The elusive BJJ basics
Aoki vs Cavalcante - Dream 2

Omoplata – basic or not?

“I need to work on my basics”. “Basics win matches”. “BJJ is all about the basics”.

It’s common to hear statements like these when discussing BJJ. So what are the basics? It’s a simple enough question but it’s hard to get a precise answer to it.

You’ll get different answers depending on whom you ask. A common response will be an arbitrary list of techniques; armbar from guard, collar choke, scissor sweep etc. A more thoughtful response will include escapes from bad positions. An even more thoughtful response (but unhelpful to the beginner) will be along the lines of posture, balance and timing. There is no consistent answer.

There is no consistent answer because it is not a good question. The “Basics” mean different things to different people. To some, basics are the first things they themselves learnt when they began training. To others, basics could be the traditional “old style” techniques of BJJ or they might be the skill set that a white belt needs before being promoted to blue. It is an undefined term that is unhelpful to use when discussing BJJ.

It is much more useful to be specific when discussing BJJ. Instead of “I need to work on my basics”, a better question is to ask “How can I escape the mount position?”. With some reflection this may change into “I keep finding myself under the mount position. Why is this happening?” When the right question is being asked, you have the potential to find an answer for it.

If you find yourself using the term “basics”, it is most likely an indicator of uncertainty in your thoughts. Use this as an opportunity to clarify what you are talking about and be specific.

BJJ is the art of a million moves. At least it can feel like that to a beginner. If your gym follows the common “3 techniques a class” philosophy, you’ll be exposed to several hundred techniques a year. How can you simplify and make sense of all this information?

An easy approach is to simply ignore most of the techniques and only focus on the high percentage ones. (A high percentage technique is one that it is used effectively in high level competition by multiple competitors). The problem with ignoring teaching is that a lot of your instruction time is wasted.

A better approach is to group information into similar chunks. You remember the overall chunk, and anything inside is simply a variation on the overall theme.

Forlogos demonstrates spider guard passing

No reason for the image, it's just cool.

Let’s use guard passing as an example.

The novice approach is to remember each individual guard pass as a sequence of steps – left hand grabs the collar, right hand grabs the sleeve, right foot steps up… A sure path towards information overload.

Perhaps we could try categorising the guard passes. e.g. Standing vs kneeling guard passes. Or even: under the legs vs over the legs vs around the legs. This groups the different passes and makes remembering them easier. It is a good approach for brainstorming and for organising your thoughts while you try to better understand guard passing.

Categorising techniques does has several problems. Like the novice approach, it’s a descriptive approach. It addresses guard passing as a collection of techniques to be mastered. It doesn’t address the transition between the categories – you might start passing by standing but finish on your knees. And it doesn’t help you understand why the passing techniques work, or how to modify them to make them work for you.

A different approach is to realise that there are a small number of objectives that occur throughout the different guard passes. The focus of passing becomes a matter of fulfilling objectives, not the mechanics of how to do so. If the objective is to pin your opponent’s knee to the mat, you can do that with your hand, your shin, your belly or other body part. Different body parts may lead to different passes, but the objective is the same.

This objective based approach is similar to how guard passing works in practise. You have a collection of possible objectives and you try to achieve the easiest one based on the resistance your opponent is giving you. As you try to achieve a particular objective, your opponent may change position and a different objective may become easier to achieve, so you switch to that one.

Here are a few common objectives that occur in guard passing.

  • Control your opponent’s feet, then knees, then hips and then shoulders. If you lose control of one of these then backtrack and start again.
  • Pin either one of your opponent’s knees to the ground, or pin both knees together.
  • Keep your hips as close to your opponent’s hips as possible.
  • Establish the underhook before completing the pass to side control.

There are multiple ways to organise how you think about BJJ. Don’t just stick to a single approach. Try different ways to get the benefits of them all.

The goal of BJJ is to make your opponent give up, to submit. Each of us will be forced to submit many times while training. It’s a humbling experience. Those of us without any ego problems tap, learn and keep training. Those who can’t manage their ego either quit or become self destructive.

The longer you train, the better you become at not letting your ego become involved. At least, it works that way with most people. For an unfortunate few, the longer they train the more significant every perceived loss becomes. Being swept by a lower belt becomes a big deal. This self directed frustration then manifests itself in ugly ways.

