Monday, February 3, 2014

Hacking Jiu Jitsu: 10 Questions To Improve Learning Curve

Get good at Jiu Jitsu quickly. No secret techniques, just lots of shortcuts and hacks.

With learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, there are so many variables to consider, but they aren't all evenly scaled and they aren't all of equal importance. When trying to improve and shorten your learning curve, you may need to take into account recovery and supplementation, of if you're getting quality sleep. But beyond that, you have to ask yourself the important questions to make your time effective and to organize your training to increase learning speed.

The important things to ask are, what attributes do you have and are you doing the right things for your attributes. Or do you override your attributes for preference? Do you insist on doing things that have a low success ratio?

Ask yourself these 10 key questions and design your game and drilling schedule accordingly and save yourself years of frustration:

1. Are you left or right handed, do you know when to switch stances, is your style uniform?

This matters because the majority of your opponents will be right handed and will typically pass or attack sweeps on the same side. They may have a completely different move set for their weak side. This also matters because your instructor will typically teach you moves from a right handed perspective.

Sometimes you'll see a Jiu Jitsu fighter get passed or swept simply because their legs and hands are confused. Their leg stance is of a lefty, but using hands like a righty. Your limbs aren't helping each other, which becomes easy to exploit. To put it simply, your hips point one way, your torso another. The side you fight must be uniform.

If you came from a striking background, you may think a right handed fighter has a left hand and left leg lead. But in grappling it's the opposite, as a righty it's right leg and right hand lead. It's why so many wrestlers in MMA fight southpaw, so they don't have to change their right handed wrestling stance. You pass to your left with a left leg and hand lead, and you'll get swept immediately. Typically if you pass to your left, you must lead with your right arm and right leg and vice versa. It's different from striking.

Your opponents will statistically attempt a pass to your right, if you grab their cross collar with your right arm and entangle with your right leg (unless you're doing something very specific), you're asking to get passed. In fact if they're passing to your right and you grab their collar with your right hand and punch their collar across your body, you're punching them into a perpendicular position, also known as sidemount.

So beyond being uniform, do you address the direction your opponent is going and the direction you want them to go? Or do you place your hands and feet independent of what your opponent does? If you do the latter, fix it.

2. Body type: Are you long legs or long torso or long arms big hands? 

If your torso is long and your legs are short, it's hard to play an entanglement game like de la riva or reverse de la riva, spider, or lasso. Which then makes berimbolo quite difficult. Only time I've seen an exception is when your feet is unusually large for your leg length. Then you can still entangle.

- It's best for fighters with shorter legs to sit up. This may not be your preference but mechanically will be easier for your body. When you sit up, you'll be much taller than a fighter with long legs and a short torso. From here butterfly and x-guard also becomes popular as your torso will help stretch your opponent out.

- When you have long legs, you can really entangle your opponent's leg and get your legs up high onto their hip. Why sit up when you can reach them with your feet?

- If you have long arms and big hands, a collar grip game may be the best method.

Obviously there will be times when you'll play multiple ways, especially if your opponent is shorter or taller, but good Jiu Jitsu isn't about being good at everything, it's about creating a few key strengths. You also don't have time to get good at everything, so spend more time on the things that matter.

You don't have an infinite body and lifetime to train, so don't train like you do.

3. Are you flexible?

If you're not flexible, certain moves, no matter how much you drill them will never be effective. Unless you improve your flexibility, which will take as much time as drilling a move. For instance if you can't at least do the butterfly stretch with your heels to your butt, rubber guard will not be feasible. Work on flexibility, then the move. But don't waste your time on the move if you're not willing to invest in flexibility first. It goes in that order.

But do you want to get good now or later? If now, focus on the moves you can do. Tailor your game to your body. Remember majority of us have limited time, you may not have time to drill outside of class AND stretch. As far as efficiency it makes more sense to tailor our move set to our body than our preference. If your 7 ft tall, you may prefer to be a gymnast but your probably better off doing a sport that rewards your height.

