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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.

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.

Rickson Gracie

Rickson Gracie
tl;dr
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.

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.

Rolling is competitive. You and your training partner are both trying to submit each other. The best way to do this is to stick to your A-game and only use the moves and tactics that you are best at. While this is a good way to submit your current opponent, it isn’t a very effective way to submit your future opponents.

To improve in jiu-jitsu, and to be able to beat better opponents, you need to improve your moves, timing, tactics and recognition of the game. This necessarily means doing things differently to the way you are doing things now. If you only practise your A-game, you never take the opportunity to change and hence improve.

Your training partner can help you with this. Recall from part 1 that there are different types of rolling. Don’t assume that your partner knows what type of roll you want. If you tell your partner, “I’m working on half guard sweeps when I have an underhook” or “I’m working on regaining the half guard from side control” your partner has more information to work with. Be specific, don’t just say “I’m working on half guard”.

This gives your partner information about what kind of roll you are expecting. How they respond is up to them. One response is to let more of the roll occur in half guard, so you can practise your offense while your opponent practises defence. Or your training partner may choose to avoid the half guard altogether. This lets you know that your priority isn’t practising half guard sweeps, but rather it should be practising your entries into half guard.

By telling your training partners “This is what I will be doing during this roll”, they will necessarily ask themselves how they will respond to this. Now both parties have a purpose in mind for the upcoming roll, and each has an opportunity to evaluate their success after the roll.

Rolls that have a purpose cause you to reflect on the roll. Reflection is a necessary component of improving.

How do you know that you need to train your training partner? The easiest way is to ask yourself whether you enjoyed the roll you just had with them.

If you didn’t enjoy the roll, the worst thing to do is to talk to them about it immediately afterwards. When emotions are high, there will be misunderstanding and overstatement which will lead to bad feelings. Instead, just tap hands and mentally note that the goal of your next roll with them will be to train them to be a better training partner for you.

Here are five training partners that are not fun to roll with, and suggestions on how to improve future rolls.

The enthusiastic beginner with high attributes and low skill

Beginners have little skill, so they need to use lots of physical attributes to be competitive. With experience, they will gain skills and experience. They will realise that BJJ is an endurance game and will learn to conserve their energy and only use their attributes when necessary. But before that happens, they use too much strength, move too quickly and thrash around, all the while potentially injuring you with their flailing limbs.

Beginners will eventually become competent but you can hasten this. Firstly, rolling is competitive and beginners want success. All a beginner is thinking of is winning, so let them. Let them sweep you. Let them gain dominant position. Let them submit you. The easier you make it for them to do this, the less they’ll need to use physical attributes. They’ll quickly realise they don’t need to use so much energy and they’ll calm down. Now you can start increasing the difficulty level. Your goal is to have your training partner come to the realisation that winning isn’t sufficient, it’s how they win that matters.

Your training partner doesn’t gain any satisfaction when they win and it is obvious that you are letting them. You are helping them to clarify their understanding that they don’t want to merely win with their attributes, they want to win with their skill. At this point, many training partners will often say that they don’t know what to do (BJJ-wise) so go ahead and share your knowledge.

The too-rough training partner

Your training partner is competent, but he is rough. You walk away from a roll sore or injured. Your training partner likely doesn’t have a good grasp of controlling intensity.

Firstly, if you get injured, tell your training partner and tell your coach. Injuries should be uncommon. Injuries are a warning sign that something is wrong with the gym culture and your coach needs to know about this to fix it.

Your training partner needs to become aware of his own intensity level. Pretend you’re made of tissue paper and tap early and often. If your training partner squeezes you too hard, tap. If he attempts a submission, tap at least a second before it is applied. When your training partner asks why you are tapping so much, let him know you’re afraid of getting injured and are tapping early for your own safety. Ensure you are just stating a fact, don’t whine about it. Assume that your training partner is not malicious, just unaware. By tapping whenever the intensity is too high, you are training your training partner to become sensitive to his own intensity level.

Mismatched intensities

This is the most common cause of dissatisfaction after rolling. You’re tired or just wanting a fun roll, while your partner is rolling to test where their level is. The problem here is with mismatched expectations. Either you or your partner needs to match intensity, or you should stop rolling or risk injury.

The problem is one of communication. If you want a fun roll, say so before tapping hands to start. Be sure to say “fun roll” and not “light roll”. “Light roll” is code for “I want to go light only as long as I’m winning, but if I start losing I’ll go as hard as I can.”