Scissors throw

Not this kind of scissors throw

How ugly can it get? Very ugly. I once witnessed a black belt instructor being submitted by a smaller blue belt twice via the same submission. After class the blue belt was acting up and the instructor told him to stop. The blue belt didn’t so the instructor picked up a pair of scissors and again told him to stop or else he’d throw the scissors at his head. Laughing with the ludicrousness of the situation, the blue belt continued so the black belt stepped forward, wound up and hurled the scissors at the blue belt’s head. Fortunately the rotation of the scissors caused the handle to strike first so there was no significant injury other than a mark by the eye.

While this is obviously an extreme example, being controlled by your ego makes for bad BJJ. Frustration causes you to lose the sense of fun and excitement that is the main reason we train.

How do you know if you have ego problems? If you find yourself thinking these kinds of thoughts. “I should be able to pass this guard, he’s only a white belt”. “He beat me with strength, not good jiu-jitsu”. “I don’t want to roll with that opponent, he might submit me”.

Part of my job as a coach is to make sure ego problems don’t occur and to fix them quickly if they arise. These are the things I do.

  1. Deal with any ego problems in myself. Members of a club always follow the lead of the head instructor. I conduct myself the same way I want everyone else to behave. I tap if I get caught. I roll with everyone. I don’t make excuses.
  2. Everyone trains with everyone. This is the most important part of ego control. When you train with someone and know their name, you become friends. Rivalry is friendly rather than hostile. It is much harder to feel superior, which is a common precursor to ego problems.
  3. No cliques. Cliques encourage an “us vs them” elitist attitude which is poisonous within a club.
  4. No favouritism. It’s extremely tempting for a coach who sees a promising student to want to give them more attention. This is wrong for two reasons. Firstly it causes jealousy and alienation amongst the other students. Secondly, most of a student’s learning comes from their training partners, not their coach. It is an arrogant coach who thinks that a little extra instruction makes much of a difference in the long term.
  5. Watch for people who look frustrated after rolling. Frustration indicates the person feels they should have done better. This student needs immediate assistance to help quell their rising ego.

You may think you don’t have any ego problems because you don’t feel superior to anyone. Ego isn’t just about feeling superior, it’s about any sort of false expectations you have regarding yourself. Stop, breathe and remember why it is you train BJJ. BJJ is about having fun and the way you feel after training.

3D Treening

Ron, an instructor from 3D Treening Estonia, was the first to show me the importance of having a good training partner.

You can’t learn BJJ by yourself, you need training partners. The better your training partners, the faster you will improve. The fastest way to improve is to have a club full of good training partners. So, how do you become a good training partner?

If you look at any BJJ instructional (or most BJJ classes) you will find that all the instruction is for the student learning the move. No guidance is given for their training partner who, in absence of instruction, usually becomes 100% compliant. This type of training teaches a student how to perform a move on a compliant opponent. But during a roll their opponent is fully resisting, not compliant. A student will have obvious difficulty performing the move when rolling as there is no bridge between compliance and full resistance.

SBGi’s I-method focuses on bridging the gap between full compliance and full resistance. The rest of this post assumes you are using isolation training.

Everyone agrees that good training partners are important. But what is a good training partner? Most of the writing I could find is obvious and trite e.g. “A good training partner is trustworthy and won’t hurt you”. Saulo Ribeiro uses the cliché “challenging but not difficult” in his book, which is a better description. Cane Prevost gives a big hint when he says “one student is drilling the move, the other is coach”.

A good training partner has the goal of helping his partner to get better at what he is drilling. Helping his partner improve is the only goal. He is not thinking up counters for the move or planning how he would deal with the move in a roll. If he has his own agenda then he is a bad training partner.

Enough generalities, let’s look at the specifics of how to train your partner. Your partner has a rough idea of the move or position he is working. Your job is to ensure he does it correctly. You do this with your movement, not with words. This is important. Keep your mouth shut.

Exaggerate the mistake. This is your main training tool. Your partner will be making mistakes with his pressure and positioning. You need to draw his attention to these mistakes so he will self correct them. If he leaves too much space, you move away to increase the space. If he doesn’t apply enough pressure to hold you down, you sit up. You draw attention to his mistake by exaggerating it, then allow your partner to correct it himself.

