Self-defense is a State of Mind

I was walking down the street by myself and I noticed someone look at me as they were walking towards me. The guy abruptly turned around and in about ten steps he made a comment to a second guy. The second guy made eye contact and the first thing that came to mind is to pay attention to people who are paying attention to you. As I passed, he turned and started walking next to me. It was a crowded street and he wasn’t within arms reach so I wasn’t too concerned for my safety, but I maintained him in my sight and after twenty paces or so I glanced back to be sure the first guy wasn’t following. It turned out the guy walking next to me just wanted to sell me stuff, but he did not make his intentions clear fast enough and he walked alongside me for far too long. Fortunately he finally gave up, told me to have a nice night, and turned around.

After the encounter, I made a mental checklist of what went right, what went wrong, and what I would change for the next time. It was fine to answer “friendly” questions that had obvious answers; I don’t want to be a jerk to random people. It was not good to reveal any other information about my reasons for being there or who I was with; it would have been better to just say “hey, I’m sorry, but I’m just minding my own business and out for a walk.” It may have been a busy street, but an extended walk created more opportunities for unforeseen situations. It would have been better to stop at a time of my choosing and dictate the surroundings to my liking if I was going to engage in any talk at all. While having my hands up in a conversational/self-defense ready fashion wasn’t likely necessary, it would arguably have been better, and it did illuminate that I should never walk down the street with my hands in my pockets. After disengaging, I should have visually confirmed sooner that the person had truly given up and was not following from a distance or from across the street.

None of this was stressful; it was purely analytic from start to finish. Next time I’ll incorporate the lessons I learned from this encounter and reinforce the things I did right. This mirrors what happens every time I spar on the jiu-jitsu mats. Mistakes of any scale are analyzed, actions that help me are optimized, and it’s a constant process of evolving my response to any situation.

Above all, there is an enormous amount of security in knowing that without someone having a weapon on me, my jiu-jitsu gives them virtually zero chance of controlling or harming me. Even if they have a weapon, I know the questions I must ask myself and what the answers mean for my actions. Jiu-jitsu and the style of thinking I get from it is what gives me calm in any situation short of a dire life threatening situation. Even in the worst-case scenarios, it gives me a huge advantage over someone else in that scenario who doesn’t train.

I have seen a lot of students express no desire to train self-defense, and after training for about six months, I had no desire to train it either; I don’t frequent bars or put myself in situations that I’d consider dangerous and self-defense training was taking me away from the stuff I used all the time for sport. Yet jiu-jitsu is first and foremost a self-defense art. If you don’t train the self-defense aspects, you are similar to the “street-fighter” that thinks they can walk in to a jiu-jitsu school and control the small dude with a blue belt. When you are truly tested in a self-defense situation off the mats, you are taking unnecessary risks if you don’t train self-defense.

Once you realize that the same skills you use to develop your sport jiu-jitsu can be used to easily develop your self-defense, and the self-defense skills give you real security in random and potentially stressful situations off the mats, self-defense simply becomes another game where we optimize our play. Just as sport jiu-jitsu requires us to develop our mind and body, self-defense does as well, and it’s even better suited to the mental aspect of the optimization game once you take the physical portion more seriously.

When your professor insists that you train self-defense, don’t complain. It’s a great opportunity that you should embrace as part of your jiu-jitsu training. Your sport training will certainly help you in a street self-defense scenario, but just as the “street fighter” isn’t prepared for a real jiu-jitsu environment despite their confidence, you are not ready for a real self-defense situation unless you train it on the mats and make it a state of mind off the mats.

Solving Jiu-Jitsu Puzzles

People like puzzles and challenges. We like to solve problems with clever thinking, and we like achieving physical goals. Jiu-jitsu is the epitome of a challenging physical puzzle against another person. In it, we are presented with countless unique scenarios that have opposing goals for each person. Superior techniques and tactics determine who will achieve their goals. But like any puzzle or challenge, it is critical that we are solving the problem correctly or we end up either putting in more effort than necessary, or we fail to achieve our goal. Even worse, we might inadvertently help our opponent achieve their goals.

Identification

When we are confronted with a jiu-jitsu scenario, it is helpful to identify all the elements involved for both offense and defense. On offense, we want to make sure that we are following the abstractions needed for dominance, and on defense we want to follow the abstractions of survival. To submit, we need control, which involves position, posture, connection, and various other elements that enhance our ability to start a submission. To escape or counter, we need to protect vulnerable areas, create distance, sense offensive mistakes. . . the list goes on and on.

When we have more than one element that we can identify as not perfect, we need to classify and prioritize those elements to be able to maximize the results we can achieve with a limited amount of time and effort. For example, if you are in closed guard, and your posture is broken down and your opponent has a clinch, there are several classes of problems you are dealing with. Most importantly your posture is broken, which is the foundation of your opponent’s attacks and sweeps from closed guard. In addition, your ability to regain posture is compromised by the clinch. To make matters worse, perhaps your opponent is setting up a cross collar choke or they have your balance shifted dangerously towards one side making you less mobile.

When presented with a list of problems, the puzzle is to quickly analyze what matters most and to determine what you can do about it. One way to classify the importance of various pieces of the puzzle is to determine the cost of ignoring individual components of the puzzle. In the guard example above, ignoring the choke while trying to regain posture is going to result in a submission, while defending the choke and temporarily ignoring the posture problem buys you time to solve the clinch or balance problems. Often, solving one problem is a prerequisite for solving another problem. For example, if you try to sweep someone without adequate control, you are doomed to failure. Control first, then compromise their posture and base, then execute your sweep. This also informs your defense against the sweep. If you solve the control problem with grip fighting, you can likely prevent the problems of your posture and base being compromised.

