Category: Questions and Answers

Get answers to your dumb questions at! is live! WBP is a mega-FAQ for BJJ that I’ve been working on for more than the past year. The site grew out of continually seeing the same questions across BJJ forums and in my inbox.  Marshal D. Carper, my partner at Artechoke Media, helped finish up the first big batch of questions. You can pick up a paper copy on Amazon.

Here’s an example Q&A from WBP, answering one of the the first questions almost anyone asks when getting into BJJ:

Q: How long does it take to get a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

A: On average, it takes 10 years to get a black belt in BJJ.

Some people earn a BJJ black belt faster, while other earns it slower. A survey of 1500+ jiu-jiteiros found that promotion timelines ranged from 3 to 16 years, with most being between 8 and 12. BJJ black belts are notoriously hard to get. Even 5-7 years is considered fast. Anyone earning it faster than that is usually a phenom who trains everyday and blasts their way through competition.

The IBJJF requires someone to be at least 18 years old to earn a black belt, so there are no kids with black belts like you find in other martial arts. The IBJJF’s minimum time requirements for each belt put the fastest path from white to black belt at 4 1/2 years. Despite all that, you still see a few black belts in their early twenties, but they have usually been training since childhood.

The IBJJF has several others requirements for black belts to fulfill to be recognized and earn degrees (like CPR certification and attending referee courses). They also require the instructor who promotes someone to black belt to be a 2nd degree black belt or higher. You can read more about degrees here: Why do some BJJ belts have stripes and what do they mean?

Note that not every BJJ affiliation recognizes the IBJJF standards, and they may follow their own. The Gracie Academy is a notable example of this.

As with all BJJ belts, the decision to promote to black belt is ultimately up to the student’s instructor. BJJ lacks any standardized syllabus or grading tests, such as are found in arts like judo. Each BJJ instructor has their own standards for promotion, and they may or may not have a formal test (most don’t). See Do you have to do a test to get a belt promotion in BJJ? for more on this.

An adult who joins a BJJ academy and trains 3 or more classes per week can expect their path to black belt to take about a decade. The actual speed will vary based on a wide variety of factors ranging from the person’s age and athleticism, natural talent, previous martial arts and wrestling experience, breaks in training (injuries, life changes, etc.), tournament success, their instructors standards, and a million other things.

The best approach to take is to just train hard and make sure you deserve the belts whenever you get them!



Creating a personal development plan

Q: How involved do most instructors get in providing feedback and helping to map out development plans for their students? I mean, in providing constructive feedback like “I think you should work on [insert position/guard/movement] for the next two months.” I understand that I need to take a certain amount of ownership over my training, but am just looking for some guidance.

I got to a large school that has many class time options and pretty much a different instructor for each class, so I’m not sure that I have a single instructor that really “knows my game” well enough that they feel comfortable in trying to shape my development plan. If I ask something like “what are some good breaks/passes for me to focus on” I’ll get a decent answer, but I’m looking at something more big picture.

I could probably get some ideas from competing, but I feel like I have to work on pretty much everything. Any tips for how to get some better constructive feedback in order to focus my training? I’m fine with paying for privates (either with my instructor or another) but from reading forums it seems like most players recommend that privates be used once you already know what it is that you want to improve.

A: The depth of guidance you’re seeking is hard for a coach to give without spending a lot of one-on-one time with you. That attention is usually reserved for their promising competitors or private lesson clients, unless you have an overeager instructors with a lot of free time.

If you have an instructor you trust, you could try telling them what you told me. They’re more likely to have insights into your game than I am, and even if they don’t, it doesn’t hurt to ask. You may have even better luck finding a purple or brown belt to act as your mentor. They may not have the most prestigious rank, but they often make up for it by having the time to give you attention, especially if you can be a consistent and dedicated training partner.

Being told “only work on this” is something I usually see in the later belts (mid purple and brown) because the lower belts are about building broader skills. Specialization comes after you have a foundation to fall back on.

Like you said, competing will sharpen your focus and highlight what you need to work on. Don’t get overwhelmed by feeling you need to work on everything. Make a list to prioritize if you need to. Pick out a the main techniques, positions and strategies you want to work on. Put in the extra drilling, study instructionals and tournament footage, try to use it in sparring, and ask for feedback from training partners and instructors.

