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.

The most important skill in BJJ is not a physical skill, but a mental one. It’s the ability to predict how your opponent is about to move. Once you know how your opponent is about to move, you can plan your response and implement it with good timing.

In expert level competition, everyone is moving the same way and performing the same moves. The competitors that consistently perform well do not have secret moves, better coordination or better strength and conditioning. What they have is the ability to perform the right movement at the right time.

It is easier to have correct timing when you have predicted your opponent’s movement, and more difficult if you’re trying to react to his movement as it happens.

Here’s Marcelo Garcia discussing predicting your opponent’s movement and taking advantage of it by having a plan.

Clip from Budo Jake’s Rolled Up Episode 36.

It makes sense to start developing this most important skill as soon as possible. The traditional approach is to avoid the issue and allow it to develop by itself during rolling. Rolling will develop it automatically, albiet slowly.

We take a more proactive approach to develop this ability to predict. When we learn skills, movements and techniques during class, the partner is always adding and varying the resistance they provide to the athlete. The athlete is not just learning the subject being drilled, but rather the different ways their partner can move which will allow them to perform this subject.

More instruction is usually given to the partner providing the resistance when drilling, than to the athlete learning the skill. To those with a traditional background, this seems paradoxical. But when you realize that the priority is for the athlete to refine their ability to predict, you realize it is a more logical approach to training.

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.

When I first started BJJ, I believed that BJJ was all about the tiny details. For two years, I made detailed notes about every class I attended. Pridefully, I thought the notes were pretty good. They read like a recipe for each technique “R hand cross grips opponent’s lapel with fingers in, knuckles resting on collarbone. L hand grips outside of opponent’s R sleeve with thumb up. L foot on opponent’s R hip …”

These notes are, of course, worthless. Their only use is to show that I didn’t understand BJJ at all.

With a recipe approach, a student becomes stuck when the move fails. A student typically assumes that the details aren’t being applied precisely enough: “My hand must not be in the right position, or perhaps I’m doing the steps in the wrong order”. The end result is confusion, or concluding that the move doesn’t work.

A recipe doesn’t give any information as to which are the essential steps, and which can be modified or left out. But the biggest problem with the recipe approach is that the student has no idea why the steps are being performed.

A better approach is to focus on the concepts first. Details can be added later, or more likely, left to improvisation. With the one or two important concepts of the move, the student knows what they are trying to achieve. The movements they make have the definite purpose of achieving those concepts.

An example: escaping the mount position. The most important concept is to keep your elbows glued to your ribs. In this position your arms are strong and can’t be harvested. Your elbows block your opponent’s thighs keeping his hips over your hips and, more importantly, his feet accessible to your feet.

The second concept is winning the foot battle. The top person will be trying to keep his toes together and feet under your butt / thighs. You must clear his feet so your feet or legs can touch the floor with the top person’s feet to the outside of them.

From here, you can apply high percentage escapes — bridge and roll, elbow-knee escape, hydraulic etc. The key details of these escapes can be shown in a couple of minutes.

The concepts, in this case elbows to ribs and winning the foot battle, are the most important things a student needs to remember. The details are the means by which the concepts are achieved. I find teaching concepts first is a faster way to learn BJJ.

“How do I finish the armbar?” This is a common question that beginning students ask. The typical response to this question is “Squeeze your knees together, point your opponent’s thumb away from your chest then raise your hips”. This is fine instruction for a raw beginner. Once the beginner starts to gain more experience, they receive more details “Pull your heels towards your butt, touch your toes together, hug your opponent’s arm to your chest”. Students can easily be left with the idea that to get better at a technique, you must learn more details for that technique.

The problem with this detail oriented approach is that the student doesn’t understand why the armbar works. This means they can’t troubleshoot when it fails. Consider the fight between Georges St. Pierre and Dan Hardy during UFC 111. During the first round, GSP has a tight armbar on Hardy, but Hardy escapes. Why did the armbar fail? What mistake did GSP make that allowed Hardy to escape?

Georges St. Pierre attempting armbar on Dan Hardy - UFC 111

Georges St. Pierre attempts an armbar on Dan Hardy at UFC 111

A detail oriented student will claim the armbar failed because GSP didn’t squeeze his knees together, as this is the obvious detail that is absent. If you do an Internet search you will find many people claiming this to be the reason. This is incorrect. If GSP did squeeze his knees together, Hardy would have escaped even earlier.

To understand why the armbar failed, we must first understand the principles behind the armbar.

The arm is essentially two rods connected with a hinged joint. The goal of the armbar is to hyper-extend this joint beyond its maximum extension, using the strong muscles of the legs and hips. The armbar is achieved by clamping the ends of these rods (shoulder and wrist) in place while the hips push into the joint to hyper-extend it. The obstacle to performing the armbar is that the shoulder can rotate so that the elbow is no longer in line with the force applied by the hips. This rotation removes the hips ability to hyper-extend the elbow.

