Category: How To Study Jiu-Jitsu

10 Quick Tips for White Belts

  1. How to get good isn’t a big secret. Get on the mats, get good instruction and do conditioning, drilling or sparring. Gameplans, flow charts, notebooks, journals and instructionals are gravy. Training is the meat and potatoes.
  2. Spar with everyone you can. Force yourself to go with guys who intimidate you. Experience is what counts, not mental tallies of who tapped who. And always finish the round, no matter how tired you are.
  3. Escaping submissions and bad positions isn’t easy. And it’s not supposed to be. That’s kinda the point. But that’s also what makes it good when you’re on the winning side.
  4. The best answer to a problem is usually “don’t let it happen in the first place.” That’s always disappointing to hear but it’s unfortunately true. Of course learn the escapes and counters but also become aware of what mistakes got you there in the first place. Boxers don’t ask “How do I get unpunched?”
  5. The difference between gi and no-gi is only as big as you make it. Do whichever you enjoy. Try both. And do whichever is appropriate to prepare for competition. Just don’t be that guy who wastes time arguing one over the other.
  6. Feeling stupid or uncoordinated when trying a new move is a good thing. It means you’ve got something to learn and your body gets to gain a new skill.
  7. Being technical doesn’t mean being lazy. Being aggressive doesn’t mean being a meathead. But it will take a lot of training and mat time to balance the two.
  8. You’ll think you’re “getting it” at about 6 months. Then at 12 months you’ll realize how wrong you were before and how now you’re really getting it. Then 6 months later you’ll actually start getting it.
  9. Getting your blue belt is good but don’t blow it up too big in your mind or you risk losing motivation when you get promoted. Don’t be one of those guys who races to his blue belt then disappears forever.
  10. When you do get your blue, don’t worry too much if you feel like you don’t deserve it yet. That’s normal. Just do what it takes to grow into it.

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More by Stephan Kesting

Stephan Kesting

Stephan Kesting of Grapple Arts just launched an awesome new BJJ resource, Beginning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (

Signing up for the e-course gets you a free e-book, A Roadmap for Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. After reading it, my first thought was “I wish I’d had this when I started.” It’s a superb starting reference, presenting the right lessons and concepts for a beginner. The e-mails that come with the e-course are the same great quality all of Stephan’s work is.

If you run a gym, this would be a perfect to give to new students. I’m thinking of printing out a copy and bring it into the gym and telling the beginners to check it out. It presents the right mindset for learning and improving as a beginner.

Check out


Rethinking Position

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.


Training Hard, Training Smart and Having Fun

Check out the discussion of Three Rules for Good Jiu-Jitsu. This post stems from that discussion and others elsewhere on the internet.

The two main arguments are that “train smart” and “have fun” are more important than “train hard”. And there is truth to that, but it also depends on how you look at it.

If you don’t enjoy training, you’re not likely going to stick to it, but you have to be careful about how you define “fun” and how much priority you give “fun” things. When I see people who are too intent on “having fun”, they’re more prone to indulging in things like this:

  • Going with white belts they can toy with.
  • Not working on their weaknesses.
  • Ducking people who will make them work or give them a hard time.
  • Only doing enough reps to “get the idea”.
  • Stopping training to discuss something that happened.
  • Complaining about going with bigger or stronger guys.
  • Quitting when they get tired.

On the other end, there are a lot of things that aren’t fun but are necessary. To name a few:

  • High rep drilling.
  • Pushing your conditioning and endurance.
  • Sparring even when you’re exhausted.
  • Having competitive matches with guys who give you a lot of trouble.
  • Getting put in really bad positions and having to fight out.
  • Learning to deal with being smothered and crushed.
  • Dealing with that spazzy white belt or that tireless wrestler or heavier opponent.