The frustration you feel is common, so don’t be discouraged. Even with private lessons and personalized coaching, you will always need to evaluate your own game. Don’t be afraid of asking others for help, but know that most of the answers you are looking for come from personal experience and trial and error.


How to teach to different skill levels

This question came in response to The case for dividing classes by belt rank, given my flexible stance on “the basics.”

Q: Does your new approach to divided classes change your “anything can be a fundamental technique” stance?

Thanks–I’m appreciating that you’re making your expertise so available to the community.

A: The divisions between classes have less to do my philosophy about basic versus advanced techniques and more to do with the right way of teaching and structuring classes for different kinds of students. Even if I think all good techniques, even “advanced” ones, have their own fundamentals, it doesn’t mean I teach just any moves to beginners. Certain techniques are more appropriate for new students, and more importantly, certain ways of running classes are better for beginners. The same is true of advanced students.

What may help you understand what I mean is if I explain how we run our classes at Gracie Barra Clearwater. This is in line with how Gracie Barra HQ is organizing all of their schools.

Fundamental class: These classes are open to all belt levels, but they are especially good for new white belts. In these classes, the focus is on core BJJ techniques with an emphasis on self defense. These moves tend to require less exact timing, finesse and strategy, traits beginners aren’t expect to have yet. For live training, students do positional sparring (from the positions learned that day) rather than free sparring, since this focuses their attention and prevents injuries (fewer reckless scrambles).

Advanced class: Open to three stripe white belts and higher. In these classes, the emphasis shifts to sport BJJ techniques, though some self defense is still covered. An example of this would be in teaching two versions of a double leg takedown, one for a grappling tournament (breaking gi grips, penetration step with knee touching the ground), and the other for a street fight (defending punches while shooting, not dropping your knee to the cement). These classes also do positional sparring, but they get to do free sparring too.

Black belt class: Open to blue belts and higher. In these classes, the instructor is free to cover any topic he wants, since he doesn’t have to worry about beginners being confused or left behind. These classes feature more takedowns, more combinations, deeper strategy, and harder conditioning. Like always, positional sparring is used (since it’s just a good training method) but much more free sparring and competition style sparring is done.

When we first switched to this class structure, I spoke to the classes about how the purpose was to give students the right type of training for where they are in their development, and not to “hide” techniques from them. BJJ doesn’t have any true “secret” moves, and that’s something I’ve always liked. To have “black belt only” moves, you have to either not spar (so no one ever sees the move, and you can’t really know if it works), or you have to kill everyone who sees it (which makes you a true kung fu master). We show everything we know in BJJ, and it’s our depth of understanding and our training methods that make our knowledge valuable.

As an instructor, I could easily teach “the same” moves at all three classes, but what would be different is the depth to which I expect each group to understand it.

Let’s take butterfly guard as an example. In the beginners class, I would expect them to be working on the good habits of sitting up, getting underhooks, keeping their hooks alive, and doing a simple hook sweep.

In the advanced class, I would cover this too, but expect people to already have a decent grasp of the positioning, allowing me to go into more detail on the sweep, and show simple combinations for when that sweep is countered.

In the highest level class, I wouldn’t need to worry as much about the positioning or the basic sweeps, allowing me to show combinations and attacks that need timing and awareness that I wouldn’t expect a beginner to have.

Hopefully that explains my stance well enough. If not, send in more questions or debate in the comments below!


How to train with smaller partners

Q: At our gym, we frequently let some of the older, more advanced teens into the advanced
adult class. Our gym focuses primarily on MMA, so most of the guys that
train there are huge. As a result, I am one of the smallest people at 5’5″,
140, so I frequently get paired with the kids.

Now, this isn’t really a problem, except that some of the kids are way
smaller than me (100 lbs vs 140). I’m inexperienced in rolling with people
that are smaller than me (I’m used to being the smallest), and VERY
inexperienced in rolling with people MUCH smaller than me.

Any tips? I don’t want to be the passive partner or the “sits on you and
squashes you the whole time” partner (I’ve experienced that too much!) and
I would like both of us to come out of the experience with something.

