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Verbalising BJJ concepts

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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.

Head-arm choke details

Most BJJ classes have people of mixed levels. Beginners benefit from the advice and feedback from those with more experience. Advanced members benefit from having less skilled training partners to refine their skills against.

How does an instructor run a training session that will benefit members with differing ability? One solution is to break the topic into levels. Beginning levels provide only a coarse overview of the most important details. Subsequent levels add additional details. Levels are created so that each level builds on the experienced gained through practising the previous ones.

Each level is small and simple and easy to digest. Having multiple levels allows members to work on the area that will have most benefit to them.

To illustrate, here is an example of using levels to teach and practice the head-arm choke.


Focus on the details at your level. Only level up once you’re sure you’ve internalised the details. For later levels, ensure you can consistently perform all details in your level on a resisting opponent.

Level 1. Core finishing details.

  1. Elbow of your arm encircling your opponent’s head must be on the mat.
  2. Skull to skull contact.
  3. Squeeze, hold, wait. It may take up to 12 secs for opp to tap.

Level 2. Tightening details.

  1. Start from mount.
  2. Push opp’s arm across and encircle their head and arm.
  3. Block opp’s temple with your hand while you drill (screw) your encircling arm deeply under opp’s neck. Goal is to have your biceps snug against opp’s neck.
  4. Gable grip, dismount and finish as before.
  5. Question: which way should you gable grip your hands?

Level 3. Keeping your opponent flat. (opp resists)

  1. Opp must be flat (not on side) for you to finish.
  2. Your biceps pressure and skull-to-skull counter pressure attaches you to opp. Your bodyweight keeps opp’s shoulders facing up.
  3. After dismounting, position your belly/thighs flat on the mat. Get as low to ground as you can.
  4. Ask your opponents to turn to their side. Ensure you can keep them flat.
  5. Question: What angle should be between your spine and your opp’s spine? You may need help from someone experienced for this.

Level 4. Dismounting. (opp resists)

  1. Start on mount with opp’s arm across, tight arm position and gable grip.
  2. Your goal is to dismount then finish.
  3. Opp’s goal is to prevent you dismounting and to free their trapped arm.

Level 5. Squeezing details.

  1. Remember; squeeze, hold and wait.
  2. Don’t squeeze unless the choking arm is already snug (recall level 2).
  3. Moderate tension in biceps of choking arm (not too tight so as to avoid fatigue).
  4. Wrist flexion and adduction of choking arm to apply pressure of your biceps against opp’s neck.
  5. Push with your toes to apply pressure of opp’s shoulder against their own neck.
  6. Be conscious that your biceps applies pressure against one of opp’s carotid arteries while opp’s own shoulder applies pressure against the other.

Level 6. Understanding counters.

  1. Opp’s main counter is to free their trapped arm so their shoulder is no longer choking them.
  2. Opp has to relieve skull-to-skull contact before freeing their trapped arm.
  3. Turning on their side is a good way to relieve skull-to-skull contact.
  4. Takeaway: get your opponent flat and maintain skull-to-skull contact.

Level 7. Zero point.

The zero point is when:

  1. Your opponent’s arm is trapped in position for the choke.
  2. Your arm is encircling their neck.
  3. You have (or are close to having) skull-to-skull contact.

What do we need to learn BJJ? We need some ground, a training partner and a desire to improve. Coaches can give us the benefit of their experience. Instructional videos and competition footage can give us inspiration and new ideas.

It is the training partner that has the biggest effect on your ability to learn and improve your jiu-jitsu. Your training partner is always there with you when you are training. Your coach can only be there some of the time.

A good training partner knows how to vary the level of resistance, knows how to match pace/intensity, draws your attention to your mistakes and makes your training challenging.

We choose our coaches carefully by going to the best gym we can find. We watch matches of the highest level of competition. Yet most of us spend little thought on the quality of our training partners.

Good training partners don’t just magically happen. You have to build them.

Many of us are knowledgeable about how to develop our training partner when we are working on skills, but we also need to do it when rolling.

