That's not a real move

Would you tap to this?

Jiu-jitsu is a contest between two people to see who can make the other give up. It’s fun and we want to do it every day, so we have rules that ensure no-one gets injured.

The rules are simple

  • stop when the other person taps
  • use a mat on the ground to prevent wear and tear on the body
  • no moves that will cause injury before the other person has a chance to tap out (no biting, scratching, striking etc)

And that’s it.

The art of jiu-jitsu is to be able to make someone bigger and stronger than you submit. This is the goal we keep in mind when we train. To do this, we train sophisticated moves that require minimal strength and athleticism as these moves have the greatest change of defeating someone bigger and stronger.

There is a problem that many practitioners face after they’ve been training for a couple of years. They forget that the game of jiu-jitsu is to make the other person give up. They think that the game of jiu-jitsu is to make the other person give up by using jiu-jitsu moves. This happens because they have become so used to looking at the small details of jiu-jitsu, that they have forgotten the overall larger picture.

At the end of the day, a tap is a tap. Whether it is due to an armbar or a simple head squeeze, makes no difference.

Overlooking this will slow your growth at best, and result in injury at worst. Practitioners at this stage of their development will say things like “I had to take a week off from training because my neck was so sore from being cranked. It hurt at the time but I didn’t tap because it wasn’t a choke”.

There are sophisticated moves that require skill to perform, and unsophisticated moves that only rely on brute force. Both are valid.

To be good at jiu-jitsu means being able to defend both types of moves. When something hurts, tap and then learn how to prevent it so it doesn’t make you tap again.

When you first begin jiu-jitsu, you feel like you’re fully awake and alive. The stars are brighter when you leave the gym at night. Your body feels like it has a purpose. You hunger for answers to the questions that arise on the mat.

These feelings stay with you as long as you do jiu-jitsu, but after a couple of months a new feeling comes to overshadow and dominate. “How am I doing?”

You start to measure yourself against the other people training on the mat. You think you’re measuring technical ability, but you’re really measuring self worth. Instead of “Bob is getting a lot more armbars these days, I wonder what he is doing differently”, you think “Damn, Bob is getting better, I’m falling behind”. Bob’s ability on the mat is independent from yours, but you don’t see it that way.

What you’ve unintentionally done is made your self worth depend on someone else’s performance.

You have no control over someone else’s performance, which means you have no control over your own self worth. This is a very uncomfortable feeling to have. The way that you deal with this feeling tells you a lot about yourself.

Some people get depressed and give up. They stop training as often and rationalise it as being too busy.

Other people get angry. Anger is a good motivator. They roll harder, they delay tapping, they get hurt.

Some people take it as a challenge. They set themselves a goal of “One day, no matter what, I’ll beat Bob”.

There are different coping strategies we use, some better, some worse. But the best strategy is to let go of the idea that your self worth is affected by other people on the mat.

Remember the feeling when you first started jiu-jitsu. This is the reason you train. Those feelings are still there, they might just be hidden at the moment. Your friends on the mats are there to act as inspiration, to celebrate your successes and commiserate with you at your defeats. They’ve experienced the same feelings you might be feeling now. Talk to them about it, ask them how they dealt with it.

Jiu-jitsu is a tough journey, but let yourself be inspired by those ahead of you. One day you will be as strong as them and have the newcomers of the day looking to you for strength and wisdom.

I’ve played many sports over the years. Some I’ve passionately enjoyed. Many were fun ways to pass the time. Other’s were boring and only done out of a sense of obligation. Jiu-jitsu is the only sport that has made me cry.

What jiu-jitsu brings, that the others don’t, is honesty. Honesty about yourself and who you are as a person. It raises a mirror to our personality and shows us that we are not who we believe we are.

We all have a sense of self, a belief of what we are capable of in a variety of situations. This is our ego. Sometimes we underestimate our capabilities, but most of the time we overestimate them. When we understand our capabilities, it’s usually due to a sense of false modesty.

Our ego is not an accurate assessment of who we are.

For most of us, this is fine. We don’t live like our ancestors did. Today’s lives are comfortable, safe, secure. Life doesn’t often test the boundaries of our capabilities, but when it does, TV, alcohol, internet or other drug of choice is there to ease the pain.

Jiu-jitsu tests our boundaries repeatedly. This sounds like a good thing, an opportunity to stretch, to grow, to improve. But our boundaries are often closer than we think they are. Being forced to confront this, pains us emotionally.

We like to pretend that we don’t judge others, but we do. We measure ourselves, our self worth, against others. I’m better than him, but she’s better than me. We mentally arrange ourselves into a pecking order. We understand mentally that people improve at different rates, but when someone whom we’ve placed below us in the pecking order surpasses us, we feel that emotional pain. Their progress shouldn’t reflect on how we feel about ourselves, yet it does.