A: Starting jiu-jitsu as a featherweight, I’ve had similar experiences to yours. If a teenager or a smaller woman needed a safe training partner, they got me. As an instructor, I’ve run teenage and young adult classes. It can be tricky to make the experience valuable to yourself and your much smaller training partners.

I’ve trained with women who complained about someone going too hard on them, then turned around and complained that someone else goes too light. So which is it? They can’t have it both ways, so what can you do?

Like Goldilocks, my answer is “not too hard, not too soft.”

No one wants you to lay there like a dead fish. Don’t be “that guy” by coaching them through doing everything to you. That’s condescending and doesn’t teach them much. They want to be feel respected and to not be treated like a lost puppy. There is a place for little bits of advice if they are clueless, by try to save talk for outside of sparring.

Give them a chance to set the tone of the match, see how hard they want to go, then act accordingly. Since they are lighter than you, the risk of injury is much lower, assuming they don’t bust out surprise heelhooks.

The way you can both benefit from training together is if you make clean, crisp technique your priority—and I’m talking about both yours and theirs. Use training with smaller partners to improve your sensitivity, precision, finesse—any trait associated with “being technical.” Training with smaller, lighter partners, you’ll have to be honest with yourself about if your technique was correct. Don’t allow yourself to succeed if you did it wrong.

You’ll also have to learn to evaluate their technique, since you don’t want to give them anything if they’re doing it flat out wrong. A good practice is to pick a certain point you want them to improve and keep setting it up to happen, ratcheting up the difficulty as they succeed.

Here’s a trick. If you think they’re up to it, go fast and push the pace without getting too aggressive or determined to get submissions. People feel satisfied with a roll if there was a lot of action, even if no one got tapped or crushed. Just make sure you don’t go so fast that it turns into a spazzfest.

When you roll, don’t hold on to any one position too tightly. Allow more transitions and escapes, but only if they do the techniques correctly. Apply purposeful pressure when you gain dominant positions to show them the consequences, but don’t force it. They need to develop some toughness too.

While you should probably go easy on the submissions, don’t be afraid to submit them if they make real mistakes, because it doesn’t help them to learn bad habits. But if they realize their mistake and try to defend properly, let it play out rather than tapping them immediately. You can learn from this too.

Don’t go so light that you allow bad habits, and don’t go so hard that you needlessly discourage them. Use this as an opportunity to refine your technique and theirs.


3 questions, 3 answers

1. Drilling a technique. Should you just focus on one side or do both?

2. Will practicing MMA make your sport BJJ game go down and vice versa?

3. When rolling. Should you start on you feet and focus on takedowns or guard pulling? Both?

Three short questions get you three short answers.

1. Drill both sides if you have time. Otherwise, drill whichever side you’ll use most. And try to drill escapes and defenses on both sides. You don’t need to be equally good at both sides, but you need a plan for both sides, even if the plan is “get to where I can do the other side.”

2. Doing one will help the other to the degree that the skills overlap. Here’s a scientific diagram to explain it:


3. It depends on your game and what you need to improve most. If you’re like most jiu-jiteiros, you should work on your takedowns. But if you’re up against a wrestler or judoka and it’s not the time to get tossed on your head, pull guard.


Setting goals and making progress as a blue belt

Q: I’m a leve blue belt and had the chance to roll with my instructor last night (despite his broken arm). Once we were done he complimented me and said that I have a good game but use too much strength; that all my movements were a bit hulkish (my words; he just showed movement and grunted). I’ve been very interested in training attitudes, mentalities, and psychologies for a while, and would really like to hea your take on how to train. Do I take the American Wrestler approach and go hard (but respectful, safe and controlled), do I go light and try an figure out what everyone would do to submit me? How much time should be spent on things you know will work vs. things that I need to get better at.How much time should be spent pushing the comfort zone in both physical fitness and techniques? Basically, what’s the best training path for ablue belt to take so I can facilitate my progress rather than hinder it? I’d also like to hear about the paths that you’ve taken too.

A: You sound like you’re at a normal point in your development. That you’re asking these questions shows that you’re already working to resolve your issues, whether or not you’re fully aware of how. As long as you continue training with a thoughtful attitude, you’ll figure it out through the natural learning process. So that’s my first bit of obvious advice: Keep training.

The trouble is that progress doesn’t usually come as sudden rushes of insight and smashing success, which is frustrating (and that’s why you’re asking me about it). BJJ is a long, winding road that doesn’t always have a clear path.

