On teaching submission defence

The goal of BJJ is to submit your opponent. The counterpoint of that is to not get submitted yourself. How do I go about teaching submission defence?

Surprisingly, I don’t teach submission defence in class.

There are only a small number of contact hours with athletes each week. We must focus on the areas that make the biggest and most immediate gains to most efficiently use our time. Teaching submission defence cuts into time that could be used for more important things.

Does this mean that our grapplers are lacking knowledge of submission defence? Not at all. Consider when a grappler is away from the gym. Is this just dead time or can it be utilised?

Say a grappler gets caught in a submission but knows how to defend and escape. The roll with continue and s/he will quickly forget that a mistake was made that lead to being caught in the submission.

Another grappler gets caught in a submission but doesn’t know how to defend and so must tap. When away from the gym, this person will remember being forced to tap. S/he will think about how the submission happened, and try to come up with ways to avoid being caught again.

The grappler is now utilising the dead time when not at the gym, and is developing the most important skill in grappling – predicting what is about to happen next.

Does this mean I never teach submission defence? No. However, submission defence is only taught one-on-one. When a grappler is being caught repeatedly and has not been able to discover a defence, that is the time to give some hints.

A coach’s job is to develop highly skilled, self sufficient grapplers. This means setting up situations where the athletes wants to take control of their own training. Not teaching classes on submission defence is one way we achieve this.

How tough are you?

Long before I had ever heard of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I had trained for eight years in traditional martial arts. My training averaged between 12-15 hours per week. How tough was I?

I learnt the answer one late afternoon, alone in an isolated area being followed by a scary guy about 25kgs heavier than me. Before that moment, I thought that my training was enough to protect me.

Fortunately, reality set in and my self illusions fled. Sure I could punch through roof tiles, but that’s just a cheap trick. Size matters. There was no way I could hit this guy with enough force to stop him. I knew I had no chance to defend myself so I ran.

After that, I took up running. Running worked.

Years later I accompanied a friend to try out a class of something called BJJ. One of the students, a 16 year old girl, repeatedly submitted me with ease. Wow, this stuff works. I had to learn it. Fifteen years later, here I am.

The point of this story is that after eight years of training in traditional martial arts, I had no realistic idea of how capable I was. I could demonstrate punches, throws, kicks against a training partner. I could spar (with gloves, groin guard, shin guards) and hold my own. But I still didn’t know if I could be effective when it mattered.

BJJ gives you honest feedback

With BJJ, it’s different. You test yourself at the end of every training session. There is concrete feedback, the tap. If there is one thing that makes training in BJJ effective, it’s the tap.

Gordan Ryan taps Yuri Simoes

If you get beaten when striking, you can always protect your ego by making up an excuse such as, “If it was the street, we wouldn’t have gloves and it would be different”. You can’t do that in BJJ. The tap means that you accept the defeat.

With BJJ, you and your training partner both try to make the other submit. The only rule is that whatever you do, you give the other person enough time to tap out. That way nobody gets injured, they just tap and you both start again.

This leaves no room for excuses. “If this was the street, I’d pick you up and slam you”. Okay, let’s test it. If you can pick me up, I’ll tap. If you can’t pick me up then your excuse isn’t valid.

The tap gives us the feedback we need so we can direct our training towards bolstering our weaknesses. At least, it does when our ego doesn’t get in the way. When our ego gets in the way, the tap turns into a cruel overlord laughing at our inadequacies.


If you train long enough, you’ll get physically capable of defending yourself. Everyone else doing BJJ has done it. There’s nothing special about you that will prevent you from getting good. Physical toughness is a given.

It’s emotional toughness that is the real test of character. Being tough in BJJ is turning up, even though you get submitted by everyone. It’s sitting in your car in the carpark debating whether to go in or not, and you go in despite the feelings of not being good enough.

The toughest people of all are those that are able to return after a long break. When you have time off, you know that all those people that you used to submit will probably be submitting you. Your timing and coordination won’t be as good as when you were training. There will be much you have forgotten. And yet, even with this all stacked against you, you get back on the mat.