In jiu-jitsu, the submission forces you to be honest. When you tap, there’s no way to rationalise yourself out of it. It doesn’t matter if the other person was less skilled, and merely bigger, stronger or more athletic. The tap means you acknowledge that they beat you. You’re not as good as your ego tells you. What does that tell you about your personality? Are you the sort of person that takes it as a challenge to overcome or do you turn back when the going gets tough? Do you like what jiu-jitsu tells you about yourself?

Jiu-jitsu is hard. To learn is to get beaten, to get frustrated. To survive, you must learn to love the frustration.

We do jiu-jitsu, we know how hard it is. Some days, just turning up and getting on the mat feels like the hardest thing you’ve ever done. What earns the respect of the old timers is showing up, getting beaten and showing up again. Tenacity and perseverance is how you improve.

Jiu-jitsu gives us many things, the most valuable being insight. Insight into who we are as a person. How we behave under pressure. How we relate to others and how we judge others. We learn our physical limits and learning this, have the opportunity to expand them. We learn what works for us. To learn jiu-jitsu is to learn one’s self.

Ideally, every roll would start with both opponents standing. Potential collisions with other people rolling nearby make this impractical on a crowded mat. Additionally, takedowns often result in wear and tear on the body. Most gym rolls have an implicit agreement that both opponents will avoid standing at the same time.

The naïve compromise is to start rolls with both opponents on their knees. The assumption is that this allows both participants to fight for top position while avoiding the potential injuries associated with stand up grappling.

The problem is that both-opponents-on-their-knees is a contrived situation that doesn’t occur in competition. It doesn’t even occur during a friendly gym roll unless you purposely start there. One opponent simply needs to stand to gain an immediate positional advantage over their kneeling opponent.

Even worse is that the both-opponents-on-their-knees situation keeps the bad aspects of jiu-jitsu standup (both opponents neutralising each other in a tight clinch) and loses the good ones (mobility to gain favourable angles).

A better way is to start in a guard position, the most common being closed or seated. It is a more effective use of training time to start in the guard, than to struggle on the knees for a minute or so before ending up in the guard anyway. In competition, most time is spent in the guard so your training time should reflect that.

An alternative approach (especially for the more experienced practitioner) is to start in an inferior position. This allows you to practise your escapes directly, rather than allowing your opponent to pass and establish dominant position before beginning an escape. Unless you are specifically working on the timing of your escapes, allowing your opponent to establish dominant position so you can practise your escapes just builds bad habits.

When we learn a new move in jiu-jitsu, we want to learn it correctly. We want to perform it the right way.

A move is a collection of concepts and tradeoffs. There is no right way to always perform a move in the general sense. The specific way to perform a move will depend on the environment it is performed in.

We’ll use the knee-slide pass as as example. The knee-slide (alternatively knee-slice, knee-cut or esgrima) pass is a way of passing the half guard. It is conceptually simple – start in half guard, pin your opponent’s upper body and then pull your leg free to end up in side control.

Below are multiple demonstrations of this pass. Note the way that different instructors emphasise different aspects of the pass. Some are so different that it is easy to consider them different passes.

Here is Saulo Ribeiro teaching the pass. Saulo emphasises heavy pressure and preventing your opponent from regaining the closed guard.

Now consider Rafael Mendes. He is much lighter than Saulo. It is easier to sweep a lighter opponent than a heavier one. Rafael emphasises keeping his weight off his opponent to avoid the sweep.

Steve Campbell takes a more conceptual approach. He notes that by twisting your opponent’s spine, it will be easier to extract your trapped leg. Steve’s gi focused approach twists the spine by pinning the hips first and turning the shoulders second.

Marcelo Garcia also shows the spine twisting approach to this pass. Marcelo pins the shoulders first and then turns the hips. This approach works both gi and no-gi while Steve’s hips-first approach favours the gi.

There is no right way to perform a move. If the move works, then you did it the right way. The environment dictates what is correct. You may trade pressure for mobilitity or vice-versa. Gi grips allow you to sacrifice positional stability for positional advancement. Consolidating your gi and no-gi game trades possibilities for reduced cognitive load.

Being good at jiu-jitsu means being able to make the correct tradoffs to be successful against your opponent.

Gi or no-gi is a polarising question in BJJ circles. Most people have a preference for one or the other. Calling it a preference is a little understated. Religious fervour would be more accurate.