How I see you gaining more direction and control is by understanding your own goals and balancing your life and training to match. Answer these questions for yourself:

  • What are your short, medium and long term goals for BJJ?
  • What are your motivations for doing BJJ (self defense, fitness, fun, competition, any combinations of these, etc.)?
  • Do you want to compete a lot or a little or not at all?
  • How often can you train while maintaining your other commitments (work, family, friends, etc.)?
  • How athletic are you, and how well does your body stand up to the rigors of training?
  • What do you want to achieve outside of BJJ?

Once you have your answers, you can use them for guidance. They will help you answer day to day questions like these: Should you spend more time drilling or sparring? Should you work on a new move or an old one? Should you do conditioning or rest? If you are a competitor, are you doing what is needed to prepare for your next tournament? Those are questions for you and your teacher to answer, but your answers above should give you a clearer direction.

As a blue belt, you have a good grasp on BJJ, but there’s still so much to learn. The balancing act here is to keep expanding your knowledge without neglecting your fundamentals and familiar techniques. How you will do that depends on how you answered the questions above. Your approach will be unique to you, though it will be built on the same foundation of all training: drilling, sparring, conditioning, reflection, gameplanning—all the standard practices. BJJ has very few secrets. It’s all in how you apply yourself.

Without have trained with you, I can’t tell if you should be more aggressive or not, but it sounds like your instructor already gave you his advice, so you should go with that. Try being less aggressive for a while and see what happens. Each person will find the level of aggression and athleticism that works for them if they keep training and have good training partners who can keep them honest. The ideal I strive toward is technical aggression, which has more to do with assertiveness and being in the right place at the right time than it has to do with strength or speed. You will find your own balance.


How to transition from wrestling to BJJ

Q: I am currently preparing for my first BJJ tournament. However I had wrestled for
6 years so I do not fear the adrenaline of nervousness. What I am worried
about is developing what everyone calls a ‘gameplan’ for matches. What
things are there to consider in preparation (5 weeks out)? Should I focus
on tightening my weaknesses or capitalizing things I already have a firm
grasp on? Thanks lot in advance for your time~!!

A: Wrestlers switching to BJJ come with a lot valuable skills and traits built in. The trick is learning how to adapt these talents to the rules and realities of submission grappling. Without seeing you train, I’ll give you general advice that I’d give to any wrestler.

First off, don’t be a jerk by entering the beginners/novice division. Unless you face other sandbagging wrestlers and white belts on the verge of blue belt, you will be smashing soft beginners and casual grapplers. Some tournaments explicitly state that wrestling experience counts when determining which division to enter. Your coach can advise you on the right division to compete in.

With six years of wrestling under your singlet, we’ll assume you’re better at takedowns and scrambles than most of your opponents. That steers you toward a gameplan like this:

  1. Get the takedown
  2. Pass guard or stay out of it entirely
  3. Stay on top and get dominant positions
  4. Control them with driving pressure
  5. Only go for simple submissions

That’s nothing revolutionary. Straightforward gameplans win more matches than fancy ones. A plan like this highlights your strengths without requiring too many BJJ skills you have yet to refine. It’s still up to you to flesh it out by answering these questions:

  1. Which takedowns?
  2. Which guard passes?
  3. Which side control grips?
  4. Do I try to get mount or rear mount?
  5. Which submissions?
  6. What if I end up on bottom?

Your answers will come from your experience, regular training, and coaching from your instructor. Stay on the simple side, and don’t get overambitious unless you really are confident in your skills.

You’ll need a plan to deal with guard pullers. Ask your coach about that, and he’ll have a few ideas. See if you can learn how to score two points for a “takedown” when they were really just sloppy about pulling guard. At the least, you’ll need to have a good way to pass guard, especially closed guard. That’s a situation that never existed in wrestling, and wrestlers are often frustrated by it.

Depending on how new you are to BJJ, you may be struggling with wrestling habits that get you in trouble. The first lessons we learn stick the hardest, and nothing sticks quite as stubbornly as wrestling habits. Here are the common wrestling mistakes to avoid:

  • Don’t get caught in guillotines when shooting for takedowns.
  • Don’t dive into triangles or armbars or go crazy with your arms while passing guard.
  • Don’t give up your back if you have to escape from bottom.
  • Don’t stick your neck out to be choked as you’re escaping bottom.