Prioritizing Goals

Given a specific positional puzzle like the guard and sweep scenarios, it’s useful to have a simple progression of goals in order of desirability.
Defense (be hard to submit or sweep)
Escape (be adept at removal of control)
Control (be adept at immobilization)
Submission (be able to finish)

If we think we are succeeding at a given level of defense or offense, and our opponent surprises us, it means we have made a mistake in how we classified the puzzle we were given. While the expert in jiu-jitsu is used to classifying and prioritizing problems dynamically and correctly, it is useful for the inexperienced or fundamentals students to either record their sparring sessions, or to recreate scenarios in order to more thoughtfully analyze the problems that need to be figured out.

By classifying the importance of each piece of the puzzle you are given, you can solve the right problem at the right time, even as the puzzle changes constantly. This is a form of the OODA loop, which is Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, and is a model for both real time and long term processing and acting on a given problem.

We can improve our ability to solve jiu-jitsu problems by learning the abstractions of jiu-jitsu, such as posture, pressure, precision, base, timing, and so on. When we make a mistake in our evaluation of our situation, the first step is to determine if we are obeying the most important abstractions for that scenario. For example, if you are trying to escape a bad position, but you aren’t following the abstraction of creating space when on defense, then you are playing into your opponent’s desire to close the space and immobilize you.

When you discover that you failed to solve a given situation, yet you believe you were following the abstractions of jiu-jitsu, then it may be time to examine your understanding of the abstractions. This can lead to a deeper knowledge of jiu-jitsu and a better ability to dynamically solve the same class of problem in the future. For example, there are several different styles of kimura submissions. Which style you choose depends on the submission abstractions used for the specific scenario (your wrapping/locking arm at the elbow or shoulder, for instance). If you choose the wrong type of kimura and fail, then it indicates that there are more details of the scenario to be classified, abstracted, and incorporated into your jiu-jitsu (like the wrapping arm at the elbow is best unless you can’t physically get to the elbow and have to settle for the shoulder).

When confronted with failure, first ask yourself what you did wrong. Then ask your sparring/drilling partner. Then ask your instructor. If all else fails, research and find people who are experts in the area you are having trouble with. The answers are out there. Do your best to find and incorporate the answers while the failure is still fresh.

The Jiu-Jitsu Loop

We can sum all of this up as follows:

The jiu-jitsu challenge is to rapidly identify, classify, prioritize, and solve an evolving set of positional challenges and goals.
If you fail to achieve your goals, you made a mistake.
If you made a mistake, you didn’t classify the problem correctly.
If you didn’t classify the problem correctly, your abstractions are incomplete.
If your abstractions are incomplete, more detailed technique will inform you.

Perfect Jiu-Jitsu

Postulate: Perfect jiu-jitsu is doing the right thing at the right time.

Can this be negated? If so, how? If not, what does it imply?

There is no single set of techniques that compose jiu-jitsu. There is no complete encyclopedia or end to the scenarios that may be encountered. This implies that there is no perfect and complete version of jiu-jitsu. While this is a true implication, that does not prevent us from exercising our imagination and defining what perfect jiu-jitsu would look like if we could see it.

Framework

There are certain things we know and accept about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Helio Gracie is quoted, “always assume that your opponent is going to be bigger, stronger and faster than you; so that you learn to rely on technique, timing and leverage rather than brute strength.” Caio Terra says, “Technique conquers all.”  Marcelo Garcia enjoys the thought of someone trying to get into his game because he knows his game better than they ever could. A similar pattern of technique over physical attributes echoes through all of jiu-jitsu. On the other hand, it’s easy to say that given equal skill, a difference of strength, speed, or aggression can make the difference between winning and losing. Where does this leave pure technique?

Could perfect jiu-jitsu be raw technique? If we were to assume that exhaustive technical knowledge is the pinnacle of jiu-jitsu, how do we account for the coral and red belts that have a lifetime of knowledge, yet often a limited physical capacity to express that knowledge? If their knowledge is valid (and I assure you, it is), then we must accept that a theoretical perfect jiu-jitsu is more than a physical expression of technique. Otherwise, anyone past their physical prime could not hope to approach perfect jiu-jitsu.

Attempted Negation

To negate the initial postulate, we could try to negate it on a logical level rather than physical. Given the evolutionary physical complexity of jiu-jitsu, a logical attack would appear to have a better chance of negating the premise.

If a technique works, then it is good jiu-jitsu. If it works more efficiently than any other option, then it is great jiu-jitsu. Perfect jiu-jitsu would be unfailingly choosing the most efficient option and implementing it better than our opponent can react to it. This is, in effect, what we can take from the quotes above. However the quotes tend to assume superior technique over some other potential advantage of your opponent. What if skill and physical ability is the same between opponents?

Even in a contest of completely equivalent knowledge and ability, there is no knife edge of perfect balance where nothing is to be gained. Calculated risks and counters create imbalance, and attacks create openings. As the situation changes, natural reaction time dictates that someone will get ahead of the other person. Perfect jiu-jitsu would create an imbalance, then capitalize on it, similar to the off-balancing kuzushi of Judo.

This means that to negate the premise that perfect jiu-jitsu is doing the right thing at the right time, we have to assume that either there isn’t a single most correct thing for a given scenario, or there is no right time to execute the ideal technique. To eliminate time, we would have to assume a completely static and unchanging system that removes the possibility of imbalance or timing of technique. There would be no right thing to do because the situation is unchanging. So if the situation is changing at all, there must be something you can do that maximizes the return on your actions. To eliminate a “right thing”, we would have to postulate that even with something happening, there are at least two equally productive choices for a given scenario. Like the knife edge of perfect balance, there can’t be a perfect scenario where there are two (or more) maximally productive choices. Negating the premise would introduce an impossible physical system.