Re-order the sequence. Most moves or positions have a sequence of objectives that must be achieved in order for the overall move to be successful. You want to train your partner to follow this order. You do this by undoing previous objectives or yielding future ones. You mess up the order. The only way for your partner to be successful is to follow the correct sequence.

Consider training your partner to have a good top side control. Your partner is at the objective of killing your inside arm. To undo a previous objective you might move your hips away to insert a knee. Your partner will need to deal with this previous objective (block the hip) or lose position. Or you could yield a future objective (attacking the far arm) before he has completely killed the inside arm. If he attacks the far arm before killing the inside arm, he is unlikely to be successful.

Create mistakes. Here you create the types of mistakes that were made while you were exaggerating the mistake. You move yourself or push your opponent to create space and relieve pressure. If your opponent doesn’t react, you then further exaggerate the mistake until he notices and corrects it.

Increase intensity. Your overall goal is for your partner to be successful with the drill at 100% intensity. As your partner has success you increase your intensity to challenge him. Aim for a level of intensity where your opponent is having success, but has to work for it. Too much intensity causes your partner to fail, which only causes frustration and stops him learning. Too little intensity and it becomes too easy and your partner stops thinking and learning. You need to pay close attention to your partner to deliver the correct intensity level.

You’ve been telling your friends how much you love BJJ and how awesome it is. There’s a competition coming up so you invite them to come watch. Afterwards, you ask them what they think and they give you that look. The one that says this is the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen and that you must be a crazy person to enjoy it.

Let’s see it through your friend’s eyes. (If you’re short on time, watch the first two minutes then skip to 5:30).

Both opponents pull guard and end up sitting on their butts. Then both stay sitting down, daring the other to take the top position. They stay here for over five minutes. With 25 seconds remaining, one opponent takes the top position to gain an advantage point then tries to stall till the time runs out. The other opponent manages to stand and attempts a takedown as the time ends.

After this horrible and embarrassing performance, both opponents jump up and wave their hands in the air as if they’ve achieved some great feat.

This type of match isn’t that uncommon, especially in the larger competitions. It’s boring to watch and shows no admirable skill on the part of the opponents. The origin of this type of match is simple to see. Submitting your opponent is hard. It’s easier to win by having more points than your opponent. Getting lots of points is hard. It’s easier to get a single point and stall till the time runs out. The IBJJF rules allow such a strategy to flourish.

A good rule system should make a stalling strategy difficult, so winning by submission becomes an easier strategy. There are at least two rule systems that encourage this; FILA and NAGA no-gi. They do this by several means:

  • Shorter matches: so boring matches are over quickly
  • No advantage points: advantage points encourage stalling as they are easy to obtain with little effort
  • Points are easier to obtain: difficult to maintain a point advantage by stalling as escapes are awarded points
  • More types of submissions allowed: fewer safe stalling positions
  • Actively penalising stalling

The solution to the stalling problem is to stop using IBJJF rules. There are better systems available; submission only, FILA, NAGA no-gi. If you want to introduce a friend to BJJ by bringing them to a competition, make sure it isn’t run under IBJJF rules.

Here are my videos from the recent Freo Grappling Cup.

Match 1 — under 65kg. This is the first time I’ve competed against a lighter opponent. I weighed in at 63kg fully clothed. My opponent, Morgan, weighed 60kg. Win by guillotine.

Match 1 — under 75kg. With only one opponent under 65kg, I also enter the under 75kg. My opponent Yuma Ishitzuka ended up winning the division. I get submitted by a nice anaconda choke which will be the subject of a future post.

Match 2 — under 75kg. After an embarrassing takedown where I end up on bottom I sweep, pass, then finish with a triangle.

Match 3 — under 75kg. My opponent for this match is my friend Rod Costa. Rod has the best closed guard of anyone that I know. My goal is to stay out of his closed guard, but unfortunately I don’t manage it. Loss by guillotine.

Match 1 — open weight. I again face Yuma. There is lots of scrambling in this match but my half guard keeps me from getting put in a bad position. Yuma tires near the end of the match but I can’t establish a good enough position to finish. Win by points 8 — 2.

