For purposes of control, the body can be divided into two sections: The top and the bottom. The top is everything from the ribcage up. The bottom is everything from the pelvis down. The goal of BJJ is to positionally dominate at least one of these two sections of your opponent (and preferably both). If your opponent can move relatively freely, your ability to finish them will be poor.
In practice, there are many ways to achieve major control, but that’s beyond what I want to talk about here. Mostly I want to point out that the simplest way to look at the body is from the hips down, or from the ribcage up. If you’re new to BJJ, you should constantly ask yourself whether you are maintaining major control. It’s very difficult to achieve minor control (for example, arm control leading to an armbar) without first establishing major control.
There is a dichotomy when it comes to control: Often, the more tightly you control your opponent the fewer submission options you will have. When you lock someone down, as a byproduct, you’re also preventing your own movement.
This is particularly true at lower levels of skill because students haven’t mastered the art of, as Roy Dean calls it, applying “overlapping pressures” as you transition from one control point to another toward the finish. Until you get good at that you’ll have to relinquishing some degree of control in order to get the submission, and that’s usually where the opponent is able to escape.
An interesting paradox emerges as your belt darkens: 1. You are able to exercise more control throughout the entire sequence leading to a submission, and 2. You don’t always need full control because you get comfortable operating in that in-between realm. Marcelo Garcia, just to cite one example, is a master of the in-between game.
These two concepts—more control/less control—broadly speaking, align with the two general styles of BJJ that can be played: A tight, pressure-based game, or light, movement-based game. Most BJJ players are eventually drawn to one style or the other based on their attributes and personality. In my opinion, the complete practitioner should be able to play either game.
The two best examples of these two styles within our lineage would be Mr. Harris and Mr. Dean. They call Harris “the boa” because of his intense pressure game, while Roy Dean, thanks to his agility honed from many years training in several martial arts, has a beautifully fluid, movement game. That isn’t to say that either man is limited to that style—they certainly are not.
At the highest levels, the distinction between the two styles is much more blurred because the master understands how to apply tremendous pressure with absolute precision and finesse, but without limiting their transitional mobility. They can drift in and out of each style of game instantly as needed.
Learning Jiu Jitsu requires an active mind, but applying Jiu Jitsu requires an empty one.
In BJJ, or any fighting art for that matter, if you’re thinking, you’re late. The ultimate goal of Jiu Jitsu is to feel your opponent’s movement, their energy, and to react instinctively without thought.
Bruce Lee said that the ultimate technique is no technique. What he meant is that once you’ve mastered the technical—setups, timing, movement, and mechanics—you put that aside and simply respond and flow, expressing yourself creatively. Once you’ve mastered the technical, you’re no longer thinking about what to do. You are just in the moment.
Rickson Gracie said the goal of BJJ is to flow with the go. To do that effectively means disengaging your active mind and allowing your body to do what it has trained itself to do.
So engage your mind while learning, but empty it while sparring.
There are two types of martial arts: Dead ones and live ones.
The dead ones are closed systems in which the curriculum is set and unchanging. New techniques are rarely incorporated, and the effectiveness is assumed without testing against full resistance. You don’t spar in a dead art. At least not for real.
Live ones, in contrast, are open systems that value effectiveness over everything else. If a move works, it gets incorporated. If it doesn’t, it gets discarded. Live arts are trained with full, dynamic resistance.
The year 1993 was the great turning point for martial arts in the modern era. Prior to that, debates over the effectiveness of one style vs. another were all academic. Was Karate better than Taekwondo? Was Wing Chun better than Silat? Was Judo better than Aikido? No one actually knew. Martial arts magazines devoted many pages to these theoretical matchups.
But when Royce Gracie beat all challengers at UFC 1 we began getting a glimpse into the truth. And the truth is that dead arts tend to fail, often spectacularly, when called upon to perform against the real pressure of a fully committed resisting opponent. UFC 1 also revealed that if you don’t know how to grapple you’ll be in deep trouble when the fight hits the ground.
In my view, the martial art you train matters less than the training methodology used in that art. Are you training in a live manner against dynamic resistance? Are you testing your technique at reasonably high levels of intensity? Are you sparring?
If so, then you are training for effectiveness. If not, then you’re engaged in a form of martial arts role playing—a pantomime. Make a list of arts that are trained live and you’ll find they are undeniably effective: Boxing, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Muay Thai, Sanshou, Wrestling, Sambo, Catch, Savate, etc.
The arts that are not effective all share one trait; they don’t spar. These arts might have beautiful techniques, or historical significance, or provide benefits such as exercise and camaraderie, but as effective fighting systems they reliably fail. Why? Because implementing a technique against someone who is not going along with the plan is a very complex skill, one that can not be mastered solely through cooperative training.
Cooperative training with no resistance is certainly important—it’s how we initially learn the mechanics of any given technique, but it should only be the starting point in a methodology of scaled intensity. To become effective you need to train with increasing levels of resistance.
When I learned how to surf in Hawaii, we started by drilling the basic skills with the board laying safely on the beach. We would sprawl on the surfboard, mimic the act of paddling, and then pop up into the standing position—all while the board remained stationary on the sand.
While this type drilling is valuable, it doesn’t teach you the balance necessary to surf for real. For that, you must spend much time catching actual waves, and mostly failing at first, until your body learns to make the adjustments necessary to stay up. Eventually you are able to ride very small waves with reasonable success, which in turn permits you to begin attempting to ride bigger waves, requiring more practice—and more failure.
Martial arts that don’t spar are like learning to surf on the beach without ever getting into the water. No matter how perfect your mechanics are against a cooperative opponent, the moment you get into real surf, even small surf, you will fail.
So if you are looking for a martial art to train. The only question you should be asking is whether it’s trained with resistance. Is it a live art? If so, then it’s a fine choice.
We’ve all been there: We run out of toothpaste, but manage to squish out a little blob, just enough to brush our teeth with.
