The Training Guide, Philosophy, and Pedagogy
Of Tim Sledd
SMALL AXE JIU-JITSU
By Tim Sledd
The history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is well documented. Roughly, a Japanese martial art (Jujitsu) was developed into a safer sport (Judo), students of which desired to resurrect the viability of Jujitsu. The rebirth of Jujitsu traveled the world, but through a man named Maeda, it settled in Brazil. In Brazil, the Gracie Family studied Jujitsu. The frailest of the family, Helio, tweaked and refined the techniques so that the size of one’s adversary would matter little if the student was able to apply the appropriate technique with right leverage. Helio’s work gave birth to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
Jiu-Jitsu is an organic activity. Certain techniques dry up and fall away while others are born from the creative vision of new practitioners. Old techniques, once abandoned, often find themselves being reborn with new potency. Because of the vast number of techniques, strategies, and body types, Jiu Jitsu is highly personal. This article is to explain my philosophy, my pedagogy, and my inspiration of Jiu Jitsu. I hope you find my words, concepts, and suggestions useful and always remember, when you fall seven times you must get up eight.
PRIDE COMETH BEFORE A FALL
“Why boasteth thyself, o evil men? Playing smart but then not being clever. I say you’re working inequity to achieve vanity. But the goodness of Jah Jah idureth for iver. So if you are the Big Tree, we are the small axe, sharp and ready.”
-Small Axe by Bob Marley and The Wailers
I have come to find that in Jiu-Jitsu, it is easy to believe that the color of your uniform, the patch on the back, or the brand of your rash guard will make you feared by opponents. Also, with the adaptation of techniques, students often desire to know the latest and greatest techniques, even if they have not mastered the core fundamental techniques. I came to know this because I was guilty of it.
I too, have been guilty of belt envy. This is the admiration, aspiration, and all consuming desire to obtain the next piece of colored cloth to cover my waist. One must be cautious not to let his or her vanity consume the practice of jiu jitsu! If one becomes too focused on belt color, then failure is close. There is a popular martial arts poster that says, “A black belt is a white belt who never quit.” I had heard this before, but at a time in my life when I was thinking that blue belt was my final resting place, I saw this poster, thought about what it meant. It sunk in. I was not going to quit. Neither are you!
Forget about the belts. They will come faster and in due time if you are focused more on learning than on progressing. Throwing away vanity is difficult in a materialistic society, but in the practice of Jiu-Jitsu, it is necessary.
Next, it is of dire importance that my students understand that the core fundamentals I have chosen have been instilled in me as the basis for developing a personal Jiu-Jitsu that is effective and practical. It is more important that you be able to escape a mount, submit an opponent from cross-side, pass the guard, or perform an effective sweep, than it is to have the latest and greatest brand of gi or rash guard. I want my students confident that they can enter a competition, defend a real life attack, or at a minimum teach a technique wearing the simplest of outfits. Patches, medals, brands, and other material attractions mean nothing in this martial art/sport and that is why I love it! It is you and me, and our skills, not our money and good looks that will determine who is going to end victorious.
The belt promotion process is a long haul. It will feel nearly like a lifetime. Part of that purpose is to determine loyalty, not only to an instructor, but to the martial art. There will be flavors of the day that will tempt you away from BJJ. Belts come easier in other art forms, so those gratified by cloth will leave for other styles. BJJ requires extreme time and emotional commitment. It is often said that a blue belt is at an experiential equivalent to a black belt in many of the traditional martial arts (hereinafter TMA). I want this to be true of my Small Axe Jiu-Jiteiro. Blue belts better be able to run a class, bring up white belts, and understand the philosophy of BJJ thoroughly.
SHARP AND READY
The Big Tree will not fear the dull axe, nor will it fear the axe that has been tucked away in cabinet. Rather, the axe must be sharp and ready. To be such in jiu-jitsu, one must have four things. First, one must have a mastery of the fundamental positions. Next, one must be able to organize those moves into an actionable strategy. Then, one’s timing must be right. Finally, the tightness of the technique must be right.
