Analysis of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (Part 7): The Process of Becoming Skilled

This article was written by BJJ.Org featured contributor Roy Harris. Harris is a black belt Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor in San Diego. It was originally published on his PFS web site have been practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu since 1991. Since that time, I have made several observations about training. Allow me to lead you through my observations.

There are ten major areas of training. Each area of training contained a lot of new information. Each area provided me with a new and more enhanced understanding of Jiu Jitsu. Here are the areas of training:

technical knowledge – large gross motor movementscoordination of different body partstiming – knowing when to use the appropriate techniquesensitivity – feeling when to use the appropriate techniquebasic strategy – knowing which techniques work for different body typessmall, very precise movements – movements become smaller and more detailed over timethe combination and coordination of multiple movements and techniquesintermediate strategy – the use of counters and set upsthe development of mental attributes: patience, focus, determinationadvanced strategy – planning to feel, not thinkThe first major area of training involved learning techniques. This is where you learn specific techniques for specific encounter situations. Technical knowledge is the starting place for many who begin their journey in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Unfortunately, it is an area where a lot of students plateau and become frustrated.

Learning techniques involves familiarizing one’s self with the individual components of each move and then learning how to orchestrate them into a sequence called a technique. For example, the spinning arm lock from the guard involves nine individual movements:

grabbing the top of training partner’s left forearm with your right handgrabbing the inside of the training partner’s right thigh with your left handspinning your body to your left by raising your hips up off of the ground, swinging your right leg over the training partner’s face and pulling your head to their thigh with your left armpulling both of your heels to your buttocksqueezing your knees togetherpulling the training partner’s elbow into your belly buttonpulling the training partner’s wrist and pinky onto your chest and maintaining control of itraising their hips even higher to hyperextend the training partner’s elbow jointreleasing the pressure when their training partner taps the mat(Do you see how that even a simple move is not so simple when broken down into separate components? Do you remember what it was like the first time you did this arm lock? Do you remember the difficulty you had? I do!)

Too many student take the technique portion of training for granted. They have the “Yeah, I got it” attitude. They are so anxious to move onto the next technique that they harm themselves. They do not realize the importance of developing a foundation of fundamental movements that will help them with more highly complex movements at a later point in time.

When the student learns a new technique, it is the instructor’s responsibility to teach them not only the specific components, but also the strengths and weaknesses of the technique. The students must also be taught that no one single technique will work all of the time. They must be taught that every technique will not work for every student. Techniques have limitations. Therefore, it is important for the student to understand these limitations.

In the beginning, students are usually taught very large, gross motor movements which involve the use of large muscle groups. Fine motor movements (those that involve small muscles like the fingers and thumb) are too complex for the beginning student. Usually, the student has enough on their mind with large amount of gross motor movements. Once a student has mentally grasped the idea of a technique, he can then move onto physically coordinating his body to move in a sequential order. This is where coordination comes into play.

For most students, coordinating the movements of one’s feet, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and hands in a sequential order can be somewhat difficult. If the movements are performed out of sequence or on the wrong side of the body, chaos usually occurs. For example, do you remember the first time you did the elbow/knee escape from the mount position? I do. It was rather difficult. Yes, I know, most of us muscled our way through it and made it work. However, we noticed that the brown and black belts seemed to have no problem using this technique at all. Why? Because they had put in the required time necessary to develop a skill in this one area. We, however, were just going through the first phase of learning. We were trying to coordinate each of the movements in the right sequence and not look stupid while doing it. The coordination of movements is an extremely important area to train. Although we might KNOW a technique, being able to perform it under pressure is quite another.

Once we KNOW a new technique, have a good understanding of it, and can coordinate our movements into a smooth technique, we must now begin our journey with timing. Timing involves knowing and feeling when to perform a technique. For example, when your opponent is in your guard and he begins to lean his weight onto his left knee, when is the best time to sweep him? A good understanding of timing would tell you that the best time to sweep him would be when he is beginning the process of shifting his weight onto his left knee. If you were to sweep him after he had placed all of his weight onto his left knee, you would find that his weight had settled and that the sweep was still possible, but it required more effort on your part.

Good timing only comes with diligent practice at slow speeds. Diligent practice at slow speed only comes with a disciplined mind, perserverance and patience. Knowing when to perform a technique is crucial in developing skills in Jiu Jitsu.