Time Dilation

If we can’t negate the premise, then we can explore the implications of a theoretical perfect jiu-jitsu. Look at the scenario from a different perspective. If we could alter our perception of time to give us all the time we need to analyze our opponents positioning, posture, and base, we would have enough time to devise the most optimal time to execute an ideal and efficient solution to the precise problem. That expansion of time is exactly what experience with specific techniques enables in us and allows us to recognize and capitalize on a specific scenario quickly. The sooner we recognize the correct thing to do, the more time we have to anticipate the optimal time to execute our technique. While our opponent can also anticipate these things, once we have initiated our approximation of perfect jiu-jitsu, our opponent is attempting to counter with a slight delay in reaction.

Let’s use a different time expansion thought experiment. Our jiu-jitsu is like playing a video game where your character is constantly dying and respawning. As you learn how to get past difficult levels, the game gets harder to compensate for your increasing skill. What if at the end of the game we rewound the game video and showed a spliced together replay that only included all the smart decisions that prevented your character’s death? All the analysis, repetition, puzzle solving, and countless deaths would be transformed into a single video that looks like a movie where the character only does the right thing at the right time, surviving and excelling from the first moment to the last. The shorter and more efficient that movie is, the more it looks like a perfected version of gameplay.

Clarification

Although the time expansion concept is an interesting approach, we still have to deal with the fact that the initial postulate treads into non-falsifiable territory. Yet pure perfected jiu-jistu as a concept does exactly the same thing. That means for the postulate to have tangible benefit and not be just a thought experiment, we need to explain it a bit more.

“Do the right thing”: For any given scenario, static or dynamic, there will be one thing that uses less energy and maximizes our results towards the desired outcome. Through depth and breadth of technique, it optimizes both efficiency of effort and effectiveness of results.

“At the right time”: Given the perfect thing to do, executing it at the right time makes the difference between being able to make it work and working as effortlessly as possible. We should presume that our opponent is either good or lucky and that even with the right technique we may have to alter our decisions at the right time to compensate for their counters. After all, there can be no perfect offense or defense in a non-deterministic contest. Timing guides the technique and the decision points. Timing is both physical and mental capability.

Practice

The practical result of all this is our training should build technique above all else, then explore the timing of that technique. Our exact tactics have to deal with physical constraints such as inferior strength, speed, age (longer recovery time sucks), injury, or anything that puts you at a physical disadvantage. Timing is something that we can only build with experience and a good tactical understanding of our immediate goals.

On the mats, if something feels difficult to perform, we should first make sure it’s the perfect decision for that situation, then we need a level of sensitivity to the changing situation that lets us apply perfect timing. You’ll know you are getting closer to perfect jiu-jitsu when your sparring partner says things like, “It felt like everything I did was wrong and I couldn’t stop you from doing what you wanted.” Roll with any black belt world champion or world class instructor if you ever want to know what that feels like on the receiving end.

Off the mats, our research and study should reflect the concept that we have essentially stopped time to analyze a scenario and we are searching for the most efficient thing to do for that scenario, where efficiency is measured in technical application, effort, and results. We should be looking for small things that give us big results. Each technique should be completely justified and explained why it is the right thing for that scenario.

In essence, we have arrived at a derivation of SimpleBJJ, where we always want to do the simplest thing that can possibly work, both on and off the mats. That’s not to say that SimpleBJJ is “perfect” jiu-jitsu, but it is absolutely an ongoing attempt to approximate perfect jiu-jitsu. Sometimes the scenarios we encounter are complicated and more complicated maneuvers need to be used to do the simplest thing, but even in those situations, the most efficient thing (the “right” thing) *is* the simplest thing that can possibly work. All that is left is to optimize timing.

Identifying the ideal is the first step towards approaching it. By constantly asking yourself if you are doing the right thing at the right time, you will be forced to justify your decisions as well as gain a deeper understanding of jiu-jitsu.

Insight and Understanding

To have insight in jiu-jitsu is to have adaptable knowledge of details. To understand jiu-jitsu is to have adaptable and comprehensive application of insight.

Insight

What does it take to have insight in jiu-jitsu? Simply put, it is the ability to have and recall details of techniques as needed for sparring or instruction and apply those details in a flexible way. When practicing jiu-jitsu, insight allows us to see a problem and accurately solve the problem. Usually we are working within the context of a familiar situation, and our knowledge of the correct thing to do allows us to apply a known technique and compensate for small variations via insight into how the minor variations of the problem will present themselves.

For example, if you are performing an armbar from mount, insight into the armbar from mount makes it so that if your opponent does unexpected things to try to free their elbow, you can compensate on the fly based on your knowledge of the fundamentals of the technique. After the fundamental details, insight is derived from the repeated experience of analyzing variations of the same situation. Without insight, there can be no adaptation to variation. It would be like a mechanic who could only work on one model of a vehicle.

When we are helping less experienced people, we apply our experience and insight to answer specific questions about technique. A competent blue belt can recognize what an inexperienced white belt is doing wrong with the armbar from mount and explain how to perform the technique better. The blue belt should also be able to recognize how to deal with breaks in the known patterns. Sometimes the insight is that the situation is too far gone to salvage.

In all of this, insight applies specific knowledge to solve variations of problems. It is similar to stage three in the stages of competence, “conscious competence”. There are only so many ways we can move our bodies given a particular configuration, and through insight we can figure out what we should be doing for a particular situation.

So as our opponent sets up defensive blocks to prevent our armbar from mount, we know that we must retain control of the elbow and prevent getting stacked. This insight allows us to diagnose somewhat on the fly what is going right and wrong with our technique.