In Chapter 4 I discuss Minimal Objective Requirements for Blue Belt in the Small Axe system. These are what I feel are the core building blocks of BJJ. They are focused on the fundamental positions in BJJ (i.e. the guard, mount, back mount, cross-side, knee on belly, and the reverse of each position). The techniques listed are those that I feel once mastered, provide the framework for adding the any additional technique.
The fundamental positions and core techniques are easily linked and drilled. For the newer students it is recommended that you drill the sequences taught in class beginning with little to no resistance, then incrementally increase the resistance until you are practicing the techniques live. For the advanced or advancing student, it is important when you train with the less skilled that you take that opportunity to practice limiting yourself to specific sequences, even if that means foregoing an open technique. This will help you learn to build strategies.
Strategy is critical to success. Seldom in anything we do in life will ‘winging it’ really provide us with meaningful, repeatable success. Like the song says, “Playing smart but then not being clever…” Some people have coined the creation of strategy in BJJ ‘gameplanning,’ but I think quality strategy is a little different. For example, I might make a game plan to go out and as soon as my opponent and I slap hands, I will grab his collar and look to dump him. Such a specific strategy could end quickly if the opponent instead shoots for my legs right off the bat. My game plan is thrown off. However, if I have a general strategy to come out and work to take the fight to the ground in such a manner as to end me in the top position, I can work several game plans into that scenario, one of which might include the possibility of the guy shooting in on me.
So, if I want to get a raise at work, I can just wing it and ask for one, or I can employ a strategy of finding the most successful route for me to get that raise. Jiu Jitsu is the same. Some students will learn that they fare far better when they eliminate takedowns by pulling guard. Others will find they are good at throws. Neither is better than the other, both are good Jiu Jitsu, but the students must explore the potential strategies to find what works best for them.
Likewise if I want a raise at work, asking for it when the company is in the middle of layoffs may not be a wise idea. Why? The timing is wrong. In BJJ, when employing one’s strategy it is important to recognize the correct timing to do so. Learning the elements of each move makes them seem segmented, but in reality they are fluid motions. This is also the critical element of timing. When someone is keeping his elbow tight to his body and between his body and my leg, it is not the right time to swing around for the mounted armlock. He will surely escape that submission because the defense was in place.
Timing of techniques comes from repetition. Timing of attacks comes from lots of sparring. Timing of defense comes from failing and being submitted. Harkening back to the earlier discussion about leaving your EGO off of the mat, your timing will be weaker if you are too concerned about getting tapped.
Sticking with the raise at work analogy, if I want a raise at work, it is unlikely the CEO will give me a raise if he has no idea who I am or why I deserve a raise. So, just walking up to him and asking for a raise will not end in the result I desire. However, if I prepare a sharp resume, dress nicely, get recommendations from my immediate supervisor, the likelihood that the CEO will consider improving my pay is increased. This is like ‘tightness’ in BJJ. When moving from cross-side to mount by way of the hip switch method to mount, I might have come up the most appropriate strategy (i.e. get mounted) at the perfect time (i.e. opponent is tired and flattened on his back), but if I use predictable or sloppy technique, I may fail due to minimal resistance of my opponent.
I have come to find that there is no better feeling than when an opponent says, “I knew exactly what you were going to do; I just could not stop it.” That means your tightness was perfect. Such tightness comes from understanding the details of the techniques, the ‘whys’ of certain movements, shifts of weight, and progression of attacks.
You will hear me say it again and again in class. We want to be like boa constrictors when we attack. How does a boa kill its prey? It latches on to it; then it begins to squeeze; then it subtly increases the pressure of the squeeze to correspond to the exhales of its prey thereby never letting the prey take in as full of a breath as it just exhaled. Eventually, the prey suffocates. When we are mounting our attacks we should move aggressively for the position we desire. Once achieved, we should work to eliminate all escapes and counters possible. Finally we should employ our final attack and submission.
Conversely, when we are on defense, we should work to escape in the opposite fashion. Our first objective should be to prevent the aggressor from getting the position he desires. If we fail at that, our next objective is to achieve an escape, counter, or prevention sequence which leaves no other option except for the aggressor to abandon his desired position thus giving us the opportunity to escape or mount a counter attack.
To be sharp and ready the students must be well versed in the fundamental positions, transitions, and submission of the Small Axe system. More than mere knowledge though will be the ability to employ effective strategies at the right time with the appropriate degree of tightness.