A new member once asked me, “Who do I have to beat to earn respect?” The answer, of course, is yourself.

Why BJJ gets you hooked

Here is Callum’s second article on his experience with BJJ.

The written version can be found on medium.

Check out Callum’s first article analysing BJJ from a game designer’s perspective

Is it a draw or a double loss? 1

In a jiu-jitsu roll, you win when your opponent taps. If neither of you tap, is it a draw or is it a double loss?

One of our members wrote an interesting analysis of BJJ from a game design perspective. One point he made is that draws give beginners a middle ground between losing and winning. A beginner may not have the skills to defeat a more experienced opponent, but she may be able to deny him the satisfaction of defeating her.

Looking at draws this way is a healthy way for beginners to measure progress, and to feel excited about rolling with someone more experienced. The draw becomes a tool to help them move towards the goal of defeating their opponent.

But draw is a beginner’s tool.

How to stay a beginner forever

Is it a draw or a double loss?

If you’ve been to a different gym, you’ve probably rolled someone who is terrified of losing. This is the person

  • that goes as hard as they can, but when you get on top they want to stop for a breather.
  • who just as you are locking in a submission, tells you “stop” and then proceeds to explain how to perform the submission.
  • who hunkers down defensively and doesn’t want to move, no matter how much space you give them.

People who behave like this have a novice’s mindset, no matter what rank they wear. Their self talk reveals their low self-expectations, “At least I didn’t get submitted”.

The draw is their favourite technique, not because it helps them move towards the goal of submitting their opponent, but because it moves them away from being submitted.

Moving beyond the need for draws

As you gain experience in BJJ, you realise that there are many mini-battles contained within a single roll.

To take a coarser view, there are battles for:

  • guard passing
  • sweeping
  • escaping
  • submitting

To take a finer view, there are battles for:

  • under hooks
  • angles
  • inside control
  • entanglements

When rolling with someone more experienced, it doesn’t matter if you tap. Of course someone who is legitimately more experienced can make you tap. What matters is how many of the mini-battles you can win. The more mini-battles you can win, the closer you are to tapping your opponent.

A beginning strategy is:

  1. Don’t get tapped

An intermediate strategy is:

  1. Try to win as many mini-battles as you can
  2. If you can’t win a mini-battle – gain more knowledge until you can
  3. Submit your opponent

Thoughts to reflect on

There is winning, there is losing. There are no draws. Embrace it.

The loss is feedback. It isn’t a value judgement. Don’t take it personally.

You need two things – knowledge of the mini-battles and practice.

Talk to your coach and ask him to watch your rolls. There’s probably a mini-battle that you’re not aware of.

Why BJJ gets you hooked

One of our members works as a computer game designer. He’s performed an analysis of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu from a game designer’s perspective to show why it is that we find BJJ to be so addictive. Full video is below.

A written version can also be found on medium.

Getting better at BJJ (intermediate)

There’s a simple formula for a beginner to get better at jiu-jitsu. Show up, train, roll and get enough sleep. A beginner needs general physical conditioning, knowledge and experience applying that knowledge on the mat. The beginning formula gives them this.

Sooner or later their improvement slows down. Why? What causes this slowdown?

Beginning training is focused on techniques. More techniques means more success on the mat. Eventually the beginner becomes saturated with techniques. More techniques no longer mean more success. Additionally, the beginner is becoming predictable when rolling. The other athletes have figured out their game and are able to stop their techniques early.

The beginner is now at an intermediate stage of progression and needs to train differently to continue improving at a steady pace.

Intermediate training is different

There are always more techniques to learn, but your emphasis should be on improving the techniques that you are having success with.

To apply your technique, you must overcome your opponent’s defences. The two ways of doing this are to

  • improve your technique so it can overwhelm your opponent’s defence
  • apply the technique before your opponent can defend

You should work on both of these areas together.