Insight can even be as plain as helping your drilling partner refine their technique. Perhaps you picked up the new move a little faster than your partner and you can provide feedback based on your newfound knowledge of the details of the technique.

Understanding

Once we have insight, then we can start to build understanding. It is one thing to apply an armbar from mount competently and to deal with natural variations in reactions. It is quite another to take the armbar from mount and apply those lessons to belly down armbars, armbars from the back, armbars from the guard, or even variations of armbars like reverse or side control armbars.

Understanding of a submission instead of insight into technique allows us to build a model of an armbar that is abstracted away from any one specific technique from a specific position. Understanding also allows us to build sophisticated systems around that understanding, such as systems for leglocks, wristlocks, kimuras and so on.

“Advanced” guards are little more than having a specific guard configuration and having a complete series of insights that turn into an understanding of all the nuances of base, weight distribution, reactions, and counters that are possible once that advanced guard possible to get to and then established.

There are often false summits as we are building understanding into technique. New insights force us to re-evaluate our understanding and potentially expand it. The proof of our understanding is when we can take new information and test it against our own understanding. Either we incorporate these new insights into our model of jiu-jitsu, or we use our understanding to set aside the insights as not relevant for our jiu-jitsu. Both avenues are beneficial for us.

Build enough insight into a specific area of jiu-jitsu, and you’ll certainly build understanding in that area. Cover enough areas of jiu-jitsu in both theory and practice, and you’ll certainly be a black belt.

Stages of Jiu-Jitsu

I remember well when I was in the lower ranks and I thought I could get to black belt faster if I just started thinking and acting like a black belt. This is absurd. We must build through a progression of knowledge and implementation that has no real shortcuts – only optimizations of the process. In the context of insight and understanding, the belt levels of jiu-jitsu can be broken down like this:

  • At white belt, we must learn the fundamentals and raw details. Insight is limited.
  • At blue belt, we must apply fundamentals and start to build combinations and systems of moves. Insight and ah-ha moments start to fill in gaps.
  • At purple belt, we are beginner experts and understanding of jiu-jitsu starts to blossom.
  • At brown belt, we are refining our understanding of our own game and polishing our ability to adapt that understanding to novel situations. Intuition and reflex go hand-in-hand.
  • At black belt, we have proven our understanding of jiu-jitsu, but we are continuing to expand the number of areas that we can apply that level of understanding.

It is hopeless to think you can know all of jiu-jitsu, but that means there is always something to explore and to incorporate into your understanding. Even as a black belt, there are things that I approach as if I am a white belt, because in those scenarios I truly have only a baseline of insight to apply. Entire systems are built around highly specific guard or control configurations, so while my understanding can assist me in gaining insight and eventually true understanding of something new, I still have to work through the stages to get to the point where I truly understand what I am working on and can apply that understanding in sparring and teaching. I am certainly a black belt at what I do in jiu-jitsu, but I would like to be at least a blue belt level at everything else in jiu-jitsu, even if I would rarely, if ever, use everything. That is a big task, but also a worthy if not necessarily achievable goal.

Application

Learn technique and practice it regularly to build insight and look for any source you can to help you gain insight. Seek instructors, seminars, DVDs, books, internet, anything that can help you learn more about what you are targeting. Especially use your professors and upper belts to piggyback on their insight and hard work.

To build understanding, learn (in class) or figure out (with research) how to connect insights together. Once you have a series of insights about a particular style of sweep, you can build understanding of how to apply that sweep from novel setups as well as building systems around that sweep that map out specific reactions and responses to those reactions.

Just as there is a progression in jiu-jitsu to become a black belt, that same progression can be used to learn any particular subdomain of jiu-jitsu. This means that no matter what your goal is, from learning a specific area of jiu-jitsu to advancing through the ranks, building insight and understanding is the process to follow. Any process can be optimized, and it’s up to you and your coach to individualize that optimization.

Insight will keep you one step ahead of your opponents, and understanding will give you that spooky black belt E.S.P.

Perfecting Jiu-Jitsu in the Academy

As we train, we are perfecting both our jiu-jitsu as well as our partners jiu-jitsu. Regardless of your motivations, selfish or altruistic, the fastest path to perfecting your jiu-jitsu is to elevate everyone around you.

There are two phases of maximized training: Drilling and sparring. There are short term goals, like avoiding being a jerk and bad training partner, as well as long term goals, like building patterns of behavior that will build each individual’s jiu-jitsu. First, let’s talk about being a drilling partner who isn’t a jerk.

Drilling

Provide Feedback.

“That felt [tight/loose/effective/sketchy].” If something doesn’t feel right, let your partner know as early as possible. Don’t overdo it and cross the line into criticizing everything they do, but you should be helping them correct one perceived flaw at a time. If some element is particularly effective, make sure your partner knows that is a strong point for them so they can focus on making other areas just as strong.

Feedback can be both positive and negative. Both are valuable, but how you present it can make a big difference in how the receiver feels about their progress. With regular drilling partners, playful negative feedback such as “That sucked” is OK if they understand it’s playful, but if you are dealing with a new student or someone who is clearly having a lot of difficulty, then concentrate on positive feedback while negative feedback should be softened with recognizing what went right as well as what went wrong. “That sweep definitely got the job done, but I didn’t feel like my weight was transferring like when the purple belts do it to me. Try this and it might be easier. . .”

Ask for Feedback

When you are the one getting reps in, ask for feedback from your partner. Your drilling partner can provide very effective feedback no matter what their skill level is. When I go to seminars and classes at other schools, I often pair with white belts. It works fine and I learn the moves nearly as well as when I work with brown or black belts. Both of us win when that happens.

