Building Your BJJ “Game” – a Smarter Way – With Stephen Whitter

 Dan Faggella is an Ivy League graduate in Skill Development and a Brown Belt No Gi Pan Am Champion. He founded Science of Skill in BJJ, LLC in 2010, and helps people from around the world build more effective BJJ games at

Cultivating Your OWN Brazilian Jiu Jitsu “Game” – with Stephen Whittier

I’ve known Stephen for over a year now from various events in the Jiu Jitsu community, but it was only recently that I got to visit his academy in Waltham, MA, roll with him, and pick his brain.

Stephen Whittier is a BJJ Black Belt (and decorated marital artist in many regards) known for, an online community for older grapplers, but above all else he’s a conceptual thinker, and “philosopher” of the systems and principles of BJJ. As an amateur philosopher myself – we ended up digging in pretty deep, pretty fast on some of Stephen’s concepts for how to build a BJJ game of your own.

Pitfalls in Building a BJJ “Game” of Your Own

One common mistake of building a BJJ game is the tendency to mold a game completely around an instructor. Now, by no means would Stephen (or I, for that matter) recommend ignoring the guidance of a teach – at all! However, since most of us learn our fundamentals from an instructor, it makes sense that their key techniques become our key techniques, and their “go-to’s” become our “go-to’s.” 

Establishing fundamentals from one credible source is usually not a bad thing in and of itself, but your best techniques, strategies, and overall style will integrate a lot more than  the exact game of an instructor.

The opposite extreme is an arbitrarily-chosen “Youtube Game,” where there is little guiding your development than what looks cool or interesting. Though this kind of exploration is necessary to some extent, constructing a game off of random Youtube puzzle pieces is usually too disjointed to function properly.

Where to Begin (Sinking Your “Roots”)

In Stephen’s view, your roots lie in a function of your personality, attributes, and limitations.

Personality: Stephen uses a great example of himself, and a close friend of his. Stephen is more of a thinker, and by nature is more careful and rational. Especially in his gi game (we were fortunate enough to get some roll time in), Stephen has a tendency to make sense of his positions and move slowly. Alternatively, his friend “flies through life” without being as much of a risk calculator, and his Jiu Jitsu style reflects this. He’s the kind of guy who’ll throw up a flying armbar in his first match at a tournament just to try it. The odds are that most of you readers out there lie somewhere between these two extremes, and generally speaking – Stephen believes that your best and most natural game will reflect these characteristics. Do you see that in your own game?

Attributes: Contrary to popular belief, if you’re tall you don’t have to be a closed guard guy, and if you’re stocky you don’t have to get at wrestling. Body type merely gives you one “element” of your game construction algorithm. If your legs are barely long enough to touch the ground in the movie theatre, then turning into a closed guard machine just might not be in the cards for you. These factors might help you in deciding what videos to invest in. I for example, watch a ton of Caio Terra and Rafael Mendes, not only because they’re great world champs, but because, physically, I can do what they do, and I have a similar build. 

Limitations: We all have ‘em. Some people have neck and back problems, others have a bum knee or a thumb and wrist that never healed well. It’s Jiu Jitsu, these things happen. I’ve been hit with enough toe holds to have pretty much lost the ligaments that hold my outer ankle together. Without taking into consideration these factors, building a game is a pretty big challenge. Neck problems? Might want to stop watching tornado guard DVDs so much. Busted knees? Might be hard to wrestle very well (this is an example from my own life!). 

These three factors are some of the “biggies” that Stephen recommends you think of as your “roots,” and the “tree” of your game will spring forth from them, expanding all the way up to the core positions you play, go-to moves, and details of application.

Something to Keep in Mind

A BJJ game doesn’t develop on paper, it develops 90% on the mat. Get in your thinking time, and your planning time, but use your training as a constant, conscious experiment. I pose that most people get much less than half of the skill-building benefit from any given training session because they simply don’t have a mindset of deliberate learning. 

Using some of these concepts as your own framework, I hope you’ll have a new “lens” through which to peer into your own game and make the absolute most of it (AND your training time).

All the best, stay tuned right here for more!

-Daniel Faggella


Dan Faggella is an Ivy League graduate in Skill Development and a Brown Belt No Gi Pan Am Champion. He founded Science of Skill, LLC in 2010, and helps people from around the world build more effective BJJ games at Most of all, stay tuned right here at OTM!

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