Improving technique

  • What is the key point that you have to do for the technique to work?
  • What is the next key point?
  • Is your structural alignment (posture) better than your opponent’s?
  • Are you successfully restricting your opponent’s movement? (connection)

If you’re not certain, ask someone with more experienced with the technique.

Applying technique

If you’re underneath, don’t fight for the underhook. Bump your opponent sideways and force them to post their arm. They’ve now given you the underhook.

This is the idea of the set-up. You set up your desired move with an initial move that you expect your opponent to counter. This initial move is planned so that the counter to this move makes it harder to defend the technique that you really wanted all along.

Setups aren’t developed while rolling. They’re germinated in the shower, while you’re walking to work or in bed at night before falling asleep. Once you’ve got an idea, you develop it with a training partner after class or at an open mat. When you’re happy with it, you try it while rolling with a beginner.

Now analyze. Is the setup working or does it need refining? Continue the cycle of practice with a training partner—try it in a roll until you’re reliably applying the setup while rolling.

Change your thinking

The progression from beginner to intermediate involves a change in the way you think about training. You’re no longer accumulating techniques, you’re revisiting and getting better at the techniques you are already doing.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 4

In 1993 in the UFC, Royce Gracie wowed the world by beating all his opponents by fighting off his back. He used the closed guard to do it.

Thousands of years ago, people believed that the earth was flat. These two facts have more in common than you think.

The Earth is not flat. We’ve known this since Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth about 2200 years ago. The Flat Earth model was useful long ago but we now use a better, more accurate spherical model of the Earth.

The closed guard definitely works. We’ve seen thousands of people use it to achieve victory in fights and competitions. So why am I comparing it unfavourably to the Flat Earth model?

The pros and cons of the closed guard


  • Easy for beginners to learn
  • Keeps the fight on the ground
  • Many submission opportunities – guillotines, armbars, triangles, kimuras, omoplatas
  • Moderate ability to sweep to the top position


  • Easy for your opponent to lift you off the ground
  • Easy for your opponent to stack you once your ankles uncross
  • Easy for your opponent to heel hook you once your ankles uncross
  • Hard to defend against strikes

So 4 for 4. Seems even, right? Wrong.

Spinal injuries, knee ligament injuries, getting elbowed in the face. These are some of the worst things that can happen to you when grappling/fighting. Using closed guard makes it easy for your opponent to do these things to you.

The disadvantages of closed guard far outweigh the advantages.

Spinal injuries

There are many videos on youtube of people suffering severe spinal injuries while competing in BJJ. You may have even heard of friends locally who’ve suffered spinal injuries while training or competing. All these injuries occur because of either getting lifted off the ground or getting stacked.

Here is why you don’t want to get lifted off the mat

Closed guard spinal break

WARNING: not for the weak of stomach.

Risks of getting stacked.

Heel hooks

Following on from spinal injuries, the next worst injury is knee ligament damage from heel hooks. These injuries are dangerous because they need surgery to recover more often than other injuries. Once your ankles are uncrossed in closed guard, you have little ability to prevent your opponent from entering for the heel hook.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 5

Strikes from closed guard

The only way to defend strikes in closed guard is to use your arms. Your legs can’t effectively control distance or off-balance your opponent. If strikes are a concern, then using closed guard usually results in this:


There are other guards that avoid the disadvantages of closed guard.

Half guard (and variations e.g. z-guard, lockdown) keep the fight on the ground.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 1

Hooking guards (butterfly, X-guards) allow for higher percentage sweeping opportunities and access to leg submissions

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 2

Why is closed guard so prevalent?

Apart from specialist professions (pilot, ships’ captain) assuming the earth is flat doesn’t cause any real harm for many people.

For BJJ athletes, using closed guard has very real (and severe) risks.

Even though we knew the Earth is spherical over 2000 years ago, it took hundreds of years for it to become universally accepted.

