater value to me than offering a survey course that only teaches you the names of every technique ever invented.

If you are an intermediate student who takes fundamentals classes there is a temptation to show the fundamentals student the cool thing you are doing in intermediate class. A similar temptation is to be “losing” a drill in the fundamentals class to a newer yet more athletic or larger student and then bust out a move they do not know in order to “win”. Like Arthur Clarke said above, (or what I am sure he was trying to say), is that both you and the new student will be sufficiently “wowed” by the success that you turn into move junkies who instead of doing the work required to develop proficiency with the material presented will instead look for shortcuts and hacks that you hope to find with more moves. This is a little like losing at checkers and then busting out a chess move to win. All this does is help create two players who suck at both checkers and chess.


A teacher once told me, “don’t confuse a poor offense with a good defense”

Meaning just because they didn’t tap you doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at defending. You don’t know if they let you. You don’t know if they could of if they tried harder. You don’t know if they could have finished you but chose not to. You also don’t know if they just suck at that particular attack. There are a lot of people out there who are world class at what many would call low percentage techniques. Until you have had to defend yourself against many high level players at a specific position or attack you are not really sure what your defense is like in those areas.

If you really want to work defense, treat it like a negative finishing position and prepare to tap a lot. When I first started looking at heel hook defense and offense from 50/50 one of my favorite training partners and I trained foot locks from that position lightly for about an hour. There is no doubt that we each tapped at least 100 times. Both of us left better at foot lock defense and offense and walking normally. Neither guy was left scratching their head wondering if the other guy could have “really” finished them. It’s physics; if they get the move right, you bet, you’ll tap or it’ll break. There is no need to test that theory on yourself or others. It is important to the longevity of your training and the training of others that everyone recognize the tap for what it is, a training method.

Mastering fewer tools

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 well.

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 Uke 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 while standing with 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 Uke (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 at 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.

Task A is what makes the move work, absent energy or resistance. Task 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. Uke 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 is a very rewarding skill to possess and is equally difficult to obtain. 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 defended, 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. Acquiring skill in the art can be done much faster and more efficiently if we a) practice a small number of effective techniques, and b) from the outset of your training 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 look like you yourself are straight out of Rio.


Are we there yet?

The journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, however somewhere around foot blister number two you may just stop to check the map. The map is so pretty and makes so much sense that you may spend a bit of time studying it…. You know, just to double check. Might as well sit in the shade, bust out a cliff bar, and have a nice long look at that map. Doing versus talking about doing is an age old battle.

The first line of the Tao Te Ching is “the way that can be named is not the way”. The book is (roughly) about the way of life and deals with what you should focus on and not focus on. It is an old Chinese book on philosophy that basically says put one foot in front of the other and focus on your own intent and effort. The book is over two thousand years old so it’s pre-internet, and apparently even then there existed a clear enough problem of reflection vs resolve and wearing the gear vs doing the work that what some call the wisest book ever written begins by basically saying talking about doing isn’t doing.


The thing that will keep you from reaching your goals is to focus on the distance between where you currently are in relationship to where you want to be, rather than the habits and process that move you down that road.


I am not at all trying to preach grit or say you just need to toughen up. Everyone in our immediate audience knows that great efforts are required to do great things. I would like to call attention to the fact that you are doing it and that is something to be proud of. Consistent work produces results and in our academy we have seen people come pretty far in a short period of time. It is important to remember though that it is a long road and you are going to want to check the map. You will have many times when you question the path. Often times when students are asking about getting ahead or making more progress, what they are really saying is ‘This is really frustrating…. I want to be better now….. Are we there yet?”.

You should know that just about 100% of students who achieved the black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu asked the same thing, had the same frustrations, and often wondered if there was something wrong with them because they weren’t picking it up faster. As the saying goes; if it were easy, everyone would do it. There is a big difference between loving Jiu Jitsu and loving your rank in Jiu Jitsu. Your rank, while a great delineation of progress, shouldn't be the reason you train. Wanting to get better should be your motivation, not the next promotion. If you focus on improving the rank will come. If you focus on the rank, you will not enjoy the training and end up not getting very far.

Please keep in mind my job is not to move the goal closer to you, it is to move you closer to the goal. I am not in the hurdle lowering business, I am in the helping people learn to jump higher business. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an amazingly effective martial art. Though I intend to make Jiu Jitsu accessible to broader range of students, I have zero intention of diluting the art i love. Keep this in mind when you are asking me about moving up class levels or competing. I intend to serve the students to the best of my ability AND not just maintain the integrity of Jiu Jitsu, but advance it. If you want to level up then my suggestion is that you level up. Do not ask me to make it easier. My teacher awarded me belts when he saw that I was functioning at a higher level. I am here to pass that gift to you. 

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu also has a rich tradition of helping people live more balanced lives. Just as important as how well your Jiu Jitsu is coming along is how well your life is coming along. When you put constant pressure on yourself to advance and improve you can miss out on some of the bigger things in life. Don't stress it if you are not getting in a ton of training all the time, there are seasons to everything. It is not so much about how fast you can sprint as it is how long you can jog. Find a volume of training that fits well with your life and then enjoy that. Too many people fade out of the sport because they have missed a bunch of training and feel like the train somehow left the station. I personally learned Jiu Jitsu at what has to be a record low rate of progression. However I never quit. Then one day I looked down and my professor was tying the black belt around my waist. Believe me, if I can do it you can do it.

See everyone in class.