When you roll, some of your rolls will be for fun, some will be to work on integrating new moves, others will be to test yourself, and some will be to train your training partner. Roll for a specific purpose. Don’t be vague in your thinking about what sort of roll it is.

In upcoming parts we’ll be looking at the specifics of what goes into a roll where your goal is to train your training partner.

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.

It’s a common way that BJJ is taught. You show up to class, do a warm up, perform unresisted repetitions of several different techniques and then you roll. The warm up and rolling are beneficial, but the technique portion in the middle is ineffective.

Ineffective? Observe the experienced students in gyms that structure their sessions this way. Experienced students spend much of the technique portion talking amongst themselves or don’t bother showing up till it’s time to roll. They’re experienced enough to recognise that this type of training doesn’t improve their BJJ.

K. Anders Ericsson et al., in The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (1993) write on the conditions for optimal learning and improvement of performance.

[…]the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

The above describes the technique section of a typical BJJ class, with a single exception. Anders Ericsson et al. further clarify.

In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. Hence mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance.

Adequate feedback. This is the necessary component that is missed by the common approach to BJJ. An instructor walking around telling students to “move your hand one inch to the left”, or “don’t use your thumb to grab” is not adequate feedback. Adequate (and immediate) feedback comes from the resistance your partner gives you as you practise the technique.

I’ve previously detailed how to use progressive resistance and be a good training partner.

If you’re not using progressive resistance in your drilling then your BJJ progress will remain slow and inefficient.

Vulcan nerve pinch

Vulcan nerve pinch – We all know it’s fiction, right?


A teacher of mine had a saying he was fond of. “If you believe everything I say then you’re a fool. Either prove me right or prove me wrong”. This is great advice for life in general, but it’s very relevant to the martial arts. Pressure point knock outs, kiai masters, wrist throws, chi balls. There’s lots of fraudulent nonsense out there. It’s great that BJJ doesn’t suffer from this, right?

As BJJ practitioners, we like to believe that we’re above all that nonsense. Our art is real, MMA proves it. Would that it were so.

Many BJJ instructors have a background in traditional martial arts. Their prior experiences colour the way they run their gyms. Lineages, the belt system, gradings, bowing etc all reinforce the idea of authority through seniority rather than ability. Many instructors teach as they were taught rather than teaching what they know. They use compliant training. These practices aren’t anywhere near kiai knockouts, but they provide a fertile ground for this sort of nonsense to grow.

Not all gyms follow this path. A friend retells a Marcus Soares story of how Marcus developed a new choke. For this choke to be legitimised by his instructor, Marcus had to perform it on everyone in the room, including Carlson Gracie. This was not just applying the choke on a compliant partner, but against a room full of fully resisting ones. There’s no way that BS moves would be accepted in that environment.

One of our members was recently very excited about a move he’d learned while visiting another gym. After trying it when he got back, he was crestfallen after being shown that the move didn’t work against a resisting partner. When he was initially shown the move, they had drilled it with complete compliance so there was no way to determine whether it worked or not.

Unfortunately this isn’t an isolated incident. Browsing youtube will show lots of videos demonstrating dodgy moves. They’re not malicious, just ignorant. What’s the solution? Question everything. Don’t just accept what your instructor says on faith. Test it.

If you believe everything I say then you’re a fool. Either prove me right or prove me wrong.

Tom Brown Jr.

Roberto Cyborg Abreu applying a lapel choke at the 2009 Pan Ams

Roberto Cyborg Abreu applying a lapel choke at the 2009 Pan Ams

… said one of our members during Sunday morning training. This made me laugh because I’ve said the same thing many times over the years. But it got me thinking. Those times when I said I hated gi, I didn’t hate it all the time. When I was choking someone with a collar choke, gi was awesome. I mainly hated gi when I was in side control bottom and couldn’t escape.

Strange. I didn’t hate gi when I was under knee ride and couldn’t escape. Or when I couldn’t pass someone’s spider guard.

My introduction to BJJ was very traditional (here’s three random techniques, now let’s roll). The techniques were always shown in intricrate detail. This was great when I could successfully apply the techniques, but not so good when I couldn’t. The more detail I had on a technique, the worse I felt when I couldn’t apply it.