Closed guard’s one advantage over other guards is that it is easy for beginners to learn. Beginners love closed guard because it feels like they’re making progress in learning BJJ. They don’t have the knowledge and experience of the severe risks of closed guard to make an informed decision.

It is a coach’s responsibility to protect their beginning athletes from severe injury, until the athletes gain enough experience to take responsibility for their own safety. If you’re a coach, it’s time to ask yourself if you’re fulfilling your responsibilities towards your athletes.

The closed guard was useful for its time. Its weaknesses are now obvious. There are more modern and better replacements. The earth is not flat and there are better options than the closed guard.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 3

The BJJ Belt System

As a coach, every action I take either helps or harms the people I train. My actions are guided by this filter, which causes us to do things differently to other gyms.

Most gyms start newcomers with bridge-and-roll and scissor sweeps. Most people at my gym don’t even know what these low-percentage moves are.

The IBJJF has a list of illegal moves that many gyms avoid. We train with these illegal moves because we need to know how to defend them.

We keep what is useful and discard what is not. There is, unfortunately, one very harmful aspect from traditional BJJ training that I haven’t been able to discard.

The BJJ Belt System

The BJJ Belt System

Why do we have a belt system? Other sports don’t have belt ranks, what they have is ranked competitions. As your performance improves, you compete in higher ranked competitions. If your performance decreases then you compete in lower ranked competitions (although most people stop competing when their performance declines).

This may seem like a subtle difference, but it is an important one. In most sports you want to improve your skills so you can challenge yourself by competing in tougher competitions. In BJJ, many people just want the next belt, and don’t necessarily want what the belt represents.

Would you rather be a black belt or beat a black belt?

Belts create a hierarchy in the gym that can harm the gym culture. You see this is many gyms where higher ranks have special privileges over lower ranks. Lower ranks have to bow to higher ranks, or must stand behind them or can’t even ask them to roll.

In case you were wondering why we circle-up in arbitrary order rather than lining-up in rank order, it is to avoid the idea of hierarchy and special privileges.

Is the Belt System based on merit?

We like to pretend the BJJ belt system is a merit system, but it isn’t. The IBJJF leads the way in this with their black belt grades. Black belt grades are based entirely on time-in-rank and whether you pay your annual registration fees or not. No merit involved.

The coloured ranks aren’t a merit system either. We know this due to how often the word sandbagger is used in BJJ. A sandbagger describes someone who is consistently beating higher ranked opponents, but has not been awarded that rank.

If we ignore belt ranking and say “I compete at blue grade” rather than “I am a blue belt” we wouldn’t have a problem. The only hierarchy in the gym would be the natural competence hierarchy of who is beating whom.

If everyone in the gym competed, again there would be no problem. The coach would rank competitors according to how well they perform in competition (or risk facing embarrassment).

A problem occurs when only some people at the gym compete but everyone expects to progress in rank. The competitors that compete will be ranked appropriately. But how should a coach rank those who don’t compete?

Imagine a part time athlete who trains sporadically but has been training for six years. Many coaches would be tempted to award the next grade to this athlete, even if they don’t have the same ability of the competitors at this grade. Given the prevalence of the claim of sandbagger, there are many coaches who have given in to this temptation and have graded their athletes inconsistently.

The problem of the Belt System

The problem of the BJJ belt system is that it is not merit based, yet we pretend it is. Few coaches have a consistent criteria. Many use arbitrary metrics such as length of time training, whether the athlete pays their fees on time, or whether the coach likes the athlete or not.

Assuming the belt system is merit based causes problem with the gym culture. Athletes who have trained hard to earn their belts will resent seeing other athletes being awarded belts at lesser ability levels. Athletes who have been given their belts early will feel intimidated by athletes of lower rank yet greater ability.

How do I get the next belt?

The crux of the matter is that there is no generally agreed upon way of establishing who should hold what belt. My personal criteria is:

If a BJJ athlete were to enter a competition in their age and weight division, at what belt rank should they compete in to best improve their jiu-jitsu?

