Thursday, November 14, 2013

Natural advantage...

Demo by andreitan
 a photo by andreitan on Flickr.

What is your opinion on using our natural advantage in rolling ? Do you think it's fair for a big guy to use his strength, for a smaller guy his speed and a flexible guy... his flexibility ?

I sometimes hear people complain that such and such is using their natural advantage, and this is why they do so well. Often, it sounds more like an excuse, and a justification for their own lack of performance. I believe that it is normal for big people to use strength, stack, and generally power through moves, since after all, that's how they adapted jiu-jitsu for themselves. Some people discredit "fat" people right off the bat, by saying "yeah, that move works just because he's big", regardless of whether they hurt the other person's feelings or not. Not only does this lack finesse, but the person who complains never mentions how he used his own speed and athleticism. He takes that advantage for granted.

Ironically, the way each type of body functions actually makes jiu-jitsu more interesting than it would otherwise have been. Think about it : how would you feel if everybody was the same weight, height, had the same power and flexibility ? Pretty boring, right ? I think so too.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Drilling's no fun ? Read this !

As Bruce Lee famously said "I fear not the man who practised ten thousand punches once, but the man who practised one punch ten thousand times" : drilling works. Any serious, competitive sport, be it combative or not, can be broken down into basic movements, which can be independently drilled into muscle memory by repetition. This translates into a cleaner application of technique. Similarly, GSP's impressive take-downs can only be the result of an extensive drilling program (or luck, if you're delusional). Superstar world champion Andre Galvao even wrote a whole book brilliantly called just that : "Drill to win".

On the other hand, let's be honest: drilling is no fun. Repeating the same movement hundreds, maybe thousands of times, feels more like real work, instead of play. The recreational athlete might prefer to mow his lawn rather than practice his hundredth knee slice pass of the day. The question here is not whether drills are beneficial, but rather how can we, as recreational athletes, best approach drilling ?

The short answer : use your brain ! The longer answer, I believe, is threefold :

  • Proper "body-type adjusted" application
  • Responses to mistakes
  • Counters to counters (to counters ... )

We have all seen the "vanilla" version of the knee slide pass; you know, the way it's traditionally shown in class. While technically sound, we will rarely apply it without adjustments, simply because we have natural attributes we can take advantage of. A person with less strength, but longer limbs, will have a different approach than me, even if we've learned the technique at the same time. The key here, is your partner. By offering a very light resistance, you get a chance to see just how much you have to adjust your angles, grips and speed.

Secondly, as you repeat over and over, your partner might try to stuff some of your attempts. Depending on who you're drilling with, some of these counters will in fact be mistakes. By "defending" your technique, they might open up the pass on the opposite side, or expose an obvious armlock. In a few minutes, you will get more chances at capitalizing on wrong reactions than you would otherwise get in months of live rolling !

Finally, if your partner is of a high enough level, he will offer valid counters to the technique. Maybe a simple hand placement, or a grip you didn't calculate, suddenly forces you to switch to the "alternative" attack, hoping to get ahead of your opponent. If you didn't know this second (or third) attack in the sequence, then this is your time to think, and find a counter to his counter !

In conclusion, I highly recommend intelligent drilling, since it is both more beneficial than soulless repetition, but also a heck of a lot more fun.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Real fighting"

If you stick around the BJJ game long enough, you will eventually have to explain to various people how you spend your evenings. Most of the time, your explanation will be good enough to quench the person's thirst (I've found shorter is better), but sometimes you open up a discussion without intending to (poor them, they don't know what they've started !).

However, there is a topic which will sometimes come up as your discussion unfolds : the aspect of realism. Is the martial art realistic enough to be applicable to a street situation. Is it "real fighting" ? This is the point at which you have to realize who you're speaking to. As you explain to them : yes, we fight every single BJJ class, it's real fighting ; we try to submit each other and end the fight, they might answer : yes, but is it really fighting ? That's a red flag, and here is why. According to a generally-accepted definition of fighting, which is

to contend against in or as if in battle or physical combat (
we definitely are fighting each and every single class. Then the person might add : yes, but for it to be real fighting, you have to allow strikes. Otherwise it's not self-defense, it's just a sport. As soon as we have met the definition of what fighting is, the definition has just been changed to something far away, and what used to be fighting is fighting no more. At that point, fighting becomes equal with MMA. For some people, even that isn't enough. "There are simply too many rules in MMA for it to be considered real fighting", would be something they say. "Let them have weapons, for a change".  Now the definition has been moved again.

The point I'm trying to make is that there is no end to this sort of discussion. We have to recognize if we're trying to explain BJJ to someone genuinely interested to know more about it, or someone who is delusional and will end up wasting our time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Plateaus ? Oh, no !

Are you struggling with a plateau at the moment ? Most of us have, or will, eventually. Instead of improving, you are actually doing worse against your training partners. People whom you used to control and submit, might control and submit you now. We reach our first real plateau sometime around blue belt. A lot of people can't cope with that, and quit shortly afterwards.

As with everything in life there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that we will eventually break out of it, the bad news is that it won't be the last one, and we don't know beforehand how long each plateau will last.

