As a 3rd Degree black belt and 20-year veteran of grappling training I have a confession to make. Here goes:
I don’t have a defined jiu jitsu ‘game’. I’m not a ‘guard player’, or a ‘passing specialist’, a ‘foot-lock guy’ or even a ‘finisher’.
When I’m asked, “What’s your favourite technique / submission?” the only answer I have is, “The one my opponent gives me.”
During sparring, how many times have you noticed that your internal monologue says something like, “Yes! I have his back!” or “Damn, he passed my guard – this is not good.” I still experience similar self-talk but over the last year or so it’s begun to happen less frequently. This is because I’ve experienced a shift in the way I perceive jiu jitsu.
It’s my current viewpoint that when you are truly actualised as a jiu jitsu artist, the position you find yourself during a roll or match will be, with a few exceptions, largely irrelevant. At the very highest level you go beyond labelling positions as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or even splitting the game into its offensive and defensive aspects. All circumstances encountered during rolling instead become opportunities to problem solve using creativity.
Superseding ‘Positional Strategy’
Although we use, and need to understand and internalise, positional strategy, it’s important that we do not become limited by it. Half-guard used to be a ‘bad’ position to find yourself in. So did the turtle. But, with the help of some open-minded players, entire offensive and counter-attacking systems have been developed using these as the entry points, making them in effect ‘good’ or desirable positions to be in – at least for the players who have mastered them.
It’s not inconceivable that perhaps in a few years someone will develop a system for attacking when they are on the bottom of the side mount or mount. In fact, although I have yet to see complete systems built around them, there already exists a few attack strategies from traditionally ‘inferior’ positions. For example, one of the submissions I keep catching opponents with lately is a foot-lock – when they are on my back!
I’m sure that sooner or later we’ll even see a system appear in which being mounted is as pivotal as being in half-guard is in 10th Planet’s.
Here are some pointers for putting this new understanding to work to improve your ability on the mat.
Note – what follows is aimed primarily at intermediate (blue belt) and above jiu jiteiros. While there are many pointers which will help beginners too, I suggest white belts first establish a deep understanding of positional hierarchy and a framework of foundational techniques and concepts. You have to ‘earn the right’ to go beyond the basics.
Run an Audit on Your Jiu Jitsu
Although it’s possible to do this as a purely mental exercise, putting it on paper will multiply its effectiveness and the effectiveness of the exercises that follow.
List all the major positions (back-control, side-mount, open-guard) etc.
Next to each of these, write down an approximation of the amount of your training time which you spend in it. For example, ‘Bottom of Side-Control – 10%’
Remember, this is just an approximation. If you’re struggling to figure this out, ask your coach or a training partner to watch several rounds of your sparring and they’ll able to give you some insight. Or better yet, video record several rounds of your rolling and analyse it.
Using the above list, add to each section your 2-3 favourite or most commonly used passes/submissions/transitions/escapes from each position. For example, ‘On opponent’s back 1. Bow and Arrow Choke 2. Ezekiel Choke 3.
Avoiding Your ‘Tokui-Waza’
In judo ‘tokui-waza’ refers to a player’s favourite technique or the technique that he is best at.
Many years ago, during a peak in his career, Tiger Woods realised that his golf swing, a movement he had practised hundreds of thousands of times and was already exceptional at, could be better. He deconstructed it and put it back together again. Initially he lost distance on his drive, but he persevered and it eventually improved massively.
We all have our tokui- waza – those ‘old-faithful’ techniques that we can get to work on most training partners. These are the ones that you listed above. But there will come a point where you will need to let go of what you’re good at for your jiu jitsu to improve as a whole.
Specialisation is good but over-specialisation breeds weakness. This is why you often see high-level players who used to dominate the competition circuit suddenly begin to lose. People figure out the specialities of their one-dimensional games and create counters to them.
I see the following pattern emerge in my training all the time:
- I’m exposed to a new trick or technique from a certain position.
- I decide that I’d like to try and incorporate it into my game.
- I’ll try it in sparring and be unable to pull it off.
At this point I have two options:
- Forget about it and fall back to one of my tokui-waza from that position.
- Continue experimenting with the new technique.
Using the tokui-waza keeps me safe most of the time – until my opponents figure them out, or I get chronically bored.
Using the new technique might cause me to be swept/passed/submitted initially. Or it might never work for me due to a lack of attributes or another factor.
But it might also become a highly effective option or plug a hole in my game. The willingness to experiment is the only way I’ll be able to find out. And the added bonus is that even if it doesn’t work and results in a counter or a reversal, that itself will often lead to something new or unexpected that will force me out of a stale pattern and lead to growth.
If you feel that your game is starting to become reliant on a specific technique or scenario, shelve/avoid it for a while. This willingness to let go of your tokui-waza and ‘become a beginner again’ will not only foster progress, but enjoyment too.
Embrace Your Weak Positions
This is a big one for many players. Nobody likes to give up points, be dominated or leave their favourite ‘resting place’ (for most heavy or out of shape guys it’s side mount – you know who you are!). But it’s only through experiencing your weak positions that you can become good at defending, counter-attacking and even attacking from them.
I used to absolutely hate passing the half-guard. So much so that when I sensed my opponent trying to enter into the position, I’d do everything in my power to avoid it, i.e. stand up or attempt a leg attack. One day I made a decision to change that and spent several months focusing on it. Now I actively try to get to my sparring partner’s half-guard because I’ve become very capable of fighting from there. I actually look forward to encountering that scenario.
I see the following example of this repeated with many of my students. Although it’s known as one of the best places to be on the positional hierarchy, the mount is actually a very difficult position to master because it requires a keen sense of balance. As a result, many practitioners struggle with it because they are often rolled off when they commit to an attack.
I’d often notice students attaining the mount, and then transitioning to side-control to try and finish from there. So I started pointing out whenever they did that, then telling them they had to try and finish from mount instead of transitioning. This is not because I want them to be committed to the mount position – it’s because I’m committed to them becoming good from every position.
Look at the audit list you made earlier and find the positions that have the lowest numbers and make an active effort to spend more time in them. This will balance and round out your game.
There Are No Absolutes
I used to speak in certainties when teaching jiu jitsu. I’d tell students things like, ‘You should never put your hand on the ground when you’re inside someone’s closed guard.’ But years on the mat have taught me that nothing is fixed and that no ‘rule’ is absolute.
Now I preface almost every class and seminar with, “No matter what I teach you today, remember that there are no absolutes in jiu jitsu – only general principles and guidelines, which hold true most of the time.”
Jiu jitsu, like any living thing, is stunted by adherence to dogma. Don’t be rigid about positional hierarchy (or anything else) but instead see it as a general guideline. Endeavor to become a fluid, open and adaptable jiu jiteiro who is comfortable anywhere he might find himself and ready for anything the roll may bring.