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.

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