Very skilled partners are great, but not necessary. The instructor will provide the input needed to compensate for any flaws you or your partner may have in drilling. Sometimes I’ll ask the instructor to perform the move on my partner so they know how it is supposed to feel, then they can provide me with better feedback. If you or your partner are having trouble, always ask the coach for input. I have never met an instructor that did not want to provide feedback to students executing the requested technique. Take advantage of their desire to see you succeed.

As Perfect As Possible

Don’t drill beyond your capability to do it as perfectly as possible. Don’t go faster, stronger, heavier, or looser than what will accurately reproduce the move you are working on. If you mess up early in the technique, stop and restart. If you build up speed or aggressiveness and your technique gets worse, take it down a notch.

This can be difficult because we often don’t realize we are doing a technique incorrectly. Be mindful of the initial instruction, and don’t improvise if you don’t know exactly what to do. Ask your partner first, then observe adjacent partners and/or call your instructor over to provide further instruction.

Behavior pattern

All of this can be summed up as: Make yourself and your partner as perfect as possible.

My goal when I’m working with a white belt is to make them the best drilling white belt on the mat. They are a direct reflection on how much effort I’m putting into the drilling partnership. It doesn’t matter what the skill level of your partner is. You should be helping them towards perfecting their jiu-jitsu. If they look bad when performing the drill, it’s just as much your fault as it is theirs. Take responsibility for both you and your partner. If both partners adopt this attitude, there are twice as many people looking out for each person than if each person is concerned with their own practice.

Accept feedback in the spirit of improvement. Even if your partner is being a jerk about it, that doesn’t mean it has to drag down your training. The best response is to give your partner nothing to complain about. Constantly improve with every repetition. Accept that jiu-jitsu is a long term project, and even if you aren’t able to execute what you want now, someday you’ll be able to do it. Nobody can take that away from you unless you let them.

In the unlikely event you are dealing with a partner who is just a bad training partner (no feedback, rough execution, doesn’t care about perfecting their jiu-jitsu), deal with it for that class, inform the instructor, and avoid partnering with the person for a while if possible. If it can’t be avoided, then do your best to be a good training partner and set a good example. Be explicit with your expectations and tell them what you need them to do for you to have effective repetitions. Even if they are a black belt, they have no right to obstruct your progress. Take charge of your training, and get help from your instructor as needed.

Sparring

How to be a good sparring partner

Yes, we are trying to win. Playing a game against someone who doesn’t want to win makes the game meaningless, therefore both sparring partners should be trying to win. However, winning doesn’t mean getting the submission. It means achieving your objectives. If we are training to improve, rather than training to prove (TM Kroyler Gracie), then we can adjust our goals on the fly and still achieve what we want.

For example, if I am rolling with another black belt and I’m constantly achieving my objectives and they aren’t, then I’m going to back off my effort so that I can learn more from them and they can get more out of training with me. When my sparring partner achieves at least some of their goals, I’m going to learn areas of jiu-jitsu that I may not be an expert in. I’ll learn where I can draw the line on resistance for specific scenarios. The same thing is going to happen with sparring with white belts. I’m going to do things that I would never do in a competition setting because I want to make myself better in situations that I should not be getting into in the first place.

The most pointless roll is the forced one sided roll. Invariably, I learn the least about jiu-jitsu when I am just crushing my opponent. When I am dealing with a vastly better sparring partner, I can learn about defense while I’m being crushed, but I learn more when they open up and take risks that they wouldn’t do against a higher quality opponent.

All this points to an interesting facet of jiu-jitsu. Your opponent’s belt or skill level doesn’t matter. As long as you aren’t injuring them, then you should take every opportunity you are given. Maybe they would normally destroy you but they want to have more effective training. Maybe they are working on defense against triangles today. They need you to treat them like they are an inexperienced practitioner and triangle them when the situation calls for it. Even if they are baiting you, spring the trap to learn the trap. If they are doing something they should not be doing, take advantage of it. If the roll becomes one sided in your favor, then you still need to adjust your aggression no matter what your partners skill level is. Maybe they are recovering from an injury. Maybe it’s an off day. Maybe they are specifically trying to help you train. All that matters is that you respond to their actions in a reasonably symmetric way. Strive to achieve your goals, but not in a way that makes it one sided.

Your failures are not a reflection of your worth.

If you like to learn from mistakes, jiu-jitsu is the sport for you. Failure is a constant companion. I do not like failure, and I’d prefer to learn from other peoples mistakes, but I still make plenty of mistakes every time I’m on the mats.

The critical realization is that failure is an opportunity for you to overcome that failure. It doesn’t matter if you are a white belt or black belt. Failure is nothing more than a data point for an element you want to remove from your jiu-jitsu. Your jiu-jitsu is a statue you are carving over time. Somewhere inside that block of marble is a perfect figure representing your jiu-jitsu. Your job is to remove all the chunks that don’t belong and to polish your jiu-jitsu to something that is aesthetically pleasing and as perfect as possible.

It is your jiu-jitsu, not someone else’s. Build something that you can enjoy for the rest of your life. If you hit a brick wall on a particular aspect of jiu-jitsu, congratulations, you are just like everyone else who has their own set of brick walls. Even if I could never get another submission in jiu-jitsu, I could still find things to enjoy and challenges to overcome as I make my jiu-jitsu as perfect as possible. Failures are only negative if you don’t learn from them. Chase perfection for yourself, no matter how unattainable it is. Help your team chase perfection, even if you aren’t anywhere close to perfect.