Here's an example I've lived through myself. I used to get a lot of near side armbars from the knee on belly position. As a setup, I could start going for the collar choke. People would defend by pushing away, and Bam, there goes the arm. After a few weeks or months of this happening, people got smarter. They would still defend the choke, but also focus a lot more on their escape. Alas ! My armbar attemps were being foiled even before they started ! Then one day, a funny thing happened. I started watching how people escape my armbars. One of the ways, it seems, was to shrimp away from my knee, while protecting their collars. I quickly realized that by doing so, they would expose their OTHER arm, at least for a kimura grip ! My armbars took off once again, thanks to the awesome spinning armbar. If they defended the near side one, their would now be systematically served a cold spinning armbar. All was good with the world again, or so I thought !

After another short while, I realized that if people did an excellent job of protecting their collars, the first armbar, and the second one, they could sometimes escape to the turtle position, and god forbid, often reguard. I started losing armbars once again. As before what I observed, is that some people, once they turtle, expose too much their inner arm, which conveniently opened up crucifix-type controls and submissions. In the end, I'm simply using isolated techniques I've learned over the years, but the sequence in which I use them is up to me. 

In closing, paradoxically, plateaus are good news ! They're an occasion to observe, refine and improve ! I don't believe in asking the instructors for help, at least not right away, since we have to learn to solve problems by ourselves, in order to develop our own reactions.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Worth fighting for?

If you're attending a regular-sized gym, you might be rolling daily with white through purple belts. You might notice how strength is less and less required as the skill gap increases. However, when skills match, strength matters yet again. This is why we have age sex and weight divisions. But why is it so?

Quite simply, I believe that with experience, one learns which fights are important to win, and which are distractions. For example, from the open guard, a novice won't blink an eye when someone controls both his pant legs, but will expend all his energy trying to bench press someone off of side control.

As my jiu-jitsu evolves, my fights become a lot more focused. With time, I have even learned a bit of anatomy. I know instinctively the parts of the body which are worth controlling, how much each joint is supposed to bend in a normal person, etc. I want to share this knowledge hoping it will help others. This is stuff I would have wanted to learn even before focusing on techniques. In other words, these are simply points of control which you either want to gain, or protect.

One of the most overlooked point of control are the armpits. Why is that control important? Because if you control the armpit, the person's elbow is not connected to his ribcage anymore. Fight to control it and suddenly the whole forearm becomes exposed for a nice kimura grip. Or use the underhook for your favorite pass and keeping the guy on his back.

Then, there's the elbow. The thing about the elbow is that it gives you leverage over the whole arm. Pull it through for chokes, or nullifying a side control escape, or arm barring. Another essential point of control.

If you're a guard player, you might also discover the importance of the knees. As long as you can use one knee to separate your hip from your partner's, you still have some mobility left for your guardwork. Don't let your knees get stapled to the mat, or even gripped, especially both at the same time.

I am sorry for the brevity, but keeping these things in mind has really made me more successful controlling stronger people, and if you know how to control these points, your jiu-jitsu will open up.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The secrets to a good guard

I enjoy playing guard, and I am sometimes flattered when people ask me for advice. By explaining different aspects of how I approach the guard, I've come to realize there are three aspects which really do matter, regardless of what kind of guard you choose to play. There is, of course, generic advice such as moving your hips to create angles, get your favorite grips, etc, but I believe there's something more to it.

So let's stop beating around the bush, and get right to it. I call it the three P's : Push, Pull and Posture. A good guard will allow you do to exactly this : Push your opponent, pull him and control his posture. These three aspects are crucial to get your guard to be successful. Let's examine these in depth.

Pushing is mostly a defensive maneuver, but not only.  You absolutely have to be able to push your opponent away when you get in bad spots, and your angles are all wrong, or your grips are funny. This allows, from a defensive point of view, to stuff different passes your opponent might try. On the flip-side  pushing is awesome because it creates a reaction you can capitalize on. Ok, I will let you in to a little secret of the purple belt and advanced blue crowd. Don't tell anyone, but we love momentum, especially when we get it for free. Why ? Because we can use it to our advantage with proper timing and technique. If we fight similarly skilled opponents, it gets much harder to work, because they just won't try to push through us, without having proper technique and timing.

Pulling is the second aspect of a good guard. The idea is to be able to control the distance between your opponent and yourself. You absolutely have to be able to go both directions to generate either sweeps or submissions. As the level gets better and better, this allows you to build techniques which work in opposite directions. The clearest example I can think of off the top of my head, is the armdrag to kimura sweep from the closed guard. First, you pull your partner initiating an armdrag. He reacts by pulling full force backward. At that specific moment, you let go of the armdrag and initiate a kimura sweep. You have effectively pushed and pulled to get your point across.

The last aspect of a good guard is probably the most overlooked, in my opinion, and that's Posture. I can't stress posture enough, especially since it matters for both people. If you control your opponent's posture AND can push and pull, you will upset him quite a bit because he not only has to worry about getting swept, but he can't start attacking until he gets proper posture himself. On the flip-side, if you allow your posture (especially your neck and hips) to be controlled in any way, your opponent now has the upper hand. An innocuous-looking collar grip, especially from experienced black belts, will definitely cost you five moves later, and you'll only know how important that grip was when you get to it.

