Rickson once said he admires Nino Schembri for “how he looks at positions in new ways”. (He also might not have said that. The quote is probably inaccurate since I read it years ago and can’t find the source any more.)
That idea stuck with me. As a beginner at the time it struck me, “How many ways can you think about a position? When is mount not just mount? When is guard not guard?” Those questions have become a kind of mind-clearing Zen koan. It opened me up to thinking about a lot of things in new ways and a lot of good has come from it.
What happens when I think of mount as “guard from the top?” I get omoplatas.
What happens if I think of leglocks as a part of open guard? I use them as sweeps and don’t sacrifice position to get them.
What if I look for the harness grip and not just rear mount and two hooks? I can attack the back from everywhere.
What if I see how long I can hold on to an armbar or triangle position without finishing the submission? I see how people will try to escape while learning how to control them and transition to other moves.
It is true about Nino, even if I got the Rickson quote wrong (or made it up in a fever dream). You see this in his DVD. Nino isn’t content to simply use the omoplata as a sweep or submission like the rest of us. He camps out there. He meets the locals and takes in the sights. He can maintain it and control them despite their efforts to escape. He’s got a array of alternative ways to finish them. Sometimes he treats it like the crucifix and attacks the neck. Other times he attacks the far arm, simply using omoplata as his basecamp to launch attacks. Hanging off them with his leg tangled around an arm is a desirable and perfectly normal spot for him.
Look at other innovators and you’ll see something similar. They found a position (or a few) that they liked. It could have been part of something we already know, something they invented, or something they stole from wrestling. It worked for them and so they kept at it and figured out the elements that made it tick. They reduced these down to concepts and principles (or at least absorbed an understanding of these into their head somewhere). They learned the control points, where to grip, how to adjust, the leverage, timing, momentum, etc. They found how to get to it from other positions and fit it into their game. And maybe this new positions leads them to more new ones and further innovation.
My personal pet project has been the reverse omoplata (seen here).
People complain that it’s too complicated and hard and has too many steps, that it only works no-gi (or gi, depending on who you ask), that you couldn’t get it on someone experienced, that it doesn’t work on someone bigger or stronger, that you have to rely on speed and surprise… Et cetera.
They’re all wrong.
But they are a little less wrong if they don’t really take the time to get good at it and learn how to deal with those potential issues, which is like saying the secret to success is success, but let me explain.
I learned the reverse omoplata on my first no-gi class ever. That was about 4 weeks into training. My instructor gave a little talk after people huffed and shook their heads while he was demonstrating it. “I know you’re all looking at this and thinking it’d never work,” he said. “But ask any of the brown belts and they’ll tell you I get this on them all the time.”
Being the naive and pure-hearted white belt I was, I took it on good faith and drilled it like any other technique. It wasn’t any more confusing than anything else at the time since I was still trying to wrap my head around the upa escape and scissors sweep. It was just another technique to learn and drill and try out.
While doing so, I ran into all of the complaints people had about it.
Is it really too hard? Well, each step makes sense by itself so it also makes sense that they stay good when you string them together.
It is complicated and has a lot of steps. How will I remember them all? If each step makes sense and I drill it enough to have them down smooth, it’s not an issue.
Does it work on a bigger, stronger guy? Yes, you just need to make sure you are doing everything right and know a few ways to deal with their attempts to power out.
Can they slip out no-gi? Yes, they’re always slippier no-gi, but there are ways to keep it tight.
Can they use the gi to defend it? Yes, but you can still deal with that.
Does it rely on speed? Can I do it slowly? Yes, I can break down each part of the technique, each moment in the roll, and pause there and know what to grip and how to control them. In fact, doing it slower is often the better way to do it, since you have more control and can force it on a big guy.
Can I keep getting someone with it even after they’ve seen it a few times and been taught how to avoid it? Yes, if my timing, position, strategy and technique are good.
Can I get it on experienced guys? After all that work, I’ve gotten it on people of every skill level that I’ve gone with. In fact, I often get it on experienced guys who know to defend the standard positions and submissions but don’t know how to deal with me somersaulting around one of their arms instead of taking their back.
What I did wasn’t any special process. I just drilled and trained and thought about it a lot. I went for it in sparring and experimented with good training partners who wanted to learn it too. I went to my instructor for advice and to ask questions when I had problems. I checked out how other people do it and tried to figure out why they changed parts. I looked for the concepts and principles that make it work. I simplified how I think and talk about it till I could teach it to a white belt and have him doing it in a minute or two.
And now it’s one of my best moves.
The morals here are nothing earth-shattering, but they’re good ones:
Look at old things in new ways. Look at novel things and see how they make sense.