Those aren’t “fun” to most people (congratulations if they are to you). I know people who purposely avoid some of those things. Now it’s perfectly within your rights to disdain things you don’t find fun or not do something that you think will get you injured. But I know my personality and know I’m prone to avoiding hard work, don’t like being competitive, don’t like discomfort (who does?) so unless I really keep my discipline in and train hard, I’ll do too much of the stuff in the first list and not enough in the second.

jandaim on The Grapplers Guide forum posted this:

I think what some people are missing is that you can still have fun, enjoy yourself, and train hard.

As an example – I train for and compete in marathons. Let me tell you, to get to the point where you can run 26 miles takes a ton of hard work. If I took every training mile like a “flow roll” there is no way I would ever reach my goal. Does that mean I don’t have any fun training? Of course not. Does that mean that every run is at 100%? Nope, I take days off and run some runs at a very easy pace just to get the blood flowing. But the majority of the time, I am working hard.

To be honest, it’s the hard work that I put in that makes it fun and the rewards are more than just a good time – there is so much more to be gained than just that.

Many people prefer “train smart” because they think “train hard” means “get injured” and I’ve got a story about that.

Recently I took about 2 months off. When I came back, I was a little out of shape and I didn’t want stress myself out or get injured. So I rolled light, played a relaxed game, let stuff happen, didn’t go with big guys, called it a night when I got exhausted, etc. Just tried to train smart and have fun.

Yet in two weeks of doing that, I sprained my ankle, hurt my knee, hurt my back, popped my elbow and injured my neck/shoulder. I never even knew how it happened. I thought I was going light and not pushing myself too hard and then I’d end the night with a new injury.

So much for training smart and having fun.

When I talked to Leo about it, he said something funny. “If you’re going to get injured, you might as well go hard and beat people while you’re at it.”

So I started rolling with a focus on imposing my game, really working, not resting, not “taking it easy”, doing matches even when I was beat, not turning down anyone. Grabbing the bigger guys and fighting them when I would have avoided them before.

Here’s the interesting part: I’m not getting injured any more. And I’ve found myself having more real fun based on real performance.

You’ll all have your own experiences and personalities and semantics to deal with on this issue, but for me training smart means to train hard. The fun is in the performance and seeing myself improve.

What takes the most importance to you–smart, hard or fun? Can you have them all? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.


Three Rules for Good Jiu-Jitsu

Eduardo has three rules for good jiu-jitsu:

  1. Train hard.
  2. Eat right.
  3. Sleep well.

That’s it.

Let’s assume you have quality instruction already. (If you don’t, you’ve got other issues). You can fuss over the details: what and how to study, gi or no-gi, drilling versus sparring, top game or bottom first, basic versus advanced and so on into infinity. But whatever combination of those you choose, you can’t get away from needing to put in serious, focused time on the mat and racking up training hours. That’s a no-brainer, yet people still miss it while searching for the secret easy path to success.

Diet is always important but especially when you’re an athlete (and that’s what you’ve become if you’re training hard). Nutrition is well researched and there’s a wealth of information out there. I’ll leave it to you to find what’s right for your body.

The importance of sleep is easy to overlook (which is why I asked if you’re getting enough). Your body needs time to rest and recover after working out. But there’s also a mental aspect that you may not be aware of but that scientists are learning more about. The superb radio program Radiolab (iTunes) did a show on sleep that you should listen to. It explains the topic better than I can. Scientific American Mind also has good articles and podcasts on sleep and its effects on learning:

If you want to discuss the details of “the secret easy path to success”, or if you have any more good sources on nutrition and sleep, leave a comment or send me a message.


Level of Detail

This is a useful yet very nerdy analogy that’s aided me when I’m teaching. It may help you when you’re trying to explain a new or complex technique to someone that you are worried won’t get it.

In video game programming, the level of detail of an object decreases as it moves further away and increases as you get closer. When something is partially concealed, they only render what you can see. Programmers can get away with this because they figure you won’t need every detail when something is far enough away (or not even in sight) and you can’t tell the difference.

