Using Defensive Jiu-Jitsu and Its Rules

Defending yourself against any aggression is at the core of both sport and self-defense jiu-jitsu. It follows that we should strive for excellence in defense for individual situations as well as for long term growth in jiu-jitsu. A common misconception of defensive jiu-jitsu, especially in building it as a skill, is that it is effectively anti-jiu-jitsu. That view is incorrect if defensive jiu-jitsu is used properly, which requires us to first understand the context, then establish general rules that will help us develop our defense without straying into anti-jiu-jitsu.


In any jiu-jitsu scenario, the first goal is to not lose. For self-defense, losing consciousness or being so broken you can’t escape might mean great bodily harm or death. In sport, you can tap before these consequences happen, but you also lose the match. Regardless of any skill/size mismatch or any other consideration, not losing means the imperative is to first survive, then win. “Winning” is an explicit and easily understood goal that everyone wants and is willing to train for. “Surviving” is where things get interesting.

No matter the context, survival implies either escaping or gaining control at some point. I believe the biggest point of confusion for defensive jiu-jitsu is when it appears to be anti-jiu-jitsu, and it’s very easy to cross that line. Anti-jiu-jitsu has as its only goal the prevention of your opponent winning. It’s awful, ugly, and the exact opposite of an art. It’s raw “ends justifies the means”. Unfortunately, in a sport context, it can even win matches when you get ahead on points and stall until the end. Regardless, anti-jiu-jitsu will stunt your growth in BJJ, is a failure of technique, and it should always be avoided.

Creating Safety

It’s very easy to misinterpret the practice of exploring defensive jiu-jitsu as exploring anti-jiu-jitsu. At its core, defensive jiu-jitsu seeks to expand the timespan of safety against individual offensive positions and techniques and their stages, as well as during inferior positional flow of an entire match. However, a sufficiently long period of safety is practically indistinguishable from anti-jiu-jitsu.

The real goal of expanding the safety zone and risking practicing anti-jiu-jitsu is it allows more time for your OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop. In effect, practicing defensive jiu-jitsu artificially expands your OODA frame and allows you to gain experience in a scenario before shortening the OODA frame to a useful, non-anti-jiu-jitsu implementation. That safety zone reduces task loading and creates more opportunity to intelligently reverse the situation from defense to offense. For example, if someone has side control or mount on you and you cross your arms and grab your own lapels, you are temporarily safe, but firmly in anti-jiu-jitsu territory because you’ve removed your ability to effectively escape. Defensive jiu-jitsu will rely on posture and preventing good angles while retaining the ability to escape. Anti-jiu-jitsu tends to be static, while defensive jiu-jitsu makes your opponents’ attacks difficult as you make progress on your escape.

As with anything that creates safety, defensive jiu-jitsu can become a crutch and a means to an improper end, namely not losing. This means when we engage in defensive jiu-jitsu, there ought to be a time limit on how long you can engage in it. The stronger and more skilled you are at any one element of defensive jiu-jitsu, the less time you should be engaging in it. In fact, during practice, the real goal should be riding the line of failure to explore subtle differences in position and timing. For example, if your defensive jiu-jitsu is very strong from bottom side control, then either establishing or exiting your strong defensive posture should be open to attacks that are based on your opponent’s sensitivity and timing. The more open you are to failure, the better you can distinguish how much speed and aggression you need to bring to different scenarios that tend to lead in and out of bottom side control. In a perfect world, the person with better sensitivity and timing will win the exchange, regardless of who is on offense or defense.

Ultimately, anti-jiu-jitsu is static, its own endpoint, and provides no opportunity for immediate increasingly positive results or for long term growth in jiu-jitsu. Defensive jiu-jitsu creates safety that gives you time to think, allows for dynamic movement, and improves all aspects of your jiu-jitsu over the long term.

Rule Building

This all leads to establishing some general rules for defensive jiu-jitsu.

First, we can formulate rules surrounding your ability to exit from defensive jiu-jitsu:

  • If you can exit defensive jiu-jitsu at any time you want but you don’t, you are using it as a crutch and not proving anything. Escaping and establishing control are always the desirable path. Even if your goal is to exhaust your opponent, doing that from a position of control is easier and safer.
  • If you can’t exit, then your defense is not good enough and you need to better understand and implement the defense you are attempting. The root cause could be your entry, your exit, or an improper static safety zone. Regardless, specific failures will give you something to work on.

Next we can look at implementing defensive jiu-jitsu in sport sparring/competition:

  • In sparring, minimize the time that you need defensive jiu-jitsu. The OODA loop is most effective when it’s short and dynamically adaptable. If you can’t solve a defensive problem within a few seconds, it might be time to take risks and move on. Literally avoid defensive problems that last longer than three seconds.
  • While it’s clearly good to be able to transition between inferior positions safely, you should never transition to less safe inferior positions. If the goal is to escape, establish control, and win, then you should only transition to less dangerous positions, like from having someone on your back to being inside their guard.
  • Outside of tactical stalling when you are up on points, you don’t win matches by being defensive.

For self-defense, the clock is always ticking. The longer you are engaged with an assailant, the more chances there are for something bad to happen to you. In this context:

  • There is no such thing as establishing control too soon, so be defensive only as long as necessary to improve your chances of escaping or establishing control. A strong defense means the person is unable to control and effectively attack you. If you are to escape or establish control, you’ll have a larger safety buffer if you have more energy/strength remaining. Once you are in a position of control, or at least in a position where you can easily create distance and fully escape, you’ll have much more time to evaluate your remaining energy and level of safety.
  • The longer you are defensive, the more likely there will be escalation by your attacker. The escalation may not be well thought out, but it may be effective. It’s better to escape while you are still being underestimated, since attacks virtually always come from a dynamic of the attacker perceiving an advantage over the victim.
  • The only way to truly win in self-defense is to create so much space that it’s impossible for your attacker to re-engage, or to kill them only in justifiable self-defense. Either way, you have no choice but to be able to prevent their control, establish your control, and achieve an objective other than being defensive.

Simplified Rules of Defensive Jiu-Jitsu

I firmly believe that good jiu-jitsu rules and heuristics have no dependency on sport or self-defense. The first set of rules surround how to practice defensive jiu-jitsu as a matter of ability and exploration, while the second and third set of rules deal with context. On the surface they are differentiated between sport and self-defense, but in the abstract, the meta-rules are:

  1. Defensive jiu-jitsu is always a path towards something else.
  2. Minimize the time you need defensive jiu-jitsu, preferably less than three seconds.
  3. Learning how to expand your zone of defensive safety is desirable, but never lose sight of rule 1.

Incorporation Into a Complete Plan

Defensive jiu-jitsu is as important to your jiu-jitsu as offensive jiu-jitsu. Getting submissions may get all the glory and highlight reels, but strong defense is what enables a strong offense. Each one informs the other. If you are on the attack and know what a strong defense looks and feels like, you can either exploit technical gaps, or you can more quickly recognize when it’s time to move on and at least retain the advantage of controlling the pace. If you are on defense, you can recognize when your opponent is unable to attack your zone of safety and must move on. In this dynamic, the person with better timing and sensitivity wins, and that is the hallmark of good jiu-jitsu between skilled opponents. Learn all aspects of defensive jiu-jitsu and all your jiu-jitsu will get better.

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