I consider passing the guard to be one of the most difficult of all aspects of Brazilian jiu jitsu, but also one of the most rewarding. Because we spend so much mat-time fighting from this position, it makes sense to place an emphasis on improving our ability from it. Internalising any of these principles on its own will make a difference to your top game. Choose one and work on it for a couple of weeks. Once you've mastered it, move onto the next one. Once you have them all in your toolbox and start to combine them effectively you'll be a nightmare for even the best guard-players.
1. Keep Your Centre of Gravity Low
The distance of your centre of gravity (located a couple of inches below your navel) to the mat is directly proportionate to how likely you are to be swept when you're in your opponent's guard. Every successful sweep requires that the top player's centre of gravity be elevated. There will be times when you need to have your hips high during the pass (standing to pass, spearing your opponent with your shoulder etc.), during which you should always be aware of sweep attempts. Many sweeps can be completely nullified simply by dropping your hips (and hence your centre of gravity) to the mat. Generally, your goal should be to get your hips as close to the mat as possible as soon as possible.
2. 'Climb the Ladder'
Think of your opponent's body as a ladder, with his feet being the bottom rung. His knees, pelvis, and shoulders represent the other rungs. Your objective is to continually be working your way higher up the ladder and to never go back down. Once you pass a rung, you never go back to it. Taking into account the 'disrupt the feet' concept mentioned above, the most important rung to get over is the feet. Here's a video in which I explain this concept in more detail:
3. Disrupt the Feet
This is something I started to understand and implement into my game just recently and it's made a huge difference. Often, your opponent's guard is simply the hooks created by his feet and ankles. His knees and thighs are secondary. These hooks are the first and most difficult 'rungs on the ladder' to pass and are usually what keep you in whichever kind guard variant you're trapped in. Just as a thought experiment - think how easy it would be to pass the guard of someone with no feet. Or take a training partner and ask him to stop you from passing his guard without using his feet. We can use this to maximum effect by pre-emptively manipulating and controlling the guard player's feet and not allowing him to engage these hooks. Now, whenever someone starts trying to use an open guard on me, the first thing I do is grab one or both of his feet and bend it downwards out of the hook shape. Not only does the stop him from controlling you with his feet, but it also weakens his whole lower-body and makes the subsequent steps in any chosen pass easier to perform. The first step of the 'Ankle-Isolation' pass described in the video further down the page is a good example of this principle at work.
4. Shut the Hips Down
Your opponent's ability to elevate and camber his hips with bridging and shrimping type movements are large factors in his attempts to create openings and leverage for submissions and sweeps. While his hands and arms do play a minor role (specifically, they can be used to manipulate the head and threaten chokes), they are not really a major concern. If you can stop his hips from moving, you can cripple his guard to a large extent and make the pathway to mount or side-mount easier. For your reference, the pass described in the video later in this article uses this concept very effectively.
5. Isolate a Leg
Dealing with one of your opponent's legs is literally twice as easy as dealing with both of them. One of the first steps in the majority of the passes I teach is to choose a side you want to pass to and isolate the leg on that side. Another way of thinking about this: Try to always have one of your opponent's legs between both of yours. You don't want both of his legs around yours, or both inside yours. Again, pass detailed in the video later in the article is a great example of this principle in action.
6. Choose 'Speed' or 'Tightness'
Guard passes can be broadly categorised into two different classes: 'Speed' and 'Tightness'. Speed passes use, and are reliant on high levels of athleticism and attributes like quickness and agility. They usually employ rapid direction changes and or acrobatics to accomplish the passage. They often require less energy than tightness-based passes but they are also usually lower-percentage, and I've found that they don't work that well against higher-level opposition. Examples of this type are the cartwheel pass and the torreando pass. Tightness passes are much more methodical and usually have more technical steps. They often require a large amount of upper-body and grip strength and rely on the above-mentioned 'shutting the hips down' and 'climb the ladder' concepts. Here's an example of a pass that uses tightness as opposed to speed:
When passing the guard, you need to choose one or the other. If one type doesn't work against a particular player it's very likely that the other will. I've had quite a bit of success with this. When I encounter a tricky open-guard specialist with very dynamic hips and feel that my speed-based passes are ineffective, I immediately change to a tightness-based pass and use it to shut him down.
7. Don't Forget Submissions
Although I don't suggest you build your guard-passing strategy around submissions, I also feel that it's not wise to disregard them entirely. From within the closed guard, using certain submission attacks can force a reaction and get the opponent to uncross his ankles and allow you to begin your pass. The two subs I've had some success doing this with are the thrusting choke ('potato smasher') and the Ezekiel choke. Lower-body submissions can also be great options against open-guard players. Fighters like the legendary Victor Estima have developed very powerful attacks like the Estima-lock, which can be devastating even expert guard players when used properly. Just keep in mind that attempting a foot or leg-lock invariably gives up the top position and can give your opponent opportunities to counter with similar attacks. Make sure you have a contingency plan and that your scrambling ability is good.
Have any other concepts that have helped you with guard passing? Let me know in the comments below.