A “No Obligations” Experiment

It’s approaching the end of a self-imposed one year exile from regular jiu-jitsu teaching duties, so it’s time for some reflection.

For those that don’t know, I took a break after ten years of weekly teaching duties. I wanted and enjoyed all of those years. I even took on more than I (and my family) could handle and had to scale it back at one point. The upshot was that I wanted a break and moving across the country was a good time to see what it’s like to be a black belt student.

Being “just a student” has always been enjoyable for me. Learning from other instructors and figuring out how to incorporate their knowledge into my jiu-jitsu is a fun puzzle. It challenges my knowledge and understanding, testing me as much as any sparring round does. There’s also a freedom that I don’t think everyone fully appreciates. I can’t possibly take advantage of every opportunity to learn, so picking and choosing when and where I learn lets me balance my education and the rest of my life. This has led to me training a modest amount, typically just twice a week and going to jiu-jitsu camps.

When you’re an instructor and people are depending on you, you show up when you’re tired, injured, unmotivated, stressed, buried in your day job, dealing with family issues, suffering . . . everything negative you can imagine, and you must turn it all off and give your students what they need. It’s precisely all those things that make it easy to call off a night of jiu-jitsu when you don’t have an obligation to show up for others. It’s too easy to make entirely reasonable excuses to skip class on a regular training day. It’s like the difference between a job and a hobby, no matter how you’re paid.

All of this has been swirling though my head lately. Yesterday, I met a lifelong Judoka my age at a car dealership. He told me about how his training ebbed and waned over his decades in the sport. Sometimes he’d take months off, other times he’d be training all week long. He was a serious competitor in the past and clearly Judo was an itch that was always right at the surface. No matter what, he always returned to his root truth of training Judo being an inseparable part of his life.

That is precisely what I’ve found with teaching. It’s a brain virus I can’t shake or cure. I would have to give up jiu-jitsu entirely to suppress my desire to be an instructor. It’s part of what I need out of jiu-jitsu. Making it an obligation is beneficial for me and those whom I’m teaching.

My observation in all this is that a bit of jiu-jitsu obligation is good for you, no matter what your role in jiu-jitsu is. Weekly goals have a positive and lasting impact on your jiu-jitsu if and only if they’re not affecting your life goals negatively. There’s nothing wrong with long experimental breaks from those obligations, but there ought to be a goal attached, as with any experiment. Yes, even taking a break should have goals. I desired a mental break, but I also wanted to learn about my natural inclinations as a student with no obligations. I can honestly say that there were times when I contemplated what life would be like if it were entirely without jiu-jitsu. I’d have a lot more time to pursue other hobbies in which I could become skilled. That’s appealing, but I can’t think of anything else that is as beneficial and enjoyable for my physical well-being. As a result of this break from teaching, I have better empathy for my students and fellow instructors, no matter their life circumstances and relationship with jiu-jitsu. I also know without doubt that my jiu-jitsu is better when I am teaching.

Feel free to run your own “no obligation” jiu-jitsu experiment and see what the results are. Taking a break is one way, but so is backing off of competition, or not caring about submitting to lower belts. Be creative with the “no obligations” experimental mindset. As long as you are honest in your evaluation, then what sounds like a potentially negative experiment can result in very positive outcomes and rekindled focus for jiu-jitsu. To keep yourself honest and accountable, seek advice from friends, family, and jiu-jitsu instructors. Through valid observations and lessons, your mental and physical relationship with jiu-jisu will surely be improved and better understood.

Defensive shield

Using Defensive Jiu-Jitsu and Its Rules

Defending yourself against any aggression is at the core of both sport and self-defense jiu-jitsu. It follows that we should strive for excellence in defense for individual situations as well as for long term growth in jiu-jitsu. A common misconception of defensive jiu-jitsu, especially in building it as a skill, is that it is effectively anti-jiu-jitsu. That view is incorrect if defensive jiu-jitsu is used properly, which requires us to first understand the context, then establish general rules that will help us develop our defense without straying into anti-jiu-jitsu.


In any jiu-jitsu scenario, the first goal is to not lose. For self-defense, losing consciousness or being so broken you can’t escape might mean great bodily harm or death. In sport, you can tap before these consequences happen, but you also lose the match. Regardless of any skill/size mismatch or any other consideration, not losing means the imperative is to first survive, then win. “Winning” is an explicit and easily understood goal that everyone wants and is willing to train for. “Surviving” is where things get interesting.

No matter the context, survival implies either escaping or gaining control at some point. I believe the biggest point of confusion for defensive jiu-jitsu is when it appears to be anti-jiu-jitsu, and it’s very easy to cross that line. Anti-jiu-jitsu has as its only goal the prevention of your opponent winning. It’s awful, ugly, and the exact opposite of an art. It’s raw “ends justifies the means”. Unfortunately, in a sport context, it can even win matches when you get ahead on points and stall until the end. Regardless, anti-jiu-jitsu will stunt your growth in BJJ, is a failure of technique, and it should always be avoided.

Creating Safety

It’s very easy to misinterpret the practice of exploring defensive jiu-jitsu as exploring anti-jiu-jitsu. At its core, defensive jiu-jitsu seeks to expand the timespan of safety against individual offensive positions and techniques and their stages, as well as during inferior positional flow of an entire match. However, a sufficiently long period of safety is practically indistinguishable from anti-jiu-jitsu.

The real goal of expanding the safety zone and risking practicing anti-jiu-jitsu is it allows more time for your OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop. In effect, practicing defensive jiu-jitsu artificially expands your OODA frame and allows you to gain experience in a scenario before shortening the OODA frame to a useful, non-anti-jiu-jitsu implementation. That safety zone reduces task loading and creates more opportunity to intelligently reverse the situation from defense to offense. For example, if someone has side control or mount on you and you cross your arms and grab your own lapels, you are temporarily safe, but firmly in anti-jiu-jitsu territory because you’ve removed your ability to effectively escape. Defensive jiu-jitsu will rely on posture and preventing good angles while retaining the ability to escape. Anti-jiu-jitsu tends to be static, while defensive jiu-jitsu makes your opponents’ attacks difficult as you make progress on your escape.