The up-and-comer

Your training partner is less experienced than you, on a meteoric rise and you are the next stepping stone. This is a hard roll and you have to pull out all your physical attributes to prevail.

If this is not fun for you, then why are you fighting so hard? It’s time to contemplate your ego.

The arrogant higher belt

You’re on a meteoric rise and your training partner is next ahead of you. But whenever you roll him, he increases the intensity and you can’t beat him. It’s not fair.

You’re not there yet. Improve your skill level. This training partner is the best to help you with this. If you can’t pass his guard, ask him why not. Ask him to show you how to pass his guard. Drill it with him. Your training partner will be happy to help you improve because it means you become a more challenging training partner for him.

If you’re not having a fun roll, either you need to train your training partner or you need to change your attitude.

This post has been about improving bad training partners. The next post will be on making the good ones even better.

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.

The most effective submission in BJJ

Rickson Gracie demonstrating the rear naked choke

There are many different submissions in BJJ. Some are more effective than others. If our goal is to submit our opponents, then it makes sense to focus more of our training time on the most effective submissions.

In BJJ, we get very good at almost breaking our opponent’s joints. We take the joint to the limit of its normal range of movement and then our opponent concedes the submission. We don’t actually break the joint.

An armbar, kimura or heel hook is devastating only in theory because we never follow through to the end of the submission hold. We need practice to gain competence in a skill, yet we can’t gain that practice in a friendly gym.

A successful joint attack involves moving the joint to its limit of movement and then moving it beyond that limit. We regularly practice taking the joint to its limit of movement, but we don’t have experience in applying the force and movement necessary to move it beyond.

Chokes and strangulations differ to joint attacks, in that they can be trained in a way that gives us confidence we can complete the submission. A successful strangle involves a squeeze, a hold and then a wait. Our opponent concedes the submission during the wait portion. Completing the submission only involves maintaining the hold and waiting longer. No additional force or movement is required, only endurance. This gives us more confidence that we can take a strangle or choke to completion than we can a joint attack.

The most effective submissions are those that we have practiced to completion. We can’t take submissions to completion in the gym as we need to respect the health of our training partners. So the most effective submissions are the ones that we can practice the closest to completion, namely chokes and strangles.

To understand something complex, we often break it down into to smaller chunks. Smaller chunks are easier to understand but we lose understanding at the boundaries between chunks. If the chunks are too small and numerous, we have many boundaries between chunks and hence lots of grey areas where we can lose understanding.

A problem with the traditional jiu-jitsu teaching methodology is that there are too many chunks. Consider guard passing. Guards: closed, seated, butterfly, spider, lasso, worm, half, deep half, z, de-la riva, 50/50, koala, rubber, reverse de-la riva, de-la spider plus a bunch of others. To pass guard, we have to first identify the guard then choose one of several passing techniques we know for that guard. This is too complicated. If you chunk guard passing this way, your thinking is likely to be slow and you will find it hard to flow.

A simpler chunking scheme for guard passing is to either pass or your feet or on your knees. If you’re having difficulty on your feet, switch to your knees and vice versa. Notice that when the number of chunks is smaller, it is easier to consider the boundary between chunks.

Understanding the chunk boundaries, and being able to transition between chunks is a major part of flow.

Here is my chunking scheme for jiu-jitsu. As you read this, keep in mind the transitions between and within the positions.

  1. Both Standing This is a symmetrical position (gravity affects both opponents the same way), so strength has a big effect. Get to the mat to exploit the asymmetry of the other positions.
  2. Guard top You’re winning (55/45) but only barely. It’s difficult to submit from here so transition to a dominant position.
  3. Guard bottom You’re mostly safe, but don’t be lazy. Your use of all four limbs almost nullifies your opponent’s gravity advantage, so ensure each of your limbs have a purpose. Defend the guard pass and get on top.
  4. Dominant position Mount, side, back, 411, north/south – it’s all the same. You can submit your opponent much easier than they can submit you (90/10). Transition within the position and catch a submission when your opponent opens up to escape.
  5. Inferior position Sucks to be you. Maintain protective structure and transition to any other position when you can.
  6. Both butts on the mat Also a symmetrical position, but more skill based. Very flexible as it allows easy transitions to the other ground positions. If you win the leg pummel then consider it a dominant position. Don’t try to submit unless your position is dominant. Dual leg lock battles are bad jiu-jitsu.

To be effective with jiu-jitsu, you must be effective within each of the six positions, and you must be effective at transitioning between the positions.

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.