Then the next day we forget to pick up a new tube, so we’re forced to squeeze harder to get another blob or two out.
The following morning we carefully roll up the tube from the backend, forcing more toothpaste out.
Later, forgetting to buy toothpaste yet again, we snip off the backend of the tube with scissors and swirl our toothbrush in there to eek out another brushing.
Really, this pattern could continue for another week because no matter how much we deplete the tube, there’s always a little more that can be extracted.
It occurs to me that there is a lesson here—beyond the obvious one, that the amount of toothpaste we waste in our lifetime is significant. What’s the lesson?
You can always get a little more if you keep squeezing.
What a great metaphore for life. When you think you’ve given all you can, there’s always more your can get out of the tube. Always. In Jiu Jitsu, our mind will always quit long before our body is incapable of continuing.
Former Navy Seal and ultra-marathoner David Goggins says: “When your mind is telling you are done, you’re really only 40 percent done”. Joel Jamieson says “when the brain senses a threat to energy homeostasis, (i.e. too much energy is being used), its first reaction is to decrease motivation to keep moving.”
So never quit. Never stop fighting. Don’t give in to your mind when it’s telling you to stop. You can always squish a little more toothpaste out of the tube.
White Belt: This is the belt of paying your dues. At white, you should focus on being a good student and training partner, learning the basic positions and broad strokes of Jiu Jitsu, adapting your body to the demands of grappling, and making a conscious effort to relax.
At white you often feel like you’re just surviving because everything is coming at you fast. But if you come to class consistently, very soon you’ll start to develop a basic understanding of the major positions, along with an offensive and defensive game-plan. BJJ starts to become very fun and rewarding at that point because you’re no longer surviving, you’re beginning to develop skill.
Blue Belt: The core impulse at this belt is technique accumulation. You are laying a foundation so you cast your net wide to amass a broad collection of techniques from all the major and most common minor positions. While all techniques are important, the biggest emphasis at blue should be on mastering positional escapes. Your submission success rate is typically low at blue, even though your library of techniques can become impressive.
The blue belt brings a paradox: It’s the easiest belt to achieve, but it can be the most difficult to graduate from. Why? Because to get past blue, you must go beyond the accumulation of techniques to being able to actually utilize them consistently, with fluidity, and in combinations. It takes a lot of dedication to get to that point.
Purple Belt: If blue is the belt of technique accumulation, purple is the belt of technical command. Instead of casting the net wide, you go deep with the techniques that define your game. At purple, positional movement and transitions become much more fluid, efficient, and connected, and positional control gets tighter, leading to a much higher submission rate. At purple you are able to think and move toward goals that are several steps ahead.
Some people call the purple belt “the mini blackbelt”, because it’s the gateway into the advanced game. A purple belt is a legitimate threat to be taken seriously, even by blackbelts. The amount of dedication necessary to achieve that level of skill usually exceeds what it takes to get a blackbelt in other arts.
Brown Belt: This is the belt of technical mastery and pressure. A brown should be a solid player from any position, with a well rounded, well executed game. At brown you should be able to impose your will with a high pressure game, applied from any position, top or bottom. Physical mastery is also important at brown. You understand your game now, so it’s time to shore up weak areas and become deadly at your strengths. A brown belt’s submission success rate should be fairly high. In fact, getting the tap consistently is one of the defining qualities of being a brown.
Black Belt: This is the belt of simplification and efficiency. You seek perfect effectiveness with minimal exertion. You shorten the routes, you round the corners, you tap into perfect leverage, and you develop more efficient ways to consistently set up and finish your opponents. This is also the belt where you begin to put your signature on the art through the expression of your favorite positions and techniques.
Jiu Jitsu is an immensely deep art, so while achieving the Black Belt is a huge accomplishment, it just marks the beginning of a new chapter.
- Monitor your body for tension. If you find ANY body part (even your pinky) that is relaxed, fully tension it immediately. BJJ is all about constant and intense isometric tension!
- Breathe only when absolutely necessary. Rickson Gracie said “the mats are the ocean and most people can’t swim”. What he meant was that holding your breath is critical.
- Constantly entangle your limbs with your opponent’s limbs at awkward and dangerous angles. BJJ is about getting a submission. Sure, you can learn the “proper” and “safe” way to do it, but why limit yourself to that?
- Always move explosively and unpredictably. Advanced students look so boring when they move smoothly and precisely. Keep your opponents guessing what you might do next, especially if you’ve entangled your limbs at awkward angles.
- Always go as hard as possible. Grind out those wins. It doesn’t matter if you spend the entire round locked in one position. What matters is intensity!
- Bony body parts give you an edge. Use your shins across your opponent’s neck, drive elbows into soft tissue, and rake your forearms against their face. This ain’t no sport BJJ!
- Do NOT tap. Tapping for any reason only shows weakness. An injury is always far more desirable than conceding weakness.
- Coach your opponent during the submission. If it appears that your opponent might submit you, coach them through it. Do NOT let them think they got the submission legitimately.
- Coach your partners while drilling. Even though you’re a white belt, you know a thing or two about a thing or two! Demonstrate it by correcting every detail of any technique you happen to be drilling.
- Drill the REAL moves instead of the ones your instructor is showing. Your instructor is decent enough, but their techniques are at least a decade behind the times. No matter what he shows, drill the stuff from YouTube.
- Dispute the effectiveness of everything your instructor teaches. It takes hard work to maintain your position in the dominance hierarchy, so don’t accept instruction at face value. Question whether the move will work against multiple attackers wielding machetes.
- Wash your gi no more than once per week. You can easily get 3 or 4 hard training sessions in before your gi needs to be washed. No reason to weaken the cotton fibers with excessive washing. Also, always store your gi in the trunk of your car for easy access.
- Do not shower, brush your teeth, or trim your nails before class. Totally pointless. BJJ is a fighting art!
I get asked frequently what the difference is between Gi and no-Gi training. Does one have advantages over the other? Is one more useful for self-defense? Or is it better to train both?