You’ve likely seen this if you play video games. A tree across the map is just a blotch of green, then as you run forward it turns into a lumpy green pyramid, then it gets branches and finally it’s a complete tree. Or you see the tip of spaceship sticking out from around a corner, but as far as the game is concerned, that’s all there is to it and it’s not worth dealing with the rest yet.

Where this applies to teaching is in figuring out how much to simplify and when to add greater detail and complexity. When someone is a beginner or new to a technique, you can overload them by showing every detail and variation and counter and re-counter. These will be ignored or forgotten since they don’t have any foundation of experience to build on.

So what you do is scale it back. Teach them a simplified version of the technique. Give them the bare bones to start getting a feel for it. It may not be “the best” way to do the move but it’s what they’ve got to learn before they can process more details. Once they’ve got that level, move up to the next and flesh it out further.

Think of the students brain as a computer processor. It can only handle so much at once. You’ve got to give it the most important information first and make sure it’s in chewable amounts, otherwise it overloads and chokes. Start simple and ramp it up as needed.

You can visualize it by taking a technique and making an abstraction of it. Imagine there is an perfect way to do a move, in a Platonic idealism sense. Now imagine your perfect technique as an object, a sphere. You could have a progression of increasingly accurate representations, like this:

Levels of detail

(These spheres also lends themselves to a diamond polishing metaphor: you’re starting with a crude rock and through progressive refining and polishing you get the desired form.)

To give a specific example of this concept, look at how an armbar from mount is taught to a beginner versus how it’s done by someone with experience. With the beginner, you have their training partner stick their arms straight up into them. The beginner posts both hands on the chest, slides a knee up to the head, steps up with his other leg, stands to pass his leg over the head and falls back with the arm.

Is anyone with experience going to straighten both their arms like that? Are you going to want to be that loose and slow when you spin around the arm? Are you going to get that high to pass your leg over the head? No, but that doesn’t matter. At this point the beginner is still just learning the gross body movements and how to shift his weight and move his hips. Once he gets that, you can do a second pass and clean up the technique, making it tighter, smoother or faster and adding details.

A personal example is the difference between how I teach the reverse omoplata and how I do it. It wouldn’t make sense and they’d get information overload if I showed them my way. Instead I teach a simpler version first. That gets them familiar with it. They’ll have success with it for a bit but they’ll also start running into problems. Now that they have experience with it, I can give more details and they’ll see where they fit in, whereas before they wouldn’t have had the proper context.

What you started with and what you ended with may be very different beasts and yet they are fundamentally the same move, based on the same principles. What got you there was working up through lower levels of detail and complexity until you’re as close to the “ideal technique” as you can be.

Image from Level of Detail (Wikipedia).


Concept Map – Positions

Earlier this year, I thought it’d be an interesting experiment to start drawing concept or mind maps for BJJ. Last week, I finally got a white board and tonight I took my first crack at sketching.


View full-sized image »

This map is made up of four large sections: guard, top, escapes and passing. The red arrows represent the general flow and objective between them. Within these sections are the main positions I use or find myself in. These are connected by lines that show the most common transitions. Notes are in blue.

My plan is to reevaluate and redraw the map each week or month. It’ll be neat to see how to evolves over time.


Bridging the Gap

As I’ve said repeatedly, this journal is a reflection of my personal interests. If there hasn’t been much new material posted, it’s because I’m not working on new techniques. Rather, I’m returning to “old” stuff and working on it again, a process I started months ago.

I’ve also been working on aspects more fundamental than revisiting techniques: the training methods themselves. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to train. I want to make the most out of the time I spend on the mats.

In a previous article, I talked about how to get the most out of drilling. But drilling will only get you so far. There is still a gulf between these static repetitions and using these moves in sparring. Making this connection, being able to get techniques in motion, can be one of the biggest problems faced in learning, especially in the beginner and intermediate levels.