As with anything that creates safety, defensive jiu-jitsu can become a crutch and a means to an improper end, namely not losing. This means when we engage in defensive jiu-jitsu, there ought to be a time limit on how long you can engage in it. The stronger and more skilled you are at any one element of defensive jiu-jitsu, the less time you should be engaging in it. In fact, during practice, the real goal should be riding the line of failure to explore subtle differences in position and timing. For example, if your defensive jiu-jitsu is very strong from bottom side control, then either establishing or exiting your strong defensive posture should be open to attacks that are based on your opponent’s sensitivity and timing. The more open you are to failure, the better you can distinguish how much speed and aggression you need to bring to different scenarios that tend to lead in and out of bottom side control. In a perfect world, the person with better sensitivity and timing will win the exchange, regardless of who is on offense or defense.

Ultimately, anti-jiu-jitsu is static, its own endpoint, and provides no opportunity for immediate increasingly positive results or for long term growth in jiu-jitsu. Defensive jiu-jitsu creates safety that gives you time to think, allows for dynamic movement, and improves all aspects of your jiu-jitsu over the long term.

Rule Building

This all leads to establishing some general rules for defensive jiu-jitsu.

First, we can formulate rules surrounding your ability to exit from defensive jiu-jitsu:

  • If you can exit defensive jiu-jitsu at any time you want but you don’t, you are using it as a crutch and not proving anything. Escaping and establishing control are always the desirable path. Even if your goal is to exhaust your opponent, doing that from a position of control is easier and safer.
  • If you can’t exit, then your defense is not good enough and you need to better understand and implement the defense you are attempting. The root cause could be your entry, your exit, or an improper static safety zone. Regardless, specific failures will give you something to work on.

Next we can look at implementing defensive jiu-jitsu in sport sparring/competition:

  • In sparring, minimize the time that you need defensive jiu-jitsu. The OODA loop is most effective when it’s short and dynamically adaptable. If you can’t solve a defensive problem within a few seconds, it might be time to take risks and move on. Literally avoid defensive problems that last longer than three seconds.
  • While it’s clearly good to be able to transition between inferior positions safely, you should never transition to less safe inferior positions. If the goal is to escape, establish control, and win, then you should only transition to less dangerous positions, like from having someone on your back to being inside their guard.
  • Outside of tactical stalling when you are up on points, you don’t win matches by being defensive.

For self-defense, the clock is always ticking. The longer you are engaged with an assailant, the more chances there are for something bad to happen to you. In this context:

  • There is no such thing as establishing control too soon, so be defensive only as long as necessary to improve your chances of escaping or establishing control. A strong defense means the person is unable to control and effectively attack you. If you are to escape or establish control, you’ll have a larger safety buffer if you have more energy/strength remaining. Once you are in a position of control, or at least in a position where you can easily create distance and fully escape, you’ll have much more time to evaluate your remaining energy and level of safety.
  • The longer you are defensive, the more likely there will be escalation by your attacker. The escalation may not be well thought out, but it may be effective. It’s better to escape while you are still being underestimated, since attacks virtually always come from a dynamic of the attacker perceiving an advantage over the victim.
  • The only way to truly win in self-defense is to create so much space that it’s impossible for your attacker to re-engage, or to kill them only in justifiable self-defense. Either way, you have no choice but to be able to prevent their control, establish your control, and achieve an objective other than being defensive.

Simplified Rules of Defensive Jiu-Jitsu

I firmly believe that good jiu-jitsu rules and heuristics have no dependency on sport or self-defense. The first set of rules surround how to practice defensive jiu-jitsu as a matter of ability and exploration, while the second and third set of rules deal with context. On the surface they are differentiated between sport and self-defense, but in the abstract, the meta-rules are:

  1. Defensive jiu-jitsu is always a path towards something else.
  2. Minimize the time you need defensive jiu-jitsu, preferably less than three seconds.
  3. Learning how to expand your zone of defensive safety is desirable, but never lose sight of rule 1.

Incorporation Into a Complete Plan

Defensive jiu-jitsu is as important to your jiu-jitsu as offensive jiu-jitsu. Getting submissions may get all the glory and highlight reels, but strong defense is what enables a strong offense. Each one informs the other. If you are on the attack and know what a strong defense looks and feels like, you can either exploit technical gaps, or you can more quickly recognize when it’s time to move on and at least retain the advantage of controlling the pace. If you are on defense, you can recognize when your opponent is unable to attack your zone of safety and must move on. In this dynamic, the person with better timing and sensitivity wins, and that is the hallmark of good jiu-jitsu between skilled opponents. Learn all aspects of defensive jiu-jitsu and all your jiu-jitsu will get better.

How to Ride the Line of Failure

There are many areas of life where our goal should be 100% success, like travel from point A to B, or ethical behavior. Learning and training jiu-jitsu first appears to be something in which you want complete success by submitting your opponent. It’s certainly true in competition where we are rewarded for winning. In training, however, the goal is to learn, and riding the line between failure and success is an important component of learning.

What Is the Line of Failure?

The line of failure is a moment where you have a specific goal, but it’s not clear if you are able to achieve that goal. There are many variables we are analyzing and compensating for in any technique. We have to be aware of our posture and ability to generate power, timing, weight distribution, and the exact scenario we are dealing with. On top of all this, we have to deal with our opponent’s reactions to this ever-changing dynamic. To make matters more interesting, we are trying to do all this while minimizing our effort and forcing our opponent to use maximum effort. The line of failure is the combination of variables that makes the execution of the technique just barely good enough to work, or just insufficient enough that it barely fails. To learn what variables matter, we need to sit on that line and test them.

Where is it?

To illustrate where we can find the line of failure, let’s first look at the extremes and where we can find opportunities to learn. 100% success would mean that we are always getting the exact technique we want when we want it. 100% failure means that no matter what we do, nothing ever works. Which variables contributed to these scenarios?

If you are stronger and more athletic than your opponent, were you using as little effort as possible? Was your timing off? You don’t really know. Maybe your technique is just so good and they are inexperienced. Being utterly dominant is great for a competitor or a self-defense scenario, but you gain no new information for your jiu-jitsu other than it works.

If you are always failing, how can you know which variables you can adjust and gain benefit from? You are essentially a grappling dummy for someone else and there’s no feedback.

Somewhere in the middle, we get some initial success as we learn the basics of a technique, then we test that knowledge with increasing resistance. Invariably, learning happens when we or our coach identify a deficiency and corrective action is taken. Eventually, we are ready to spar and try the technique against an uncooperative opponent. This is where we find the true difference between success and failure, and how the core principles of jiu-jitsu get applied to the situation we are in.