To escape knee ride, insert frames then move your hips away. That’s pretty simple. If I couldn’t escape it’s because either my frames weren’t working or I wasn’t moving my hips. I could troubleshoot on the fly.

I was never shown any effective ways to deal with the spider guard, so it was always an interesting puzzle when I found myself there.

But side control bottom. I knew so much about the technique to escape that position. My hands had to be placed in a precise position. My feet needed to be angled just right. I needed to bridge on a perfect angle. My shoulders needed to be rounded. I needed to move my hips in a precise way after the bridge. I needed to insert my knee to the exact depth… I drilled (back then I though dead repetitions were drilling) that technique until it looked like Aikido.

But it rarely worked in a roll. Which is why I hated the gi. I knew so much detail about the technique that of course I was doing it correctly. My opponents were grabbing onto my gi and preventing my escape, and so the gi was to blame. (Yep, ego problems aplenty there).

I now understand that the problem was an excess of theoretical knowledge and a lack of experiential knowledge. My experience as a coach and instructor has taught me that showing less detail on a technique (and even avoiding techniques altogether) paradoxically produces athletes that are much more competent and technically proficient. When I limit myself to only sharing the one or two concepts of a position that have the biggest effect on success, the athletes will fill in the minor details themselves as they experiment during drilling. The knowledge they gain is all experiential, which means it is retained easier and internalised faster.

So how do I teach side control escapes now? Simple, “Don’t let your opponent control your head. Then either get your guard or turn to your knees and attack”. I’ll add details such as posture and movement as they drill, but the important points have already been made. This method limits frustration as the athlete is now thinking “How do I achieve this goal”, rather than “But I’m doing all the moves right, why isn’t it working”.

The first thing a beginner needs to learn is not technical skill itself, but rather how to train to gain that technical skill. This is an important yet subtle point. Technical instruction alone, no matter how detailed, is not enough to ensure someone progresses quickly. The previous post described the methods I use to get a beginner to the point where they can train effectively.

Beginners only needs a few weeks to learn how to train. Once they understand this they move into the intermediate stage of training and are ready to start perfecting their technical skill. The main technique I use to train someone at this intermediate level is shaping.

Before discussing shaping, let’s understand the difference between drilling and rolling for an intermediate student. Drilling allows a student to learn a particular technique or skill in isolation. Good drilling always involves progressive resistance. When rolling, a student must integrate these new skills into their game. The challenge for someone at the intermediate level is how to transfer the skills that they successfully demonstrated while drilling, into the chaos and stress of a live roll.

Shaping is a conceptually simple training technique from behavioural psychology. The core idea of shaping is that it takes time to learn something new, and it is unrealistic to expect someone to get everything perfect immediately. The solution is to start by accepting a vague approximation of the desired behaviour as successful. The next time you are a little more strict in what you accept as successful. You become more and more strict with each iteration until the behaviour is perfect.

In a typical roll with an intermediate student, my goal is for them to technically improve one or two of the skills or techniques they are currently using. The mechanism is simple. The student will successfully apply a technique several times during the roll. Each time they attempt the move, it needs to be more technically correct than last time to be successful. I am not teaching them a new move. They are learning to apply something they have already drilled successfully, in a live roll. With enough iterations, the move becomes a technically sound part of their game and it is time for me to work on a different area of their game.

Shaping has long been a mainstay of teaching animals complicated behaviour. The last few years have seen a surge in interest in applying shaping techniques to humans, in particular in the fields of dance and athletics. There is lots of accessible research about shaping, and it is a tool that all trainers should be proficient with.

A typical BJJ session involves warmup, some sort of isolation training/drilling followed by rolling (integration). My previous post talked about drilling and there is lots of good detail in Matt Thornton’s Notes on Drilling. The next three posts will focus on rolling and my approach to rolling with the people I help train.

For these posts I will speak in generalities and categorise students as either beginners, intermediate or advanced. The way I behave with each group is different, and is more involved than simply going light with the beginners and heavy with those who are advanced. Each group has different needs and I have to roll in a way that helps them to meet those needs.