(I have spoken with a number of students who feel that certain techniques are invincible. I have been told that once a person put this lock on you, it is impossible to escape. Well, then I would allow this person to put me in that lock and would ask them to apply pressure and make me tap. Once they began to apply pressure, I escaped. They asked to perform it again because they “weren’t really trying the first time” and I gladly accepted. Again, like the Great Houdini, I escaped. Now their curiosity was peaked. They thought, or had been taught, that once a certain move was applied, that no one could get out. What they did not know or understand was the concept of timing. Timing is a very important skill to develop. It will enhance your techniques!)

Now that we have some technical knowledge, we can coordinate our movements with ease and we have a good sense of timing, we must pursue the attribute of sensitivity. Sensitivity is the ability to feel and read pressure. To fight power with power is inefficient. To use an opponent’s power against him is the efficient use of knowledge and power. This is what sensitivity does for the experienced Jiu Jitsu practitioner.

Sensitivity is an attribute that takes time to develop. However, once it is obtained, it is very easy to maintain. Sensitivity, like timing, comes with diligent, disciplined practice. It does not come very soon. Neither does it come by always training with a competitive attitude. Rather, sensitivity comes by learning how to be humble in your attitude and allow your opponent to dominate you entirely. Only by the controlling of one’s own self and emotions can they develop good sensitivity. Good sensitivity will bring your Jiu Jitsu skills to a high level.

Next, comes basic strategy. Strategy is a plan, a set of predetermined tactics. Good strategy must be flexible. It must be able to adapt to an ever changing environment and mind set. Your strategy must allow for different body types, because if it doesn’t, you’re in for a BIG surprise.

Basic strategy allows for certain walls of resistance. For example, your goal may be to sweep your rather large opponent onto his back from your guard. However, he widens his base and prevents you from even thinking about going for another sweep. You, being the strategic Jiu Jitsu practitioner, know that the only way to widen one’s base is spread their knees and lower their buttock to the ground. SENSING this, you immediately jump onto his back and hook your feet on the inside of his thighs. Then, you choke him out in front of everyone! Mentally, you prepared for the widened base and were ready for it. You knew that it was impossible for your opponent to widen his base and simultaneously maintain good mobility. Therefore, sacrificing mobility, your opponent chose to widen his base and there you were, waiting for him to do it so that you could go to his back. You knew he would do this because he was so much bigger than you. You would probably have another strategy for a much smaller and faster opponent because he would probably race around you like speedy Gonzales. Basic strategy allows for different body types and the most common types of resistance they will provide.

Next, you must move on to the smaller game of Jiu Jitsu. You must learn the tiny little details that make the game much easier physically, yet much harder mentally. When I first started doing Jiu Jitsu, my movements could be measured in yards or meters. After a few years, you could measure my movements in inches and centimeters. At this point in time, my movements are now measured in millimeters.

I have heard some people say, “Blue belts know the same techniques as black belts. It’s just that they are not as good at them as the black belts are!” This statement, in my opinion, was obviously made by a blue or purple belt, or someone who measured their skill against a black belt who was out of shape. For me, the Jiu Jitsu game keeps getting smaller and smaller. The tiniest of movements many times determines the outcome of the effort. For example, in one of my competitions, I had my opponent in a tight arm lock. I mean that baby was sunk in tight. REAL TIGHT! However, there was one small detail that made the difference between the tap (which I did not get) and the escape. The difference was this: my opponent’s elbow was resting on my left nut. The harder I squeezed my knees together, the more it hurt. The higher I raised my hips, the more it hurt. The more I pulled my heels to my buttocks, the more it hurt. Had his elbow been one inch higher, he would have tapped. One inch made the difference between a tap and an escape.

There were times when I was training with my instructor Joe Moreira and he would show me some tiny little detail that made such a difference in my game. I could not believe what I was hearing, seeing and feeling. How could such a tiny little detail make such an improvement on my game. I am now convinced that as one progresses in Jiu Jitsu, their game gets tighter and tighter, smaller and smaller. It’s the tiny little details that will make the game much easier physically!

Now, at this point in the game, I am sure you are wondering, “How much deeper can this game go?” Well, the answer is: MUCH, MUCH DEEPER! I have only scratched the surface of each of these topics. Let move on though.

