I found out that one of the new guys took Judo when he was a teenager. After class I grabbed him by the collar and started trying to trip him up, and he responded in kind. The scattering class stayed and cheered us on. I’m not sure why this was interesting to anyone else, but it was tons af fun. Our instructor also remained, calling out points as our match progressed. Jay was a black belt in Judo before he took up BJJ. This went on for a couple of throws. Unfortunately the guy was exhausted and ducked out pretty much right away. It definitely brought back memories for him – at one point he disputed my instructor’s refereeing with delight: “All you’re gonna give me for that throw is koka?!I don’t even know what these Japanese words mean. I just love the game. For this guy, it was a flashback to the halcyon days of his teenage chop socky . Those exotic Nipponese polysyllables are magical in the first place. Imagine that on top of the nostalgia of a 31 year old dude getting down with the sport he loved as a kid. He must be so pumped.

Afterward, the guy was glowing. He told me he’d be willing to work on judo whenever I like. (“Any time you want, let’s pull out the crash pad,” he said about eight times.) He left the gym with a huge smile on his face.

A lot of people start training with a friend and end up as training partners. This is super helpful. Lacking this, any new BJJ player should work hard to train with like-minded people. I sharpened my Judo by finding out out who would give into my pleas to practice  stand up with me, and keep practicing for an hour or more. When it’s clicking between you and a partner, you’ll go through drills, which are usually a lot more boring than live practice, with zeal. It’s hard to find a partner like that, though. I’ve noticed half of the people I drill with get bored too fast and just want to roll, and the other half chat and joke around instead of focusing on the training. It’s worth the effort to find someone who will geek out with you over the techniques you want to play with.


5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Training

I’ve been training a little over 2 years in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. That doesn’t make me an expert by any means, but I definitely wish I could go back in time and tell myself a couple of things. I’ve collected five of the things everyone I know wishes they’d taken to heart earlier in their training. Most of these, I came to realize around the time I got my blue belt (especially item#3).

Yeah, yeah

It’s entirely possible that this entire list consists of things you’ll never really understand until you get there yourself. But I’ll go ahead and let you know the things you wish you’d known when you were still a scrub. Because maybe then you wouldn’t have been such a scrub.

I’ll put it another way: These are the basics to a deeper understanding yourself as an athlete. These are the benefits we reap after all the hard work we put into our training. Most of this stuff, you’ll notice, has a lot to do with getting over your ego. As I’ve mentioned before, your ego is probably the biggest obstacle to your progression.

1-Quit worrying about who “wins” a roll.

There’s nothing more stupid than when someone  says “I refuse to tap to so-and-so because I don’t like him.” Or when someone  takes pleasure in rolling against newbies. You’ll notice that, when high-level guys roll, they’ll roll super light and they’ll tap right away when the other guy gets a solid submission position. I used to think this was because they were just playing around, but now I realize they were usually both bringing 100% of their skill. They just weren’t spazzing out like I did when I trained.

When brown and black belts compete against each other in tournaments, notice how cool and collected they often are. Why not start emulating this right away? It’s fun to roll hard with guys at your own level, but keep in mind the real reason for live practice: to perfect your technique.

It’s frustrating for everyone concerned when new guys clasp their hands together in the arm bar and refuse to let go.  Or hang onto their partner’s head even after he’s established side control. This practice is referred to as “spazzing out” or “being a retard.”

Look at it this way: In a chess game, if the other guy is attacking your king every turn, it’s not the final move into checkmate that really wins the game. It’s all the groundwork he did to get you into that desperate position. Think about it.

2-Focus on the basics.

I prefer the word “essentials” to “basics.” In BJJ, the techniques usually taught to beginners aren’t necessarily any more simple than those taught in advanced classes. And they definitely aren’t any less effective. A lot of the reason a technique ends up on a basic curriculum is because it’s just useful a lot of the time, or is an easy way to learn a concept that will be recycled by later techniques, making them easier to learn.

