I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my BJJ game, as well as methods to achieve my goals. As always, efficiency in this pursuit is paramount. To sum it up as simple as possible, the refinement of my jiu-jitsu is: Fail, Analyze, Fix.
When I roll, a major goal is to find failure. This takes form in a way that I’ll classify into three groups.
- Experimental Failure
- Battle Failure
- Survival Failure
Failing is a good thing, despite my desire to avoid it. If I never failed in my attacks, it probably means I’m playing it safe and not exploring the bounds of what I am capable of. Failing at takedowns and compensating actually builds my confidence towards a more aggressive takedown game because I know that if I don’t get a perfect takedown, I have already learned how to deal with inevitable failures.
A surprising result while exploring new technique is the very definition of experimental failure.
When I am learning new technique, either from my instructor, or from some other source (including my own ideas), it starts with exploring the mechanics of the technique against someone who offers no resistance. As I correctly apply the technique, the resistance is elevated and I learn how to deal with a compliant, but resisting training partner.
Next is applying the technique to an unwilling and non-compliant partner. In order to ease this transition, I select people who I can force the issue with and have some margin for error. They may be less skilled, smaller, or at some other disadvantage. This is an incredibly important area for experimenting with the parameters of the technique. I may find that a white belt with one week of training is able to parry my attack. In all of this, it is far more important to experiment than to “win”. Winning is something far in the distance.
It’s natural to play to your strengths. When something works, why not apply it and reliably advance your goals? It’s a reasonable strategy for the next section of battle failure, but it’s not a good learning strategy and I believe it tends to limit your jiu-jitsu. A foundational principle of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is that you should be confident in uncomfortable situations. If you never place yourself in uncomfortable territory, you will not be effective when you are forced to play from there. Experimenting in controlled uncomfortable positions allows you to build familiarity, like swimming in the shallow end of the pool before testing yourself in the deep end.
Battle failure is essentially coming up short in a fair test of your skills.
Here we find failures of calculation when the intent is to win rather than learn. This is most common when I am sparring with people of equal skill and we are both intent on getting the submission. This also encompasses competition matches against opponents that I am not familiar with.
This is like a chess match. You may give up position, or feint, in order to lead the match towards your strengths or skill set. Both people are constantly evaluating their opportunities for success. Failures in this context are often numerous and minor and lead to nothing more than prolonging the sparring session, or costing you points in a competition match. Major failures are infrequent, but lead to submissions.
Any backtracking in position, any submission against me, any opportunity for my opponent to capitalize on his strengths and take advantage of my weaknesses — all these are survival failures.
Helio Gracie would survive long enough to win. He would make no mistakes and eventually the opponent would make a mistake that Helio could capitalize on. If you are in survival mode, it means the person has some attribute that is superior. It may be skill, but it may also be weight, endurance, strength, speed or some other physical advantage. It may even be something temporary, like a superior position. Any mistake can lead to those strengths overcoming your survival defense.
When I am in a dangerous situation, my first goal is to avoid making any more mistakes. With an equal or lesser skilled opponent this means they have gained an upper hand, and I am in danger of a submission or an even worse position. This is rarely the time to attack. With a more skilled opponent, every second of sparring is dangerous. While my goal is to attack the more skilled opponent, reality dictates that I will be spending most of my time in dangerous scenarios, forced to survive. No matter what, if I am in danger, the first goal must be to stay safe and prevent my situation from getting worse.
Once you have identified the failure, it’s important to discover what events led to the error. The easiest way to analyze what went wrong is to have someone coaching you that can look at the situation and apply their greater expertise and their view of the scenario as it happens.
If you don’t have a coach available, the next method of analysis that is available to everyone is to do your best to remember your rolls and look for patterns. If you notice that you are getting armbarred a lot, identify why that is happening. Maybe you have a tendency to push your opponent away and they use that to set up the armbar. Feel free to ask your opponent why they are able to succeed against you. They should be happy to describe what they are using.
Personally, I found that my drive home was an excellent opportunity to review how open mat went and to look for patterns of failure. Often, it’s useful to put myself in my opponents place and try to identify what they could have seen as a trigger to capitalize on my errors. Maybe my hips were a little to high. My neck was exposed. I allowed grips. Simple mistakes, and especially repeated mistakes, will often be intuitively exploited.