It’s Not All About You

It’s natural to focus on your own progress, but if you want to supercharge your training, you should also be part of elevating the room. This is where riding the line of failure becomes magic. When you risk failure, your opponent automatically gets an opportunity to succeed. Each person in the equation can learn the difference between good and bad posture, good and bad timing, or excessive and optimal effort. In addition, you’ll both get an opportunity to either recover from failure or reinforce success.

How to Play the Game

This presents a critical factor in this concept of riding the line of failure. To find it, you often have to artificially restrict yourself or your partner. I’m a black belt and when I roll with lower belts, I meet them where they are in order to give myself a chance of failure and them a chance of success. All of my students have submitted me because I am looking to have an honest error in judgement that we can both learn from. If I am rolling with another black belt that has superior technique, I have no problem asking them to dial things back a bit to give me a chance of success or asking to start in a dominant position that I feel makes the situation more equal.

We are often told by our instructors that jiu-jitsu is a game of inches, and the line of failure is that inch where things can either go your way or not. You can’t possibly know where that fine line is unless you are familiar with aiming for it.

Let’s look at some concrete examples. Let’s say you are executing a sweep that you know well. One way you can risk failure against a less experienced person is to get the sweep, then as soon as possible setup the same sweep again, but do it more slowly to focus on precise weight transfer and control of your opponent. Another option would be to limit your output so that the sweep just barely works instead of being assertive. In the first instance, we are removing the surprise and timing elements of the sweep when we telegraph our intentions. This gives the opponent time to resist more strongly and intelligently. In the second instance we are limiting the effort in order to build our efficiency and timing, and that not only compensates for things like being tired, it also gives smaller/weaker/inexperienced opponents a better chance of meeting your restricted output with their own potentially better output.

As we explore this fine line, it’s easier to control the variables involved. You can attempt small changes in posture to make your motion more efficient, or play with going early and late to find out how big of an opportunity window you have. You can find out how much is the minimum amount of strength you need for smaller people, bigger people, or varying skill levels. Ultimately, the goal is for any particular technique we are working on to be at a black belt level where the timing, effort, and follow-up options are optimal.

This style is exactly what positional/focused/flow sparring attempts to create. By making everyone aware of the desired scenario, both people have a chance to either succeed or fail on offense or defense. As long as each partner is riding the line of failure, you will find more opportunities to learn in these non-free-for-all sparring sessions.

Mental Models

If you still aren’t convinced, I’ll give you some reasons to follow this format, even if all you want to do is win a gold medal for open mat.

Let’s say you are vastly superior in technique and can submit everyone on the mats at will. Clearly everyone knows this. They are prepared for failure in the face of your awesomeness. Throw ’em a bone. Give them a chance and then snatch away their victory. Go ahead, be selfish. Give them most of a sweep and then stuff it. The closer they are to success, the sweeter that open mat gold medal is going to feel.
P.S.: you’re a jerk.

Let’s say you don’t have the same level of ability as your opponent. Taunt them to start in an inferior position to prove they can beat you no matter what. Dare them to only work on one submission that you select. After all that, do everything you can to screw up their technique.
P.S.: you’re also a jerk.

These are contrived, extreme, and unhealthy examples, but it’s still instances of riding the line of failure albeit with an unproductive mindset. But if this theory even works for an unhealthy environment, imagine how well it works when everyone is on the same page and trying to help each other actually train jiu-jitsu instead of win jiu-jitsu. When failure is an expected and normal outcome, there shouldn’t be a negative emotion associated with it. It’s all just collecting data.

When you make an error of judgement while doing all this, keep in mind that the inevitable failures are not a measurement of your ability. They are a measure of effort to learn. Failures help show us what works and what doesn’t work. It is the recognition and correction of errors that defines growth and progress. One of the best paragraphs I’ve read about this comes from the book “Make It Stick” by Peter C. Brown.

She found that a fundamental difference between the two responses lies in how a person attributes failure: those who attribute failure to their own inability—“I’m not intelligent”—become helpless. Those who interpret failure as the result of insufficient effort or an ineffective strategy dig deeper and try different approaches. Dweck came to see that some students aim at performance goals, while others strive toward learning goals. In the first case, you’re working to validate your ability. In the second, you’re working to acquire new knowledge or skills. People with performance goals unconsciously limit their potential. If your focus is on validating or showing off your ability, you pick challenges you are confident you can meet. You want to look smart, so you do the same stunt over and over again. But if your goal is to increase your ability, you pick ever-increasing challenges, and you interpret setbacks as useful information that helps you to sharpen your focus, get more creative, and work harder. “If you want to demonstrate something over and over, ‘ability’ feels like something static that lies inside of you, whereas if you want to increase your ability, it feels dynamic and malleable,” Dweck says. Learning goals trigger entirely different chains of thought and action from performance goals. Paradoxically, a focus on performance trips up some star athletes.

Brown, Peter C.. Make It Stick (pp. 180-181). Harvard University Press.

This dichotomy between performance vs learning is one of the biggest mistakes beginning students of jiu-jitsu make. Embracing the risk of failure helps keep you in a learning mode.

I encourage jiu-jitsu practitioners to read this entire book.

The Results

When you ride the line of failure, you are finding out what does and doesn’t work while helping your training partners to do the same. This isn’t so different from cooperative drilling during classroom training. Once the basics of a technique are understood, I tell my students to help their partner by resisting in a way that makes the technique “difficult but not impossible.” I want them to discover the line of failure so that the cause of failure is discernable and corrections can be made.

The beautiful thing about this style of training is that the level of skill or athleticism of your opponent almost doesn’t matter. There is virtually always a way for you to make both success and failure have equal opportunity. You’ll also keep your ego in check when you explicitly risk and accept failure as well as success. When you do fail, remember: Fail, Analyze, Fix

Try incorporating 75% of your open mat time as riding the line of failure. The other 25% of the time, go ahead and attempt to one-sidedly impose your game and have fun. By doing this, not only will you elevate yourself and the room, but you’ll also develop a healthier mental approach to training.

So You Want To Learn Jiu-Jitsu. . .

Great! Jiu-jitsu schools love getting new students, and we understand that it may have been a hard decision to walk in the door. Even if it was an easy decision, nobody is really prepared for what it’s like to be a new jiu-jitsu student.