The fundamental difference between the two styles involves control options, friction, and finishing options.
The no-Gi game is a much tighter game. You don’t have cloth to grip so you must stay closer to your opponent in order to control them. No-Gi training teaches you to use hooks and wrestling-style grips, while Gi training teaches you to use a wide variety of cloth griping options. With a Gi it’s possible to control your opponent at a greater distance, by enlisting your legs to push against your opponent while you pull them with your hands.
The lack of friction in no-Gi grappling makes it easier to escape a bad position, even if your escape mechanics are poor. In a Gi, your escape sequences must be much more precise to overcome the friction and greater control that cloth allows.
There are significantly more control and finishing options when you wear a Gi, from chokes, to setups, to takedowns and throws, to defensive options.
I view both styles as being highly complimentary because each has strengths and weaknesses. No-Gi training tends to reward athleticism while Gi training rewards precision. No-Gi training teaches tight control using hooks, while Gi training teaches control at longer distances using cloth grips. Gi training will make your no-Gi escapes much better because your mechanics must be more precise when there’s friction. And in a self-defense encounter against an opponent wearing a coat or jacket, Gi techniques give you far more options and the ability to exert much greater control at longer distances.
If you only train one style, then switching to the other is often challenging. If you’re a Gi player who has gotten used to all the gripping and control options, you’ll likely feel lost when you try no-Gi for the first time. The same is true in the other direction; your no-Gi game won’t prepare you for the unique aspects of Gi training. It’s my view that the combination of the two will make you a better grappler than either by itself.
The only people for whom it makes sense to stick with one style or the other are the competitive specialists. If you only compete in IBJJF tournaments, then training solely in the Gi might make sense Or if you are purely an MMA athlete or no-Gi competitor then it might be more advantageous to only train no-Gi. Most of us, however, train for the fullness of the art, so training both styles makes the most sense.
When my son Jordan was seven he figured out that having money enabled him buy things, so he became obsessed with finding loose change. Nearly every time we would go somewhere—errands, restaurants, shopping—he would manage to find coins. It was uncanny just how frequently he was successful, and how fast the small change would add up to enough money to buy himself something meaningful.
His secret? He was always looking. He would peer under counters, scan parking lots, crawl into bushes, sweep his hands under vending machines, poke his fingers into coin returns, and he was always right there asking if he could have my change when I emptied my pockets.
I’ve often thought that if people approached their goals with the same determination as my son they would be wildly successful. Many of us have aspirations, but unless we act upon them daily they are just far off dreams with low probability.
If we want to achieve our goals we can learn a lot from a seven year old kid who never read a success book, or attended a workshop, or watched motivational videos. He just intuitively understood that the secret to success was to relentlessly focus on his goal.
Playfulness is the level of mastery where you can do a technique again, and again, and again. You own it.—Roy Harris
One way to look at the progression of Jiu Jitsu from novice to master is to view it as three separate phases:
Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Playfulness
When you start out, your only goal is to get skilled enough to get the tap. Eventually you build a skillset that enables you submit your opponents fairly frequently. Welcome to phase one. You’ve become effective!
But effectiveness is only measuring a result. You got the tap. Effectiveness says nothing about how productive you were at getting it, how much effort was involved, or how much time it took.
Once you are effective, the next step is efficiency, so you focus on the details, sharpen the setups, hone your timing, round the corners, shorten the routes, and look for perfect angles and leverage. Your goal is efficient effectiveness.
Likewise, once you are effective and efficient, the next phase is the highest expression of the art: Playfulness. Your game is so effortless that now you’re just having fun in the way that a virtuoso plays an instrument. Thanks to your mastery, you’re tapping into the pure joy of the art.
BJJ is an individual sport but we can’t train alone. We need teammates. So it’s critical that we take care of our training partners. If they don’t show up to train tomorrow we won’t be able to continue improving. How do we make sure they show up? By being excellent training partners, and doing our best to minimize the potential for injuries.
Sometimes injuries happen accidentally when you move your body in a way it wasn’t intended to move. Maybe you twist your torso trying to get out of side control rather than bridging, causing a torsional rib strain. Or maybe you end up with your knee in a compromised position during a scramble and you accidentally tear a ligament. Those things can happen. No one is to blame, other than perhaps one’s own inexperience or competitive zeal.
Other times injuries can happen when someone refuses to tap even though the odds of escape are zero. I would argue that the partner taking the submission shares some of the blame for continuing to apply it, but mostly those injuries are self-inflicted. If you don’t tap, you have to accept that sometimes there will be consequences.
But there’s another category of injury that is totally avoidable. Injuries that happen when someone takes a submission too forcefully and aggressively, using their physical attributes to muscle it on, and often with poor mechanics. Those types of injuries are almost always caused by inexperienced students, and they can be the most injurious.
White belts have poor technique, or sometimes no technique at all, so they tend to be the most dangerous students in any academy. The odds that you’ll injure someone diminish proportionally with your belt color. But when you have little technique, it’s very common to try to compensate for that using aggression and strength, grabbing at limbs or someone’s neck, sometimes at odd angles, and cranking way too hard. That’s extremely dangerous.
Good BJJ is controlled BJJ. A submission taken properly should have progressive pressure with good mechanics. Jiu Jitsu in Japanese means “the gentle art”. It should never be rough or overly aggressive, or put someone at risk of injury, or cause them to leave class beat up. If you’re bigger or stronger than your training partner and you use your physical attributes to submit them, did you really prove anything? Did you demonstrate that your Jiu Jitsu is better? No.
Of course on the street in a self-defense situation you should be as nasty as you need to be. Use whatever tools are needed to prevail. Or in competition, be as aggressive as possible within the ruleset. But in class that’s totally inappropriate.
If you injure someone, not only are you depriving them from being able to continue training, you’ve eliminated a training partner that can help you improve. And, if they have to take an extended time off (or if they quit entirely) you’ve just deprived the academy of revenue needed to pay the rent and keep the lights on.