Team traits

We have covered how individuals as partners should optimize their training, but there’s also a team aspect of training. On your team your goal should be to raise the average level of the room as much as possible. That starts with making sure you have a good population of people training. If you lose people because they do not feel welcome, you are depriving yourselves of valuable training partners. Make people feel welcome and valued by helping them develop their jiu-jitsu, not by proving how much better you are than they are. If you wreck people and injure them, you are losing someone for a period of time and delaying their progress in jiu-jitsu. If we truly believe in the ability of jiu-jitsu to help us have better balanced lives, then depriving someone else of that desired benefit in unconscionable. 

Jiu-jitsu is not an isolated solo activity. If you average 100 people training who are only out for themselves, then the result will be a cut-throat survival of the fittest environment where only the naturally talented or very hardest workers do well. Most of the rest will be a churn of people who start, try, and quit. If you average 100 people who are trying to elevate the jiu-jitsu of everyone around them, you’ll have an environment where the average skill set is higher because of retention and individual progression, and the best people will excel even more because of the better quality average skill set around them. It is a healthier ecosystem that has a strong average.

In a cut-throat environment, the dynamics of the training can be radically altered by the removal of one star. In a healthy environment with a better average, any one missing training individual won’t dramatically alter the ability of the group to advance if they are not present.

The quality of your team will have a direct impact on your training. That also means that the quality of your training will have a direct impact on your team. Take this seriously.

Selfish or Altruistic?

It doesn’t matter in a healthy jiu-jitsu ecosystem. If you are selfish and care mostly about your jiu-jitsu, then the best way to push yourself is to have high quality training partners. If you are altruistic and want to help other people become better at jiu-jistu, then the best way to push them is to help create high quality training partners around them, including yourself.

If our goal is to perfect our jiu-jitsu, then the optimal path is the same regardless of how altruistic you are. It is possible to have high level jiu-jitsu and be a jerk, but by elevating everyone around us, we are helping others as well as ourselves.

Look at it another way. If you go into every training session with the intent to crush all who come before you, you are depriving yourself of exploring areas of jiu-jitsu you are not good at. You play your A-game and the recipients can be ignored other than as grappling dummies. On the other hand, if you go into training to improve yourself and everyone around you, your A-game will be more dynamic and varied as you work with differing styles and explore other peoples game as you explore your own.

Chasing Perfection

Perfection is impossible. We can approach it but never achieve it. If we take our training seriously, with an aim towards perfection, we absolutely can attain a state of being as perfect as possible. It is still an enormous amount of time and effort, just like carving a statue from a block of marble is an enormous amount of work and application of skill. It is a choice we make, and perfect jiu-jitsu is an incredibly satisfying target despite our routine inability to achieve that perfection. We can ease that route by applying what I describe in this article.

Halfway There

Yes, getting my BJJ black belt is really “halfway there”. Four years ago, I wrote that as a purple belt I was halfway to halfway there. Purple marked the midpoint of getting to the coveted black belt. On an intellectual level, I was correct, but it was not a great leap of logic to listen to what black belts told me about their experience.

Now, looking back on the path to here, the years of effort are somehow compressed, as if it weren’t all that much effort to get here. In reality, it was a lot of work, various mild hardships, and eight years of constantly looking for what’s next. Every obstacle was overcome, every responsibility was fulfilled to the best of my ability, and every opportunity to learn what I wanted was explored.

The single biggest factor in getting a black belt is dedication. Without dedication there can be no accumulation of knowledge, and without an accumulation of knowledge there can be no real world performance. Dedication must be applied to all aspects of jiu-jitsu, from showing up to learning to implementation. As Chris Haueter says, “It’s not who’s good, it’s who’s left.” I personally had to have seen hundreds of people start and quit jiu-jitsu. Many were more physically gifted than me or picked up techniques faster. Whatever advantages they had in jiu-jitsu were erased when they quit. It’s important to know that it’s not just about keeping a goal of the black belt and showing up when others don’t. It’s also about looking at training as something you will do for the rest of your life.

With a long term perspective, things like colored belts and stripes lose their impact. It’s harsh and discouraging, but reality is that the black belt is the only belt that matters in the jiu-jitsu world. All the other belts are useful only to you. The black belt is a marker with various meanings, but above all it means that you are a true student of the art, ready to explore and contribute in a skilled manner. Everything up to that is just practice. It’s not so dissimilar to education towards a profession. The awards, the diplomas, everything that is meaningful to you is nothing more than a series of steps towards actualizing your education in a given profession. Lawyers must pass their bar examination. Nurses their NCLEX. Others just need to be hired to start to do what they were trained to do. That is when the true practical experience and growth in the profession starts.

Everybody will have a different path to the black belt, and they will also have different goals after they get their black belt. There isn’t a single path we all must take. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is too unconstrained and too vast to make any presumptions about how an individual will grow once they have their black belt. There’s nothing at all wrong with aiming to just have fun after the black belt.

What is most interesting to me in my personal jiu-jitsu journey is that getting the black belt gave me a renewed sense of purpose, despite no defined next step to take. “Next level” is a poorly defined concept, but a very real aspect of what it is to become better as a black belt. I can see multiple levels of practitioner ahead of me, some on the performance side, some on the teaching side. I honestly have no idea what level I can get to, especially considering I started jiu-jitsu late at 37. For now, I’ll do the same thing that I tell my students to do. Obtain progress through knowledge, dedication, and performance. Have a clear path towards a goal, no matter what it is, then execute a plan.

The black belt is nothing more than my new starting point. I’ve already started building the foundation for getting to a level above just being a black belt. Ambitious goals are being set, resources are getting lined up, and I am mentally prepared to aggressively pursue some goals I may never achieve. Chasing after perfection, no matter how impossible it is to grasp, creates some of the most amazing things humans can achieve either alone or together. Even if I am not able to be amazing with my jiu-jitsu, at least aiming for the top will help ensure that I am at least a positive influence on those around me and maybe they will be amazing. Chasing impossible perfection though intermediate steps worked for getting to black belt, and I know it will work for the remaining half of my jiu-jitsu.