There are three concepts that I want a beginner to learn. Safety, ego control and understanding the bigger picture. These three concepts are intertwined, as is the way I teach them.

Safety. When someone is new to grappling they are enthusiastic yet uncoordinated on the ground. The more pressure they are under, the more intense they will become and accidental elbow strikes and the like start to happen. The way to deal with this is to keep the intensity down until their coordination improves. I keep my own intensity and strength at a low level when rolling beginners. This is often enough as they usually mimic my intensity.

Occasionally a beginner is too excited to notice that I am using low intensity. I react to this by simply controlling and immobilising (but not pressuring) him. Once he realises he is stuck, his intensity drops and he is able to focus again. A few words on how to technically escape are enough to continue the roll, usually at a reduced intensity level.

Ego Control. I’ve talked about ego previously. The best way to manage ego problems is early prevention. It is important to understand that tapping when rolling is just part of training. Feeling that it is a personal loss is a major contributor to ego problems. When rolling with a beginner, I tap often, I get swept often and I get put in inferior positions often. But my attitude never changes and my intensity never changes. It’s not a big deal. As one of our members said recently “Tapping is the easy part as it means you get to start again. It’s getting crushed under side control that really sucks”.

Ego control is closely related to safety. If tapping isn’t a big deal, you won’t resist a submission and hurt yourself and you won’t fight for a submission that isn’t there and hurt your training partner.

Understanding the bigger picture. I want a beginner to understand the importance of dominant position. I want them to pass the guard rather than trying to submit while inside it. I want them to have an active guard that gets them to a dominant position. Isolation training is good at breaking the game into small easy to understand chunks, but doing so misses the bigger picture. A beginner needs context to make sense of the moves and positions they are learning.

The best tool I’ve found to teach the big picture is operant conditioning. When I roll with a beginner and they attempt the right strategy, I’ll let them succeed with it regardless of whether it is technically correct or not. If they attempt a poor strategy it has no effect. If they’re under mount, a bridge and roll attempt has no effect but an elbow knee escape succeeds. A cross lapel choke from under guard won’t work, but a sweep will. Turning away to escape side control doesn’t work, but turning in allows them to regain guard.

I get swept, rolled, passed, submitted often when training this way. Note that this isn’t just “going light”. Only good strategy by the beginner is successful. If they attempt a bad strategy it is important that they don’t get punished for it. Punishing someone for bad choices just teaches them to stop making choices, it doesn’t help them learn what the correct choice is. If a beginner attempts an armbar from closed guard I don’t pass. Doing so would punish their attempt at doing something and result in them developing a stagnant guard. The armbar simply doesn’t work and they keep attempting things until they are eventually successful with a sweep.

As a coach, my time rolling with beginners is spent ensuring they learn to be safe, manage their ego and understand the big picture. At this stage, they’ll learn the technical details from the other people they roll with. When I train people who started at another gym, their problems are not usually technical but rather related to ego and not having an understanding of the bigger picture. Learning these areas early saves much frustration later.

“Here are three random techniques. Let’s drill them with no resistance and then roll.” If you’ve had the misfortune to train this way you’ll understand how terrible it is. The naturally gifted will improve while everyone else flounders. It leads to frustration and ego problems. Let’s move beyond this.

The goal in BJJ is to be able to roll against a fully resisting opponent. The logical approach is to start with an unresisting opponent and progressively increase the level of resistance until you have a fully resisting opponent. But it’s not as simple as just starting with light resistance then progressing to heavy resistance. In every training session, people of different weight and skill will be partnered together. How is it possible for a 50kg person to provide sufficient resistance so a 100kg person can improve their skills? Or a white belt to a purple belt?

The key is to understand what is progressing in progressive resistance. It’s not so much a physical resistance as it is a technical resistance.

When strength training, you start with a lighter weight and progressively increase to a heavier weight. With BJJ you are not training strength but skill, so the resistance should reflect that. As a coach, merely instructing your students to “use 20% resistance” is inadequate. Partners of unequal weight or skill become confused “You’re a purple belt and I’m a white belt so I should use more than 20%, right?”. Partners of the same weight and skill argue “That’s 30%, not 20%. Stop cheating”.

