Insight and Understanding

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Stages of Jiu-Jitsu

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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