Most leave it up to mat time, experience and determination to solve this. Keep showing up, drill and spar enough and it’ll sort out. That’s as it should be.

But is there an easier, smoother way to do this? Can you engineer and control this process? Make it less mysterious? Can you ease students into it without lowering standards of performance?

I think so. That’s what you’ll about read below.

But before we get into it, there are a few terms and ideas I want to review, since they’re important to understanding this topic.


Whether or not you use (or even like) the neologism coined by Matt Thornton, the concept of aliveness is one of the most important aspect of learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or any combat sports. And while I’m not a fan of making up new words by adding “-ness” to them, I am willing to forgive it in this instance since the term is very useful for my purposes.

Aliveness tends to be ham-fistedly summed up as “resistance” or “sparring”, but that’s a crude way to look at it. It is more accurately defined as “realistic timing, energy and motion that does not follow a set pattern.” For deeper descriptions and discussions of the topic, you can read What is Aliveness? and Why Aliveness? or watch any number of videos, all by Matt Thornton of the Straight Blast Gym.

If you’re already doing an “alive” art like BJJ, it’s easy to take aliveness for granted. It’s built right in. You simply show up at class, follow directions, spar and away you go. Nothing wrong with that.

Where it becomes valuable to understand aliveness is when you want to explore the learning process and refine or improve your training methods. That’s what we’re doing here, so take the time let the idea sink in. Once you grasp the roles timing, energy and motion play in learning, they open up a lot of possibilities for creating new drills and coaching methods.


Straight Blast Gym has a few other terms and concepts I’ll borrow. Again, they’re not new inventions, but they never claimed to be. If you find yourself thinking “But that’s what we do already”, you’re probably right. It just happens that SBG used the clearest terminology to describe this process, so I’m going to stick with it for ease of description.

The I-Method is a way of teaching material in stages, each of which is conveniently an “I” word: Introduction, Isolation and Integration. They break down as follows:


Teach the technique and explain how it works. Repetitions without resistance until the students understand the move and can do it smoothly.


Have the students do live drills that focus on the material they just learned and begin adding aliveness. Work the student up through several levels of difficulty so he grasps how to apply the move against a resisting opponent.


The students are free to spar and try whatever they want (within the rules) but with the encouragement to incorporate the skills they just learned.

Of these three stages, the one most relevant to our interests (and my favorite) is Isolation. This is what fills the gap between drilling and sparring. “Reps with resistance” as some call it.

Isolation training is a simple idea, which is both good and bad.

The bad is that it’s easy to overlook, undervalue or take for granted. Like how basic techniques get blown off because there’s “not a lot to it”, this concept can get ignored. You may need to take a serious look and put it to use before you appreciate it.

The good is that with its simplicity comes versatility, making it a very powerful learning and coaching tool. With flexible thinking and creativity, you can apply it to almost anything: techniques, positions, transitions, submissions, attributes, strategies and concepts.

Once you’ve got a firm handle on it, you’ll likely find you can use the isolation stage to create drills that focus on skills that are otherwise difficult to develop. You’re able to handpick the material you want to train and quickly come up with a way to drill it against resistance.

To get the most out of this though, it helps to have several more concepts in mind.


Inherent to the I-Method is the concept of progressive resistance. Each stage naturally builds up into the next. The training partner goes from supplying little more than a warm body to offering limited amounts of resistance and ultimately all-out sparring. This can be divided into further stages of resistance.

This concept of gradual increases can also be applied to the other factors of learning and training, such as complexity, difficulty, athleticism, etc. You want to start low on the scale and ramp up, which each stage building nicely into the next.

Before we get to exploring how isolation training and progressive resistance go together, I want to first illustrate a few points.


I have found it useful to visualize the learning process as a line graph, and so I’ve plotted several below. Keep in mind that these are rough approximations but they’ll give you the general idea.

Imagined Ideal

This first graph gives an imagined ideal for how training should run.

