This article was written by BJJ.Org featured contributor Roy Harris. Harris is a black belt Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor in San Diego. This article was originally published on his PFS web site.Learning is a process of time and effort. This process begins with the simple knowns of life and progresses endlessly towards the very complex unknowns. When a child learns mathematics, he begins with a very simple known value system. He learns how to count from one to ten by using his fingers and toes. Once he can comfortably and confidently maneuver around these simple things, he can then be introduced to more complex things like counting to one hundred. Once proficiency is achieved at this new level, he can then be introduced to basic arithmetic (which is the idea of putting the basics together into numerous combinations). Once his grasp of basic arithmetic has grown to a high level, he can then be introduced to more complex mathematics like algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. This is the process of learning mathematics. This is also the process of learning anything in life, especially Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The starting point in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is positional escapes. It is your value system, your foundation. Without this foundation, everything else you learn will not have meaning or substance. If you can not escape from an inferior position, you will never be able to control or dominate your opponent. You will have to resign yourself to always being on your back. Always trying to escape but never quite succeeding. Positional escapes must be your starting point because it will give you the ability to get off of your back and onto a top position. Plus, it will give you the power to further your education in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with things like positional dominance, submissions and counters.
Once you have built a solid foundation in positional escapes, you can then move onto positional dominance. The building block of positional dominance will lay the foundation for your study of submissions. If you can positionally escape and dominate your opponent at will (meaning any time you damn well please), then you will be able to repeatedly try submission after submission without regard to whether or not they escape the hold. For example, if your opponent escapes your attempt at an arm lock, oh well, you’ll just pull him back into your guard, sweep him and do it all over again. If he escapes again … yawn … you’ll flip him onto his back and try it from a different angle. Positional dominance, along with positional escapes, will give you the confidence to be able to do this. That’s why it is the second building block along your path to submissions and set-ups.
Your next building block is learning the specific mechanics of each submission hold. The mechanics of each submission are what give you the leverage to be able to arm lock, leg lock or choke a 325 lbs. athletic, body builder with ease and finesse. Mechanics are made up of two thing: 1) the specific position your body must be in to control your opponent while you place him in a submission hold and apply leverage to a specific joint or appendage, and 2) the correct angles at which you apply and maintain pressure on the joint or appendage you are manipulating. Once you understand the how’s, where’s, when’s and why’s of submissions, the rest is easy.
Now before I move on to the next building block, I must interject something here. You must take these three beginning building blocks (positional escapes, positional dominance and mechanics of submission holds) and master them before even attempting to think about set-ups. Why? Because the set-up portion of the game is very intellectual. You can’t be physically struggling with an escape from an inferior position or the mechanics of an arm lock, while at the same time trying to formulate a “what the hell am I gonna do next” strategy. You must be in absolute command of your positional skills, as well as your mechanics of submission holds, before you begin the very mental game of set-ups and strategy.
Now, when it comes to set-ups, you have to play a lot of the “what if” game. You have to take your training partner aside and do a frame by frame analysis of the game. When your opponent or training partner offers you resistance in one direction by slamming shut a door of opportunity, you need to take the time and look around to find the other door of opportunity that exists. Up until this point in time, your learning process should have taught you that there are always two sides to every coin. So there must be at least two doors of opportunity in every situation. All you need to do is take the time during your training sessions and find them. Yes, an instructor can show them to you, but you must take it upon yourself to find them. Here’s an example of what I mean. If my opponent were to lift his head up while I was trying to apply a triangle on him, I would simply flow into an arm lock. Why? Because the specific energy or pressure that he gave me was conducive to me taking his arm. He was leading me into an arm lock. If when I tried to arm lock him from that triangle position by throwing my leg over his face and he ducked his head under my leg, well, I’d flow right back into the triangle.
So when he lifted his head up to counter one submission hold, he led me into another one. When he lowered his head down to counter another submission hold, he led me into another. My opponent could not simultaneously lift and lower his head at the same time. So, as my opponent chose to close door “A”, I made a bee-line to go through door “B”. When he saw me making a bee-line for door “B”, he tried to close door “B” instead. Either way, I was gonna make it through one of those doors of opportunity sooner or later.
So, when it comes to set-ups, you must realize that you are talking highly complex issues! This is not the kind of stuff you talk about with children, but with University Professors. So now that I have made you a University Professor, you should not ask childish questions that relate back to positional escapes, positional dominance or the specific mechanics.
For the person who is concerned with setting up an arm lock on a highly talented, equally skilled and knowledgeable individual, they should first be able to setup an arm lock on a unsuspecting and unknowledgeable individual like taking candy away from a baby! If they can not do this, then they are not ready for this complex issue. Setting up an arm lock on a highly talented, equally skilled and knowledgeable individual is a very difficult task. It is one that can be done, but it can be a lengthy process.
You must start the process by establishing control of his body. Once you have established control, you must determine his skill level by what you feel. Next, you must begin you the process of attacking a joint or his neck. Should you encounter physical resistance (meaning power or strength), you just have to wait it out because he will tire in a minute or two. Should you encounter technical resistance (meaning he knew a technical counter to your submission attempt) you should flow into the submission hold he is leading you into without giving up control of his body. Following someone’s pressure is like water finding the path of least resistance. It is there, it just needs to be found.
Yes, you can plan ahead and try to stay ten moves ahead of your opponent, but that usually doesn’t work. Why? Because you’re doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu kata. You may think you can plan what your opponent is going to do, but if he surprises you, then you’ll find out that your kata was your worst enemy. It misled you into battle. You must not plan on doing this and doing that. You must learn how to respond to what pressure your opponent gives you. If you always try to force an issue, you will one day more than likely encounter an issue that is a lot bigger and stronger than you can force. Then what will you do? You’ll probably get tired and panic, expend more energy than you really had to, and maybe even lose the fight. Maybe luck will be on your side and you will win the fight. But you will have spent so much unnecessary energy that you will be unable to continue fighting other fresh opponents.
Your planning, strategy, and set-up must happen during training. You must address every little nook and cranny of the issue at hand before testing it out in live action. You must also have an instructor who is willing to share with you the flowchart of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. You must see and learn how each technique has several individual counters, and you must learn and memorize each and every counter. Then, you must see and learn how each and every individual counter has several counters to it. For example, if I were to show you a simple arm lock from the guard, and then show you ten (10) different counters to that one arm lock, you would say WOW! Then, if I took each individual counter and showed you five counters to each of them (i.e. five counters to counter #1, five counters to counter #2, …, five counters to counter #10; fifty counters in all), your mind would be blown. And then if I asked you to memorize them for your up-coming match with Jean Jacque Machado, you’d think I was crazy! Well, welcome to the intellectual world of set-ups and strategy. It is a world of complex factors and exponentials!