The principles behind the armbar are:

  1. Immobilise both the wrist and the shoulder
  2. Ensure the elbow is in line with the hips
  3. Raise the hips to hyper-extend the elbow

All the details we know about performing the armbar are to assist with these principles.

If we re-examine the GSP vs Hardy match, we see that initially GSP has immobilised Hardy’s wrist and shoulder. Hardy manages to rotate his elbow to prevent the hyper-extension. GSP changes his grip on the wrist from a tight elbow hook to a double wrist grab. This is the mistake that causes the armbar to fail. GSP would like to rotate Hardy’s hand so the elbow also rotates to become in line with his hips, but he cannot got a good grip due to the gloves. The double wrist grab is not strong enough to immobilise Hardy’s wrist, so it is only a matter of time before Hardy escapes.

Squeezing of the knees would not have solved GSP’s problem. Squeezed knees might have made it slightly more difficult for Hardy to rotate his elbow, but it was the loss of wrist immobilisation that allowed Hardy to escape.

Beginners respond well to a detail oriented approach to learning BJJ. But to move beyond mere competence, student’s require the principles involved so they can understand the purpose behind the details.

Small details can make all the difference in BJJ. For example, grabbing at the hand instead of the wrist can be the key detail that allows a successful armbar. Because of the huge effect of seemingly small details we can become obsessed, beginning a quest in search of perpetual refinement. The problem with this is that there are two categories of details, details that are universal and those that are specific to the individual.

An example of a universal detail — rear naked choke: aligning the crook of your elbow with your opponent’s chin is a more effective choke because pressing is applied to both of the carotid arteries. Universal details are performed by everyone in the same way.

A more individual detail, and one that is commonly sought by beginners, is as to the exact place to focus your weight when in side control top position. Everyone you ask will give a different answer depending on their body type, their opponent’s body type and their position the opponent is in.

Universal details can be precisely described by your coach. Individual details must be confirmed through rolling or isolation training.

As coaches, it is our responsibility to clearly distinguish between these categories of details. An approach I take is to identify universal details to the class as the “ideal”. Individual details are identified as “options that may or may not work for you”. I only go into more depth with individual specific details when I am working with individuals or pairs.

Very early in my BJJ career, I attended a seminar where the black belt detailed the correct posture to have when kneeling in an opponent’s closed guard. He emphasised the detail that your butt should never touch your heels, but should hover over them by about an inch. The black belt never explained why we should hover this way. Whenever I tried this my thigh muscles fatigued quickly, and so I abandoned that detail.

But it’s always stuck in my mind. I’ve watched many high level competition matches and have never seen anyone else performing this detail. So why was this detail emphasised? Why is it important? My best guess was that having the thighs under tension allows your legs to react faster than when relaxed. The mystery was finally solved when I read Cane Prevost’s closed guard top posture post.

Cane details “Hips rotate in and up. You should feel your pelvis lift slightly off the floor”. Aha! This position puts the glutes under tension, but without much fatigue. The tension allows the legs to react fast to regain balance if needed. I believe that the original hover detail was individual specific, while Cane’s detail is a universal way of achieving the same result.

This example really emphasises for me the confusion that a student feels when there is no distinction between universal and individually specific details. As good coaches, we should strive to make this distinction to our students.

The 80/20 principle is the observation that for many events, 80% of the results come from only 20% of the effort.

This principle is used successfully in many industries, from business to engineering, to get the most result for the least effort. Without the luxury of limitless resources, we must use the resources we do have wisely to get the most “bang for the buck”.

We can use this principle as a guide for how to learn, and get better at BJJ. By learning the “best” stuff first we maximise our progress.

For example, if there are 10 moves to learn and 10 hours available, how should we best structure our training? The naive, but common, approach is to simply allocate one hour to each move. This way the practitioner gains equal experience with each move, regardless of that move’s overall effectiveness.

We need to acknowledge that all moves are not equally effective. Rather than one hour per move, allocate say 6 hours to the 2 best moves, and share the remaining 4 hours between the 8 less effective moves. Then apply the 80/20 principle again on these 8 moves, so the more effective moves gets apportioned more time than the less effective ones. The actual numbers in this example aren’t set in stone, but you get the idea. More time is spent on the effective moves, while less time is spent on the not-so-effective moves.

BJJ provides an easy way to distinguish between more effective and less effective (also called high percentage and low percentage) moves — rolling. Averaging over many rolls, high percentage moves are those that are successfully completed more often than low percentage ones. It is these high percentage moves that you should learn first and spend the most time on. If you have extra time and the inclination, you can then invest in the low percentage moves.

The 80/20 principle gives us a guide for beginning to learn BJJ. First focus on the high percentage moves. Only once you have proficiency with these should you move on to the low percentage moves.

See Misapplying the Pareto Principle for more details.