MENTAL REVELATIONS OF THE PROGRESSING GRAPPLER
One of the most exciting parts of teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the experience of witnessing students progress in skill and develop in mental acuity. Part of the progression entails improved physical abilities, but the beauty of BJJ is that, because of its intellectual components, one’s physical limitations can be overcome. This essay will explore the various mental revelations that occur with developing and progressing grapplers.
THE REVELATION OF RECOGNITION:
To the untrained eye, BJJ, submission grappling, and ground-fighting in general looks like two people pummeling around on the ground hugging, then suddenly it is over. I clearly remember in 1995 when I first saw Royce Gracie fighting in the UFC. I actually rooted against him because I did not understand what he was doing nor why it was ‘winning’ the fights. I wanted to see faces punched, heads kicked, and elbows dropped. I thought it seemed strange that none of the losers was able to shake Royce. I was not recognizing the leverage, the techniques, the skills, and the advantages of mastering grappling.
The beginning BJJ student is often overwhelmed by the lexicon of art. There are various names for the same positions, submission, and series. Some of the names make little sense (e.g. Americana bears no logical descriptive value to the actual submission) while others (e.g. cross-body) are clear. As the student is immersed in the language, observes matches, listens to his instructor and asks questions, he becomes familiar with the language of the art.
The “Revelation of Recognition” is different than just a familiarity with the names of the techniques, it is an ability to observe them and predict them or see their place in the match at hand. Frustratingly, it can often be a complete awareness of where a more advanced training partner is taking you and an understanding of the impending ending. I have had countless students say to me, “I knew what was coming and I just could not stop it!” I commend them when they say this because when they begin to “see” or recognize the attacks, they are on their way to being able to appropriately defend them. That is very significant and essential to progression.
THE REVELATION OF TECHNIQUE OVER STRENGTH AND SPEED:
Royce Gracie, Marcello Garcia, Eddie Bravo, Jeff Glover, and many other highly successful BJJ practioners would not catch many peoples’ eyes when they walk through an airport. They don’t fit the mold of professional athletes. Neither are they big, tall, stacked with muscles, nor are they billionaires who grace pop culture magazines. They are men who have twisted larger, more powerful, faster men into submission and barely broken a sweat. The interesting thing is these guys are the ‘rule’ not the ‘exception.’
Where I am from, the Mid-west, people are familiar with wrestling. They have probably been forced to participate in a match or two through phys-ed classes, or at least seen a match first hand as nearly every public school has a wrestling program. In wrestling, speed and strength are very important. Given the objective of pinning an opponent, one must be able to exert force over a short time. Again, to the untrained eye, BJJ is like wrestling, so an incorrect assumption is that the same strategies of wrestling are going to be “the best strategies” for jiu jitsu. Here is how one of my students, Josh Britt, puts it:
“We always hear in class to “use good technique” but in this situation (4 hour Blue Belt Pre-test) I was forced to do so, and it really opened my eyes at how much easier grappling becomes. Using good technique over and again will cause certain positions and moves to become almost second nature. The way I think of it is like a heartbeat. You don’t have to tell your heart to pump blood throughout your body, it just does it. It’s an involuntary action you can’t control. When someone is on top of me in cross side, I am immediately off my back and up on my side. I don’t even really have to think about it, it just happens, and since I don’t have to worry about trying to get up on my side, I can now focus more on other defenses and counters.
Because of the way I have changed mentally, I feel my game has improved a tremendous amount. I’m no longer tired after sparring for long periods of time. I’m no longer using strength or force, but technique and leverage. I think when you start out in jiu-jitsu or any form of grappling for that matter, you rely a lot on strength and that’s fine because you don’t know a lot about what you’re doing. But as you progress, the knowledge to strength ratio becomes more and more unbalanced, and my whole perspective on jiu-jitsu has changed because of it. I’m more relaxed and aware of what is going on, during a match, or in training. The techniques of this martial art were developed to be used by smaller individuals against a larger opponent. No matter what size or build you are, once you realize the meaning and purpose of good technique, can retain that knowledge, and can effectively execute against resistance, the game changes completely in your favor.”