Imagined Ideal

The training starts at a zero of complexity, resistance, difficulty, etc. then rises at a steady pace. It starts simple and easy then keeps getting more and more demanding. The dashed lines are meant to show the potential for variation, up and down.

The problem with ideals is how often they don’t translate to the real world. So while this is a useful way to think about teaching, don’t get too hung up on seeking “the perfect” way. Keep it in mind, use it as a guide line, milk it for all its worth, but don’t stress out over it.

Common BJJ

With the “ideal” as our frame of reference, we can now look at how BJJ is normally taught.


Training starts low but quickly advances into high levels of resistance. This steep cliff face is usually what makes or breaks beginners, where they have to suffer through it or quit. While it is a ruthless enforcer of natural selection, I blame this for the high attrition rates in BJJ.

There’s an argument to be made in favor of this. Many instructors and students take pride in how hard BJJ is, how it’s not for everyone. It’s a trial by fire and only the best and the toughest stick around. To do it any other way seems like a cop out, especially if you paid your dues this way. Why should anyone else have it easier? We don’t want to lower our standards.

The counter-argument is that BJJ should be for everyone. How is it supposed to work for the smaller, weaker man (like we always hear advertised) if he’s being crushed and driven away by the rougher guys at class? Is “pride” really worth a gym that limps along with just a couple “tough guys” instead of a large student body of normal men and women? But how do you have it so each type of student can train together?

With any luck, intelligent use of isolation drilling, progressive resistance and gradual increasing difficulty can create a training environment where the competitor and the everyman can learn and improve alongside each other.

Gradual Stages

Gradual Steps

Here we fill the space between drilling and sparring with fleshed out isolation training. This is where we give the students a chance to try what they’re learning against a moving person and run them up through several levels of difficulty and resistance before they get to sparring. They can work on their coordination and timing and get a feel for the move before moving to a higher level.

The “steps” up through the isolation stage show how you can use a series of drills (or the same drill in multiple ways) to build up to sparring.

For example, you can simply make them start from the position you’re learning that day and tell them to start at 25%, with the person doing the moves told they can only really try what they learned that day while the training partner moves around but pretty much lets them do the moves. Then tell the training partner to go up to 50% and not let them get it as easily. Then bump up to 75% and get them both really fighting for it. Then finish out at 100%.

The success-to-fail ratio I go by is 7 out of 10, meaning the person should be able to get the move around 7 times out of 10 during the easier learning stages of isolation training. Lower and it’s too easy; higher and it’s too hard. The 7/10 ratio means they’re having enough success to get a feel for the move but still getting realistic resistance (for the stage of learning). If you see someone only getting a move only 2 or 3 times, you should probably lower the resistance or difficulty until they get it, then ramp up once they get it.

Simplicity vs Complexity

The slope of these graphs is affected by many factors — more than I’ll try to pin down right now. Simply think of all of the things that can make training easier or harder.

Two related factors can sum up a lot of variables: simplicity and complexity. These are opposite ends of the same stick (to steal another Thorntonism). You can account for a wide range of skill levels by creating drills of varying levels of simplicity or complexity.

For example, a class full of beginners should probably be kept towards the simple end of the spectrum, not just in what they learn but in the types of drills they do. They’ll most likely lack the sensitivity to go at a lower level of resistance and so (picture the graph here) the difficulty rises rapidly. You can get a handle on this and push the graph back down by limiting them to simpler isolation drills. This way you can worry less about them going ballistic since they’re not allowed to go off into strange or awkward situations (which is when many injuries occur) and their training partner can keep learning.

Specificity and Scope

People (especially beginners) sometimes have trouble sticking to the isolation drill. They get to fighting and things get crazy and they just keep going. They might get a good position or almost have a submission and not want to give it up. Likewise, someone (often a higher belt) may “fail” at their goal for the drill but keep fighting out of pride, not wanting to “lose” to a lower belt. In any case, they’re missing the point.