Note that this mostly, but not entirely, merit based. It’s competition based, so athletes that I grade should expect to be competitive in their competition division.

It not solely merit based for older and lighter athletes due to our local competitions. There are not many lighter or older competitors that compete locally. This means that lighter competitors often have to compete in heavier divisions, and older competitors have to compete with the young guns.

For these athletes, I have higher expectations for them and treat them is if they were heavier or younger. This means that it takes longer for them to be graded to the next belt.

If you want to know about how to get your next belt, read my criteria then come and talk to me.

Rickson Gracie

Rickson Gracie
Connection is contact that restricts your opponent’s movement while improving your own ability to move.

Rickson Gracie enjoys a reputation as the greatest jiu-jitsu practitioner ever. Whether you believe his claimed 465-0 fight record or not, respected coaches such as Fabio Gurgel say Rickson’s reputation is deserved.

Is Rickson simply a superior athlete with impecable timing and co-ordination, or is his invisible jiu jitsu the key that distinguishes him from everyone else?

Rickson says invisible jiu jitsu is a combination of base and connection. We talked about base previously, but what is connection?

Confusion about connection

There is much curiosity and confusion about connection, but no clear description. Part of the fault lies in the unfortunate choice of name. The name connection is also used by several internal martial arts to imply mystical and indefinable forces.

A Jiu-Jitsu Magazine article furthers the confusion by describing connection as a kind of mind meld with your opponent where you can sense their intention before any movement occurs.

How do others describe connection?

Fortunately, two different seminars where Rickson discusses connection are now online.

Before we examine them, let’s see what other people who have trained with Rickson say about connection.

With it my timing is perfect and I feel like I can read the mind of my opponent or anticipate his or her actions.

Without connection, I feel that I’m struggling for the perfect leverage, angles, weight distribution and base.

Tony Pacenski

Two people joining their bodies so that they make one unit and you are in control of how that unit moves.

Cane Prevost

Connection is the ability to transfer your energy to another person so that when you move, your opponent immediately feels the effects of it.

Henry Akins

connection is the relationship between the attacker’s base and our own

when you’re connected, there is a certain tension in the arms as well as the legs, and that allowing that tension to disappear is to give up the connection you have to your opponent.

When we are connected, we shift our weight in a way that doesn’t give our attacker anything to use against us.

being connected allows your base to remain independent of your opponent’s actions, while his lack of connection allows you to manipulate his weight and posture.

being connected is about inhibiting the opponent while improving your own ability to move.

the connection point works best against your opponent’s resistance because it not only blocks that resistance, it allows you to move more easily away from it.

Andreh Anderson

Each of these descriptions are vaguely similar but the commonality isn’t obvious, yet.

How does Rickson explain connection?

Below are two different occasions of Rickson teaching connection.

After watching these, I’m more confused than ever. In both those seminars, Rickson says he is explaining connection, but what I see him doing is hugging tightly and talking about base.

Cane Prevost, recounts a similar experience of a Rickson seminar.

In fact, instead of giving us details about posture (where to put your hips, your hands, shoulders etc) he talked about how the position should feel. He did a lot of that. He used the words “base” and “connection” a lot. I found the whole thing fascinating and left the seminar curious but unenlightened. I knew I had experienced something profound but wasn’t yet sure what it was.

Verbalising connection

Just as Rob Biernacki elegantly describes base as a platform from which you can deliver and absorb force, I want a similarly elegant description of connection.

Fortunately, Andreh Anderson nails it in one of his above descriptions of connection.

Rewording slightly, we have our elegant description, connection is contact that restricts your opponent’s movement while improving your own ability to move.

This description describes the function of connection, rather than form. I discussed why this is important in the last post.

Confirming the definition

Rickson demonstrating connection

Rickson demonstrating connection. Note the marked connection points.

I found Rickson’s seminar videos confusing because it looked like connection was just hugging and talking about base. The concept is clearer now thanks to our new definition.