Here’s the thing about Jiu Jitsu. By the time you get to black belt you will have tapped out ten thousands times. I tap every single time I train. It’s no big deal—in either direction. If I get the tap, great. If I get tapped, cool. Getting the tap only really matters when it was gained with good mechanics. Then you should celebrate because your BJJ is getting demonstrably better. But if you jerk someone’s arm off because your competitive zeal got out of control, well, that’s not cool.
So don’t be that guy. Be the kind of training partner everyone loves to roll and train with. Be the kind of training partner people miss when you don’t show up to class. If you treat your training partners with respect you’ll gain it in return tenfold.
That goes for drilling technique too. Move your body with precision and control. No need to be aggressive, clumsy, or rough. Drilling is about ingraining complex movement patterns. If you drill slowly and methodically, eventually you’ll be able to move at full speed with finesse and precision.
In auto racing they say “slow is fast”. What they mean is that the drivers who look the slowest are often the fastest. The ones getting sideways around the corners are just demonstrating their lack of skill. Be the expert driver. Move with control and precision. And leave your ego at the door. You’re not in class to win. You’re there to improve along with your teammates.
If you can do that, you’ll be a joy to train wth. And, you’ll become a much better grappler much faster.
BJJ is essentially eliminating movement options from the other person. You take a person from standing where they can move freely and you put them on their back. 50% of their movement options are gone immediately. Then if you can get around their legs they have even fewer movement options. Plus you have gravity and your body weight on top of them. And then in going for a submission you isolate one or two limbs, maybe an arm and the head for a choke, or maybe just the arm for an armlock. You’re just eliminating movement options and honing in on a submission.—Roy Dean
Without being able to positionally dominate someone it’s very difficult to submit them. The real innovation of the Brazilians was that they codified a system of positional movement and control, allowing someone to escape an inferior position, establish a dominant position, maintain it with a high degree of control, then get the finish.
When students are new to the art they quickly discover that they can’t get the submission reliably. What they need to realize is that they haven’t yet learned how to control someone. Without that foundation, the tap is elusive.
Developing a good positional game takes a long time. There’s no shortcutting the process. You just have to put in the mat time. So don’t get frustrated if you can’t make your offense work yet. That’s normal. Focus on the positional game and the submissions will come in due time.
As Roy Dean says, “The submission is just the punctuation mark in a strategy of eliminating movement options from your opponent.”.
Is a black belt someone that can defeat everyone else in the world with a lower belt? That’s absurd on its face. An older, smaller, or recreational black belt might struggle to tap a young, big, competitive lower belt.
So how do you measure what a belt means?
Although we strive for as much objectivity as possible and superimpose the reality of live sparring, fundamentally we can only measure ourself in relation to ourself. All other measurements are imperfect.
Rener and Ryron Gracie say that every 20 pounds or 10 years is equal to a belt level. What they mean is that if both you and your opponent are blue belts, if he’s 20 pounds heavier or 10 years younger, the impact would similar to you going against a purple of exactly your size and age (unless of course you’re 10 years old, in which case you’d be fighting an embryo. And that’s just weird.).
I tend to view 20 pounds or 10 years as a rounding error, but the principle behind it is sound: Physical attributes matter. And they matter a lot. Once you accept that, it makes training a lot easier because you are less prone to setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.
Look, we want to believe that Jiu Jitsu is magic. It’s not. That’s why there are weight classes and gender categories in competition. If there weren’t, with few exceptions all the world champions would be the biggest, most athletic men. The only way to be a 160 pound world champion is when you are facing other 160 pounders.
So the idea that a purple belt is someone that can beat all blue belts is nonsense. There are too many other variables. Of course an average purple belt should have objectively measurable better technique than an average blue, but that alone doesn’t determine effectiveness. It’s the combination of technique and attributes.
It’s a universal desire to represent ones belt perfectly. I’ve been susceptible to that plenty of times. Even when you understand that size, strength, and athleticism matter you’re not immune to feeling bad that you can’t overcome it. No one likes having difficulty tapping a lower belt (or being tapped by one). It can be very humbling. But the first and most important step is to acknowledge that our effectiveness is based on the sum total of who we are both physically and mentally. And we are not all equal in that regard.
Competition is probably as close as you can get to measuring your skill relative others because you’re going against athletes at your belt and weight. But even then it’s imperfect. A new blue belt going against a blue on the cusp of purple is unlikely to fare very well. Plus, the competition scene these days is full of physically gifted people at every level who train like pro athletes. That’s a very high bar. There’s also a ton of specialization and strategy. Competition is a game, and like all games, the person who is best at not only playing the game but gaming the game usually wins.
So at the end of the day your only reliable measuring stick is you. Are you a blue belt compared to the person you were when you walked in the door on your first day of class? If the answer is yes, then you’re a blue belt.
What do I do on those days when I’m tired, or worn out, or just sick of the grind?
I go anyway. I get it done, even if I’m just going through the motions. I GO THROUGH THE MOTIONS!
I don’t want to work out? I work out.
I really don’t want to hammer on a project? I hammer on the project.
I don’t want to get up and out of bed? I get up and out of bed.
Now, these could be signals that you need some time off. And those signals might be right. They could be correct. BUT…don’t take today off. Wait until tomorrow. Don’t give into the immediate gratification that might be whispering into your ear. Shut that down. Do not listen to that little voice. Get out of bed and go through the motions. Lift the weights, sprint the hill, work on the project, get out of bed.
As a rule, I don’t like procrastination. You’ve got to get things done. But if you are going to rest, that’s the one thing that you should procrastinate on. That’s the one thing I want you to put off until tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes, if you still feel like you need to rest or you need to take a break, then OK, take it.
But chances are you won’t need that rest. Chances are you’ll realize that the desire to rest was just weakness—the desire to take the path of least resistance. The downhill path. The easy path.
By simply going through the motions you overcame that path. You stayed on the righteous path. The disciplined path. You stayed on the war path—which is right where you know you belong.