Progress in Jiu-Jitsu

Elements of Progress

Good progress in jiu-jitsu is obtained by a combination working on your knowledge, dedication, and performance. When I am evaluating the progress of my students (as well as my own progress), these three metrics are what I use to determine how much progress is being made.

Knowledge
Mastery is defined by details and experience.

Dedication
Advancement is achieved by consistent training and study.

Performance
Knowledge is proven by testing and application.

Knowledge

Invariably, you must accumulate knowledge to be proficient at jiu-jitsu. Knowing the right technique to use at the right time is critical for success, and a solid base of fundamental knowledge is mandatory. Each level of jiu-jitsu requires a different kind of knowledge, from defense, to escapes, to control, to submissions. As you accumulate details of each of these areas, you’ll also build experience that tells you when to apply those details. As you gain experience, look for smaller and smaller details; they are there if you examine your jiu-jitsu closely. Even as an instructor, I still enjoy going to fundamentals classes so I can look for the tiny details.

Dedication

Steady work towards your goals is the only way to advance towards them. I always recommend making a specific commitment for your weekly training. In a perfect world we could all train 2x a day, 6 days a week. We don’t have to be that aggressive, and most of us would have trouble convincing our bodies to keep up that kind of pace. Do at least what’s comfortable, and add a session. If you can do three sessions a week comfortably, try four. If it causes you any problems for work or family, drop it back. The important thing is to stay consistent and go train your target number of days per week, even on days you don’t feel like it. Jiu-jitsu must become a habit for you to get the most out a given level of dedication.

Performance

Jiu-jitsu at its core is about real life performance against a fully resisting opponent. You must take every opportunity to do live sparring, either positional sparring or free rolling. You must test yourself in a variety of circumstances to truly prove your jiu-jitsu skill. Against lesser skilled people, you should be able to control, attack, and finish. Against higher level people, you must be able to defend yourself and be a hard target. Against equally skilled people, you should have lively exchanges of give and take, exploring both your own and your partners jiu-jitsu.

Progress

When all three of these elements are consciously worked on, progress is the result. You will build your jiu-jitsu game and endlessly find ways to improve your game and keep jiu-jitsu interesting. No matter what your goal is, either short term or long term, efficient progress must balance these elements.

Uneven Progress

When one of these areas is lacking in your training, you create an imbalance that has predictable results.

If you lack dedication, you will routinely deal with belt rust, where you have to shake off the rust to get back to where you were before. I’ve talked to many black belts that say that if they miss a few weeks of training, like for injuries, the first thing they notice is a lack of timing. If you go longer, you start to lose a sense of what to do at the right time, even if you used to be able to hit a particular move instantly in the right circumstances. Go even longer, and you start to forget details of techniques. Jiu-jitsu is a perishable skill, and the longer you allow rust to accumulate, the harder the road back to your previous skill level.

If you get to a given level of progress, and stop trying to accumulate more knowledge and details, then your jiu-jitsu game will be stagnant. You may perform well in sparring, and you’ll maintain your level with dedication, but your progress will be slow if you aren’t trying to build your knowledge. Jiu-jitsu can still be fun, but it will be a very long road to get to the black belt level. You also run the risk of getting bored with jiu-jitsu.

Without performance in live sparring, you have what amounts to book knowledge of jiu-jitsu. It doesn’t matter how many techniques you can demonstrate if you can’t perform any of them in sparring. If you have any ambition to compete, then performance is critical.

It’s certainly not impossible to progress in jiu-jitsu if you are lacking in one of the primary areas of knowledge, dedication, and performance, but there will be a time penalty. Plus, as we get older (or more injured), our performance metric changes. Nobody expects a seventy year old black belt to perform the same as they did when they were twenty. They can still build their knowledge and maintain their dedication, but the performance metric may end up being that of their students as a proxy for their own. If they have other seventy year olds of a similar level to spar with, then their personal performance can be judged fairly.

Balance

If you work on all three of these elements in a balanced fashion, you’ll achieve progress significantly faster than if you focus on just one or two areas. In fact, this formulation of progress applies well to just about anything in your life, from your profession to hobbies. If you don’t lose sight of what it takes to make progress in your chosen endeavor, then progress is inevitable. If you are having trouble with your jiu-jitsu, figure out which of these elements are not where they should be.

The Role of Discomfort

Discomfort, both giving and receiving, is a fundamental characteristic of jiu-jitsu. It is part of what builds mental and physical toughness for both sport and self-defense applications. When you are receiving discomfort, it means some aspect of your defense failed and you have to deal with discomfort while rebuilding your defense and escape options. When you are making someone uncomfortable, you have typically obtained a position of control and it is easier for you to accomplish your goals. Applied responsibly, discomfort helps get us out of our comfort zone and forces us to refine our technique.

Discomfort -> Misery -> Pain -> Injury

Keep in mind that discomfort is not pain, and it certainly isn’t injury. It is also a mental state. Mental discomfort that arises from physical discomfort clouds your judgement. As you learn how to cope with physical discomfort, it just becomes another input to the equation you are trying to solve. There is a reason that higher level practitioners often have an unreadable expression on their face even when they are in bad positions. They have dealt with discomfort for so long that it barely registers, whereas newer students may tap to something that is merely uncomfortable but has no chance of injury or even temporary harm.