I finally understood this for myself not long ago when I re-took a basic class on some open guard sweeps and the next day, knocked one of my school’s best guys clean over with a basic hook sweep. Before this, I’d been having all kinds of frustration with the newer, fancier sweeps I’d learned in advanced classes, with no success. I finally got somewhere with a technique we teach to guys fresh off the street. That stuff is never a waste of time.

3-Guard passes and sweeps are the heart of BJJ.

You’ve heard the phrase “position before submission” a million times. I’ll take it a step further and recommend you pay special attention when you’re studying guard passses and sweeps from the guard (any guard: closed, butterfly, open, etc). 99% of all stalemates happen in the guard, with one guy trying to pass the guard, and the other guy trying to submit or sweep. Or worse, with one of them stalling.

Think about it next time you roll: You’ll probably notice that, when you’re pinned to the ground, it’s because you let the guy pass your guard or because you got swept while in their guard. Also this: You’ll probably hear about how the best guys in your gym “walk through” peoples’ guards.

4-Do Positional Drills.

Sports teams don’t run a full scrimmage every time they practice. So how come we roll in practice the same way we do in competition? The answer is because it’s fun, but it’s not the best way to get better at BJJ.

If you’re always brawling in your free time, you’ll keep gravitating toward what’s comfortable, and what’s more, you’ll probably be trying to muscle your technique, because you just want it to work, please god let it work (see item #1)!

Ideally, you should be doing flow drills and start-to-finish drills in your free time. Seeing as how I’ve never had the discipline to do these drills other than as a warmup, I can’t in good conscience recommend them to someone else. But there is a compromise: Positional drills.

In a positional drill, you roll live, but you constrain yourself to a certain position. For example:

  • Closed/Open Guard Drill: Start in the closed or open guard. Stop and get back in the guard when: (a) the guy on bottom manages to sweep or submit, or (b) the guy on top (“in” the guard) passes the guard.
  • Side Control: Stop after the guy on bottom has escaped, or the guy on top has mounted or pulled knee-to-stomach.
  • First-point drill: Start standing, and stop when one guy would have gotten points in a tournament (that is, either achieved a takedown or pulled guard and then swept. Or, the other guy pulled guard and you passed his guard).
  • No submissions: Roll as normal, but without submissions. This isn’t a positional drill, but it’s got the same benifits: You still get to go live, but it will teach you to think about the position you’re in, rather than getting obsessed about “winning.”

In all cases, switch top/bottom halfway through the drill. This is a good compromise between going all-out and just practicing rote technique. And it’s something newbies can benefit from right away. It’s a good way to get around the “I hate being in someone’s guard” or “I can’t stand being in side control” syndrome. Spend some time with your pal working on these positions, and get over your frustration with them.

5-Keep a notebook and take notes every day.

There’s a lot of material to learn in BJJ. This stuff is bound to get mixed up in your head. For one week, take detailed notes after every class. You’ll soon find what a relief it is to go back and remind yourself of a technique you’d forgotten you wanted to work on. We are frail beings, and our memories are no less frail. If you’re looking at youtube, take detailed notes on any technique you find interesting and try it out with your instructor or a colored belt watching.

The level of detail you use is up to you: For some people, a basic description of a technique is enough for them to refresh their memory and practice like the class just ended. Some lucky people are good enough at drawing (I’m not) to make sketches of the techniques. Level of detail also depends on the subject. I might take up most of a page on a new technique I found hard to understand, and only jot down a line on something that came easily to me.

Try it for a week.  You’ll find how much interesting stuff you forget every day. You might even stop looking up those techniques on YouTube and at the bookstore that you always forget five minutes later.