Observe the image of Rickson demonstrating connection. Rickson applies firm, tight pressure with his hug. This removes slack and prevents his opponent from escaping. Rickson’s strong base allows him to move his opponent while remaining stable. The firm, tight hug (connection) maintains a favourable angle, while base allows Rickson to control the movement.

Cane’s description two people joining their bodies so that they make one unit and you are in control of how that unit moves, agrees nicely.

Tony says about connection: with it my timing is perfect and I feel like I can read the mind of my opponent or anticipate his or her actions. We can improve our timing by slowing (restricting) our opponent’s movement. Again we have agreement with our definition.

Henry says when you move, your opponent immediately feels the effects of it. This sounds like a description of removing slackness, combined with the tension there is a certain tension in the arms as well as the legs that Andreh describes.

Andreh’s other descriptions both imply the ability to move more than the opponent. Namely When we are connected, we shift our weight in a way that doesn’t give our attacker anything to use against us. And being connected allows your base to remain independent of your opponent’s actions, while his lack of connection allows you to manipulate his weight and posture.

Our definition of connection is consistent with Rickson’s demonstrations and the reports of his students/seminar attendees.

Why this definition matters

We need to keep in the mind the function of what we are trying to achieve, not merely the mechanics of what we are doing. I believe part of the confusion surrounding connection is that people are focusing on the form (removing slackness, closeness of contact, the feeling of tension) and forgetting the function.

Why do we need to mention movement in our definition? Can we define connection only as contacting our opponent with tension while removing slackness?

Here’s a demonstration of connection from side-control bottom. We can see the points of contact and we can imagine the feeling of pressure. We can see how the bottom person has removed slack and is applying tension. Everything looks fine when we remove movement from our definition.

Demonstration of connection

Demonstration of connection. Note the points of contact.

However, we see a problem when we look at the opponent’s freedom of movement. The opponent’s entire right side can move freely, despite the restriction of the left side. The restricted left side does not prevent the opponent from mounting, which is one of his primary goals from this position. Ignoring movement allows sub optimal jiu-jitsu to creep in.

How the contact points inhibit movement

How the contact points restrict movement

Our definition of connection, contact that restricts your opponent’s movement while improving your own ability to move, is important because it matters which parts of our opponent that we restrict from moving.

Let’s look again at Rickson demonstrating connection. See how Rickson is contacting (connecting) all the parts of his opponent’s body that his opponent needs to move to escape. Rickson is combining the mechanics of connection (tight, firm contact with no slackness) with the objective of restricting his opponent’s ability to move.

Rickson's connection principle

Note the connection points are precisely the points that Rickson’s opponent needs to move to escape.

In conclusion

Connection may not be the silver bullet that distinguishes Rickson from everyone else, but it’s a necessary component of efficient jiu-jitsu. A clear definition helps to communicate the concept and avoid the confusion that currently exists.

Verbalising BJJ concepts

Word Salad

Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Jiu Jitsu is too complicated. There are many techniques, and many more counters. We focus too much on the details and not enough on the bigger picture.

Consider the idea of base in BJJ. Base is about being stable. We need:

  • Hips low to the ground
  • A wide base of support with two or more limbs on the ground
  • The limbs contacting the ground to be slightly bent
  • Our centre of mass inside our base of support

Already there are too many details.

Rob Biernacki elegantly defines base as as platform from which you can deliver and absorb force.

This is a better way to describe base because it describes its function rather than its form. Once you know the desired function (e.g. Don’t fall over when I push you), the form is easier to understand.

Did you notice that the first discussion of base missed something?

The description implies that base is for absorbing force, but it neglects the need for delivering force. I can have a stable side-control top game with my insteps on the mat if my only concern is absorbing force. But we know that good base in side control requires toes on the mat so we can deliver force when necessary.

When we focus solely on form (detail-oriented description), it is easy to overlook key details because we don’t know which details are necessary and which are merely nice to have.

Verbalising why you are doing something conveys more information than describing what you are doing.