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A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 4

In 1993 in the UFC, Royce Gracie wowed the world by beating all his opponents by fighting off his back. He used the closed guard to do it.

Thousands of years ago, people believed that the earth was flat. These two facts have more in common than you think.

The Earth is not flat. We’ve known this since Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth about 2200 years ago. The Flat Earth model was useful long ago but we now use a better, more accurate spherical model of the Earth.

The closed guard definitely works. We’ve seen thousands of people use it to achieve victory in fights and competitions. So why am I comparing it unfavourably to the Flat Earth model?

The pros and cons of the closed guard

Pros

  • Easy for beginners to learn
  • Keeps the fight on the ground
  • Many submission opportunities – guillotines, armbars, triangles, kimuras, omoplatas
  • Moderate ability to sweep to the top position

Cons

  • Easy for your opponent to lift you off the ground
  • Easy for your opponent to stack you once your ankles uncross
  • Easy for your opponent to heel hook you once your ankles uncross
  • Hard to defend against strikes

So 4 for 4. Seems even, right? Wrong.

Spinal injuries, knee ligament injuries, getting elbowed in the face. These are some of the worst things that can happen to you when grappling/fighting. Using closed guard makes it easy for your opponent to do these things to you.

The disadvantages of closed guard far outweigh the advantages.

Spinal injuries

There are many videos on youtube of people suffering severe spinal injuries while competing in BJJ. You may have even heard of friends locally who’ve suffered spinal injuries while training or competing. All these injuries occur because of either getting lifted off the ground or getting stacked.

Here is why you don’t want to get lifted off the mat

Closed guard spinal break

WARNING: not for the weak of stomach.

Risks of getting stacked.

Heel hooks

Following on from spinal injuries, the next worst injury is knee ligament damage from heel hooks. These injuries are dangerous because they need surgery to recover more often than other injuries. Once your ankles are uncrossed in closed guard, you have little ability to prevent your opponent from entering for the heel hook.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 5

Strikes from closed guard

The only way to defend strikes in closed guard is to use your arms. Your legs can’t effectively control distance or off-balance your opponent. If strikes are a concern, then using closed guard usually results in this:
https://twitter.com/twitter/statuses/1005630393956093957

Alternatives

There are other guards that avoid the disadvantages of closed guard.

Half guard (and variations e.g. z-guard, lockdown) keep the fight on the ground.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 1

Hooking guards (butterfly, X-guards) allow for higher percentage sweeping opportunities and access to leg submissions

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 2

Why is closed guard so prevalent?

Apart from specialist professions (pilot, ships’ captain) assuming the earth is flat doesn’t cause any real harm for many people.

For BJJ athletes, using closed guard has very real (and severe) risks.

Even though we knew the Earth is spherical over 2000 years ago, it took hundreds of years for it to become universally accepted.

Closed guard’s one advantage over other guards is that it is easy for beginners to learn. Beginners love closed guard because it feels like they’re making progress in learning BJJ. They don’t have the knowledge and experience of the severe risks of closed guard to make an informed decision.

It is a coach’s responsibility to protect their beginning athletes from severe injury, until the athletes gain enough experience to take responsibility for their own safety. If you’re a coach, it’s time to ask yourself if you’re fulfilling your responsibilities towards your athletes.

The closed guard was useful for its time. Its weaknesses are now obvious. There are more modern and better replacements. The earth is not flat and there are better options than the closed guard.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 3

The BJJ Belt System

As a coach, every action I take either helps or harms the people I train. My actions are guided by this filter, which causes us to do things differently to other gyms.

Most gyms start newcomers with bridge-and-roll and scissor sweeps. Most people at my gym don’t even know what these low-percentage moves are.

The IBJJF has a list of illegal moves that many gyms avoid. We train with these illegal moves because we need to know how to defend them.

We keep what is useful and discard what is not. There is, unfortunately, one very harmful aspect from traditional BJJ training that I haven’t been able to discard.


The BJJ Belt System

The BJJ Belt System

Why do we have a belt system? Other sports don’t have belt ranks, what they have is ranked competitions. As your performance improves, you compete in higher ranked competitions. If your performance decreases then you compete in lower ranked competitions (although most people stop competing when their performance declines).

This may seem like a subtle difference, but it is an important one. In most sports you want to improve your skills so you can challenge yourself by competing in tougher competitions. In BJJ, many people just want the next belt, and don’t necessarily want what the belt represents.

Would you rather be a black belt or beat a black belt?

Belts create a hierarchy in the gym that can harm the gym culture. You see this is many gyms where higher ranks have special privileges over lower ranks. Lower ranks have to bow to higher ranks, or must stand behind them or can’t even ask them to roll.

In case you were wondering why we circle-up in arbitrary order rather than lining-up in rank order, it is to avoid the idea of hierarchy and special privileges.


Is the Belt System based on merit?

We like to pretend the BJJ belt system is a merit system, but it isn’t. The IBJJF leads the way in this with their black belt grades. Black belt grades are based entirely on time-in-rank and whether you pay your annual registration fees or not. No merit involved.

The coloured ranks aren’t a merit system either. We know this due to how often the word sandbagger is used in BJJ. A sandbagger describes someone who is consistently beating higher ranked opponents, but has not been awarded that rank.

If we ignore belt ranking and say “I compete at blue grade” rather than “I am a blue belt” we wouldn’t have a problem. The only hierarchy in the gym would be the natural competence hierarchy of who is beating whom.

If everyone in the gym competed, again there would be no problem. The coach would rank competitors according to how well they perform in competition (or risk facing embarrassment).

A problem occurs when only some people at the gym compete but everyone expects to progress in rank. The competitors that compete will be ranked appropriately. But how should a coach rank those who don’t compete?

Imagine a part time athlete who trains sporadically but has been training for six years. Many coaches would be tempted to award the next grade to this athlete, even if they don’t have the same ability of the competitors at this grade. Given the prevalence of the claim of sandbagger, there are many coaches who have given in to this temptation and have graded their athletes inconsistently.


The problem of the Belt System

The problem of the BJJ belt system is that it is not merit based, yet we pretend it is. Few coaches have a consistent criteria. Many use arbitrary metrics such as length of time training, whether the athlete pays their fees on time, or whether the coach likes the athlete or not.

Assuming the belt system is merit based causes problem with the gym culture. Athletes who have trained hard to earn their belts will resent seeing other athletes being awarded belts at lesser ability levels. Athletes who have been given their belts early will feel intimidated by athletes of lower rank yet greater ability.


How do I get the next belt?

The crux of the matter is that there is no generally agreed upon way of establishing who should hold what belt. My personal criteria is:

If a BJJ athlete were to enter a competition in their age and weight division, at what belt rank should they compete in to best improve their jiu-jitsu?

Note that this mostly, but not entirely, merit based. It’s competition based, so athletes that I grade should expect to be competitive in their competition division.

It not solely merit based for older and lighter athletes due to our local competitions. There are not many lighter or older competitors that compete locally. This means that lighter competitors often have to compete in heavier divisions, and older competitors have to compete with the young guns.

For these athletes, I have higher expectations for them and treat them is if they were heavier or younger. This means that it takes longer for them to be graded to the next belt.

If you want to know about how to get your next belt, read my criteria then come and talk to me.

Verbalising BJJ concepts

Word Salad

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary:

The gi provides a benefit against:

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

No-gi provides a benefit against:

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

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

Grappling Cheatsheet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.