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.

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