While strength, power, speed, and fortitude to hold someone in a given position play a role in submission grappling, there is a revelation that occurs wherein the progressing grappler learns that techniques when applied with the appropriate strategy, tightness, and timing can easily force a stronger, faster, more powerful opponent to submit. This is the Revelation of Technique over Strength and Speed. A student who is truly realizing this will advance in perspective. A burden will lift from his/her shoulders. They no longer have to match their opponent’s physical abilities! The battle now is to utilize the best technique, at the right time, in the right manner.
THE REVELATION OF RELAXATION:
The Revelation of Relaxation usually comes rather contemporaneous to the Revelation of Technique over Speed and Strength. It is a change in mindset wherein the student’s approach is no longer to overwhelm the partner or opponent in the first minute of a match. Nor is the approach to resist every single movement of the partner with all one’s might. Instead, at appropriate points in the training, it is the clear and conscious decision to pause, think, and breathe.
Relaxing allows one to conserve energy, read attacks, evaluate balance, and analyze strategy. From a defensive standpoint, relaxing allows one to circle the wagons, bring the elbows in, protect the neck and move away from square with the offensive player. From an offensive standpoint, relaxation allows for the increased pressure, awareness of exposures that may not have been evident at the outset. Take for example the following:
You are underneath the mount. It is hot; he is heavy; and you are strong. Instinct tells you to push, bump, and attempt to roll. The guy on top is ready, he feels your bump and snags one of your extending arms and taps you quickly with a belly down arm-bar.
You have just passed the guard and find yourself in scarf-hold position. Your favorite attack is the Americana from there. You choose to relax and cover your bases. In doing so, you notice the partner is already on his side and ready to escape. So you adjust your hips settle your weight and flatten him out. Now the arm is better exposed and ready for the attack.
The realization that a training session, match, or free spar does not have to be a whirlwind of unbridled and negligent movements greatly increases the efficacy of the art being performed.
THE REVELATION OF LINKAGE:
The Revelation of Linkage is one clear common experience of people ready for their purple belt. This revelation is often not a conscious one but rather a ‘realization’ that linkage has occurred. “Linkage” is often referred to as ‘flow.’ It is the ability to move from one move to the next in a fluid fashion. To have this revelation take place, the grappler must have an understanding of the larger picture in each position and how it fits into the other positions. Additionally, the grappler will have repeated the technical attacks to a point where he transitions from one movement to the next with little thought.
Newer students often say that they feel as though their training partners are a few steps ahead of them. Once a student has the revelation of linkage and their game begins to flow, it will seem as though that student is ‘creating’ the mistakes that the newer student is making. That is the beauty of linkage; it does not relegate you to a specific ‘plan of attack’ but rather lets your game be open to options that present themselves during a roll.
I have always been encouraged to train with white belts and newbies. They will not react the same way as a seasoned student and they will do unpredictable things. Thus, training with the inexperienced really tests your linkage challenges your flow. However, there is a lot of gratification in seeing your game become fluid despite awkward resistance and unconventional onslaughts.
THE REVELATION OF PRESSURE:
I remember training with Greg Lucas and Adam benShea when they both were brown belts and I was a new purple belt. With everyone else I trained with, even if they eventually submitted me, I could move. With Adam and Greg, there were times where I could not get to a defensive posture. Their pressure just crushed me.
I firmly believe that the Revelation of Pressure comes from the Revelation of Linkage. As you learn to link your techniques together, flow in and out of positions and transitions, you learn that certain positions afford you a higher percentage of taps. Therefore, you learn to maximize your time in those positions while minimizing the exertion of effort on your part. What you will ultimately realize is that pressure is the mechanism of maximizing suffering for your partner while minimizing your effort.