A universal phenomenon in BJJ is that progress never feels linear. It doesn’t feel linear because it isn’t.
Imagine that you focus much of your energy on becoming good at a particular technique, let’s say the armbar. In time you’ll develop success with it, a certain effectiveness with it. But eventually you’ll realize that there are other techniques to master, so you’ll stop looking for the armbar and focus on new stuff. It’s at that moment that your game will regress slightly. You won’t be as effective as you were.
The same thing can happen when your training partners find solutions to the problems you pose. Maybe you’re good at the kimura. But soon your partners will get skilled at denying your use of the kimura. Did you get worse? No. Does it feel like you’ve gotten worse? Yes. Has your effectiveness against your training partners declined? Yes. Will you have to find new ways to set up the Kimura to make it work again? Yes.
It’s critically important to recognize this pattern otherwise you’ll be prone to surfing a sine wave of emotion. One day you’re king of the world, another day you suck. That’s a recipe for frustration. But if you recognize what’s happening you’ll see that in the macro you’re still progressing—the overall trend line is going up, even though there are peaks and valleys along the way.
It’s also important to remember that it’s very difficult to gauge your own progress when your training partners are also progressing along with you. When the tide lifts all boats, you can’t look at the other boats to gauge your own level. You have to look at the shore. Or in the case of BJJ, you look at the door. Because someone new will walk in one day and you’ll eat them for lunch. Then you’ll know how much you’ve progressed.
Heed the advice of Rener Gracie:
Regardless of who I am training with, I try to remain impartial. Whether a move works for me or against me, I am equally enthralled by the beauty of the technique, and humbled by the thought that I have so much left to learn.
What is a blue belt? To a new white belt, a blue is obviously someone that has more skill, someone that can usually tap them. But what precisely is that skill? Is it quantifiable? And is there a clear pathway from white to blue?
Earning the blue belt is the first major milestone in BJJ after white. And make no mistake, it’s a big accomplishment. Compared to the average Joe on the street, a blue belt is a skilled martial artist. In fact, a blue belt should be able to defend themselves fairly convincingly against an untrained opponent, assuming there isn’t a wild disparity of physical attributes.
In our curriculum, a blue belt must have two things: 1. Effectiveness against resisting opponents of a certain skill level, and 2. The ability to demonstrate 50 techniques with reasonably good mechanics.
Effectiveness means that a blue belt should have a basic game in place. They should know the overall road map—what to do both defensively and offensively from the most common positions: Guard, mount, side control, back, knee on belly, and Kesa. One of my favorite analogies is that of a city map. A blue belt isn’t expected to know all the neighborhoods yet, but they should know the freeway system and be able to generally navigate the city.
A blue belt should look like they can play the game, and do so with a basic level of competency and fluidity, and their transitions should be smooth. A blue belt’s positional control on offense and escape sequences on defense should be reasonably good—not against or compared to a higher belt, but definitely against white belts.
As far as techniques, here’s a list of what must be demonstrated:
4 mount escapes
4 side mount escapes
4 head lock escapes
1 wrestler’s cradle escape
4 closed guard passes
4 closed guard sweeps
2 open guard sweeps
2 standing throws
3 standing take-downs
4 chokes from guard
4 chokes from mount
4 arm locks from guard
2 arm locks from mount
2 chokes from back
2 back escapes
4 leg locks
Most students that train consistently for one to two years should be able to run through that list without too much trouble, and they should be able to demonstrate the minimum effectiveness necessary.
Earning the blue belt is achievable by just about anyone who is willing to put in the time. Of all the belts, the blue is the most straightforward in terms of requirements. You aren’t expected yet to link techniques into combinations, or use your legs particularly well, or understand how to apply consistent pressure, nor are you expected to be versed in the many minor positions in BJJ. Those things come later.
Professor Jay Jack, one of the toughest, most skilled guys I’ve ever trained with, on training for longevity:
When you roll with people that are significantly less skilled than you are, you are basically drilling. In Jiu Jitsu, you should ideally be doing a ton of this type of work.
If you think about the nature of rolling, it’s decision-making on the fly. It’s like Tetris. You see this piece moving and you have to figure out how it fits before it gets to this spot because if you miss the window it’s too late. That’s what rolling is. Very rarely should rolling be brutally, physically taxing.
Advanced students naturally get this idea. At most schools they’ll have 50 white belts, 20 blue belts, 10 purple belts, and a couple brown belts. So if someone gets to blue belt they are automatically better than 50% of the school. That means their training can go sub-maximal 50% of the time. Once they get to purple belt they’re better than 75% of the school, so the sub-threshold training increases even more.
That’s how you develop longevity in Jiu Jitsu, and being healthy in something you love, something you can do long-term and get really good at. But it’s because you switched most of your training from rolling to drilling, even though it’s in the form of rolling—it’s freestyle drilling.
So as a white belt, as a newer student, if you want to train in a way that is smart you’ll make the bulk of your training drilling. Don’t wait eight years for your game to inadvertently turn into that and give you the ability to train for longevity, start that type of training immediately.
It’s very common for beginners when they are learning to pass the guard to reset back to square one every time they encounter an obstacle. It’s all or nothing. More advanced players understand how to advance incrementally and hold each new position.
Nic Gregoriades explains this idea. He likens it to climbing a ladder. It revolves around segmenting your opponent’s body into small obstacles to overcome, and then maintaining each new position.
Incrementing your way forward was a huge revelation for me. Roy Dean has always preached the concept of applying overlapping pressures, so that you can improve your position without risking losing the ground you’ve made. That concept applies not just to guard passing, but to any position where you need to advance.
In the late 1800s, Jigoro Kano founded an art called Judo. His new system was a synthesis of several classical styles of Jujitsu, but with the removal of techniques he felt were unsafe to practice at full intensity. One of Kano’s star pupils was an incredible athlete named Mtsuyo Maeda, who in 1877 was sent to the United States to spread the gospel of Judo.
