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:
- Control yourself
- Control your opponent
- 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.