The good news is that everyone who trains was new to jiu-jitsu at some point, and nobody is good at jiu-jitsu when they start. Even seasoned wrestlers who are used to grappling have to make adjustments to get good at jiu-jitsu. If you train consistently and follow the guidelines here, you’ll be able to train and enjoy jiu-jitsu for as long as you want, including for the rest of your life!

There are no requirements before you start jiu-jitsu. Age, weight, size, or anything else that you might think you don’t have the right level of is irrelevant. Anybody can train and learn jiu-jitsu.

The “Gentle Art”

Jiu-jitsu may be known as the “gentle art”, but it’s a trick statement. If you do jiu-jitsu correctly, it is indeed gentle compared to the alternatives and unlikely to cause harm to you or your training partners, even when done at 100%. However, correct jiu-jitsu is not natural; it is a learned skill that takes time to master. It can easily take ten years or longer to become a black belt, and despite the investment, most black belts will tell you that they still have far to go in mastering jiu-jitsu. As a beginner, you need to fight your natural instincts because they lead to jiu-jitsu being rough, less likely to produce learning, and anything but gentle.

There are two places where we learn how to use technique to conquer all aggressions against us. The first is cooperative classroom instruction, and the other is live sparring in open mat. In both places our goal is to learn and help our partners to learn.


The first part of the learning environment is the regular jiu-jitsu classes. The instructor is an experienced black belt or an upper level belt with plenty of teaching experience. Each technique you learn during class is meant to be trained cooperatively at first, then under guidance of the instructor, with more resistance.

When you are performing the technique, your goal is to do the move as accurately as possible. Start slow and methodical. Good jiu-jitsu requires very little strength or explosiveness. It is efficient and has no extra motion. Take the time to think about what you are doing, and ask lots of questions. Your instructors love questions!

In  order to learn safely, the most important thing you need to know is the “tap”. You may have seen MMA or grappling competitions where a person is applying a submission with the intent of breaking a joint or choking a person unconscious. The person who is in danger uses their hand or foot to tap several times on the attacker’s body or the ground to indicate that they give up. It can also be accompanied by saying “TAP!” In essence, a tap is asking for mercy to avoid going unconscious or getting broken.

It is absolutely critical that you understand your rights and responsibilities when it comes to the tap. You can tap and halt training at any time for any reason. You shouldn’t wait until you’re in excruciating pain or about to lose consciousness. Being tough in jiu-jitsu may feel like you are accomplishing something, but it’s mostly just leading you towards getting hurt or hurting others. Being tough is not good training.

In the classroom, a submission is taught in a way that emphasizes control above all else. Ideally, the worst thing that can happen is a person is immobilized with no escape, and pressure increases slowly from slight to severe discomfort. If you are on the receiving end of a submission, the goal is to tap when the discomfort is headed in the direction of severe discomfort, but not close to it. We don’t want to give our partners a false sense of success, but we also don’t want to fight back to the level that we are getting overuse style injuries due to repeated overstressing of our joints.

If you are applying a submission, don’t get distracted by what is going on around you. You have to be looking out for your partner’s safety. Do the submission as instructed and be ready to instantly release all pressure and control if they tap, even if you don’t feel like anything is going on. Jiu-jitsu is a martial art based on leverage, and if you do things precisely, very little effort is needed to turn that leverage into severe consequences for your partner. Speed, strength, and inattentiveness are all enemies of learning good technique safely.

For any technique, and not just submissions, each person in a training pair has an active role in helping the drilling person learn. The person who is doing the technique as instructed needs to feel the basic mechanics without resistance, or with as little resistance as required to make the move functional. The goal is to cooperatively reproduce what the instructor demonstrated. You and your partner take turns building up to this cooperative demonstration level. Once the person doing the technique is comfortable with the cooperative execution of the technique and you both agree that the details are being reproduced, you can ask your partner to add a little more resistance in defense. This may mean keeping balance better, being stronger in resistance, attempting to counter the motion, or allowing a little more stress to happen without endangering anyone’s safety.

When drilling a move, do at least 5-7 repetitions of the move, then switch attacker and defender roles. As long as both people are trying to improve the skill of the person who is performing the instructed technique, you’ll both learn a lot about the technique for both offense and defensive purposes. Stay focused on the person who is actively learning and help them in any way they ask. Completely avoid extra techniques you might know unless your instructor has given you explicit permission to go off script. You can rep something a thousand times over the years and still have something to learn about the technique. Stay focused.

By the end of class, you should develop a basic understanding of new moves, or a better understanding of ones you’ve done before. Always look for new details. Even black belts are constantly looking for small details of moves they’ve been doing successfully for years. If they are still trying to improve, it’s guaranteed you have something to improve in your own technique.

After being dismissed from class, it’s typical to have open mat where sparring or drilling is open to what the student wants to work on.

Open Mat / Sparring

Now things are getting real, and it might be a good idea to just watch open mat until you feel ready to join in. Instead of mutual cooperation for the explicit benefit of one student learning technique, both people who are sparring are uncooperative for the benefit of both students. This means both sparring partners are trying to implement their own game while trying to stop the other person from doing the same. The end result should be an exchange of technique where each person is learning what they are capable of despite their opponent’s best efforts.

Again, the tap must always be respected. It doesn’t matter who wants to stop a sparring round, even if it’s the person who appears to be in control. While you should avoid tapping to nothing, any reason is a good reason, especially if you are new to jiu-jitsu. You are under no obligation to train in a way that either makes you feel either physically or mentally unsafe. It’s great to test your limits and expand your capability, but your physical and mental safety are more important than any sparring round.

Free sparring is inherently stressful, and this is especially where our natural reactions to physical and mental stress can betray us and our sparring partners. Often, the most dangerous person in the room is the newbie, not the black belt. An instructor has control of both their own and others bodies, along with an understanding of what will and won’t work safely. Someone who is new does not have the experience to recognize situations that are dangerous to themselves and others. Even experienced grapplers can come in and injure themselves and others if they encounter situations they aren’t familiar with, and jiu-jitsu is absolutely filled with unfamiliar situations until you’ve been training for many years.

The desired result of any sparring round is to learn about jiu-jitsu against an uncooperative opponent. This can take many forms. It could be getting a submission. It could be just surviving a little longer than you did last week. No matter what happens in any sparring round, don’t use it to compare yourself to others. Unless there is an explicit agreement to be in competition mode and assumption of all the serious risks associated with that, your only goal should be to improve yourself first, then everyone you train with. “Winning” is not the goal.