Wrestlers often have these bad habits when they start BJJ. You’ve likely experienced some or all of those problems in your training so far, and hopefully you’ve been correcting them. The determination to push and drive and hustle that wrestling instills can backfire in BJJ. You’ll have to train out the bad habits through trial and error.

Here’s how I’d speed that process up. If you have an open mat and willing training partners, see if you can do positional sparring where you work through each of these positions:

  • Rear mount
  • Mount
  • Side control
  • Turtle
  • Half guard
  • Closed guard

To run these drills, set a timer for 2-3 minute rounds. One of you starts on top, the other on bottom. Whoever is on top tries to advance to better positions and get submissions. The person on bottom defends and tries to escape. Reset to the starting position whenever someone taps or escapes. Switch top and bottom when the timer rings. You can stick with the same partner all the way through or switch partners a few times on each position.

Besides being a good test of cardio, training like this makes you cover both sides of every major position. You’re also less likely to get accidentally injured when you restrict the positions.

If during these drills you’re struck with a realization like “Hey, I don’t really know how to escape rear mount, I just spin really hard and hope they fall off,” you have something to ask your instructor about. By doing both sides of each major position, you’ll quickly figure out where your strengths and weaknesses are.

At five weeks out, you still have time to learn a few simple moves, but you shouldn’t try to pick up anything totally different than what you already do. Tweaks and tips will mean more to you now that totally new techniques.

One last bit of advice. Read the tournament rules and make sure you understand them. I’ve seen wrestlers throw matches or get needlessly upset with refs by not really understanding the points and penalties. Ask your coach to clarify anything you don’t understand, and don’t miss the rules meeting at the tournament.


Choosing between BJJ and a normal life

Today’s question is a big one that touches on every aspect of someone’s life as they decide between college and a career or their jiu-jitsu dreams. While I give my perspective, this topic is too big to be tackled fully by one person. Even my answer shares contrary opinions. Whether you agree or disagree, leave a comment with your perspective.

Q: I would appreciate advice on finding a direction in BJJ. To be honest, I
have tried to approach my instructor with this topic, but it’s a pretty
heavy conversation and with the growth our gym has been seeing he isn’t
really available to talk too much. I’m at a point right now where I am
unsure as to what BJJ will hold for me in the future. In the past BJJ has
meant a couple things to me. To start with, during high school, it was my
goal to just have fun and compete locally. I was able to do that, but then
I injured my back and had to take about a year off of training. I graduated
high school and started to attend college. During my first year of college
my focus changed to recovering from my herniated disc and eventually
getting back into training. Coming back from the yearlong lay off from
training was strange. My body didn’t function the same as it once did. I
was bigger than I was when I left the mats (both from just growing and from
fat) and my back was sensitive. Since then, however, I have been happy with
the progress I’ve made. I have been back to training for probably coming up
on a year and I have been recently promoted to blue belt by my instructor.
Most importantly, my back has been able to withstand the rigors of

So now I have a choice to make. I need to see where BJJ is going to take me
in the future. I somewhat equate this to making a decision about academic
major. To me it is a big life choice. It really is my truest ambition to
own a gym of my own one day as a black belt and to teach and compete. I did
ask my instructor about this and how I might attain it, but I was met with
sort of a shrug off answer. I did not take it personally as it may just be
a result of my instructor’s personality or the current situation of the
gym’s booming membership. Left with no direction in terms of achieving my
BJJ dream I put thoughts of what the future might hold for me on the
backburner and just have been trying to train as consistently as I can. I
was prepared to choose a major that might compliment me owning my own gym
in the future, which was a major reason why I wanted to speak with my
instructor to get some guidance as to how I might make my academic life and
BJJ life align, but I have since decided on a bachelor of science degree in
psychology in preparation for physical therapy in graduate school.
I feel I am in a sort of limbo. I am aware that if I am to make anything of
myself as a BJJ player I must make it out to the big competitions sooner or
later to make a name for myself, but currently I am as broke as any other
college student and can barely afford to compete at local tournaments. I
also might add that working four part-time jobs, one of which on Saturday
(prime tourney time), and doing school does not allow for me to get out to
as many tournaments as I would like. Another thing is I watch a lot of
videos on r/bjj highlighting the amazing BJJ athletes that are dominating
now or who are soon to be dominating. If I continue on the course I am on
now I do not see myself being able to compete at that level. I guess my
real question for you is what can I do in my current situation to set a
realistic goal for my BJJ future and work towards achieving that goal? Is
it realistic for me to think I may be able to medal at the Pan Ams in my
lifetime? What should I be doing to maximize my potential with what I have
to work with?