Pain is where discomfort crosses the line between a manageable sensation and something that you may continue to feel a little even after the pressure has stopped. It is stretching or grinding abuse of the body that threatens injury. Repeated pain to a joint is likely to cause low grade stress injuries which can temporarily force you out of training to give the joint a rest.

Injury is when a single instance of stress actually breaks something. In jiu-jitsu, much of what we do is capable of breaking bones, tearing ligaments, dislocating joints, or damaging cartilage and muscles. If a submission is applied so quickly that there isn’t time to respond the discomfort or pain, injury is likely. Your goal should always be to avoid giving or receiving injury, even if it is an accident. Experience helps with this, so you should take a skill level appropriate approach to discomfort, pain, and injury.

The line between comfort and discomfort is appropriate territory for lower belts and recreational jiu-jitsu players to explore, while the line between discomfort and pain should be reserved for higher level students (purple/brown or higher). Exploring the line between pain and injury has no place in regular training and should be avoided by everyone. Proper jiu-jitsu can train to cause serious injury without exploring that line. However, there are times where the desired goals require giving or receiving a serious injury. For example, in self-defense you may have to cause serious injury in order to protect yourself or your family. In the very highest levels of competition, there are many well known instances of an athlete accepting serious harm to their body in order to win. See the videos for Roger Gracie vs Jacare Souza (Jacare’s arm is broken, wins on points) or Nicolini vs Musumeci (Musumeci is injured while ahead on points, but eventually loses) for examples.

Although discomfort is typically given from a dominant position, it is possible to make someone uncomfortable from an inferior position. Fighting for position for an escape, building frames, and redirecting force are all ways you can make the dominant player uncomfortable. The dominant player can use weight, leverage, and positioning to make the opponent uncomfortable. At the very least, you always want to make your opponent mentally uncomfortable, constantly guessing and responding to your actions instead of trying to implement their own plans.

Once you become adept at causing discomfort without pain or injury, you have crossed the threshold of being able to cause misery. Misery in jiu-jitsu is how I describe a constant state of discomfort that never seems to go away. A good example of this is if you are rolling with someone who is much more experienced, you are almost always mentally uncomfortable as well as physically uncomfortable any time they make virtually any kind of contact with you. The more misery you can cause, the more you are in control of the situation and can implement our chosen techniques. In competition, causing misery induces our opponent to grow increasingly desperate and more liable to make a mistake. The clock is always your enemy when you are in misery.

What about pain? It’s still a step beyond misery. It has a role in jiu-jitsu, but it must be disciplined to avoid injury. For example, a crossface can be uncomfortable, but a neck crank can be quite painful and is a short step away from injury. Knee on belly as a position can be painful, but it can cross the line to injury if it is applied to the ribs in a focused way. Pain is also used as a part of some techniques to force movement, although it is vastly more common to use leverage to force movement.

Daily training

So how do you practice all these forms of discomfort during regular training? Certainly when visiting another academy or working with strangers in your own academy, it’s best to be polite and avoid any form of pain, no matter what your experience level is. Among regular training partners, causing discomfort should be a normal goal unless it is accompanied by malice (e.g. revenge for a previous submission) or is wildly unfair (e.g. large weight, size, strength, or skill differences). Discomfort builds up our jiu-jitsu as a means of feedback on our technique. Causing pain is best left to more experienced practitioners because they are more familiar with the sensitivity that is required to avoid injury. An example of causing pain is framing an arm or placing a fist against the airway in order to induce a response. In these types of cases, the goal is not to cause injury, but to expose a weakness of defense and progressively apply pain in a controlled fashion.

So for regular training and some competition, The experience levels can be roughly arrayed into the spectrum of discomfort->misery->pain->injury:

Experience Give Receive
White Discomfort Discomfort
Blue Discomfort Misery
Purple Misery Pain
Brown Pain Pain
Black belt Pain Pain (common), Injury (very rare)

The pattern here is as you gain awareness of your own body, you are increasingly responsible for drawing your own personal line for what you can accept. Accepting injury is a possible rational decision, but for the vast majority of scenarios it is not an appropriate decision to contemplate. Of course part of your goal is to avoid even discomfort, but that is not always possible, so the levels above are what you should be prepared to deal with if necessary. On the giving end, the maximum level in this table is reserved for fair competition among peers. In an uneven situation, like purple belt vs white belt, the purple should self limit to causing discomfort while intelligently managing any potential pain received.

When in doubt, default to mere discomfort for giving and receiving. It may be because of managing an existing injury, visiting another school, or even a simple case of not having enough gas in the tank to go very hard.

Of course in self-defense, injury is almost necessarily always on the table. There are also times when an instructor needs to give unpleasant pain even to a white belt in order to illustrate a serious flaw in defense or thought process, but never to the extent that an instant release of pressure doesn’t immediately relieve all pain.

What are we accomplishing?

It may seem a bit extreme to contemplate pain and injury in a recreational activity, but at root, jiu-jitsu is a combative sport, martial art, and self-defense system. Without the potential extremes, you are merely exercising. If all you want is exercise, you can indefinitely restrict both the give and receive options to nothing more than discomfort. If you want to build your jiu-jitsu to its fullest extent, you are going to have to learn how to cause misery, pain, and rare injury.

As you learn the dynamics of the discomfort to injury spectrum, you build your mental resilience and your capability to confront any situation you encounter. This goes well beyond jiu-jitsu scenarios and improves all areas of your life. There’s a level of perspective you gain by having someone trying to choke you unconscious while you calmly disassemble their attack and go on your own offensive. It makes mere verbal confrontations much less stressful, even disregarding the fact that an escalation to violence is much less of a threat.

Intelligent and fairly applied discomfort and misery can help you accelerate both your offense and defense, and they should be common elements of your training.