Submitted Over Submitting

SimpleBJJ-logoIt’s possible to learn more by being submitted than by being the submitter. This may seem counter-intuitive to fundamentals students, since so much time is spent learning how to submit people and it is the final goal of jiu-jitsu. It’s natural to assume that repping out submissions against resisting opponents is the best way to refine your submissions. However, sometimes opportunity arises where there are multiple reasons to spend more time being submitted than attacking and submitting others.

This article was inspired by a seminar I went to a couple of days ago, given by an old instructor of mine, Dan Covel (check out his Black Magic Closed Guard). This seminar was at Dojo1, a couple hours south of me. I have some jiu-jitsu friends down there that I have not visited yet, so this was a good time to get some great instruction, as well as get in some rolling time with a new crew.

After the seminar, Dan did his customary rolling with everyone, with the mandatory “no chickenhawk” rule (no skipping rounds if you want to roll with him). So I grabbed the first guy available and started rolling.


I had a choice to make. Do I work on my control and submissions against a nice batch of skilled opponents, or do I go easy and see what happens? I’m a brown belt, and there were plenty of purple and brown belt opponents to go against. I could easily have told myself that I’m representing my school, and my skill and prowess on the mat should show. It would have taken more energy, but I could have gone competition mode and done my best to submit everyone I rolled with. I would have found out what holes I have in my control and submit game, and it no doubt would have been both informative and a little bit of an ego boost.

On the other hand, I could have decided to go easy and see what happened. I could see what people attacked me with, and what they left open.This is what I chose, and there were a multitude of reasons why this was a good idea.

Apart from any training standpoint, there’s the simple act of being courteous. It’s bad form to go into someone else’s house and mess the place up. As a guest, it would be inconsiderate of me to go all out and smash everyone I could. At the very least, my former instructor Dan would have repeatedly armbarred the hell out of me, and no doubt Len, the owner, would have done the same. I would have deserved it, and while my skill may have impressed some people, no doubt most of them would have made a mental note that it’s not all that fun to roll with me.

Submissions From Above

Let’s look at the training benefits. In the specific case of rolling with Dan, it’s unlikely that I would submit him. He’s a very serious competitor and he’s not going to go competition mode on me. There’s no point. Instead, I focused on attempting to sweep and control him, but ended up focusing on defending myself. As I predicted going into the roll, he armbarred me several times. What was interesting were the tactics and angles he used to gain control and to submit me. At first I was attempting to prevent him from choking me while simultaneously preventing him from isolating my arm. The choke was relatively straightforward to defend, but the armbar was locked on, and progressively tightened. He gave me some opportunities to escape, but either he was preventing the angles, or I wasn’t up to the task. I have escaped many black belt armbar attempts, but his were tighter and more precise. At each stage I could feel how his actions were preventing some of my go-to escapes. By definition, if I wasn’t able to escape, I had let myself get too far down the control chain, and my mistake had come earlier. I couldn’t depend on the small mistakes in control and execution I’m accustomed to taking advantage of.

This single five minute roll taught me quite a few things about armbars, and it gave me food for thought about my defense and how to do a better job of simultaneously defending myself from multiple attack scenarios while escaping. If I had been going all out in an effort to escape and turn the tables, I might have succeeded, or I may have run the risk of injuring myself over a miscalculation of angles. Instead, by focusing on timing and angles to prevent submission attempts, I learned that my mid to late stage armbar defense isn’t adequate against a solid black belt who is an armbar hunter. That is valuable information that will prevent complacency and encourage me to rethink and refine my strategy for armbar defense.

When working against a higher level practitioner, the opportunity to be submitted gives you valuable insight into the next level of control and tactics. You certainly shouldn’t hand them anything and you should defend yourself fully, but you also shouldn’t necessarily struggle against a critical mistake you made six steps earlier. Sometimes, it’s as simple as doing one stupid thing that your opponent capitalizes on. Dan himself taught me this lesson one time when I was a blue belt and he had my back. I reached down to unhook his foot from my leg, and he was waiting for me to make just that kind of mistake. He rapidly unhooked his foot and put it over my arm, completely disabling that side of defense. It was a simple error that definitively sealed my doom. The inevitable choke came within seconds, and that incident made me think many times about when it is and isn’t a good idea to reach down and unhook a foot.