If you can't bend in half and touch your toes and beyond, berimbolo is out of the picture. And if your flexibility is not good, it will be hard to imagine you can get a deep enough de la riva to get to berimbolo position in the first place.

Here's why: a good berimbolo, relies on you spinning on your back to sweep or take your opponent's back while your leg stays entangled. This is why the long legs are important. But if you're not flexible, instead of rolling on your back, you'll roll on your shoulders. Which makes your belt, your pants, your back, easy for your opponent to grab. Not to mention this will start to injure your neck, shoulders, back, clavicle, and collarbone.

The key to this move is to grab your opponents back without them being able to touch yours. If you roll on your shoulders, you're basically throwing your butt at your opponent. Which makes it easy for them to berimbolo you back, take your back, or just grab you and tilt you over.

The effectiveness and the reason it's so hard to counter is when done right, it leaves you with a puzzle where the opponent can reach you but you can't reach your opponent. You can't reach your opponent's back because they keep it planted against the ground. If you roll on your shoulders, you're lifting your back to do the move, sacrificing the whole point of the move. It's not about the berimbolo, it's the puzzle it presents. If you can't do it correctly it doesn't present the same puzzle. Without the puzzle, the move is worthless.

Do you drill the moves you can physically do? Or do you spend that time stretching so you can do a certain move a year from now? Be real. Choose effectiveness. This is where your preference/stubbornness/ego will try to go against efficiency. Be efficient.

If you can invert, your ability to stop a guard pass becomes exponentially better. If you're not flexible and you can't invert without rolling on your shoulders, same problem. Then rely on footwork, collar grips, hip escapes, and steering your opponent. Rely on grips when your flexibility is lacking.

How many moves do you do that are beyond your range of motion? Don't be stupid.

Strength isn't as important as Jiu Jitsu is a martial arts that attempts to bypass strength with technique. But flexibility is often hard to bypass. BJJ was invented with the idea your opponent can be bigger and stronger, not more flexible. It's the martial artist who is seen as more technical and flexible. Small man who does the splits vs big strong trucker. There is truth to this.

4. Do you play a pass defense game involving more your legs, your body, or your grips?

This is important to understand so the rest of your bottom game is uniform with your pass defense game. If you use your legs, you'll entangle and sometimes invert. If you use your body, you'll sit up, single leg, or play a half guard/deep half guard game. If you use your hands, you'll steer your opponent with collar grips and defend with a choking game.

A grip and collar game is one of the few games that relies on submissions for positions.

5. Do you attack the efficient side?

Meaning if you're on bottom, do you always attack the same side regardless of which direction they are passing, whether they're left or right handed? For sweeps and submissions? On top do you pass the same side no matter which direction their sweeps tend to go or their submissions come from?

Those things matter. You want your game to be uniform. If you play a collar grip game from bottom to prevent passes, which ever side they're passing dictates which side you choke for instance. From closed guard if your opponent is right handed, and places his right hand on your chest, his left hand on your pants, it's easier to take an armbar on his left arm than his right arm. Your preference may be to attack his right arm regardless of how ready he is for it or how strong his arm may be. This is a huge reason why your armbar worked at white belt but stopped working at blue.

6. Do you pass on knees or standing? Is your opponent passing on his knees or standing?

- Passing on your knees makes certain sweeps hard to finish but then opens you up for submissions, closed guard, and makes passing difficult as a majority of your weight will be on your knees. It will also eliminate speed from your game. It relies less on actual passing but on waiting for your opponent to make a mistake so you can pin them.

It's less tiring, but your knees will take a lot more abuse. In speaking with a Rickson black belt, you were never meant to pass from the knees. It just became habit as people got lazy, and now is part of tradition. It's not the basics, standing is the basics.

- Standing allows for a variety of passes but is the key element needed for berimbolo, de la riva sweeps, or reverse de la riva. If you don't get swept, you have a much better chance to pass, whether your opponent makes a mistake or not.