So in short, I'm sorry for the long post, but essentially a good guard all comes down to being able to Push, Pull and control the Posture. The beautiful thing about it, is there are a million ways to do that : there are no limits to how this can be applied.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The eternal debate

While we all train jiu-jitsu with the belief that it has to be useful in a real self-defense situation, the jury is still out on the gi vs no-gi debate. There are various arguments for each being better suited than the other, so let's examine some of my favorites.

If you want to be good in no-gi, train only no-gi, right? The adcc, arguably the highest level no-gi competition in the world, which is frequented by grapplers of various disciplines, is dominated by bjj guys who train in the gi, year after year. These professional athletes choose to train in the gi most of their time, only switching to no-gi a few weeks before the competition. And they do well. Too well.

People don't walk around in gis, do they? Training exclusively with the gi develops bad habits. People get too dependent on the grips. They develop specialized games which simply fall apart without a gi. As a result, people have the burden of developing two distinct games to be successful.

While people don't walk around wearing gis, they don't walk naked either. A simple t-shirt is more than enough to choke someone out a few times, especially if it rips a little bit. That is, unless the person wears a shirt which just happens to have a collar, or a good coat.

In closing, you have to make up your own mind as to which style suits you better. Some may argue that no-gi training is still much much better than not training at all. Your call.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On introspection

Training time is limited. We all have just a few hours to dedicate to the art per week, but we also want to improve, as fast as possible. The school already takes care of the instruction part, but what about rolling ?

Beyond the obvious advice like using technique instead of strength, trying the day's moves, I believe one aspect is rarely talked about: observation, and I don't mean sitting on the sidelines here.
I believe chains of techniques are like streets in a European city. I face a new choice at every intersection. Do I go left or right? At first, I have no idea where the street leads. I spent most of my time as a white belt in that phase. As a blue belt, I would often would forget how I got in a specific position, only to make the same mistake again.

But that wasn't the end of it. At some point, my mistakes started playing in my head in slow motion, even a few hours after a roll. Observation is just that : recognizing the earliest point I messed up and remembering it. This didn't come by itself, however. I started asking people what I did wrong, and that alone was immensely helpful.

So next time you get caught in a bad position or submission, visualize how you got there, what the grips were, where was the weight positioned, etc. You will learn so much more from your rolling, and hopefully make better use of your time.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Giving up

Have you ever been intimidated by a darker belt than yours, or that other guy or girl who is supposedly "better" than you? You are not alone! My last post was about how higher belts should perceive lighter belts; this is the opposite. This is advice for the little guy, and I'm not talking about weight, but skill. 

First of all, don't kid yourself, higher belts were in your place, not too long ago. Some of us higher belts might still suffer from "belt blinding" ourselves : we're impressed by darker belts or by those "better" than us. I agree that every bjj student needs to be broken down and rebuilt properly, but this post is not about that. After all, how else will we learn proper technique, if not by unlearning what comes naturally ? This post is mostly about giving up.

People give up in two ways. Some give up before the roll even starts; they set themselves up for defense only, and start reacting desperately to their opponent's initaitives and usually end up tapping shortly afterwards. The second type is more subtle. People are deep into a roll, they might get into a bad position, try to escape a few times desperately, then exhale heavily and lose all muscle strength to eventually tap as well. We've all been on both sides of this fence, and it's understandable, but we really have to make a conscious effort not to fall into our own traps ; the higher belt doesn't need any more help ! Do you want to make the higher belt's life more difficult ? Stall. Resist the sweep. Force your own technique which you KNOW works, especially if it's a defensive move! BELIEVE in it. Hesitation stinks across the gym, and it's hard to resist !

The mental side of jiu-jitsu is extremely important,  Probably the best sort of "mental training" one can do is by competing. Nothing seems to put as much pressure on us than someone good who wants to take our head off. In the end, this pressure is an educational tool. It teaches us to keep our cool when under pressure. The alternative will always be worse off.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Training with white belts ?

My fellow "higher" belts, there's nothing to be learned from white belts in specific training, right? You couldn't be more wrong !

We're lucky to have specific training every single day at Gracie Barra. Both experienced and novice will take turns starting from the top position. How does that benefit the (vastly) more experienced player ?  First of all, the novice will have the most surprising reactions. As any higher belt knows, we expect certain reactions from our training  partners, but we sure as hell don't expect to be bitten, kneed to the head, have our grips broken by small joint manipulation or our knees reaped at full speed ! Those are usually "accidents", but if we don't train for those reactions, how will we react in a "real" situation ?

Second of all, both "green" and "seasoned" novices fight for their lives. Every. Single. Round. At full speed and full strength. If we just shut them down every single time, how will we ever know how they escape, or at least defend that choke or armlock ? For my part I can usually pick one or two moves they "get" correctly, and most of the time they'll be doing it differently than me. The end result ? They get to practice their move, and I get a free tip. We both improve !

So next time you have the opportunity, pick that spazzy white belt, learn from him all you can ! They are as genuine and as wild as they get !