“And whosoever digeth a pit, shall fall in it, bury in it.”
Whether you are a natural athlete, or a clumsy computer geek who has taken to BJJ, there are certain bad habits you will inevitably bring to your training, practice, and competition. In my opinion overcoming these bad habits is as important as working the fundamentals and mastering strategy, timing, and tightness. Why? Mistakes are what we as martial artists learn to capitalize on. Bad habits are mistakes.
BJJ tends to draw ex-wrestlers, including me. So it is because of personal experience that I start with these bad habits.
First, wrestlers tend to think constant explosions and intense pressure will work. This bad habit comes because of the need in wrestling to score as many points as possible or pin your opponent in two minute periods. In that circumstance with those options of victory, there is no time to relax. While pressure and explosions are important and valuable in BJJ, they have to come at the right time and cannot come at the expense of your endurance.
The constant explosions pose the problem of creating space, forming openings, and shifting balance. If an aware jiu jitsu practitioner is able to be aware of the space, he might escape the fierce grappler. If the same practitioner sees an opening (e.g. space between the elbow and body) that opening can be utilized to isolate an arm and attack. The shifting of balance is very dangerous because the arsenal of sweeps that even a beginner jiu-jiteiro might possess can capitalize and reverse the position. The discussion of how attacking like a boa constrictor was discussed in Chapter 2.
Second, wrestlers use loose elbows. If submissions are not allowed and the objective is to ‘pin’ one’s opponent to the mat, pressuring downward with the arms away from the body is perfectly fine and the heaviest way to achieve that goal. Likewise, if there is no danger of armlocks, doing a dead-weight bench press of a mounted adversary is logical and effective. This is the experience of raw wrestlers.
Loose elbows (i.e. arms posted away from the body) are fodder for submissions. When there is space between one’s body and his elbow, isolating his arm is very easy. Once I isolate the arm, then I can choose to employ the strength of my back, my legs, my torso or any combination of those to overwhelm the relative strength of just the opponent’s arm.
Not only do loose elbows provide ample opportunity for submissions, you can rest assured that if the wrestler is posting weight on his arm which is extended away from his body he is offering multiple points of balance. Rather than being a single unit sitting squarely on one heavy point of balance, the wrestler will divide his weight and balance along the several points. At first and against less experienced grapplers, this can be frustrating because an attack of any single point will not merit the sweep or transition desired because the wrestler will simply adjust to the other points. However, if two or more of the points are locked and the remaining point is attacked, that point will be significantly easier to move, unbalance, and sweep than if it were the single point. (e.g. you may find a wrestler in your guard posting heavily on both of your bicepts. He thus has three points of balance, each hand and his center. He has transferred his weight among the three points and if you control the arms, then scissor sweeping him off his center will be easier than if he was maintaining a quality guard posture in which his elbows are in tight, he is keeping his head up so that his weight is over a single point of balance which can easily be adjusted forward or backward to counter the sweep attempt of the guard player.)
Third, wrestlers and Judoka trust the turtle position. This is the position where the grappler is face down but up on either his hand and knees or his elbow and knees. Wrestlers enjoy this position because their back is a long way from the mat and they can quickly sit-out, standup or switch. This is so because submissions and strikes are not allowed. Judoka enjoy turtle position because in sport judo, if the aggressor cannot open the bottom guy up or submit him in a very short time, they will restart the players on their feet.
It is axiomatic in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, self-defense, and mixed martial arts that showing your opponent your back leaves you very susceptible to attack and injury. When one is in the turtle position, the brain stem is exposed and susceptible to attack, the kidneys are left undefended and the spine is exposed. This is at a minimum. It does not take a jiu jiteiro very much training to learn that attacking the neck with chokes is very easy against a turtle-ing opponent.
Even if the bottom fighter is able to prevent the neck attacks from the turtle position, the jiu-jiteiro will secure back mount by inserting his legs as hooks. From here, the bottom man can be turned, flattened, or attacked with multiple attacks until the fight is over.