How a minor injury better focused my training

    The Injury:
    Today was my first day in live training since Tuesday, when I got thrown hard on my left shoulder. I’ve only been able to attend a few classes since that happened. I’ve been lucky to suffer almost no injury in my 2+ years training BJJ; The only other time I can remember taking time off for an injury was about a year ago, when my left knee hurt when I flexed it past a certain acute angle. And, of course, the cauliflower ear that kept me from rolling far about two weeks. But now I don’t even wear my knee brace or headgear anymore (except, rarely, when my ears or knee get sore again), and this has been my first involuntary downtime. It left me home thinking about my game, and I’ve come up with some new stuff to work on.

    I don’t remember being this excited about working on my game before – I think I’m really coming into the phase of the Blue Belt where your game branches out and everything feels new again – sadly, I think this is the last time it’s going to feel like this. As far as I can tell, once you reach Purple Belt it becomes pretty rare to learn entirely new moves.

    Anyway, my shoulder feels fine most of the time, but if I put pressure on it from the side (like if I lay on my left side, or roll over the left shoulder) it hurts a lot.

    Rolling with this injury forced me to think a couple of steps into the fight, when normally I’m only one step ahead at most. It made me realize how much I force moves even when I’m rolling “easy,” for two reasons: First, I still haven’t stopped using strength when technique fails me. This is a combination of my ego making me stubborn, and just enjoying a good brawl (I find it’s almost impossible to separate these two from one another. Maybe they’re basically the same thing?). Secondly, whether I’m working on a new move, or trying to improve at an old one, I tend to do whatever I can to maneuver into a position where I can work on the move. With the shoulder injury, I had to try to keep the game off that part of my body, which had me thinking more clearly about exactly what position I was in, and which position I was going to be in over the next couple of seconds, depending on what I was trying to do.

    As a result, I was rolling more fluidly than I normally do. Most of all, though, it had me rolling with less ego than ever, because I’d given myself permission beforehand to tap quickly if I felt like my injured shoulder was in danger. As a result, I felt like I’d gotten more out of this live training than I’ve gotten in a long time. It goes to show you how much we get in our own way.

    This idea of rolling “fluidly” is something you hear a lot about but that I’ve only recently recognized in myself. I remember talking to a friend at the gym about how he actually felt more fluid on returning from a two-week hiatus. He thought it was because he was just going after the right moves at the right time, because he didn’t have any technique move cluttering his head. This is probably what they’re talking about in traditional martial arts when they talk about having a “mind like water.” This makes a lot of sense to me.

     Things I’ve been working on:

    The D’arce (also called the Brabo Choke) and the Anaconda, two arm triangles that are usually applied from the top of the turtle. As with a lot of other turtle techniques, these apply to a lot of different scrambling positions that occur in the moments after a guard pass: In the video I linked, the D’arce/Brabo is being applied from a knee-over pass. The Anaconda is traditionally a top-of-the-turtle move, but I think it can also be applied from a similar scramble. I haven’t had much luck with arm triangles in the past, mostly because I never sat down to study them. It’s good to finally have a toehold to work from. The main thing that had frustrated me is that the “arm triangle” is actually two distinct positions: you can feed the choking arm under the arm and out by the neck, or under the neck and out the outside of the other arm. You have to use a different technique for these positions. So I’m going to learn both of them at the same time, and this is going to be my go-to game from the top of the turtle.

    I’ve been having a lot of luck with the cut-across pass. It can be applied from standing, which I’ve never really tried before, and benefits from aggression: If you really spike the knee on the ground, you can get in there with a lot of speed. Once you’ve got your knee on the ground, you’re only halfway there. When rolling no-gi I’ve been using the T-Rex pass from there (My name for a technique my instructor taught us in the MMA class –  I can describe it if anyone is actually interested). When rolling gi, everyone in the gym is using a new pass our instructor taught a few weeks ago where you pin the shoulder down and pull up on the sleeve. It’s a very easy to use and dependable pass.

    Omoplatas: I’d forgotten how these can be thrown as a single-leg defense (check out this video), and I think I’m going to start trying this move, if for no reason other than it’s  flashy, and for the most part my game is pretty ugly and functional . Because, as we know, your jiu jitsu inevitably reflects you, as a person.