This isn’t sparring yet so you can keep them on a leash. Stress the purpose of the drill and the specific positions or skills it is developing so they know what they’re working on. When they start getting into strange positions, have them ask themselves “Is this within the scope of the drill?” Restart if it’s not.

Don’t be afraid to reset the position repeatedly. “Winning” and “losing” isn’t a big deal and don’t give them time to mope or gloat. Just restart and go again and again.

That said, there are times when something unexpected may happen that’s worth letting run out. It may be a new position you hadn’t thought that shows potential. It may be that someone put themselves in a bad spot and you want them to suffer a bit so they know to not do that again. Use your judgment.

More Graphs

Since I became enamored with making graphs, I drew up ones for a few more scenarios.

Traditional Martial Arts

Traditional Martial Arts

Stances, solo repetitions, forms and katas, one and two-step sparring, and highly restricted point sparring. While these can get quite complex and difficult, they don’t involve realistic amounts of resistance so they don’t reach the same level.

Flow Rolling

Flow Roll

Flow (or slow or tempo) rolling is when both training partners agree to spar at a lower intensity. They usually don’t hold on to any one positions for long, feed each other sweeps, hang out in funky positions, release submissions, etc. The idea is (as the name implies) to learn to flow, relax and explore new things. It can be a useful training tool, since it makes for a good warm-up and it’s a safe way to roll when injured. But taken to excess it can lead to sloppy technique and bad habits.

Just Sparring

Just Sparring

This graph illustrates what I consider the biggest problem with how self-instruction is done in clubs and garages. It’s usually a quick and sloppy show-and-tell of techniques from books, DVDs, the internet, etc. then a ton of sparring. While this can be quite athletic and gives you enough experience to deal with someone who knows nothing, it skips most of the learning process.

That’s it for now. Let me know how you’re able to apply this to your training and teaching.


Drilling Isn’t A Four Letter Word

It’s almost a curse word. It’s the worst part of class, next to warm-ups. You may wish you could skip it and get on to the fun stuff.

Yet drilling is a necessary and important aspect of learning, regardless of how loved it is. You’ve got to build muscle memory somehow.

The disdain for drilling likely comes from what it entails: repetition. To some, this might as well be a synonym for “boring”. And that’s what it is when you approach it as a chore, instead of a valuable tool for improving.

If you drill like a robot, you’ll no doubt find it dull. You’ve got to invest thought into the activity to truly benefit. While I can’t promise it’ll make drilling any more fun, I think I can give helpful advice on how to make it more meaningful.

These are the questions I ask myself when drilling to keep my mind active.

Hips Always

The hips are king. Practically every technique and skill in BJJ (or any sport or physical activity) is built around the hips. You can never go wrong by analyzing what your hips are doing.

You may be surprised to find how many moves come down to the hips. A collar choke or a guillotine may seem to be all in the arms, but the setups don’t work and real leverage doesn’t come until you know how and where to use your hips.


Is my hip movement smooth enough?
Is my hip placement correct?
Did I rotate my hips far enough?
Are my hips heavy enough?

Gross Motor Skills

Moving outwards from the core, you can look at the next largest elements of the technique: what are your limbs is doing?

Try paying attention to each limb individually, making sure it plays its role to the fullest. Look at them altogether and see if they’re working in sync. Tie this into the last point and see if and how each limb contributes to your hip movement.


What is my left arm doing? My right?
What is my left leg doing? My right?
Did I move each in the proper sequence?
Which limbs are moving my hips?

Posture and Grips

Closely related to your hips and limbs are your posture and grips. They are the other defining characteristics of a position and its techniques.

Make sure you’re starting in proper posture. Make sure you’re grabbing the right spots at the right times.


Am I in proper posture?
Are my neck, back and hips in proper alignment?
Should my back be straight or bent?
Where does each hand go?