Take some time to just absorb what is happening when you spar. A goal as small as defending yourself or maybe getting control of someone else will lead to progress as a beginner. If you are working with someone who is smaller or weaker than you, let them dictate the aggression levels. Don’t try to overwhelm anybody. If you are athletic and you rely on that raw capability, you might have a feeling of success, but it won’t help you or your sparring partner get better. If you are too aggressive with someone who is more skilled than you, you are going to have a bad day. If you are too aggressive or unfair with someone who is your level as a beginner but they are less physically gifted, be prepared for a lecture from an instructor or a physical demonstration of why what you are doing is harmful to the room. It is better to start conservative no matter what your raw physical ability is. Over the course of a few months, ease into more aggressive rolls with more experienced people and ask for their feedback.

Remember, when you start jiu-jitsu, you are fighting against your natural reactions. It is natural to respond to aggression with more aggression, strength with more strength. It’s also unfortunately natural to shut down in an unconscious effort to preserve your safety. Both sets of reactions can result in injury to yourself or others. Jiu-jitsu technique is a process of gradually building intelligent trained reactions to higher and higher levels of physical and mental stress imposed on you by someone else. Proper technique will help keep you and your sparring partners safe.

After Class or Sparring

Get plenty of water and rest. As a physical activity, jiu-jitsu is exhausting to start, and you’ll find muscles aching that you didn’t know you had, as well as strange bruises you have no idea how you got them. You can be in great shape walking into jiu-jitsu, but being in good jiu-jitsu shape is a different beast. It’ll take time to adapt to the full body workout you’re getting. It can also take time to start to feel like you are learning anything. Until you’ve been doing jiu-jitsu consistently for six months, you won’t really be qualified to say what your progress is both mentally and physically. Trust that you are getting better, and hydrate often during class and open mat, then try to get more sleep than you normally would. Listen to what your body is telling you and get feedback from your coaches if you are experiencing anything physically or mentally that might discourage you from training.

More resources for beginners:

  • From the Ground Up: The Jiu-Jitsu Survival Guide for Beginning Students by Keith Owen: This book covers many useful topics that every new student of jiu-jitsu should read. If you have Kindle Unlimited, it may be available to read for free.
  • Jiu-Jitsu University by Saulo Ribeiro: This is available as a physical or e-book. If you’re ever looking for a useful technique to drill, or you have some time on your hands to flip pages and explore jiu-jitsu techniques, this is a good jiu-jitsu book to start with.
  • Frequent communication with instructors: Questions get answered. They also help an instructor get a peek into how a student is thinking about their jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu is both a physical and mental progression, so questions serve multiple good purposes. Do it often.
  • Instructor’s website: If your instructor has a website, utilize it, including if it’s a resource you have to pay for. If they took the time to create it, it’s likely to help you get better faster when you train with them.

Things to avoid:

  • YouTube. Seriously. It’s good for entertainment, and it can be good for research as you get better at jiu-jitsu, but it should not be your source of instruction. Feel free to watch and be entertained, but always check with your instructor before trying any new technique. It’s astonishingly easy to find detailed explanations of bad or dangerous techniques on Youtube.
  • Instagram/TikTok: It’s like YouTube, but worse. It’s often the equivalent of flashy martial arts Kata for getting attention and being impressive. Never confuse entertainment with learning.
  • Being an instructor when you aren’t an instructor: It’s great that you want to help people with their technique, but jiu-jitsu is filled with details that if you mix them up a little bit, you can end up helping someone learn techniques wrong, which makes it far harder for them to learn it right. When in doubt, always ask an instructor.
  • “Winning”: Just because you got a submission does not mean you won. If you want to really win, go compete with referees, points, and medals. Otherwise, you have no idea what the goals of your sparring partner are, and you should be training to learn, not to win. Focus on what lessons you learn from a round and ask for feedback from your partners to help you learn. If they ask for feedback, do your best to help their jiu-jitsu.

Control Above All Else

Jiu-jitsu cannot exist without control, but what is control and how can we view it from a fundamentals perspective?

As a grappling art, jiu-jitsu focuses on physically controlling your opponent, much like wrestling. As a martial art, it focuses on the ability to use that control combined with leverage to break your opponent with joint locks or render them unconscious with chokes.

This only tells half of the story. It is natural to focus on what can be done against someone, but before that, we must be sure they can’t control us. There is a sequence of control that we must always keep in mind:

  1. Control yourself
  2. Control your opponent
  3. Finish the fight.

Control yourself first

How can we expect to control someone else if they are controlling us? Control of our own position is a prerequisite for engaging in offense. It could be disengaged positional control, in-contact gripping, or ground positional dominance. If you allow someone to get control of you in any scenario, then you do not realistically have the upper hand to try to control them. Therefore, your offensive jiu-jitsu will never be given the opportunity to do its job.

If you are not in complete control of yourself, your first job is to prevent your opponent from getting better control. Establish a strong defense that you can use to stall their attack and build an escape from.

With temporary defensive safety in place, your job becomes escape and establishing no less than a 50% level of control or neutral control of the situation. If you can escape to a dominant position (guard, top, etc), then even better. If you at least decrease your opponent’s level of control, that is better than stalling or letting them have more control. The less control they have, the less successful their attacks will be, and the more likely you will be able to use their ineffective attacks against them to further decrease their control.

Control your opponent

If you are starting from a neutral position like standing, the goal is to build any kind of edge in control. Even getting a little ahead of your opponent can put them on the defensive and give you the opportunity to keep them tactically off balance and progressively losing control to you. Positional dominance starts by unbalancing a neutral scenario in your favor and preventing your opponent from doing the same. Grip fighting, circling to change the angle, or changing levels are all tactics to build potential advantages.

Your mental model of this stage should be that of a ratchet. You should only allow control to flow in one direction: yours. Aggressively take ownership of the situation.

Finishing the fight

“Finishing the fight” is a loaded statement. In self-defense, finishing the fight can take multiple forms, but all require control. You can defuse the situation and disengage safely without causing any harm, you can cause massive harm and disengage if your opponent is unwilling to give up, or you can control the situation until help arrives.