Match 2 — open weight. I think my opponent Gavin was the heaviest in the division. I get taken down but end up sweeping from half guard. A hasty mount gets me pushed into half guard top. It takes a while to pass and regain the mount. Poor balance gets me reversed and I end up in half guard bottom for the last 30 seconds of the match. Win by points 4 — 2.

Match 3 — open weight. My opponent is Will Dias. Will has a string of accomplishments including winning this year’s ADCC Australian trials. I am completely on the defensive for this match. Half guard and turtle only delay the inevitable. Loss by kimura after 4 and a half minutes.

GCWA 2007-07-31 medals

1st place 65kg and 2nd place open weight medals.

Yesterday I competed in the Freo Grappling Cup. I had seven matches and received gold for the under 65kgs and silver for the open weight divisions.

This was the second competition run by the newly formed Grappling Committee of Western Australia (GCWA). The first was held late last year. GCWA runs no-gi competitions following the FILA grappling rules.

This was an excellent competition. Firstly it is no-gi and FILA rules, both of which I am a huge fan. If BJJ is going to become an Olympic sport, it will be under the FILA rules, not the IBJJF rules. FILA rules are great for the spectator. Short matches, a hard stance on stalling and a simple and understandable point system encourages exciting matches.

As a spectator, I found this comp very entertaining. The matches were fast paced with lots of action. Most matches ended in submission. With other comps, I usually only watch my team-mate’s matches. The “get a point advantage then stall in guard for five minutes” strategy common in other comps gets boring very quickly. I enjoyed watching all the matches in this comp, regardless of whether I knew the competitors or not.

As a competitor, I really enjoyed the matches I had. My matches felt submission orientated, rather than points orientated. Both competitors were looking for the submission, not to simply gain a point advantage. The action was fast paced and there was not much time for thinking. I made mistakes and learnt from them, which for me, means a successful competition.

Freo Grappling Cup 2011 posterThe scoring went very smoothly. There were referees unfamiliar with the FILA rules but I didn’t see any calls I disagreed with. This is a testament to the simplicity of the FILA rules. Each match had three referees, the main ref with the competitors and two refs outside the mat on opposite corners. The corner refs confirm the main ref’s scoring. There was no disagreement in the scoring, again thanks to the FILA rules. And there was no stopping the match while all three refs have a discussion, which is not uncommon in the Mundials.

One thing that really impressed me was that the organisers ensured that every competitor got at least two matches. Even if a competitor lost their first match, they got another match with someone else. This recognises that the purpose of competition is to gain experience, as well as to try to win. I think this is a fantastic attitude.

There were also some downsides for this competition. Firstly it was poorly advertised. I only found out about it three days before. Some entrants only found out the day before. Though thankfully the organisers still accepted registration the day before so anyone that wanted to compete, could.

Secondly, the venue wasn’t great. The building was still being renovated and it was a cold windy day so there was a cold breeze blowing on the spectators. Some of the videos I took are all shaky because I was shivering while taking them. The organisers did apologise for this as the renovations were supposed to be completed. The next comp is planned to be in a much better venue.

The next GCWA grappling competition is planned for late October. I’ll definitely be entering. I’ll be posting the details as soon as I get them. Videos of the matches will be up shortly.

Popeyed hard balancing

Popeyed - seriously cool circus balancing

Both gorilla sweeps and ninja sweeps are applied when your opponent is supporting his own weight. When your opponent’s weight is supported by you, it is time to consider circus sweeps.

The mental image for a circus sweep is the circus act where one performer is balancing on top of another performer. The top person’s ability to stay on top depends upon his balance and the degree to which the bottom person makes a stable platform.

The idea behind circus sweeps is simple. Make yourself into an unstable platform so your opponent loses balance and falls. There are two cases to consider; your opponent has more weight on you and less on the ground, and the converse when less weight is on you and more is on the ground.

Most weight on you: When your opponent has most of his weight on you, you can easily sweep him by removing any of his potential posts and rolling your body. If your opponent stays connected to your body he will fall. The key point to remember is to keep his weight on you and don’t allow your opponent to shift his weight back to the ground.

Here is an example of this type of sweep in competition. Collapsing the opponent’s elbow removes his post and allows the roll to take him over.