Unfortunately Maeda didn’t have much success. His English was poor and he struggled to find enough students to make a living teaching an art few people had even heard of. Finally out of necessity he accepted a paid “no holds barred” match. However, there was a problem; Jigaro Kano had forbidden fighting for money. To solve this dilemma Maeda changed his name to Count Koma and called himself a Jiu Jitsu fighter (had Kano not forbidden him we would all be training Brazilian Judo today). This challenge match, which he won, lead to a career of approximately 1000 matches over a 10 year period. It is said that he never lost a fight.
Eventually Maeda would find himself fighting challenge matches in Brazil, where Gastao Gracie offered him money to teach Jiu Jitsu to his son Carlos. For three years Maeda taught Carlos daily, with his younger brother Helio watching from the sidelines. Once Maeda moved on, Carlos and Helio founded the Gracie Academy in Rio De Janeiro, where Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would be born.
Following in Maeda’s footsteps, the Gracies would fight many challenge matches which propelled their art’s popularity throughout Brazil. The Gracies had an open door policy at their academy; anyone could come in and challenge one of the Gracies to a fight. Later, in the 1980s, when Helio’s son Rorion brought Jiu Jitsu to the United States, he would continue that tradition, which he videotaped and sold as Gracie in Action tapes. Later, in 1993, Rorion would found the UFC.
While the Brazilians didn’t invent Jiu Jitsu, they did bring a fresh and elegant interpretation to it and a system for fighting, particularly off ones back. The Guard is one of the biggest innovations of BJJ. They also developed a strategic framework for how the grappling game should be fought. That framework revolves around three core concepts, which are detailed in the classic Renzo/Danaher book, Mastering Jujitsu:
Positional hierarchy is the understanding that the various positions we fight from are not equal. Mounting someone, or taking their back is a more dominant position than struggling under an opponent’s weight in side-control. Each position can be ranked according to its relative strengths and weaknesses. From best to worst, the offensive hierarchy is generally understood to be back mount, mount, knee on belly, side-control, north-south, half guard, and guard. On defense you’d reverse the order. This hierarchy is represented in the point system in sport BJJ.
Once we understand the hierarchy of positions, the logical question becomes how do we transition from an inferior positions to a superior one? We do it through positional movement. Every escape, pass, or transition we perform in Jiu Jitsu is designed to improve our position. A typical technique might include framing, posturing, breaking holds, and transitional movements. But these are all performed with an understanding that the goal is to end up better off than we were.
Similarly, once we’ve transitioned to a better position, how do we retain the new position so we can apply a submission? We do it through positional control. The Gracies understood that you can not reliably submit someone unless you can control them, or better yet, dominate them, so they built a strategic system to get that control.
Timing is everything. The right move at the wrong time is the wrong move.—Rener Gracie
One of the most common phenomena while rolling is tunnel vision. We get so fixated on one pathway that we don’t see other possibilities. Often, we repeatedly force our will, despite the inefficiency and low probability of that tactic.
In BJJ, windows of opportunity continually open and close. A hallmark of an advanced player is their ability to gauge when a window begins to open, and only then attempt a technique. The moment the window begins closing they move on.
Here’s John Danaher:
Probably one of the surest ways to hinder performance is to select a given move and push hard to complete it LONG AFTER THE OPPORTUNITY FOR IT HAS PASSED. So often in a sparring session or match we develop a tunnel vision that limits our outlook to an extent where it harms performance. A MAN WITH A THOUSAND TECHNIQUES CAN BE REDUCED TO A ONE TRICK PONY IF HE SEES ONLY ONE POSSIBILITY IN FRONT OF HIM.
How do we train ourselves to avoid fixation? I don’t have a complete answer, but I think it involves:
1. Learning how to relax and breathe so we can think and observe at a pace that allows us to problem-solve effectively.
2. Letting go of our ego—not being committed to any particular outcome.
Every time you change positions, count to ten. If you’re still holding the position, let it go and move onto something else, even if in doing so you end up in a worse position. Long term your game will improve faster than if you held on for dear life.
Motivation will only get you started. Dedication is what gets you the rest of the way.
Motivation ebbs and flows because it relies on feelings. Dedication is a commitment to doing the work, regardless of how one feels.
Motivation is external. Dedication is internal.
Motivation is short term. Dedication is long term.
I’ve experienced the fickle nature of motivation many times in my life, so I can reliably attest that “getting motivated” won’t get you very far. If you want to achieve a goal you have to become dedicated. How do you do that?
I don’t have a complete answer, but I’m convinced that a big part of it is forming habits.
I brush my teeth first thing in the morning everyday as soon as I get out of bed. It’s an automatic ritual. I don’t have to get motivated. I don’t have to read an Anthony Robbins book. I don’t need to hear emotionally charged music. I don’t need to engage in positive thinking. I just do it. You could say that I’m dedicated to brushing my teeth.
Of course it sounds silly to frame it that way, but if you think about it, dedication is nothing more than a habit that moves us toward a goal. What I like about the term habit is that it sounds so simple. A big word like dedication is intimidating. It’s the kind of word you go to seminars to learn about. But a habit, well, that’s just an act you do without thought.
Don’t take my word for is, here’s Aristotle:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”
So if you’re looking to get more motivated, my advice is this: Start with your goal and work backwards, dividing it up into small steps that you can turn into daily habits. Forget motivation. Just create habits.
Ask a dozen people why they train jiu Jitsu and you’ll hear a list of standard reasons: Self-defense, fitness, self-confidence, etc.
A flip side to that question is why do people quit?
Ask a dozen people and they’ll also run down a standard list: Got busy with work, family commitments, new obligations, got hurt, etc.
I think it’s much more fundamental than that. Why do we train? We train because it’s fun. And we quit when we’re no longer having enough fun.
That’s it. That’s all it boils down to. Any activity we love to do we’ll find time to do. If an activity is not fun enough we’ll soon find reasons to quit.