Other bad habits:
Muscling: Quality Jiu Jitsu should take very little strength. The techniques I teach and the philosophy I employ will allow you to catch submissions, perform sweeps, and defend yourself against opponents of all shapes and sizes. Muscling only works against someone weaker or lighter than you.
To overcome this bad habit, it take a good training partner who is willing to immediately point out when you are using muscle to play jiu jitsu. Then it takes concentration not to react the way you did when you chose to use muscle.
Tunnel Vision: Now I must be careful when explaining what I mean by this because I often give advice to grappler to focus on one or two techniques to make those techniques work in all situation regardless of the opponent’s resistance… that is not what I mean by ‘tunnel vision’.
Tunnel vision is when in an open sparring situation you miss the forest for the single tree. You are thinking one option will be the best submission, but you are missing other submissions that are readily available, or even worse, in focusing on the submission, you open yourself up to a submission or lose your position.
Comparison: This mistake has less to do with form than it does substance. I think comparison is probably the main reason most people will not continue jiu jitsu after a year of practice. Comparison is when a person measures their progress against the instructors, other students, and people from other teams. If one measures himself against his instructor, especially when the instructor has spent 8,9,10 to 30 years practicing the art, one can become discouraged and feel achieving a high level will take too much time or be beyond their reach.
If one measures himself against other students in the class or from other teams, it can work both ways meaning one can gain a false sense of worth if that student can tap the others, but knows less and cannot teach the moves well. Conversely, one might become discouraged if a less knowledgeable, but more athletic student catches him in a submission.
The only comparison of value in jiu jitsu is a comparison of yourself now versus where you were at a given point in the past. Do you know more about the moves now? Can you execute techniques today that before you could not? Are you better able to explain techniques to the newer students and do you feel more comfortable leading a drill than you did?
A good example of comparison from my own experience would be Buddy Mitchell. He has trained jiu jitsu 1/3 the amount of time that I have. Despite this, he and I have some very competitive matches. The reasons this is so are the facts that he is significantly bigger and stronger than I am, he is a natural athlete and I am not, he is focused on getting better and has had a lot of personal instruction by not only me, but also others who are better than I am. Regardless, I know more than he does, so I have a duty to teach him what I know, train with him and make him better. That will in turn make me better and our team stronger.
Fast tracking: Like anything that takes hard work, there will be people out there who offer snake oil solutions to a speedy finish. I call buying into these schemes, ‘fast tracking’. Some people seek to make millions of dollars by claiming to hold the secret to obtaining a BJJ Black Belt in 3 years. Others will sell dvd after dvd showing their secrets or demonstrations of techniques. While instructional videos and sports psychology programs are helpful, it is best to check with your instructor before you spend hundreds of dollars on a potential bottle of BJJ snake oil.
It is important to remember that the key to improving quickly in BJJ is to focus on the fundamentals, get as much mat time as possible, and focus on learning how to improve your strategy, tightness, and timing.
Watch out for the pits you might be digging. Simple ‘natural’ reactions can lead to dramatic failure in sparring. Also, different temptations (muscling, comparing, and fast tracking) will delay your progression, so work to avoid or minimize these habits.
MINIMUM BLUE BELT REQUIREMENTS AND WHY
There is a common analogy that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a language. Each technique is a word and to speak the language in fluent form, one must first master the words and then be able to put the words together into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. A good match often feels like an intense conversation.
White belt is the time of learning the vocabulary. Not only are you going to be exposed to all the positions, what it takes to maintain and escape the positions, transition between them, and their relative benefits and detriments, you are going to need to know the fundamental high percentage submissions in each position.
White belt is the time to focus on understanding the fundamentals in the same way you understand a spoken language. It is imperative that not only do you work on ‘pronouncing’ the techniques correctly (meaning execute them perfectly), but also begin to understand how the words work or don’t work in sequences (phrases) together.
I expect my students who want to progress through the jiu jitsu ranks to be diligent with his or her attendance. One cannot reasonably expect to truly grasp the building blocks of this martial art with spotty attendance. This is true because just like any language, if you do not practice and keep it fresh in your mind, your retention will be minimal. It is critical that you spend the time on the mat training, listening, learning and inquiring.