- If you're on bottom, if they pass on knees, attack, attack, attack. Go for subs and try to take their back. If they stand, sweep.

The two methods aren't evenly scaled, you want to pass on your feet. But there will be times you'll need to also try to pass on the knees as well.

7. What grips do you use when passing? What grips does your opponent use?

- If you grab the pants on the outside, your best bet is toreando, and it also gives you the ability to attempt passes on both sides, attacking one side then switching to the other and combination passing. You can steer your opponent from side to side.

This grip leaves you vulnerable for spider guard.

- If you grab the pants on the inside, this is more for push/pull which you can use for a different type of toreando. Cobrinha uses push/pull, whereas Leandro Lo uses the side to side. Also you can use this for shin slide/x-pass, or use it as a starting grip for your combination pass.

This leaves you vulnerable for lasso or hand on collar or reverse de la riva.

- If you grab their lapel, you're basically declaring that you're going pass on this side. But the good part of this is, it makes your passing on this side very strong. Usually you'll initiate knee cut, club and back step, and sometimes a shin slide/x-pass.

Since they're insisting on a side and you know what's coming, there are so many ways to counter from the basics to something more advanced. This pass isn't seen as often in high level competition.

- If you grab low, around the ankles, which a lot of the great competitors do, you can do nearly any passing on either side but you need stronger grips for this game. This also allows for a more leg drag type of toreando. If they grab low, grab sleeve grips immediately if you're on bottom.

- If you wait for a reaction from your opponent to initiate a pass, this is when leg drags come in. As they set up spider, de la liva, classic open guard, nearly anything, in that transition is when you go for the leg drag. Which is why it's the most commonly seen pass now. The bottom player needs to be careful not to overextend and keep their knees tight to their chest.

- Inversely if your opponent likes de la riva, play the knee cut game. If they like lasso, play outside pant grips. If spider, leg drag. Reverse de la riva or inversion, push/pull inside pant grip game. Berimbolo, leg smash, but prepare to post out and back step as they will keep chasing after the sweep.

The key is, do not attempt passing without established grips. Even if you think you have the pass, attempt to follow up or pass all the way to north south or to the opposite side. For example if you pass, try to establish and get crossface, and be prepared to back step when they attempt to recover. Prepare to keep fighting for the pass, indefinitely.

Passing is also the window when you can take their back. Against good guys, prepare to attempt several passes on either sides. But don't just reset and try them, chain them together.

8. Do you want to win or do you want to entertain?

This simple question can save you a lot of time and frustration. You can drill flashy, crazy, or gimmicky moves that may not work, or even basic simple moves that no longer work, or you can drill the moves that actually work a statistically high percentage of the time. Don't be stubborn or stupid.

Jiu Jitsu is a sport. We often complain about people not being exciting, entertaining. We want them to dive for submissions or sweeps or passes that aren't there, to force moves. That is not Jiu Jitsu. You want sports entertainment, watch pro wrestling. In fact sports entertainment is what pro wrestling is.

Jiu Jitsu is about waiting, looking for mistakes, patience, reactions, and baiting. It's why Helio used to fight for hours, why Rickson held Zulu in his guard for 30 minutes.

The martial arts aspect of Jiu Jitsu is that ability to not get distracted, not care what others think, not care about entertainment or "fun" for that matter. It's about waiting for that right moment, or manipulating or baiting a reaction from your opponent.

Just make your moves clean, and know the right times to attempt them. Know the right times to go hard and fast, and the right times to rest. Sometimes you get submitted when you're resting at the wrong time or position, or swept when you were rushing when you should have pit stopped to assess the situation.

Do what you have to do to get the most out of Jiu Jitsu. Your time is limited. Ego is a problem, but being stubborn is a bigger problem.

9. If you had to just pick 3 things to practice what would they be?

If your brand new, but you're pretty athletic, evenly proportioned, and want to tap purple belts as a white belt, then just practice these 3 moves: berimbolo, leg drag, and bow and arrow choke.