So what can we do to make sure we’re having fun in BJJ? Probably the single biggest thing—which transcends Jiu Jitsu—is to eliminate expectations. In fact, as a life principle, I believe that the degree of happiness one feels is inversely proportional to the expectations one sets. In other words, when you expect less you tend to be happier.
When I think about all the times I’ve become upset in a relationship or some human interaction, invariably it’s because of an unmet expectation. I expected X and got Y. When I stop having expectations most emotional triggers vanish.
In Jiu Jitsu, eliminating expectations means rolling with a carefree attitude that has no emotional investment in any particular outcome. If you get the tap, great. If you get tapped, fantastic. You want to be unhappy on the mats? Turn every match into measure of your self worth. If you create an expectation that you must perform at a certain level, when you don’t meet it, it will tend to trigger negative emotions.
Here’s Mike Bidwell:
When we grapple from a high or low emotional state we are never serving our higher good. I have a saying, no highs or lows when I roll. What I mean is that when I am grappling I don’t get upset when things don’t go right and I don’t mentally celebrate when things do go right.
Look, the reality is that it takes a long time to get good at Jiu Jitsu because we’re actually testing our skills against each other—against training partners that are also improving daily and finding solutions to the problems we pose. And progress is never linear. There are peaks and valleys, and peaks and valleys within the peaks and valleys. Some days you feel like a world champion, other days you wonder whether you could grapple your way out of a paper bag.
If you base your enjoyment of Jiu Jitsu or your self-worth on how you performed (or how you think you performed) against any given partner, then your emotions are in for a rollercoaster ride. One minute you’re king of the world, the next moment, the biggest loser. That’s a recipe for frustration, and eventually BJJ won’t be fun anymore.
Here’s Rener Gracie:
Regardless of who I am training with, I try to remain impartial. Whether a move works for me or against me, I am equally enthralled by the beauty of the technique, and humbled by the thought that I have so much left to learn.
The paradox is your performance will actually improve when you don’t care how you do. If you eliminate all expectations it will free your body to explore and take risks, and in doing so, you’ll end up doing better. If you are only paying attention to what is going wrong you’ll tighten up and perform worse.
I’m not suggesting eliminating goals, or competitiveness, or that we stop actively trying to shore up holes in our game and get better, or that we stop measuring our overall progress in terms of our teammates. Without competitiveness, at least with ourselves, we’d never progress.
What I am suggesting is eliminating expectations of performance on any given training session and instead tap into pure joy of the art. If you do that, BJJ becomes incredibly fun and rewarding. And it increases the likelihood that you will turn it into a lifelong pursuit. Everyone who has gone on to become a blackbelt has at some point in their BJJ career learned how to do that.
Strong people are harder to kill than weak people and more useful in general—Mark Rippetoe
Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.—Dan Gable
On my first day of seventh grade a bunch of kids were taunting a boy named Mike. I wanted to fit in so I joined in with my own jeers and was swiftly rewarded with a bloody nose. Mike didn’t take kindly to my mouth so he punched me in the face.
A few months later I got hit in the face again, this time by a scrappy kid whose name nor motive I recall. He walked up while I was talking to a friend. Next thing you know, bam, he punched me in the face! What had I done to anger him? I have no idea, but I had witnessed him mounted on another kid, beating him MMA style behind the gym, so he was the last guy I wanted to tangle with. I sheepishly walked away amid his taunts, relieved he didn’t come after me.
I had a third incident that year, this time with a rather corpulent boy named Albert. Kids would tease him, calling him Fat Albert. I never participated in that, having learned my lesson with Mike, and in fact, I didn’t willfully cause the grievance. He accused me of cutting in front of him during line-up in PE so he pushed me to the ground. Perhaps because all the other kids were watching I reacted uncharacteristically: I got up and pushed him back (although the only thing that budged was the inner-tube around his midsection).
Now he was really mad so be backed up 15 feet, and using his considerable mass, bull-rushed me. I have no idea where I found the presence of mind, but I stepped aside at the critical moment and extended my foot, tripping him. He hit the ground like a hay bail being dropped off a truck. To my relief the teacher intervened, not only saving me from the destruction that would surely have followed, but allowing me to bask in the cheers and back-pats of my classmates as Albert and I were escorted to the principal’s office.
What was it about seventh grade that would prove so violent? Who knows, but I’ve never been in a fight since. I’ve had a few tense situations in my life here or there that could have escalated to physical altercations or worse, but mostly my life has been uneventfully peaceful. My guess is that most people, even those that train martial arts, have rarely if ever had to use those skills in a fight. Most of us live in safe communities where the threat of violence is extremely rare.
So the question begs: Why do we train?
In my view, the single greatest reason to train Jiu Jitsu is not self-defense (even though it’s a phenomenal art in that regard), it’s the development of a strong, adaptable, and resilient mind and body. Those attributes have profound carryover to the entirety of our lives.
The process of becoming skilled at Jiu Jitsu requires a physical and mental adaptation that gives us much more than joint locks and chokes. It enables us to become comfortable with discomfort, it encourages dynamic problem-solving under pressure, it teaches us that we are far more capable than we think we are, and that our bodies can be pushed well beyond where we believe our max threshold is.
If the Zombie Apocalypse comes, our survival will be much more influenced by our general physical and mental capabilities than our ability to choke out an undead with rotting flesh (although admittedly that might come in handy from time to time).
Having more strength, stamina, confidence, and adaptability are useful in every realm in our life. Learning to blend with someone’s attack can be applied universally. Those things are far more useful and encompassing than any one particular self-defense skill.
I’d like to express my gratitude to tonight’s founding class. It blew my mind that we had 10 people on the mat. That’s more than I imagined would be there on day one. What a great way to kick off our new program.
I watched an interview recently with the great John Danaher where he described the ideal team hierarchy. Here’s what he said:
The Japanese tradition is based on Sensei, Senpai and Kohai. It’s the idea that senior students (Senpai) function as inspiration and guides to junior students (Kohai). The instructor (Sensei) gives an overall direction and guiding vision. The Senpai are the physical examples of that. They demonstrate the effectiveness of that system, and the Kohai strive to become Senpai. So there’s a dynamic in the class at all times—an upward mobility where the students are trying to rise toward something. I’ve always found that to be a very healthy training environment.
It’s very hard to build a successful training program without first investing in a small, select number of people who become your role models. Given that skepticism is the foundation of all modes of inquiry whether it be in science or martial arts, you need some method of delivering effective proof to the skeptics that come through the door. That proof will be your best students—the Senpai.
In the early days of a training program, I believe that it’s critical to make an investment in the top athletes in the room. As people come in they will have proofs delivered to them that what you are doing works effectively.
This seems to be the universal model in Jiu Jitsu. It certainly was when Roy Dean launched his academy in 2006. Within a short time of opening the school a group of Senpai emerged (Jimmy, Donald, James, TJ, Neil, me), and even though most of us were white belts, we became ambassadors who carried his flag and felt a special responsibility to become as good as possible.
What I find interesting is that none of Roy’s Senpai ever quit. To this day all of us are still at it, and have gone on to become either black or brown belts. This attests to the power of becoming a Senpai. I have no doubt that leaders will emerge to become role models for new students to be inspired by.
If you’re a new white belt, congratulations, you just joined a very elite group of people that participate in one of the most challenging yet rewarding activities possible.
I won’t sugarcoat it: BJJ is hard, especially as a white belt. It gets much easier and more fun as you improve, but during the first 6 months to a year it can be particularly challenging. Grappling is a very complex art with a lot of moving parts, so it takes time to develop skill and the physical adaptation necessary to do it. Rickson Gracie said it best:
The mats are the ocean and most people don’t know how to swim.
At many Jiu Jitsu academies there is a revolving door of new students that try BJJ for a few months then quit. Why do people quit? BJJ can be overwhelming due to the intense physicality of it and the complexity of the techniques. Often it feels like you’re just surviving because all your energy goes into trying to prevent more skilled students from tapping you out, and usually with little success.
But if you can hang in there for at least six months to a year you will have developed enough skill from the major positions to begin actually playing the game. BJJ becomes very fun at that point. In fact, it continues to get more fun as you climb the ranks because you’re no longer surviving, you’re playing the game with skill and starting to taste the success that comes with that. You’re beginning to develop superpowers, and that can be intoxicating. But it takes time to get there. You have to pay your dues. That means tapping to more skilled students. And lots of repetitions of techniques.
The best advice I can offer is this: Stick with it for a year. Make a commitment to yourself to give it a fair chance. I promise you that if you can get through that first year, not only will you have accomplished something few other people have, which you’ll feel very proud of, you will actually have built a powerful skill-set that the average person doesn’t have, one that can keep you safe. You won’t be a great grappler yet, but compared to the average Joe on the street, you’ll seem superhuman.
The second piece of advice I can give is this: Relax. Make a conscious choice to not train at 100% intensity. Monitor yourself for tension and try to make your body soft and your movements smooth.
When you watch a skilled Jiu Jitsu artist you’ll notice that they seem so relaxed. So calm. Their movements are controlled and fluid. No wasted motion. In contrast, white belts tend to be extremely tense and their movements are jerky. Every muscle in their body is tight. Everything feels like a threat to a white belt so they are constantly tense. That tension will not only make you very tired very quickly, it will slow your development because you won’t be able to feel or observe what your opponent is doing.
We all want to taste success quickly. Often, white belts try to achieve success through more intensity. They think if they can just get into better shape so they can roll harder, faster and with more intensity then they’ll be more successful. To a point this actually works. For a while. But soon they’ll come to realize that you can’t be in good enough shape if your movements are not efficient and your skill is low.
The truth is, intensity is rarely the answer in Jiu Jitsu. Intensity just makes you more prone to injury or injuring one of your training partners. And it slows down your progress because you’re relying on your physical attributes instead of on technique. The key to getting good at BJJ is consistency, not intensity.
So make a conscious choice that you’ll keep your competitive juices in check and strive instead to be relaxed, even if it means conceding a position or tapping more often. You’ll progress much faster and be less likely to get injured. Trust me on this. I’ve trained with many white belts. The ones that progress the fastest are the ones that don’t treat every roll as a life and death encounter.
Those two things are in my estimation the most important: Commit to a year of consistent training and focus on technical development more than attribute training. If you can do that, the odds that you’ll turn BJJ into a lifelong pursuit increase dramatically.
A push, a pull, a hold, or a punch is fundamentally just the kinetic transfer of energy from one person to another. In Jiu Jitsu there are three responses—three “ways” to deal with an opponent’s attack:
You can resist it, you can redirect it, or you can blend with it.
Resisting energy is the most innate but generally least effective. In the initial stages of Jiu Jitsu, students spend most of their time resisting because everything feels like a threat. At higher levels, the Jiu Jitsu practitioner learns to use resistance in more purposeful ways, with structures instead of strength, and they learn to do it only when it serves a specific purpose, like prompting a reaction or denying an escape path.
Redirecting energy is more sophisticated than resisting because it requires timing and sensitivity. If someone attempts to push you, for example, right as they make contact you redirect their energy into a throw. Their momentum combined with your redirection creates an advantage. Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo) said that if a man with only 3 units of energy is opposed by a man with 7 units, the stronger man will win. But if the man with 3 units learns to add his energy to the other man’s 7, he now has 10 units of energy to apply. This is how a smaller, weaker person can dominate a physically stronger opponent.
Blending or flowing with energy is the most sophisticated of all. When you blend you become much less affected by someone’s size, strength, speed, or other physical attributes, gracefully flowing with whatever resistance they give you. Like a surfer who becomes part of the wave, the Jiu Jitsu artist integrates with their opponent in fluid movement sequences awaiting the right moment to apply a finishing technique.
Third Way is a reference to the ultimate sophistication: Blending with your opponent.