Thank you for your time. I understand you have received a large amount of
emails like mine. I would appreciate your advice.

A: Your instructor is probably uncomfortable answering your questions because they have big consequences that go far beyond his scope as your BJJ teacher. Your parents or an older mentor would be better suited to guide you on your career and the direction you should take in life. I am poorly equipped to answer your questions too, but I’ll say what I can.

As you’ve noticed, the level of BJJ competition is at all time highs. Even lower belts are training at professional levels. We have blue and purple belts training BJJ twice a day 5-7 days a week, cross training wrestling and judo, doing intense strength and conditioning routines, and eating special diets like Olympic athletes.

You can still win a few medals without going to those extremes at the lower belts, but you run the risk of being knocked out by someone who is fully committed. Your odds drop to near zero once you get to black belt.

You don’t need to be a multiple time world champion to be a good BJJ instructor or run a school, but the credentials don’t hurt. If you have dreams of being a serious competitor, I’m not going to be the one to squash them, but you also need to be honest with yourself about how much you are willing to sacrifice. The days of the part-time champion are over.

Knowing how much a physical therapist gets paid compared to a BJJ instructor, I’d say go with the one that can get you a medical degree and a stable job in a hospital, and not the one that pays very little and will probably make you need to hire a physical therapist. Unless you become a marketing wizard like Lloyd Irvin, you’re looking at earning a poor to mediocre salary as a BJJ instructor that is easily interrupted by injuries (which you are already struggling with).

Money isn’t everything though. Like the cliche goes, BJJ is a lifestyle, and people do it because they love it, not because it’s a prudent investment. If you love BJJ enough to push through the injuries and low pay, then nothing anyone says is going to steer you away from it. Do you have that fire inside you? You’ll have to answer that for yourself.

To give you another perspective, I recently listened to Marcos Avellan, one of Lloyd Irvin’s disciples, give a long talk about what it took for him to become a successful school owner, MMA fighter and BJJ competitor. He would dismiss the advice to play it safe by staying in school as talk of a “well-intentioned loser.” His personal story is about dropping out of college right before becoming an engineer to pursue martial arts full time, despite the protests of his friends and family. He prides himself on going against conventional wisdom and advocates for “burning your boats” so you can’t turn back, making no excuses, and totally devoting yourself with no hesitations. Are you prepared to do that? Should you do that?

Clearly, Marcos and I aren’t coming from the same place, but I think we both agree that you can’t half ass it if you want to become a legitimate competitor and a professional martial artists (that is, someone who trains or teaches martial arts full time). If you want to compete a bit and continue training as you earn your degree and start your career, no one is going to fault you for that either. You can still earn your black belt and be a good teacher. Many have gone down that path too.

You sound like you’re making intelligent choices and working hard to pay for school. Your long message shows you’re giving it a lot of thought. I’m sorry if I couldn’t give you a more straightforward answer, but it’s a complex topic. Personally, I think the world needs more physical therapists than jiu-jitsu instructors, but ultimately its your life, and I’m not going to tell you how to live it. I just hope you find a path that makes you happy and keeps you in jiu-jitsu.

For another perspective, check out How to be a great mediocre BJJ student by Cane Prevost.


How to train around injuries

Longtime BJJ blogger Can “Slideyfoot” Sönmez ( sent in a question about everyone’s favorite problem: injuries! We’ll go over how to deal with them and keep training.

If you have a question of your own, hit the “Hey!” button at the top of my site and ask it. You’ll get a reply as soon as I can write one, though with the 30+ that have come in so far, you may need to wait a week or two.

Here’s Slideyfoot’s question:

Hi Matt,

I’ll start off with a basic one. My left abductor is currently messed up,
which makes it difficult to practice back control or closed guard, and
pretty much rules out a lot of sweeps too.