In sport or regular training, the finish is the submission and your opponent giving up to avoid a real threat of harm or unconsciousness. Ideally, it’s not the execution of that threat. Barring a submission, positional and physical dominance are also often acceptable outcomes.

One of the most interesting things about control is that the more you have, the easier it is to finish your opponent. It’s almost an afterthought to get the submission because they are without escape options and you still have the ability to apply increasing pressure. Because of this, focusing on how to control your opponent greatly simplifies the finish. That leads to looking at mechanisms of control next.

Mechanisms of control

With the presumption that we have gained an advantage, we should look at how to control our opponent from a big picture view. We should obey the jiu-jitsu concept of maximizing leverage using as little effort as possible. What is natural is often the wrong answer, and the level of sweat and exhaustion among newer students is proof.

Body vs Hands

Prefer to control your opponent with your body instead of your hands. It is extremely natural to grip to hold on to someone, and in small intervals it can be very effective. But your body weight from a top position or your legs from a bottom position will force your opponent to move more of your weight to try to escape your control. Your offensive grips can be abused and broken much easier than escaping control based on your body weight or legs.

Bone vs Muscle

Use bone structure instead of muscle. Pulling on your opponent with your hands or feet feels strong and creates movement, but that same movement can be undone with their strength. If you get a clinch with your arms, or some form of triangle with your legs, you are forcing your opponent to fight against bone structure of your upper arm and leg rather than strength around your joints. This principle applies on defense as well, but in the context of framing. Either way, you should be looking to use bone instead of muscle.

Limiting Strong Grips

When in the gi, avoid death grips on your opponent’s gi. Establish control and have a plan to use it right away, preferably to convert the situation into a scenario where you can use your body or bone structure to maintain control. If your opponent isn’t actively doing something to get rid of your grips, lighten your grip and be prepared to reengage it at a moment’s notice. Even in no-gi, save your grips for attacks and breaking down defenses rather than raw control. Every strong grip should be in service of advancing a specific immediate goal, otherwise you are burning energy and valuable grip strength that you might unavoidably need later.

Retaining vs Regaining

We should always prefer to retain control, rather than giving up something and snatching it back later. This occurs in multiple ways. A gi grip is an easy one to understand. If you have a grip of the sleeve, then you have control. If you let go for some reason, now your opponent knows that you will likely want to regain that control and they will keep the sleeve out of reach through position and grip fighting.

If you have proper weight distribution from a top position, staying there is much easier than if you were to shift to a different position and try to get back to an ideal weight distribution. Taking your weight off immediately cedes control of your opponent’s body to them and gives them more opportunity to use that decrease in your control for their escape. When it comes to limbs, it is easier to start and stay engaged on an arm or leg close to the core during an attack then to start at the end of the limb and work your way in. For example, on the arm, many techniques depend on control of the elbow. If your control is above the elbow, closer to the body, then you retain control of possibilities. If you slip below the elbow, or start trying to control the arm from below the elbow, it can be very difficult to gain control above the elbow. The same concept applies to various leg attacks.

Consequences of inadequate control

A lack of control will manifest in some predictable ways. If you follow the mechanisms of control above, you are specifically conserving strength. So if you feel like you are putting too much effort into something, or you are getting burned out during open mat, one possibility among others is that you are using strength instead of body, bone, or short duration grips. Timing is another possible flaw that leads to excessive use of strength, but that’s another essay.

Speed of execution compensates for a lack of control by giving your opponent less time to figure out and capitalize on an escape plan or counter. But if they could formulate an escape plan with more time, did you really have adequate control of the situation? Speed also gets used to overwhelm strength through momentum, but again, if we are efficient in our use of leverage, then strength from our opponent should already have been compensated out of the equation.

Low success rates are an indicator that our control isn’t what we thought it was. If a sweep is countered and the guard is passed, then that’s an indication that the control from beginning to end of the technique is lacking. Maybe it’s a weight distribution problem that makes our sweep slower or less efficient, or maybe there’s a failure to follow up and establish a top position. Somewhere in the failure of a technique, there are details that point to a lack of control. Good technique does not have extraneous steps, so every control point should matter. Look at technical failures as an opportunity to examine where there is a failure of attention to the details of control.

In all of these scenarios where a lack of control results in undesirable jiu-jitsu events, we must go back to the technique and make sure we are truly doing the technique the way it is supposed to be done. Sometimes very small details make a dramatic impact on your ability to control a scenario from start to finish.

Control above all else

We have explored the concepts of physical control from a fundamentals standpoint. As you get into higher levels of experience, then speed, strength, timing, angles, and a host of other things are your ally for different types of physical and tactical control, especially in the context of expertly applied technique used in competition or a street self-defense scenario. In our daily training we should use control to minimize the need for speed, strength, or other attributes you may bring to training. Control can be a very complicated topic.

As you practice and run into inevitable failures, reflect back on the points made here and ask yourself if you really had the control required to attempt what failed. Then look to apply the concepts the next time you attempt those techniques.

When in doubt, control yourself first, your opponent second, and only then explore the possibilities for submissions or finishing the fight. Put simply: control above all else.

Guiding the First Timers in BJJ

People try jiu-jitsu for all kinds of reasons. People also quit jiu-jitsu for all kinds of reasons. For those of us that are already committed, our job is to help the first timers see why they shouldn’t quit.

As we gain experience in jiu-jitsu, we see that the things that we worried about at first don’t really matter. “What if I’m not in good enough shape?” “How can I possibly deal with these people so much bigger and stronger than me?” “Nothing makes any sense.” “I’ve done the move ten times. It’s still no good.” The list goes on and on. It’s easy to see those same reactions in the new people and discount what they are feeling. After all, you had to go through the same things. That doesn’t mean what they are feeling is invalid. It’s just inexperienced. Unfortunately, if they are left with those inexperienced reactions, they may want to quit. Nobody likes feeling unsure of themselves or like a failure. jiu-jitsu hits you with those feelings at the beginning of the warmups. You literally can’t get warmed up without finding out you can’t even do that right.

“Adopt a white belt.” is a good motto, but that comes in stages. It’s hard to adopt someone that leaves after their trial class. Just as an academy needs mat enforcers to tamp down the unruly, an academy needs a welcome party to deal with the specific needs of first timers. Arguably, the head instructor can fulfill this role, just as they can fulfill the mat enforcer role, but it is useful to have people who are less intimidating and closer to the new person in skill level. Anybody ought to be able to do it, but someone with experience, empathy, and good memories of their first days is ideal.