Most weight on the ground: You need to get yourself under your opponent to perform a circus sweep when your opponent has most of his weight on the ground but has some weight on you. Applying upwards pressure when under your opponent is an effective way to off balance him. Most x-guard, deep butterfly halfguard and inverted guard sweeps use the principle of upwards pressure when under your opponent.

Christian Graugart made a good post with a detailed video on deep butterfly halfguard a few months ago. Check it out. Christian covers getting under your opponent and applying the upwards pressure needed to sweep.

Previously we looked at the principles behind gorilla sweeps. Gorilla sweeps rely on using force to destabilise your opponent’s balance so a sweep can then be easily applied. But what if you can’t destabilise your opponent? Continuing with a gorilla type sweep is futile so you need to switch to a different type of sweep.

The ninja sweep is where you improve your position without your opponent changing position. Examples are taking your opponent’s back from closed guard, escaping side control by turning to your knees, the Homer Simpson sweep from deep half guard. In each of these examples, your position has improved relative to your opponent while your opponent’s position hasn’t really changed.

When performing a ninja sweep, you improve your position but you do not always end up in a traditional position such as back control or side control top. Often you simple end up in a position which allows you to apply more leverage than you could from the guard position. Consider starting in closed guard. Your opponent has both knees on the mat. If you jump backwards to your feet you are in a more advantageous position as you are now on both feet while your opponent is still on his knees. From here you have more leverage to apply a gorilla type sweep.

There are two objectives to performing a ninja sweep:

Objective 1: Your opponent must be supporting his own weight and should be relatively immobile. Both knees down and insteps on the mat is best. The concept is similar to being flat footed when standing.

Objective 2: Your opponent should not be able to use his arms (or other body parts) to prevent you from changing your position. This can be achieved directly by controlling his wrists or elbows. Or indirectly by making him use his arms for another purpose, e.g. as a post or gripping part of your body that you don’t intend to move.

When both these objectives are met it is time to move and improve your position.

Here is a competition example of this type of sweep. My opponent’s base is wide and low which prevents gorilla sweeps. Applying a small amount of upwards pressure allows me to backroll and improve my position to achieve an easy takedown and pass to side control.

A gorilla sweep is an excellent set up to a ninja sweep. The defence to a gorilla sweep is to not allow your balance to be compromised. By sinking your weight low or by extending posts, you make yourself very stable. A side effect of this stability is that it also makes you immobile and slow to move. This is the perfect opportunity for a ninja sweep.

I noticed that myself and other students often attempt to force sweeps inappropriately. It’s not just that the timing of the mechanics of the sweep is wrong, it’s that the sweep is completely inappropriate for the situation. Consider attempting a butterfly hook sweep against an opponent who is kneeling with his hips low to the mat — it’s not going to happen.

The next few posts are going to outline several different types of sweeps and when you should use them.

Gorilla Sweeps. Every club has at least one student built like a gorilla. These are the types of sweeps favoured by that student. Brute force helps a lot with these sweeps. A novice will use raw power. A more experienced student will use more leverage, but there is still brute force involved.

Objective 1: Your opponent has several contact points with the ground. Draw a circle around these points. If his head and upper body is inside this circle then he has good base. If his head is outside this circle then he is unstable. The goal at this stage is to make your opponent unstable.

Brute force can be used to move your opponent’s head outside the circle. Misdirection — push then pull is another approach that can use less force but requires good timing. Manipulating the contact points can change the shape of the circle so that less brute force is needed to move the head.

Objective 2: With your opponent in an unstable position, a small amount of force will cause him to fall. Anticipate how he will post a limb when he falls. You must control this limb and prevent him from using it to post.

Objective 3: With his potential post controlled and in an unstable position, a small amount of force is all that is needed to make your opponent fall. When he falls, come to the top position to complete the sweep or reversal.

Using these three objectives as a broad outline should make it easier to understand why many sweeps work, and what went wrong when they fail. You should be familiar with several sweeps that fall into the gorilla sweep category: scissor sweep, hip bump sweep, tripod sweep; as well as several reversals such as the bridge and roll from mount.

You should also recognise several sweeps and reversals that don’t fit into this category: Homer Simpson sweep from deep half guard, escaping side control by turning to your knees, many half guard sweeps. These will be covered in future posts.

Here’s a short video on sweeps that I made to test the camera I’m using. There are some audio problems with over modulation, but I hope to have these fixed for the next video.