I was therefore wondering if you had any thoughts on how best to train
around that injury? At the moment, I’ve been doing a lot of top side
control, along with a sort of open guard/knee shield thing, keeping rolling
very light.



Hi Can,

Injuries are an unfortunate reality of our jiu-jitsu lives. This popular image is sadly a self-portrait:

Anatomy of a Black Belt

So maybe you’re talking to the wrong person about dealing with injuries, but I’m still training somehow, so here you go:

Respect the warm-up, and do not jump into any live training cold. You’re already injured, so you’ve got to do whatever you can to avoid new problems or worsening the existing ones. Being limber and warmed up will help.

If you can’t spar much, drill more. This includes every variety of “dead” and live drills, from simple ones like shrimping and bridging, to slow, thoughtful repetitions of techniques, to speed drills where you do as many reps as possible in a set time, and all variations of isolation training and positional sparring at low to medium-high intensities.

When you can spar or do live drills, be willing to say no to training partners that are too big or too rough. In BJJ, we pride ourselves for being willing and able to spar with everyone, no matter how big or strong, but injuries will force you to be more selective. Even nice training partners can simply be too heavy to safely train with, no matter how unintentional the injuries are that they cause. Felipe Costa talks about this in a video where he explains why he created a training session exclusively for lightweight fighters.

In a recent, rare appearance on the UG, Roy Harris shared this advice:

Learn to set limits, as well as say “No” at times. Here are a few examples:

A. When that new wrestler asks to spar with you – the one who hurts everyone because he doesn’t have as much control over his body as he thinks he does – politely tell him, “No thanks.”

B. When you have an important presentation at work tomorrow, don’t try out the new MMA class and take the chance on getting hurt – or worse, getting a black eye. Wait awhile before trying out the new class. Put what pays the bills ahead of what sounds fun!

C. It’s Thursday evening. Tomorrow night, you and your girl are going out on a special date. Don’t take a chance with sparring. Learn the techniques your instructor taught and then politely remove yourself from class. Don’t take the chance of getting hurt – or getting one of those VISUAL injuries (one that she will have to look at all night. or worse, one that she might have to explain to friends or family members).

Make sure your instructor knows about your injuries so they can avoid putting you in dangerous situations. Some people get injured (or re-injured) because their instructor pairs them up with a rough training partner, and they don’t back out because they are afraid of disappointing their instructor. I’m more disappointed when someone gets injured than I am when they don’t act “tough eough,” so you can hope your instructor is similarly minded.

You’ve found side control works for you, so keep at that. My worst problem is a seriously damaged lower back. That rules out almost all high closed guard and its submissions, which was my best game through my lower belts (and probably a cause for my injury). If I do use those positions, I can expect several days of constant pain and difficulty sleeping. This forced me to redefine my game. What I have found is that passing guard doesn’t aggravate my back, since it’s better to be the one crushing the other guy than to be the one getting crushed.

Find a conditioning activity outside of BJJ that gives you a more balanced workout, or start incorporating those methods into your BJJ training. After my back injury, I have tried physical therapy, massage, chiropractic, yoga and pilates. So far, pilates is the only one that has really helped, and I owe that to being friends with a brown belt who is also a professional pilates instructor. I’ve also had luck with some rubber band exercises, like those shown here.

Here’s to hoping 2013 brings us cybernetic joints and vat-grown replacement vertebrae!


The basics are dead, long live the basics

Q: There was a recent video on reddit of a mendes bros. white belt berimbolo’ing everybody
in competition. Everybody was raving about it.

I would love to see a video or post from you about whether or not we’re seeing the death of the ‘basics’ and ‘general skills’ approach and the rise of the specialist.

Are we still holding onto ‘basics’ because it’s whats best or because it’s what we’ve always done?

As a teacher (my profession), I wonder the same thing about making kids “well-rounded.” Do colleges want well-rounded kids over specialist because that’s what’s better or because that’s what they’ve always gotten and it’s what they encourage?

A: The basics are much like Mark Twain in that their deaths have been greatly exaggerated (unfortunately Twain’s did finally catch up with him). This is a perennial debate among jiu-jiteiros. Few have clear definitions of what they mean by “basic” and “fundamental,” instead taking a stance similar to the Supreme Court’s standard for porn: “I know it when I see it.” (Usually this means scissors sweeps and upa escapes.)