One method I have just started to use to analyze my own failures is to take videos of my classes and my open mat rolls. Ironically, I’ve never recorded any of my competition matches. I’m starting to realize how to use this tool for my benefit, and I should have figured this out long before now. Waiting nearly four years to start doing this is just another failure I’ve found.
Note that I record myself teaching, as well as sparring. I watch my class when I get home and look for rough spots or areas that I could be more clear the next time I teach that technique. How I instruct is an important facet of my jiu-jitsu, and I look for ways to improve it, just as I do for the rest of my BJJ skills.
In all of this, I can’t stress enough how important it is to look for patterns in personal behavior. These may be things you are telegraphing, such as an extra step before you shoot for a takedown, or it may be a bad habit, such as letting your elbows get away from your body when your opponent is in an attacking position. If you have a pattern of any kind, your opponents will likely learn your patterns, even subconsciously. For teaching, I look for needless habits, such as pauses, awkward phrasing, or accidentally abusing the poor guy I’m demonstrating technique on.
After you have used any or all of the methods above to analyze your game, the next step is to use that knowledge.
Fixing your failures can be tough. A good analysis will immensely help. In the end, it’s all up to you.
The good news is this is BJJ, and the vast majority of us have instructors who are eager to help us fix our problems. They can also assist in the analysis, but it’s not always easy to analyze for a pattern unless you are constantly around the student and looking for problems. In practice, identifying a problem and a starting scenario for your instructor will give them enough to go on. Your instructor will then give you a fix that you will need to incorporate into your game.
This can take a few different forms. It’s common to apply a submission dozens of times and then find someone who is impervious to that attack. In these cases you are probably forgetting some small detail that would make your submission much easier. I often tell my students that many attacks such as a triangle, or armbar, or americana have a dozen different elements that make it work ideally. When sparring with someone that isn’t able to defend themselves well, two or three of the elements are sufficient to get the submission. When sparring with someone who is highly skilled and aware of all of the elements, you may have to apply every single aspect of the submission to be successful. Often we only have to be mostly good, so it’s easy to accumulate bad habits and forget things we were once taught. A good instructor will be able to do a static analysis of the situation and supply the elements you have forgotten.
Another way your instructor or sparring partner can identify a fix is to look at your positioning. BJJ emphasizes “Position Before Submission”, as well as effective use of body position. The fix in these cases is to adjust the placement of your body relative to your opponents body. Sometimes that will mean moving yourself, and other times that will mean moving your opponent.
All of these fixes are just suggestions until you put it into action. The beautiful part here is all we have to do is start back at the first stage of potential failure. You have to apply the supplied fix in a context where you can rebuild your habits to conform to the fix. Again, we look for failure as we work on the fix.
To fix experimental failure, it’s a straightforward task to drop back to the lower level of difficulty and incorporate the fix. Sometimes you may have to temporarily give up on a technique until you are better prepared in your jiu-jitsu or physical development. You may also discover that certain things are literally impossible for you to perform efficiently, or at all, due to unusual body geometry.
To fix battle failure, focus on directing the sparring session towards what you want. I specifically say sparring because competition is not where you are fixing technique. Repeatedly work on turning your battles into fix sessions so that you gain experience with adjusting against a strongly resisting opponent. If a particular opponent is good at exploiting a failure, seek them out. I have specific people I go to when I want to defend or attack certain things. They are experts at making me fail because they have already applied all the fixes to their preferred method of hunting for particular weaknesses.
For survival failure, the fix is best applied by willingly putting yourself in the uncomfortable position where you must use the fix or the consequence is certain failure.
Each of these ways of applying the fix should be ramped up. If you are incapable of applying the fix in the context of the failure, make the context easier. If you are working your escape from side control, utilize training partners that are aware of what you are trying to fix, and have them gradually increase the resistance to your fix until they are incapable of blocking the fix.
Fail, Analyze, Fix is a circular pattern that I use to work on any aspect of my BJJ. It embraces having fun and maximizing my exposure to things that will force me to get better. I assume I will be uncomfortable and challenged. I also assume that by using this method, I will inexorably get better, and likely faster than any other way.