When you are working with a first timer, make sure you get and remember their name. Find out why they wanted to try jiu-jitsu. It could be self-defense, sport, fun, health, whatever. The answer might not be what keeps them there, but if they don’t see a path to get what they are looking for when they walk in the door, then it’s a tough sell to get them to see all the other things they can get from jiu-jitsu. Based on their answer, tell them how jiu-jitsu can fulfill that goal. If there’s someone in the room that has obtained that specific benefit, have them be an ambassador for that benefit. Then let them know some of the other benefits they can expect to see over time.

It’s important to let them know that people from all walks of life and physical ability train jiu-jitsu. Doctors, tradespeople, students, CEOs, athletes, ex-couch potatoes. . . none of it matters. Everyone can train jiu-jitsu successfully. Whatever they bring to the table will work.

For the warmups, get your instructor’s permission to shadow the first timer and focus solely on helping them. For you purple belts out there, it’ll be a good excuse to skip warmups. If one of my upper belts don’t do this on their own, I’ll either ask one of them to do it, or I’ll specifically work with the first timer for a handful of the warmups without ignoring everyone else. Basically, the first timers should feel like they are being treated special.

When drilling with them, always focus on the positive elements of what they are doing. Pick something they are doing correctly, point it out, and let them know you see their improvement. If you are going to make corrections to their technique, pick one thing at a time and give them time to be successful in that correction before giving another correction. If that means you only give them one correction and then praise their success, that’s plenty. Answer any questions they have, but avoid detailed answers. Keep it simple.

After class, take some time to find out how they liked class. If you have sparring immediately after class, make sure the first timer knows they have no obligation to spar. People do all kinds of things on the assumption that it’s just how it works, but that doesn’t mean they are mentally prepared for it. It’s important to avoid throwing people in the deep end unless they want to be in the deep end. If first timers are allowed to spar and they want to, they should only be placed in well experienced hands for everyone’s safety. Otherwise, offer to continue to drill what was taught in class for a little while.

Once all the physical activity is done, it’s time to acknowledge that jiu-jitsu is indeed hard, and it’s going to be a very challenging but always achievable path ahead. Stress that a long-term commitment to training is rewarding and describe how you specifically have benefited from jiu-jitsu training. Pick something like health, social aspects, confidence, or anything other than “hey, now I’m a purple belt!” They need to know that jiu-jitsu is something they can enjoy for the rest of their lives, and there are plenty of people who have trained more than 50 years and are still enjoying their training each week.

Once all this is done, let them know how happy you are that they decided to give jiu-jitsu a try, and take them over to the front desk to talk to someone about a membership. Personally, I’ve never wanted to do this step, but it’s important to give people the opportunity to really think about committing to training. It should be made clear that you want to see them come back. Tell them what days you normally train and that you hope they come in again when you are training.

From the time the person walks in the door to the time they leave, there should be a guide for every step of the way. It can be one person or multiple people. It can be someone with just a few months of experience or the head coach. What matters is that we don’t treat the person walking in the door as if they are just another one and done person, ignoring them until they prove themselves. We need to treat every person as if they are going to one day be a black belt that is a highly valued member of the academy.

After the person leaves, a member of the staff should contact the first timer within a day or two and make sure their concerns and questions about training have been answered. The instructor and/or guide should also be available to answer any questions that crop up.

As a group, we are used to massive attrition in the lower ranks. We shouldn’t accept that. Just as we need instructors, staff, mat enforcers, and a safe training environment, we need to build a culture of giving new people a personal guide to their first day. There should be a seamless hand-off from the front desk, to instructor, to guide, and back to the front desk. Treat people as the valuable resource that they are and respect the unique needs of the first timers. Make the first timers feel like they are number one.

Postscript: If they are interested, I highly recommend pointing them to the following e-book by Kieth Owen:
From the Ground Up: The Jiu-Jitsu Survival Guide for Beginning Students
This book is a good read regardless of your skill level.

Jiu-Jitsu Happiness

Jiu-jitsu is hard and at times demoralizing. Failure is routine because none of us have perfect jiu-jitsu. Having an optimistic outlook on life and jiu-jitsu helps, but even the most optimistic can be beaten down by waves of hardship. Proper perspective in jiu-jitsu helps, but that is only a way to ensure any day to day failures can be used in a positive way. What we really need is a long term method for improving our jiu-jitsu outlook without either accepting long term stagnation or quitting altogether.

To do this, we can look at some psychological concepts that help explain how some people can overcome all the obstacles to achieving a BJJ black belt and beyond, while others either quit or lose their desire to advance through the ranks. The fist concept is the Hedonic Treadmill or Hedonic Adaptation.

Hedonic Adaptation

The Hedonic treadmill, put simply, is the tendency for humans to habituate to circumstances regardless of positive or negative events. There is a tendency to return to a set level of happiness. In the context of jiu-jitsu, getting that new belt or gold medal is a great feeling, but inevitably you go back to your daily training and daily successes and failures. You have that which you desired, but it doesn’t necessarily fundamentally alter your outlook on jiu-jitsu.

For the optimist or someone with a higher hedonic setpoint/happiness level, these are just steps towards perfecting their jiu-jitsu, even though it is an impossible task. For the pessimist or someone with a lower hedonic setpoint/happiness level, the impossible task leads to some interesting results that may explain a variety of jiu-jitsu perspective problems.

The Problem of Learned Helplessness

How many of us have rolled with a black belt and felt like no matter what we did, we were always going to come out on the losing side? Literally 100% of us when we were inexperienced. I have rolled with countless people who see a black belt on the other person, and it disables their normal jiu-jitsu. Experience says that the roll is only going to go one way, and we are effectively helpless to alter the outcome other than perhaps slightly delaying the inevitable. I even encounter this to a small degree as a black belt when I roll with black belts who have significantly more experience than me.

This state of mind can be described as “Learned Helplessness”, which has quite a bit of research behind it. For our context, learned helplessness effectively solidifies a negative outlook on your jiu-jitsu based on past experience.

“Forever a [x] belt”

I’ve seen many jiu-jitsu students who appear content to remain at a particular level. Alternatively this is also expressed as a “I never seem to get better than so-and-so, so why try so hard?” Although there has to be many reasons for these thoughts, the end result is choosing to stagnate or only weakly pursue getting better. It is one thing to set priorities in life that are more important in jiu-jitsu, but entirely another issue when your training is purposely less focused and effective because of a problem with hedonic adaptation/learned helplessness.

