Tuesday, June 28, 2011


One of the mystiques of rolling with someone who is a higher level than you is how calm they seem and how that calmness undermines your ability to gain any ground over them. It totally ruins your confidence, it gives you the illusion that they don't care about anything you do, they are impervious to it in fact. Actually they already knew what they you were going to do before it and they are now 2 moves ahead. You ever hear this for descriptions of higher belts? A lot of respect being shown here.

And why? Because they have learned one skill that beginners have not yet mastered. The poker face. If they are close to tapping, their face is still blank and when you let go, they will say, "why did you let go bro, you almost had it?" Oh really? You showed no sign of being under any duress nor did it even seem like it was something you were worried about.

A beginner, watch their face. Just from their facial expressions and noises they make you know how new they are. Everything they feel, all their panic is expressing in their behavior, noises they make, or expressions. The blanker your face, the more the beginner will project all their worst fears on you. That you can read their fucking mind!

If you are a higher belt, you know what I am talking about. You can sense a beginner who rolls well with other beginners but roll like crap with you, and you can count on them making mistakes because they are frantic. You almost think, well if I sit here and do nothing and have no facial expressions he is going to abandon whatever he is doing currently because he thinks it is not working, even though it is.

You know they are a white belt, it's written on their face. Every anxiety they have on their brows, their heavy dysfunctional breathing, their gasping for air, they surges of energy to exhaustion, the way their hand shakes a little before you slap hands, the way they keep changing their mind on which hand to lead with, then abandoning everything they know to lunge at you like a dog with behavioral problems, etc.

It's a mind game better players learn unconsciously. How often have you seen a better player with no expression or maybe just a smile and do absolutely nothing? Doing nothing is actually losing in BJJ. But how come when they do nothing it seems like they are kicking your ass and you are seconds away from being tapped? So it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and you get yourself tapped.

I remember a good wrestler walking in the door and giving all of us at our academy all kinds of hell. He didn't know we were supposed to be better than him so he showed us no respect. After being taught by other students and the head instructor that even though he didn't get submitted or ever got dominated, that there were lots of chances a supposed "good guy" could have hurt him, or he could have hurt himself. And eventually he starts getting tapped. His mind gets undermined. He starts to show too much respect. He runs. He starts to get tapped. Then a lot, then viciously. Now he truly respects BJJ and how dangerous and hard of a sport it is. He entered a blue belt tournament as a brand new white belt, maybe training just 2 months. He won a few matches and eventually lost by points (he didn't understand the point system and thought it was like wrestling). That tournament was called The Worlds. Years later as a real blue at the same tournament he gets submitted in his first match every time.

It's why the mental game is so important. Whenever he is getting closed to tap, you can see it. The panic setting in. The calmer you are, the more undermined he feels. When he knew nothing and didn't know to be scared he was an animal. It's like the Coyote chasing The Road Runner and running off a cliff, and not falling down until he looks down.

I've seen it in myself. When I rolled with someone and didn't know what belt they were, I did extremely well. Once someone told me their rank, I started to get dominated. I got in my own head. I lost my poker face as he showed no signs of fear.

People say there are only two ways to defeat someone, they can out technique you, or over power you. I think there is a third way also, they just have a tougher mind and break you mentally.


  1. Wow Sam, this is one of your most thought-provoking posts yet. It certainly rings true in my case. As you might remember, I play poker for a living so having a BJJ poker face comes pretty naturally to me. It's easy for me to appear relaxed when in reality I'm smashed and hating life, or to make a point of breathing controllably when the choke starts closing in on me. And so I do get a lot of people giving up on things that they definitely have. But there is a downside though in the academy. People do rip joint locks a lot harder when they feel like you have it under control, and as a small skinny guy I am at risk of injury when they do it. Still, in competition, it truly is wonderful to be able to appear incredibly serene while fighting.

  2. This is a very true post, I see it all the time. I agree 100% about the breaking people mentally parts also. I always remind my students to force your opponent to out think you. Great job.

  3. Hey Terrence long time. Yes I agree on the downside. I once was rolling with someone who popped the hell out of my knee out of nowhere. I asked him what the hell, why didn't you give me a chance to tap. He told me he didn't think he would finish me. There goes my poker face, went straight from a blank face to screaming.

    Hey Rollo, I liked what you said, force your opponents to out think you. Hopefully you won't mind me expanding on that in a future post, giving you credit of course.



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