Underlying Concepts

Every technique is built on fundamental principles. Once you grasp the technique, you can try to reverse engineer it. What is the most basic reason it works? Use what you learned earlier by analyzing the hip and limb movement, etc. to reflect on this. Try to reduce it to its essence.

Look at the physics involved. Think of the technique in terms of patterns and flows of movements. Think of it in terms of space, weight, supports and levers.

Look at the anatomy involved. Why did you use each part of your body the way you did? Why did you manipulate his body like that?

Look at the strategy involved. What was the advantage of what you did? What was the disadvantage?

If the moves you’re learning form a series, look for unifying principles between them. How does this move relate to the last?


How does this sweep attack their base and posture?
How does this armlock compare to others ones?
Crossing their arm makes them extremely vulnerable.
A guard pass is when my hips pass the line of their hips.

Finer Points

With all of the major components of the technique down, it’s time to develop your attention to detail. Accuracy in seemingly minor details can make the difference between “okay” and “highly skilled”.

Refine your understanding of the technique. Make mental notes of the little things. Try to spot something you missed before. Discover nuances.


I should grip just above the elbow, but no higher or lower.
My posture is stronger if I turn my elbows in.
I actually make it harder if I escape my hips too far.
Do I like claw or pistol grip more for this?

What If?

Once you’ve got the mechanics down, and if you have time, try asking what if? and troubleshooting the technique.

It can be just as valuable to know how not to do a move. By “breaking” it and observing what happens, you can gain greater insight into the technique.

Try doing a repetition where you purposely leave out a step or don’t do it as well as you should have. Compare this with a properly done one.

What if there are several equally valid ways to do a move? Test each and see what you find.


What happens if I don’t rotate my hips enough?
What if I’m lazy with this leg?
What if I grip over here instead?
What if I do this first?

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Consciously try to improve each repetition. Make each one better than the last. Don’t be happy with a sloppy technique. Seek perfection.

This can take a lot of self-discipline. You’ve simply got to stick to it. It may not be the most exciting part of training, but it can be very rewarding, and I think you’ll find it’s worth it in the long run.

That Said…

No amount of static drilling will make you good by itself. You’ll eventually reach a point where you won’t be benefiting as much as you could, and it’s time to move on.

The problem most people run here is having their beautiful technique falls out the window as soon as they spar, which is why my next piece will be on bridging the gap between drilling and sparring.


How Much Do You Really Need?

The draw of this journal has been its constant tutorials and techniques. Some of you may have been disappointed lately, with the frequency of updates slowing down and fewer tutorials being put up.

As you may have figured out, this journal is largely a reflection of my personal interests. I only share techniques I use, and I only talk from my experience. So as my focuses change, so too does the direction of my journal.

Maybe I’m merely acting out the predestined mindset that befalls all purple belts, where I look back on my time as a blue belt and see how wrongheaded I was for collecting techniques instead of refining them. But lately, I’ve been returning to “old” techniques, working over all the details, and trying to increase their potency.

And it’s been one of the best things I’ve done in a long time.

Perhaps because of this, I’ve been worried about what people are actually doing with all of the information on this journal. My concern is that they’re getting lost in the euphoria of learning new techniques, or that they’re just collecting techniques for the sake of collecting them, but not putting in the work needed to improve their game or effectively incorporate new moves.

Because of this, I think it’s time to bring more attention to how to learn, not just what to learn.

I confess. I consume inordinately large amounts of BJJ information and techniques: dozens upon dozens of books, DVDs, magazines, blogs, forums, online tutorials and more. This is in addition to regular instruction. Its my nature to dig into a subject, compile research and compare data from different sources.

Do I recommend this for everyone? No.

For most, this is a sure way to suffer from information overload.

The only way I can handle this much intake is by balancing it against an equal amount of mat time. I train 5-7 days per week (including open mat), get to class early and often close up for the night. This isn’t to brag, but to give you a point of reference for comparison.