It's conceivable to get to a very high level of proficiency with these 3 moves as a white belt if that's all you drill. And with these 3 moves you can beat a majority of people out there. But then is your goal to be good, or a good teacher? If teaching is in your future, this may not be the road you want to take. But stop kidding yourself, not all of you'll open a BJJ school (and not all of you will be world champs).

These may not be the 3 moves that are right for you (and high percentage moves change over time), but the key is to pick a small move selection and drill the hell out of them. Be very specific.

Also notice how it's 1 sweep, 1 pass, and 1 submission in that order. I scaled submissions last on purpose and both moves lead to that submission. If BJJ is kinetic chess, real chess players practice their opening moves and set ups the most often, and their checkmate moves the least. So if you keep comparing it to chess, why do you practice the checkmate moves the most like a n00b?

It's not about whether you're good or not, it's about what moves you're good at. If a move is popular now, realize people were drilling them 5 years ago. It takes time.

10. Do you do well with gameplans or are you better at being creative?

This will dictate whether you spend more time drilling, or more time specific training. Usually being creative and focusing solely on specific training happens later on at brown or black. Kit Dale talked about no longer drilling, but he did that after he got his black belt.

No matter what, drill or specific train more than you roll. If you roll a lot, drill and specific train even more. Train a minimum of 5x a week, and at least 3x a week outside of class drill or specific train for a minimum of an hour. World champs roll once a day, and drill twice a day.

Don't switch things around often. Be willing to work one move up to a year. It's why so many people aren't able to execute a move in competition until their next belt, they needed to drill it for that long. Realistically you should drill 1-3 moves for a year. If that's boring, then maybe the same 1-3 moves for 3 months but at least try to keep up one move for a year if not more. Imagine if you drilled the same 3 moves from white belt to black belt on your own time, how unstoppable you'd be?

As humans we aren't good at making a lot of conscious changes all at once. We need time to adapt.

Forget Malcolm Gladwell and the idea of 10,000 hours. Spending 10,000 hours drilling things that don't work is still a waste of time. Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanence. If you do something ineffective, practicing it more will not find perfection in it, but make that inefficiency a permanent habit within your game.

Then practice becomes the path to gross incompetence.

Don't try to be well rounded or balanced. Have strengths and hone them. Fighting's not about being perfect, it's about being effective. A master swordsman doesn't try to learn every weapon, he gets good at the sword and kicks everyone's ass with it.

Sam Yang from an early age has been obsessed with connecting the dots between martial arts and efficiency, health, mindset, business, science, and habits to improve optimal well-being. For more info, join his newsletter. You can also connect to Inner BJJ on Facebook and Twitter.

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  1. I really appreciate the advice in this post. As person fairly new to jiu-jitsu, it gave me a lot of interesting things to think about, and I'll likely be returning to reread it. Just one thing, the following metaphor doesn't quite make sense:

    "If BJJ is kinetic chess, real chess players practice their opening moves and set ups the most often, and their checkmate moves the least. So if you keep comparing it to chess, why do you practice the checkmate moves the most like a n00b?"

    Chess players definitely drill the myriad variations that spring from their openings of choice, but they also drill for strategy and tactics of the middle game as well as the somewhat involved options that make up the end game. To say that they focus more on their openings rather than their "checkmate moves" (which is not a chess term), isn't really valid.

  2. Great stuff. I've been trying to work a lot of spider guard lately with zero success. I though it was just my inexperience (I'm sure that's a lot of it) but I have short legs with a large torso. I rely heavily on butterfly and now I see that maybe it's just that my body is built for that guard. Thanks for the tips!

    Aches and Tape

  3. Hi! I recently have been off the mats and found myself turning towards meditation, and these questions have been great to add to those sessions. For me, thinking about grips has been the hardest concept to, well, grasp! I'll definitely be revisiting these questions to measure my progress.

    (Also, I hope you don't mind my linking your article to my post about meditation - this article is simply too good not to share.)



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