We now move on to the combination and coordination of multiple movements and techniques. This is where the game becomes highly complex. You must now combine your previous training together into a tightly knit ball of motion. Five techniques must now flow together as one. Your timing and sensitivity must be at a very high level. You must no longer THINK about how to do a technique. You must respond reflexively! Your ability to flow from one technique to another is crucial to lowering the amount of energy you expend to accomplish a specific goal! Coordinating all of the previous information into a tightly knit ball of fluid motion is much easier to describe on paper than it is to perform. How does one perform a five technique flow into one constant ball of motion? Simple! Train, train, train and then train some more. And then when you’re done training, train some more. This is the only way to make Jiu Jitsu an art of fluid, yet very precise and powerful movements!

Next, we move onto intermediate strategy. Intermediate strategy involves the use of counters. It also involves setting up an opponent for the next move. Intermediate strategy is usually the first thing that most beginning students want to learn after they have gotten get arm locked or triangled. They get tired of tapping out and want to learn how the blue and purple belts arm lock them so easily. However, they do not understand that this strategy is far too advanced for them. They beginning student must first work on the basic techniques, the coordination of their body, the timing of the basic techniques, sensitivity, basic strategy and then learning how the BJJ game gets smaller and smaller as they train hard and harder. intermediate strategy is fun, but it requires a functional working knowledge of all basic techniques. If a student has to think about where to put his legs or arms for an arm lock, then he/she is not ready for intermediate strategy. To be able to counter a specific technique, a student must first have a thorough understanding of the original technique. Without this understand, the counter does not have much meaning. It is nothing but a fancy move!

The type of strategy where you purposely lead your opponent into his next move is sometimes referred to as a feint. This strategy involves putting the basic techniques, combinations and strategies together into a pattern that is designed to lead an opponent down an alley where there are a limited amount of choices. To do this requires an extremely high level of skill and patience. Not only must one possess great skill and patience, but he must also be a technician. He must intrinsically know that when he does a certain move, he opens certain doors and closes others. For example, when I am mounted on top of my opponent and I place my left hand into my opponent’s collar (for a choke), I allow the opponent to perform the upa technique on his right side. I also allow him the opportunity to perform elbow knee escape on his right side. Intrinsically, I know that if he performs upa, he opens himself up to an arm lock. I also know that he opens himself up to an arm lock when he does elbow/knee escape on his right side. How do I know this? Because I have been through that series of techniques a thousand and one times, and because I have drilled them a thousand and one times, and because I have practiced and drilled the counters to each move a thousand times. That’s how I can purposely and confidently place my hand into his collar and wait for him to perform upa or elbow/knee escape on his right side. This is intermediate strategy.

Next, we must move onto the development of mental attributes. Mental attributes, just like physical attributes, fuel your techniques. Mental attributes, such as focus, concentration, determination, pain tolerance, the will to survive and patience are what fuel your physical attributes. Some times, mental attributes are more important than physical attributes. Mental attributes give you the edge you need in those tight and uncomfortable situations. Have you ever heard of the mom that lifted an overturned burning car to save her child? Well, that was mental attributes in action. Granted, it is an extreme example. However, I must point out that the mind is a very powerful tool and should not be overlooked in training. The development of mental attributes will play a big part in a person’s overall effectiveness in Jiu Jitsu!

Finally, we come to advanced strategy. This is where you put it all together: technical knowledge, the coordination of your body parts, the timing of your techniques, sensitivity, basic and intermediate strategy, precise movements, as well as physical and mental attributes. Your previous training has lead you to this stage of training: advanced strategy. Because of your vast experience and disciplined approach to training, you are now able to think and plan ahead of your opponent. Granted, things may not go as planned, but you are prepared for the worst. Your experience, disciplined training habits and unrelenting spirit has put you in a class by yourself. You can not only think for yourself, but you can also think for your opponent. This is the level where most of your techniques are performed without thought. You simply respond to a given stimuli out of habit. Why? Because you have been there a thousand times before. You are now set free from thinking and can focus on what you feel. Based on what you feel, you are able to predict the next series of movements from your opponent. Jiu Jitsu has now become a highly strategic chess game that you play in your mind and feel in your skin. You have forgotten more variables than most brown belts know. When someone ask you what to do in a specific situation, you immediately responds with the correct answer. When they begin to ask you how to counter that move, you interrupt them and by showing them not only the counter, but five counters ahead. Jiu Jitsu is now a feeling, not a thought!

It takes years and years of consistent, disciplined practice to reach this obtainable level. Some reach it before other, and others never reach it. What’s important is that a person understand the path that lies before them and that they give their best effort to attain it!

I hope that you have gained insight by reading this article. I wish you all the best in your training!

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About the author

Roy Harris