The average person with commitments like a full-time job, a family, bills, a social life, etc., gets in 2-3 classes per week. For them, sinking as much time, effort and thought into BJJ as I do isn’t possible (or advised). Should they also try to squeeze in watching and reading instructionals?

I’ll bet that if you’re going to regular classes under a qualified instructor (which, alas, not all of you are), you don’t really need much else. It’s nice and can be pretty helpful, but it’s not going to make or break you.

The best grapplers I know personally hardly study outside of normal classes (if they do at all). I suspect the vast majority of elite competitors don’t watch too many instructionals either. They all just put their heart into training and have superb teachers.

Even with all my extra mat time, I reach a point of “information saturation” where seeing more techniques won’t mean anything. There was a time when I could sit and watch an entire “BJJ A-to-Z” style instructional. These days I am only interested in ones on specific topics and techniques (lately the brabo choke).

The real value of instructionals to me is in troubleshooting and exploring certain aspects in depth. They can supplement your instructor but they cannot replace him.

I’ve talked with Eduardo, my instructor, about the abundance of BJJ media we have today. While he thinks it is for the best, he also feels something is now missing because of it. What he said stuck with me and I’ve given it a lot of thought.

When he first started, the instructor was only source of knowledge. This made you value each individual class and technique. You committed yourself to learning every move, since you couldn’t simply look it up again later; each lesson was invaluable since you couldn’t get it anywhere else.

Today, someone can go to class and be taught a move, and instead of taking ownership of it, he can think “Oh, I’ve seen this already” or “I’ll just watch this again later.” Their overexposure to techniques makes them mentally lazy. They see a fundamental move and find it mundane. Nevermind that they’re terrible at it — it’s just not as cool as the stuff they see online.

The point is not that instructionals are bad. Sometimes you honestly do need to review books and videos, and by being able to draw from multiple sources, students are less likely to have their instructor abuse his status. There may be topics that your instructor doesn’t address enough for your liking. The lesson is to be judicious in how you use these resources.

Let’s take a quick look at an ideal way to learn a new technique:

You are taught a technique and drill it. If you’re lucky enough to have a good teacher, you’re give a chance to isolate it with positional sparring. Or you may need to show initiative and try it in sparring.

What’s important is you go for it, regardless of whether or not you succeed. No matter how clumsy your attempt may have been, you thought of it and tried it. This plants the seed in your mind. The next time it comes up, you’ll think a little quicker and do it a little smoother. Repeat this enough times and suddenly you’ve got skill.

Now let’s see how misusing instructionals can pervert this process:

You find some interesting techniques in a book or online. You glance them over and make a note to try later. At class, you’ve got your attention split between what is being taught in front of you and the half-forgotten tutorials floating around in your head. When sparring comes, you drop whatever the day’s lesson was and fumble to piece together something else entirely.

Add to this the potential for the tutorial to be by an awful instructor, or to have been shot poorly, or it being a crumby gimmick. Why ruin your own learning process for it?

Again, don’t misinterpret this to mean that you shouldn’t try material from outside your school — I’m all for that. Some of my favorite moves are ones I picked up from the internet, magazines and DVDs (again, like the brabo).

What I am saying is you need to be smart about how you do it. Spoiling a class for yourself just so you can go for the clich├ęd “Newest Technique from Brazil” is a waste of time and money, to say the least. There are better ways to learn these moves.

Personally, I set aside the material I want to learn and wait until I have extra time, such as an open mat, to work it over. Then I try to approach it in an orderly fashion. I have to avoid indulging myself by testing out a ton of new moves. That can be a lot of fun, but it doesn’t actually improve my performance. I’ve got to have the self-discipline to properly drill each technique and limit myself to a reasonable number.

I’ll go into specifics of how I learn these techniques at a later date. For now, it’s enough that you’re thinking about this in a general sense. The topic of how to learn is an important one that deserves careful thought.

Ask yourself if your performance is improving by collecting instructionals and techniques or if you’re just gathering clutter.

Feel free to send me your answers.