The main difference between gi and no-gi is that you can grip the clothing. Essentially, gripping the gi acts as a strength multiplier. In BJJ, there is a strange hangup about strength. “You’re strong”, is a backhanded compliment in BJJ rather than a genuine compliment as in other sports. A core tenet held by most BJJers is that strength doesn’t matter, technique beats strength.

Now we can see why the gi or no-gi question raises such a passionate response. It’s touching people’s core beliefs about BJJ. People will tend to favour whichever style gives them the most success in their rolling as it reinforces their belief in BJJ being about technique rather than strength.

A grappling contest is not a contest of the athletes’ purely technical ability. It’s a contest of their technical ability combined with their physical attributes (strength, flexibility, explosiveness, etc).

Let’s see how the gi (strength multiplier) affects this contest.

If you are grappling against someone of similar skill, the contest comes down to attributes. Adding the gi will favour the stronger competitor. Conversely, removing the gi will favour the weaker competitor.

If you are grappling against someone of different skill, adding the gi will favour the more skilled competitor. Removing the gi will favour the less skilled competitor.


The gi provides a benefit against:

  • stronger but less technically skilled opponents
  • weaker but similarly skilled opponents

No-gi provides a benefit against:

  • weaker and more technically skilled opponents
  • stronger but similarly skilled opponents

Your preference for gi or no-gi is likely to be affected by the opponents that you regularly compete against. Here’s a cheatsheet to determine whether gi or no-gi will give you the advantage against an opponent. Consider your regular training partners and your preference for gi or no-gi. Notice a correlation?

Grappling Cheatsheet

As a coach, my job is to provide a training environment where people can learn BJJ safely and effectively. But there’s more to it than that. My job is to ensure that they learn how to keep themselves safe while training and competing.

These two things are not the same.

The most important thing to understand in BJJ is that your safety is your responsibility. Make sure you can keep yourself safe. Don’t rely on rules or referees to keep you safe. The following video shows that you can’t rely on rules and referees.

When you train in the gym, you are friends with the people you are training with and you know that they will look out for your safety. In a competition, or when training at another gym, you can’t afford to rely on your opponent to look out for you.

This means that you must train with illegal moves in the gym. When you train heel hooks, slicers, knee reaping, spinal locks etc with training partners you trust, you begin to understand those moves. When you understand the moves, you know when to tap and when to continue working your escape. More importantly, understanding the moves allows you to see the move coming and allows you to avoid getting caught right from the start. Just because a move is illegal doesn’t mean that someone won’t try to apply it on you.

Basic risk assessment. The worst injury that could happen to you is a spinal injury. Your game should be designed around this risk. Everytime you are in a position where your opponent can pick you up is a potential spinal injury. This means jumping guard, armbars from underneath, spider guard, closed guard. If you play in these positions you should expect to be picked up and you must know how to bail safely. A more prudent approach is to just avoid these positions entirely.

BJJ is a combat sport. Most of the time it’s a friendly sport. But in competition where emotions are high, it can turn into a fight. Your safety is your responsibility.

The majority of BJJ competitions follow the IBJJF ruleset or a variation of it. The objective in a BJJ match is for two competitors to battle to be the first to submit the other. This simple objective sounds like fun for the competitors and promises excitement for the spectators. So why aren’t IBJJF matches like this? Why are they boring to watch, confusing to score and not a lot of fun to compete in?

If you’ve never competed under any other ruleset, competing under IBJJF rules is fun. Junk food is also delicious when you’re hungry. Our expectations are higher than that. We expect our skills to improve as we train. We expect our coaches and training partners to improve as well. Likewise, we should expect our competition rules to improve.

The IBJJF is aware that the rules have problems, which is why the rules are tweaked frequently but to no avail. The tweaks just add complexity and further obscure the underlying problem of the ruleset.

The problem with the IBJJF rules is with its fundamental assumption. When the rules were being formed, BJJ matches were won by the traditional strategy of: takedown/sweep → pass guard → knee on belly → mount/back → submit. Not all matches end in submission, so a natural solution is to award points to competitors based on their progression in this strategy. We see this with the points allocation.

  • 2 points takedown
  • 2 points sweep
  • 2 points guard pass
  • 3 points knee on belly
  • 4 points mount or back

(The points for guard passing and knee on belly were later switched in one of the first rule tweaks).

This point allocation (and the mindset behind it) is the root cause of the failure of the IBJJF rules. The rules were initially intended to measure a competitor’s progression to the submission, but instead reward a competitor for following a particular strategy. Deviation from this strategy is penalised. This is a subtle point. Let’s look at examples of how the rules affect, rather than measure a match.