The skill you acquire will become evident when you are able to answer the ‘whys’ of techniques. What I mean by this is there are technical details to every move (e.g. when applying Americana from cross-side it is important to keep your elbow tight against your opponent’s head; a common question regarding Americana is ‘why is it that the guy can escape my attack by bringing his arm under me?’… answer… you are not isolating the arm appropriately by keeping your elbow tightly to his head).
Often I pose a question to the class to see if the students are grasping the concepts. I want the students to think for themselves, to be able to problem solve different grappling problems without having to be spoon fed the solutions. Most importantly though I am working to build a logical link between the way the techniques are taught and body movements necessary to effectuate the necessary outcome of the technique.
The transition between belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is both a subjective and objective venture. Different instructors expect different characteristics of students ready for promotion to blue belt. In an attempt to provide an objective goal for my students, I have come up with a minimal list of techniques my students MUST know and be able to perform and teach before promotion analysis. The list is broken down by position. This is essentially a small vocabulary list, but in my experience, these are the moves from which the more advanced strategies are developed. Not only will these techniques be essential to techniques later in your training, but these are the techniques that carry Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a martial art, a self-defense form and the most viable fighting art known to man.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SMALL AXE JIU JITIERO
What is a Small Axe Jiu Jitsu Blue Belt?
There are certain qualities that I require my students seek to exude beyond and in addition to the technical expertise and understanding of the philosophy as explained above. Patience, humility, sportsmanship, open mindedness, and loyalty are the key qualities and characteristics that will define you as meeting my standards.
Since my days of instructing at Indiana University, I have seen nearly 25 people go on from raw green beginners to attain the promotion to blue belt (largely under the instruction of other blue belts). While I was at IU though, the standards and measurement were determined and shared between several instructors. I always took a reserved, conservative, approach to recommending any particular grappler to blue belt. The reason for this is the esteem I once held for the blue belt and my belief that in order to hold the blue belt with legitimacy and honor, one must possess certain qualities.
Starting Small Axe Jiu Jitsu has given me the opportunity to see if my perceptions of the value and qualities of blue belt are truly attainable or are unrealistic. Of first, and most, importance to me was to stay true to the teachings of “roots jiu jitsu” the core fundamental techniques that make a person’s jiu jitsu practical and effective. Another objective element to blue belt promotion, is attendance and temporal scope (time in service). A motivated student should be approaching blue belt at some point between one and two years within service **if attendance and focus are consistent.***
Such a belief is a daunting challenge to a young instructor bent on mirroring the quality of instructors as his own. So, first and foremost, I want my students who are up for promotion to blue belt to be ready by the highest standards. Secondly, I want them to KNOW they have earned the belt and are ready to develop into the belt. If I expect them to feel comfortable and ready for the promotion, I must feel comfortable too.
One of the central premises of Small Axe Jiu Jitsu is a focus on the fundamental positions, transitions, and submissions of classic Gracie Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Therefore, I have prepared a list, a list of the minimum techniques, I expect the students to KNOW, in a detailed manner. This means, I expect the student to be able to perform the essential details of technique in a repeatable fashion without prompting.
I believe that teaching at an “academy” means more than just developing performers. It means creating teachers. It is because of this that my instruction is very detail oriented, and that I allow students to question everything. I want my students to think for themselves. Learning to solve jiu jitsu problems is the key to teaching bjj to newer students.
The cream will rise to the top. Teaching ability or desire to teach is important, but I want my blue belts to be leaders. My blue belts should be able to lead the warm up, take the reins if I am sick/gone/ or dealing with administrative issues (without being asked).
Of course performance against resistance is a factor in knowing if someone is ready for blue belt. This does not mean that the student must tap every white belt, nor does it mean that the student must be resistant to being tapped by every white belt. What I want to see is skilled grappling without the basic mistakes that lead to failure. I do not require any of my students to compete. Many choose to compete (it is fun), but it is not forced, nor is it a requirment for promotion.
There is no conclusion. This philosophy should be and I hope will be as organic as BJJ it itself. I drafted this to answer a question that I see on forums all the time (e.g. “How do I know when I am close to blue belt?”). In my school, you will know you are getting close when you know the minimal techniques, can teach them, are sparring effectively, but most importantly, are taking up the roll as a leader in class.