To lessen the effect of a strength imbalance, both training partners should use as little strength and explosiveness as necessary. But more importantly, the coach should dictate the specific, unambiguous technical resistance to use.

Rolles Gracie defeats Lee Mein via arm triangle.

We’ll use a concrete example: practising the arm-triangle choke from mount. This submission has a simple sequence.

  1. Raise one of your opponent’s arms.
  2. Position yourself so that your bicep is against one side of his neck and his own shoulder is against the other.
  3. Remove any slack by lowering your chest and circling your body before squeezing your arms to finish the choke.

Assuming that the students have basic familiarity with the choke, here is one1 sequence using progressive resistance to improve their skill in applying it. All the following instructions are for the opponent (bottom player).

After a few repetitions with no resistance, the first resistance is to try to prevent your arm from being raised. That is the only objective. Don’t fight the rest of the choke and don’t try to escape the mount. The method is to use as little muscular strength and movement as possible. You might hold your hands together, bridge your hips, push your opponent or anything else. Don’t just do the one form of resistance, change if you feel your arm is about to be raised. Be creative and find what is most effective at stopping the top player from raising your arm.

Once the arm is raised, all resistance stops and the top player finishes the choke. The resistance is isolated to this one area of raising the arm. A coach would expect to see the top player using a range of techniques to try to raise the arm; threatening ezekiel chokes, pushing with elbows for greater leverage, switching to side control and back to change the angle etc.

After the top player starts having regular success, we up the ante. The bottom player is now instructed to attempt to escape the mount as a means of preventing their arm from being raised. If the students are new to this type of training, it is extremely important that the coach emphasis that this a drill and not a roll. The reason we are doing it is so the top player can practise the choke. It is not an opportunity for the bottom player to practise their mount escape. Students from gyms that don’t practise progressive resistance often have trouble at this stage.

When your arm becomes raised, try to prevent the top player pinning your shoulder against your neck. You can buck, turn on your side, grab your inner thigh or any improvisation that keeps your shoulder away from your neck. You’re still resisting your arm being raised and you’re still using the smallest amount of muscular strength and movement as possible. When your shoulder gets pinned to your neck then the resistance stops and the top player finishes the choke.

Here the top player learns all the important details of having a tight hold in this position. Their elbow will be on the ground. Their head will be pressed tightly against their opponent’s head. Their hands will be gripped correctly. If the coach sees that the top player is missing technical details, he should suggest resistance that the bottom player should provide that gives the top player an opportunity to develop the correct technical response.

e.g. If the elbow of the choking arm is not on the ground, the coach might suggest that the bottom player “turn into your opponent and push his head with your free hand”. This brings the space to the attention of the top player. Resisting the head push by driving into it will bring the elbow back down to the ground.

e.g. If the top player’s hands are gripped incorrectly, the coach might suggest the bottom player “bring your feet to your butt and wiggle backwards”. This movement of the bottom player applies external rotatation the top player’s choking arm, signaling him to regrip.

Now you’ll be resisting all of the choke. If your opponent positions your shoulder against your neck, don’t let him tighten the choke. Follow him as he circles and try to create space between your shoulder and your neck. If your opponent is off balance, feel free to reverse him.

Here we are drilling the final step of technical resistance. The top player will learn to maintain tight head pressure, have a low base to prevent being reversed, and use his knee to maintain space as he circles.

Finally the coach will add strength and explosiveness to the resistance. If there is a consistent weakness in a particular area, then a new drill is created to emphasize the weak area. Perhaps strength and explosiveness are only allowed in the weak area, or perhaps they are disallowed in the weak area but allowed everywhere else.

The take home message from this example is that the progression of the resistance should be technical (movement based), rather than attribute (strength, flexibility, power) based. This provides the student with an environment where they feel comfortable to experiment and fail, which is necessary for them to learn to succeed. Only once a technical ability is developed should attributes be emphasized.

1 It is often more effective to teach submissions by applying the resistance backwards. This way the learning becomes easier as you progress because you are moving into a familiar behaviour, rather than away from one. Search for backchaining behaviour training to see how it is used in other training areas.