Movements progressing faster towards the submission aren’t rewarded as much as slower ones. Takedown straight to side control 2 points vs takedown to guard then guard pass 5 points. Sweep to side control 2 points vs sweep to guard then guard pass 5 points. Reversal from side control 0 points vs reguard and sweep 2 points.

The failure of the IBJJF rules is that it rewards and penalises strategies instead of the submission. This mindset allows the sport to become politicised. Consider the political effects of the current IBJJF ruleset:

  • strategies involving leg attacks are restricted to make them almost useless
  • particular guards are encouraged by disallowing slams from guard
  • non-traditional guards are discouraged – specific rules for 50/50 position, anti leg reap rules

Let’s consider other grappling rules and how they guide the strategies used by competitors.

ADCC. No points in the first half of the match. This allows competitors freedom in the strategies they choose. The points are based on IBJJF with some tweaks. “Clean” sweeps and takedowns that bypass the guard are recognised. Pulling guard is penalised. This is an improvement upon the IBJJF rules, but there is still restriction on successful strategies once the points come into play.

FILA Grappling. Heavy wrestling influence in that points are scored for positional control and escapes. Guard is not emphasised with any special rules for sweeps or guard passing. Obtaining positional dominance is a clear winning strategy as a 10 point lead wins the match (technical superiority). These rules encourage grappling, movement and control rather than the submission.

Eddie Bravo Invitational. A submission only ruleset. Matches that don’t end in submission are decided in overtime. Overtime is alternate rounds of starting in dominant position and attempting to submit/escape. Fastest submission/escape wins. Submission-only rules don’t favour particular strategies. The overtime rules favour a strategy of strong positional control, but this is negated by offering prize money for submissions during the round.

Recall that the objective of a BJJ match is to get the submission. Rules can affect the outcome of a match as competitor’s play to the nuances of the ruleset. Good rulesets only measure. Bad rulesets interfere.

The top player’s power hand is his most important tool in the half guard top position. Even if he is not attacking with it directly, he is using it for balance and defence. Removing the use of his power hand leaves him at a serious disadvantage. We examined fighting the power hand in week 6. We continue this topic here.

The frame that we established last week will be our staging platform for attacking. The top player has limited options for what he does with his power hand. He can:

  1. Grab the bottom player’s nearside hand, head or collar
  2. Grab or push the bottom player’s nearside knee
  3. Post on the ground or otherwise hide the power hand

These limited options make it much easier for the bottom player to prepare a response.

  1. The bottom player must stretch back to create distance and not leave her nearside hand within reach of the top player’s power hand. If the top player reaches for her head or collar, his arm will become extended and it is easier for her to grab his power hand.
  2. If the top player pushes the bottom player’s nearside knee, she can firmly cover his power hand with her hand. This will gain her a second or so before he can free his hand.
  3. If the top player is hiding is power hand, there is nothing the bottom player needs to do as the power hand is no longer a threat.

In all cases, the bottom player has neutralised the top player’s power hand, and is then able to sit up and gain head position.

Until now, the bottom player has been reacting defensively to the top player’s counters. Even though her goal is an offensive one (gain head position), she has been going about it with a defensive mindset. Her thoughts have been on countering the obstacles that the top player is putting in her path. The top player is the aggressor as he is deciding which obstacles to present to the bottom player.

The top player has the advantage because there are many possible obstacles that he can use (sitting back, pressuring the far deltoid etc). The more possibilities he has, the more options the bottom player must mentally process and the slower her reaction time will become. To regain an advantage and to switch to a more aggressive mindset, the bottom player must reduce the options available to the top player.

The bottom player can create a frame (structure) with her limbs that restricts the options available to the top player. The structure we are using is similar to Robson Moura’s 93 guard but with the inside knee blocking the top player’s far hip instead of her far hand grabbing the pants (no-gi compatible). The key points of this structure are:

  • Near-side knee/shin blocks the top player’s far hip as we covered in week 4.
  • Far-side knee/shin block the top player’s chest or near-side shoulder/biceps.
  • Hands are holding the top player’s upper body and pulling him towards her shins (pull-push like in spider guard).

The knee/shins create a shield that prevents the top player from being able to effectively crush. It may be difficult to transition from a half guard to this structure, so the bottom player may need to use stiff arm (locked elbow) frames to hold her opponent away as she positions her knees.

Faced with this structure, the top player’s immediate concern is not in preventing the bottom player from gaining head position. His attention must first be on dismantling her frames. There are only a small number of ways that he can do this. If the bottom player is aware of the likely behaviour of the top player, she has the advantage.

A strong frame gives the bottom player an advantage is it gives her respite from being crushed, time to think, and a staging platform to launch prepared attacks.