If your pressure is right, the other person will almost willingly put themselves into danger. Take for example Cent Kilos. I love to bait the head -arm triangle from this position. I have tapped several black belts with this technique and with good pressure as the secret. If you just smash someone’s chest in Cent Kilos, and they are properly defending their far arm, they have no incentive to move that arm in front of your face to provide the proper position for head-arm triangle. However, if you smash their face with ‘shoulder of pain’ and drop your head-side hip low to the mat, you would be surprised how often the opponent will take his far arm out of proper defense to try to alleviate the pressure on his jaw. At that point, sliding knee across stomach to the opposite side is wide open and the attack is on.
Here you can see the Cent Kilos with Gable Grip and shoulder pressure.
Here you can see the ‘Shoulder of Pain’ doing its job of causing extreme discomfort.
Likewise from the guard position on the bottom, I love the arm-inside sweep/arm-inside armbar combination. I rarely get those moves if I go for it from the initial good guard position. What I like to do is break the top guy’s posture down and hug him around the neck with a Gable grip. (Once you have mastered controlling someone’s posture that way and have learned to keep your elbows tight, an amazing number of attacks and sweeps open up.) When I feel the top guy relent to trying to pull up and instead decide to drive forward into me, I then move into my arm-inside series. “I didn’t see that coming,” is a common response I get from the now mounted foe.
Pressure is wonderful because one second you can have it and then in another you can make it disappear and the whole complexion of game changes. Going from tortoise to hare then back to tortoise can stymie your opponent’s offense and cause extreme frustration.
THE REVELATION OF LESS IS MORE:
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is wonderfully organic. I think that is one of its characteristics that separates it from all the other martial arts. As of the date of this essay, no single entity has been able to mandate complete control over its techniques and restrict growth. Even today, a no-gi off-shoot of BJJ, is developing new techniques and strategies. Likewise, old standard techniques are reborn with vitality when experts submit other experts in major tournaments.
I am a consummate student of the art. I own dozens of books, tons of videos, and have watched more internet vids, read more blogs, and visited more websites than anyone I know. As such, I always hoped that I would find ‘my game’ among the next periodical, or in the next clip, or in the next tournament video.
Then came Adam benShea. Adam is a beast of a human being. He is super intelligent, built like a brick house, and his jiu jitsu is out of this world. The first time I ever sparred with him, he pulled guard, scissor swept me, did knee slide pass to side control, dug my far arm out and Americana-ed it. You might ask how I remember this in such detail. Well, he did it at least ten times in a row! I tried everything I could defend each time. I was a purple belt! Not just a mediocre purple, but one that was winning tournaments!
Later, once I was able to frustrate the Americana, he would step over my head and reverse armlock the same arm. Once I frustrated that, it was kimura time! This was months and months of training and his attacks were the same. He could recognize all the flashy crap we wanted to learn, but they were not part of his game. He was content with using the few moves he was excellent at to reek havoc.
Finding what works for your body, your game, your attitude, your mental demands and honing those to perfection is very important. Being a ‘jack of all trades and a master of none’ will only get you so far in BJJ. At some point you have to begin to develop go-to moves. It is when you make this decision that you are realizing that ‘less is more.’ There is no need for me to learn the inverted guard game. It does not fit my body, my attitude, my philosophy or my common strategy, so I will watch it and admire it, but need not spend precious repetition time on it.
THE REVELATION THAT ALL THESE REVELATIONS REPEAT:
There are probably other, very obvious, revelations that I am missing. However, the last revelation, the Revelation that all these Revelations Repeat, is the Revelation that led me to realize that all the aforementioned Revelations are real. As you progress through each belt level, you will come to recognize moves, you will refine your technique to accommodate for deficiencies in strength/speed/power, you will continue to link moves in deeper more meaningful sentences, you will explore levels of pressure from different positions to maximize your opponent’s suffering while minimizing your effort, and you will pare away techniques you have learned that don’t meet your needs. I imagine the day these progressions quit happening for me will be the day I quit grappling!