These errors in judgement are invaluable lessons that you wouldn’t get if you were going competition mode all the time. It’s too tempting to assume that if you had been just a little faster, a little stronger, a little more well conditioned, you wouldn’t have fallen to the submission.

Submissions From Below

I had a larger selection of purple belts and lower to work with than I usually do in my training. I could have attempted to make myself invulnerable to these skilled partners, but there was much more benefit to be had by exploring what they had to offer. For one roll, I focused on my breathing and maintaining a position of control while looking for obvious submissions. As the round came to a close, I was breathing normally and my partner was breathing very heavily. I hadn’t submitted him, and had not been completely successful at maintaining control. However, if I could breathe normally, it was a grand success.

For another roll, I experimented with shutting down the technique we had just been taught and was being attempted on me. My counter worked, but like an idiot I forgot to ask Dan how to deal with what I used. Call it a meta-lesson. In another roll, I practiced Henry Akin’s style of side control against someone I felt was strong enough to just manhandle me off if he chose. In some other rolls, I noticed that my sparring partner was interested in guillotines against my butterfly guard. Most I was able to defend using standard procedure, while a couple guys took their attack to the next level of precision and were able to get me in a much more compromised position. Interestingly, the control of the finish wasn’t always perfect, but the pressure and control of my neck was enough to get the tap, even if in competition I would have fought much harder and would likely have escaped. I may or may not have escaped, I likely would have had a sore neck, and I also would have wasted valuable time that could have been used to further explore their technique.

This leads to the next aspect of working with lesser skilled opponents. It is absolutely natural to want to submit the higher level practitioner. Instead of taking that as a challenge to be rebuffed, I look at it as an opportunity to learn the culture of technique that a particular school or region is adept at. At Marcelo Garcia’s academy, I learned that they are positional control monsters, even if they don’t necessarily always get the submission. Other places have been focused on attacking above all else.

As they work their technique, I throw up roadblocks and see what happens. Sometimes they give up, sometimes they get past them and move on to my next roadblock. Each one of these actions tests their reaction and gives me an opportunity to either accept they got past my roadblock, or to alter the position and look for escapes, sweeps, or submissions that are opened up by their inability to disable my roadblock. The goal isn’t to frustrate, but to see what the early, middle, and late stage defense and offense counters they throw at me. I can do two things with what they do. First, it’s a lesson in what works and doesn’t work against people at a given skill level. It also teaches me what the school instructs for counters to those roadblocks. By testing their response, I can get training almost as if I had attended the classes they had taken.

In other words, when working with lesser skilled opponents, I explore the landscape of possibilities and I actually use more of my skills than I would if I just used my tried and true techniques that almost always work against people of a given skill level. Like the Borg, I assimilate their knowledge despite their resistance to my technique.

Back at Home

When I’m in my home academy, I have a different set of priorities. I make sure my students know their vulnerabilities and what they need to work on. I test their defense, escape, and control because without these, they will not have the opportunity to submit anybody. Sometimes I take the same approach that I do when I’m away from home and I test their actions, but it’s rarely to learn their knowledge; I already know the culture and tactics present at my home academy. I get submitted either because of an honest lapse of judgement, or because I want them to practice their control chain on their way to a submission. I learn not for myself, but for the betterment of my students.

As a student, I explore the edges of what I know, taking risks and playing with the consequences. Sometimes it leads to my submission, sometimes it leads to my partners tap. As long as ego doesn’t get in my way, I can learn from the analysis of each roll. Of course you should work towards a submission during regular training, but taking risks that put you in danger of reversal and submission also tests your later stage defense.

Submit or be Submitted

Ego and pride are antithetical to good jiu-jitsu. Being submitted can either be viewed as defeat, or as an opportunity to learn. The only times a submission actually matters is in the competition ring, and for street self-defense.

Submissions are only the final step in a chain of events that must be done correctly. If everything else is in place, submissions are very easy and take very little effort. It is a far richer experience to eliminate ego and roll for practice and education rather than proving your merit outside of the places where it actually matters. Be hard to submit, but not too hard.

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