The Unhappy View of Jiu-Jitsu

Learned helplessness is a state of focusing on the negative elements of the past. Anticipating stagnation in jiu-jitsu is focusing on the negative elements of the future. Any time I see someone who has a tendency to focus on the negative, they also tend to have a correspondingly low happiness setpoint. This can be a major stumbling block in jiu-jitsu as we are literally constantly confronted with failure in big and small ways. If we don’t have healthy coping mechanisms to deal with inevitable ji-jitsu failures, our most likely course of action will be to quit something in which we once found joy.

Through my own experience, what I have seen in others, and what research into happiness suggests, I believe there are methods we can use to help us compensate for the problems with our jiu-jitsu perspective. Although I was unaware of just how much research is available on this topic, it turns out the my general approach to life and jiu-jitsu already set me up for happiness and success in jiu-jitsu. I’ll explain both my approach as well as what the research says.

Mining the Past

The first angle that can be taken to adjust your happiness setpoint is simply to be thankful. This sounds ineffective at first, but part of what this has done for me and others is to specifically realize just how far you’ve gone in jiu-jitsu. This basically an instance of counting your blessings. On your first day, you were understandably not good at jiu-jitsu. After your second day, you literally have twice as much experience at jiu-jitsu than you did the day before. That’s a pretty cool thing to be grateful for, even so early on! When you become a blue belt, you have left the ranks of beginners and you can legitimately make a claim that you “know” jiu-jitsu. That’s very cool, too! The alternative is to look at the setbacks you’ve had, or how poorly you do against the upper belts and project a sense of failure on your training.

The past is where you should be mining concrete accomplishments and positive aspects of your jiu-jitsu, both big and small. Reflecting on where you were and how far you’ve come gives hope that if you have come this far, why not further? The cliché that if you are training you are doing better than the people on the couch is basically a form of this type of thinking.

Investing in the Future

The second angle deals with the future instead of the past. The approach is effectively the same: focus on the positive. Realize that one day you will be able to do all the things that the upper belts are doing to you. In fact, the people who are most likely to continue training after the first few classes are the ones who fail spectacularly and come up smiling because they can see that if someone else can do this amazing technique to them, they will be able to learn it and enjoy the same kind of success.

A fascinating way of focusing on the positive is imagining your “best possible self”. Research indicates that this specific method of focusing your efforts on increasing your success and happiness is very effective. One way we can do this is to imagine that if all of our training goes according to plan, then we know we will get to the black belt level – not just in an optimal amount of time, but also with a shape to our effective form of jiu-jitsu that is uniquely ours.

I knew from the first day that I walked into the academy that I would one day be a black belt. I had no way of knowing how long it would take, but my “best possible self” would be a black belt instructor that had consistently trained for up to 10-12 years, trained hard when in class, and studied hard when home. Everything I did from the first day was in service of becoming that “best possible self”, and not only did I achieve all of that, but I also did it in less time than I anticipated. In effect, I became my best possible self by taking my best possible self seriously.

Happiness is in the Process

If you are a high happiness setpoint person, then setbacks in jiu-jitsu and the long term process of becoming a true expert in jiu-jitsu probably don’t phase you. You likely already have the habits that research suggests cultivates a higher happiness setpoint. This essay is meant more for people who find themselves temporarily happy with that stripe, belt, medal, or cool new move, but quickly return to a baseline of feeling negative about their jiu-jitsu.

When you have a thankful and positive view of your past, and an optimistic focus on your best possible self for the future, you are better able to handle the inevitable setbacks and even re-purpose failures as a positive part of your learning process. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the benefit in cultivating a positive and optimistic outlook based on wiring your brain to appreciate your jiu-jitsu progress and making a reality out of the process towards your best possible self.

In other words, to be happier in jiu-jitsu, eliminate negative thinking (and statements) about your past and future. Moving forward, picture what you think is possible if you put serious effort into your jiu-jitsu. This doesn’t mean ignore your job or family. It means that with your current set of priorities and responsibilities, just what is possible in a year, five years, or ten years? Your coach can help you shape your view of your best possible self, and I encourage you to take advantage of their desire to help you achieve what you can do.

Having a higher happiness setpoint provides both contentment with what you have achieved, as well as drive for achieving even more. Make a serious effort to rewire how you interpret your past and project your future. There is solid science that says that even if you don’t have a very good happiness setpoint, it’s absolutely possible to cultivate a higher level of happiness in both life and jiu-jitsu.

Just as there is a natural variation in happiness setpoints between people, there is a natural variation is how people react to the process of  becoming an expert in jiu-jitsu. I have seen all types succeed or quit in jiu-jitsu. The fastest quitters are those that can’t get past a focus on failure. The ones who have trouble bouncing back from injuries or breaks from jiu-jitsu are the ones that have trouble with their happiness setpoint. If you are in a mental place where jiu-jitsu does not feel like it’s going to make you happy or you find yourself anticipating failure, and you know that at one time you were happy with jiu-jitsu, then take these proven methods of rewiring your happiness setpoint to adjust your view of your past and future. Utilize your coach to help you see the past and future in a more positive light. After teaching technique, I view adjusting people’s perspective on jiu-jitsu as my next most important task as a coach.

Rewire your view of your past and future to increase the happiness and contentment you experience now. If you see someone else chasing temporary joy on the Hedonic Treadmill or falling into Learned Helplessness, use the science behind increasing the happiness setpoint to help them break free of a negative mindset that interferes with their jiu-jitsu progress. Encourage gratefulness and a best possible self.

More reading:

There are many other aspects to happiness that we can look at and apply to jiu-jitsu, but I chose to focus on the perspective people have on past and future, as this is independent of introversion/extroversion or other social aspects. The topic of “happiness” is a very interesting one to research. Here are some more articles I encourage you to read.

The Science of Happiness: A Positive Psychology Update

Qualitative analysis of the Best Possible Self intervention: Underlying mechanisms that influence its efficacy. (Carrillo, Alba & Martínez-Sanchis, Marian & Etchemendy, Ernestina & Baños, Rosa. (2019). PLOS ONE. 14. e0216896. 10.1371/journal.pone.0216896.)

How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.