Ever since I began BJJ, I’ve heard how the basics are dying, that fundamentals are neglected, that those damn kids need to get off Helio’s lawn. That’s not to say that the basics are getting all of the attention they deserve, but the end of the world never comes.

Do you remember the blue belt Ryan Hall and his inverted guard? Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard? How about when the brabo choke was considered a fancy move? Each of those drew cries of “think of the basics!” That’s only within the past decade. I’m sure if you go back farther, you’ll find people making similar complaints back in the 90’s and earlier. Count Koma probably told little Carlos Gracie to hold his horses and stick with the basics too.

Don’t take this to mean I’m against the basics. Many black belts with far more experience, renown and R’s in their names advocate for the basics, and you’d do well to listen to them.

My own game has become more basic as I’ve gained experience and dealt with injuries and taken the advice of my teacher, Eduardo de Lima. You could probably create a workable definition of what the basics are by ranking moves by how much they protect you from unexpected injuries. Basic moves tend to protect your joints by avoiding silly positions.

Going back to Eduardo Telles, do you remember the chatter before his first MMA match? People thought he was going to go out and crawl around on all fours while he got soccer kicked in the head. Instead of committing suicide, he took the guy down and armbarred him. Each of his wins have come from submissions and strikes.

We had a repeat of this when Ryan Hall fought in his recent MMA debut. People wondered how he was going to use his inverted and 50/50 guards when he was getting his face smashed. The better question would have been how his opponent was going to defend being taken down and punched in the face until the ref stopped the match, because that’s what happened.

Let’s bring Marcelo Garcia into this. In his original rise to fame, he was defined by his armdrags, butt scooting, x-guard and rear naked chokes. That’s what sold his DVDs, and that’s why people flew him out for seminars. Then he started doing north-south chokes, guillotines, wrestling takedowns, smashing top game and armbars. This surprised people at first. We now take it for granted that he’s just good at everything, and seeing his regular training sessions through has only reinforced this belief.

Do people not realize these are professional athletes who can change how they train depending on their goals? We’re not talking about pre-programmed Street Fighter characters here. They don’t want to get their teeth kicked to the back of their throat any more than the next guy.

Specialists are not new. Neither are “relentless fundamentals” grapplers. We think of fighters in these terms, but those two personas can even live in the same person. What we see in a competition is a slice of the fighter’s jiu-jitsu. True, it’s a very revealing slice, but it’s not the sum total of their knowledge. When someone has been training jiu-jitsu for a decade or two, I hope for their sake that we’re not the full scope of their knowledge by watching a few matches.

Here’s a real basic for you: “If it works, it works.” Until the berimboloing white belt is shut out of his favorite move, why should he stop using it? Don’t try to bring up self defense, because we’re not watching him do the Fundamentals class at Art of Jiu-Jitsu Academy (I checked, and the Mendes brothers teach self defense classes). If he is studying under experienced and thoughtful coaches (which he is), they will have the wisdom to make sure he fleshes out the rest of his game too. These issues self-correct as people train longer and longer. But who wouldn’t want to have been a white belt with a berimbolo built in?

If you survey the full breadth of what’s happening in competition, you’ll see the basics are alive and well. Most matches are determined by simple takedowns (or guard pulls), guard passes, sweeps, and submissions like rear chokes, armbars and triangles. Flashy moves grab our attention but they are limited to a few especially talented competitors.

Leverage and physics won’t change any time soon, unless CERN accidentally Higgs a few too many bosoms and breaks time and space. Humans only have so many limbs, those only have so many joints that move in only so many ways, and if you squeeze the right spots too long, our brains turn off. The basics are safe.

We are lucky to have a very effective martial arts system as laid out by the Gracies (or Luis França) and their many generations of black belts. We need to give respect to the old moves, not out of tradition, but because they prove themselves again and again. These old moves know the deal: if they stop working, we will throw them out and find new ones. The battle between sacred basics and relentless evolution is the history of jiu-jitsu, and its future too.

If you’re itching for more on this topic, you can read longer discussions about “the basics” between The Jiu Jitsu Lab and myself here: