The word flow in BJJ most commonly refers to a style of rolling in which the training partners agree to focus on fluid transitions and graceful positional exchanges. The goal isn’t for one person or the other to win, but rather for each to execute their game both offensively and defensively with only minimal resistance; attacking, defending, and transitioning.
There’s usually a huge gap between learning a technique or movement sequence and being able to execute it against full resistance. The greater the intensity, the smaller the windows of opportunity. If no one gives an inch when you roll, you won’t get enough opportunities to practice your game, so your progress will be excruciatingly slow.
Flowing lets you bridge that gap because you’re practicing at a level of resistance that permits you apply your game. The resistance is minimal, letting you practice even moves you’re not good at yet. Over time you can scale up the intensity as you are better able to seize smaller and smaller windows of opportunity.
Trent Lewis, a phenomenal black belt I trained under in Florida, was such a proponent of this style of rolling that he would demand that every training session included flow rolls. At Roy Dean Academy we did a lot of this style of training too, and the result was very fast development.
I’m convinced that flowing offers profound benefits: It accelerates your learning, it encourages a more graceful, movement based game, it builds excellent timing and sensitivity, and it lets you train with more longevity because it’s not as hard on your body. It’s also a lot of fun. And, to the astonishment of people who do it for the first time, it’s a great workout because you are in constant motion. When you play a slower, pressure based game, there is often lots of opportunities to rest within the roll. You can’t rest when you flow.
The long-term benefit of flowing is it builds the ability to apply a movement style of game against full resistance. In the early stages of BJJ, flowing can only happen when both partners agree to it. The high level stuff is being able to flow against anyone, regardless of their intensity or physical attributes.
Blue belts often become frustrated because they just can’t finish their opponent. They get so close, but they often fail. This usually leads the blue belt to seeking out more and more submission techniques. He thinks that the “new” and “sneaky” techniques will make him more skilled at submissions. However, what he doesn’t realize is that his inability to finish his opponent is directly related to his inability to positionally dominate him.—Roy Harris
The primary focus of novice students should be to develop good positional movement, transitions, and control, along with solid escape mechanics. The paradox is that while students will typically accumulate the largest number of techniques during the first few years, they won’t be terribly successful with them. The issue is one of control: If you do not have control over the major body section attached to the joint you are attacking, your ability to finish will be poor.
The lesson here isn’t that you shouldn’t accumulate techniques, only that you do so with the understanding that they won’t provide much success until your positional game is reasonably good. Technique accumulation is how we develop a game that fits our personality and attributes. But techniques alone without positional control have very low probability of success.
So if you’re feeling frustrated, don’t seek the path of sneaky techniques. Focus on positional escapes, movement, and control. Getting good at those things will lay the foundation to reliably getting the tap.
Chris Haueter explains a profoundly important concept: Using our hips as the primary method of controlling and manipulating an opponent’s balance and posture from closed guard. Hip engagement, in fact, is one of the major keys to success from nearly every position in BJJ. Just like in music we can always have more cowbell, in BJJ we can always use more hips.
I tell my kids, it’s not always fun, but if you want to be good at something, you have to do it when it’s not fun.—Flea
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.—Chuck Close
I’ve been guilty of failing to act when I’m not feeling motivated. The fallacy is in believing that motivation is an independent entity, under its own control, and that if we just listen right or wait long enough it’ll speak to us. The image of a blocked writer staring out a window comes to mind.
But true motivation always comes from doing, not waiting. Motivation is the byproduct of problem-solving and actively engaging. Every time I’ve passively waited it has only caused me to become less inspired and less motivated.
If you have days where you lack motivation to train or get things done, the best response is to do it anyway. Make a decision to stop being a slave to how you feel. Feelings are fickle things. Instead, roll up your sleeves and make a choice to get to work.
I think there are countless paths to spirituality—meditation, surfing, running, climbing, music, sailing, archery, calligraphy, chess, martial arts, motorcycle maintenance, whatever. The vehicle is just the husk. It is a structure, a form, a channel to be penetrated with an understanding of its relativity. In my opinion, what matters isn’t so much what art you pursue but how honestly, creatively and relentlessly you explore it.—Josh Waitzkin
There is perhaps no word as amorphous as spirituality. What does it mean? Ask a Christian, a Hindu, a Humanist, a Stoic, a Mystic, or a Materialist and you’ll get as many answers.
I don’t claim to have a definitive definition, but what Waitzkin is suggesting is that spirituality is the personally transformative byproduct of engaging on a very deep level. Spiritual isn’t something we are, it’s something we become as a result of pursuits that are so deep that they lead us to a fuller existence. Jiu Jitsu, of course, being one such vehicle.
I tend to agree with him. Seeking excellence as a lifestyle, regardless of the pursuit, creates the best opportunities for finding purpose, understanding, wisdom, and happiness. For me, those are the essential components of what one might call spirituality.
I do it because it’s hard. Because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And because it never ends. Every day presents me with a series of problems that I spend the rest of the day thinking about how I might solve—or at least chip away at. Next day same. And the day after that.—Anthony Bourdain
No matter how long I train or how much my skills improve there’s a certain amount of struggle that comes with training that never goes away. I’ve come to embrace this. Struggle means progress. It means there is more to improve.
There’s an old saying I love: There’s no such thing as saying the same. We are either working to improve or allowing ourselves to get worse.
If we eliminate all struggle then we actually get worse. If training is never hard, then we get soft. If training never makes us feel like our Jiu Jitsu is lousy, then we will stop trying to improve.
It’s important to embrace and this. If all you focus on is how hard training is without an understanding of its purpose, then training can turn into a grind. Understand that every drop of sweat helps perfect our character. Every gasp for air brings us one breath closer to the best version of ourself.
If you embrace the fact that you’ve chosen the hard road precisely because the hard road is the path to perfection, then you’ll actually celebrate the difficulty and not dread it.
There’s a time to feel great about your Jiu Jitsu and proud of your accomplishments. That time is not when you are on the mat. The mat is there to bring truth and honesty. Embrace the difficulty of training. Celebrate afterwards.
According to Dan Inosanto, effective training involves three stages:
Cooperative training is how we initially learn and practice techniques. There is no resistance at this stage. It’s just about drilling the shape, movement, and proper mechanics. Our partners assist in our success by creating structures that allow perfect execution.
The Contesting phase involves resistance. It’s what we typically experience while sparing. It’s how we learn to apply our technique against someone who is not going along with the plan. It’s my belief that resistance should be scaled slowly, so that new techniques can be incorporated. You can’t go from cooperative training to high intensity training and expect to be able to bridge that gap.
The Combative phase is where we test our technique against 100% resistance. A Jiu Jitsu competition (and the training leading up to it) is a good example. While this phase is important, it should be done the least often. It’s purpose is to develop a higher level of physicality and mindset. You can’t train this way all the time or you’ll get burned out or injured. But you should train this way some of the time to keep the knife sharp.
Several years ago I was profiled in a computer magazine. One of the questions they asked me was “what is the single most important trait of a good programmer?” My response: Curiosity. You must have an insatiable appetite to explore, ask questions, and find answers.
Recently I saw a post by John Danaher on Facebook where he states: “One of the most valuable attributes a jiu jitsu player can have in order to make sustained progress over long periods of time is a SENSE OF CURIOSITY.”
Curiosity, I believe, is the fundamental requirement for achieving anything significant. Sure, you need determination. But what curiosity provides is a framework to apply your drive upon.
Here’s John Danaher again:
That sense of endless curiosity is the root of enthusiasm and success in both teaching and learning - the moment a man loses that, it is only a matter a time until his study and teaching suffers. I believe the key is to always keep one question in mind at all times - IS THERE A BETTER WAY OF DOING THINGS THAN YOU AND YOUR PEERS ARE CURRENTLY USING? As long as you push this question to the forefront of your consciousness the game will always be exciting and continue to make you grow.
I can say without question that what has kept me interested in BJJ for more than a decade is my continued curiosity about the art. Every time I train more questions emerge, driving me to continually seek answers.
If you train BJJ, I hope you too are infected with curiosity.
Big thanks to Professor Dean for sharing his knowledge. Today’s seminar focussed on sweeps, with a unique way to cut underneath one’s opponent. We appreciate everyone who came out today and look forward to training these techniques again soon.
It’s been a great honor to have professor Dean sharing his knowledge all week. And huge congratulations to TJ Brodeur for being promoted to blackbelt by Roy. TJ is one of my oldest training partners. We both started BJJ around 11 years ago as white belts and have progressed together. I’m stoked not only that he got his blackbelt, but that it happened here in Wyoming at Third Way.
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.