Black Belts are Unicorns
Black belts are unicorns. That rare, mythical beast that people whisper about. They are sought out for their great knowledge and magical powers. An alleged unicorn sighting can bring disbelief, awe, and sometimes, anger.
Sometimes I truly believe this is how the BJJ community views the black belt. Like we’re some sort of secret mythical beast that has all of your answers and all you have to do is corner us, catch us, at the right moment and we can make you magical too. Well, you’re half right.
I do have some great knowledge, I am a pretty good grappler, and I happen to be a black belt. People do indeed travel great distances seeking me out in the hopes that I can impart some of that knowledge on them and fix whatever problems they’re having while grappling.
It is very common for people to ask me questions in class, during private lessons, and at open mat times. Most often the questions are centered around problems in their performance or holes in their games. I really enjoy these questions and I try to be as honest as possible when giving out advice. I show them my personal movements in escaping bad positions, how to deal with having someone take your back, side control bottom, and a host of other positions that are designed to make your life difficult but the truth is, those positions are labeled “bad” for a reason…because it sucks to be in them.
Sometimes there are easy answers that can save you a lot of trouble (example: put your hand here to stop from getting choked) other times, the answers are very complex and, more often than you think, the answer is “don’t get there”.
Recently one of my students asked me how to get out of a Rear Naked Choke when your opponent has the forearm under the chin. The student then continued to explain that he was having difficulties because “everyone” was doing it to him. I sat there and listened to his story intently, making sure to get all of the details so that I could give him the best answer.
After a few minutes I realized that this student’s problem was not with the Rear Naked Choke, his problem was with someone taking his back. I explained this simple fact to him and then proceeded to show him how to go to his knees without leaving space for the hooks and then told him to rep it out while I watched.
The student looked at me with a mixture of disappointment and irritation. He clearly expected a a clear cut answer on how to easily defend an a very difficult position. The student went looking for a unicorn and got… me. I’m not a mythical beast, I don’t have a horn growing out of my forehead, and I dont have magical powers. I do however have a wealth of knowledge, an unsatisfiable urge to teach and the ability to impart that knowledge on you, but please be realistic in your expectations and have faith that I know what I’m talking about.
It is important to keep in mind that your “problem” may be a collection of bad choices you’ve made prior to getting submitted, and not specifically your defense to that submission. I compare it to a doctor that treats the symptoms instead of the illness. Sometimes, when you’re on your way out it’s ok to treat the symptom, but when the opportunity presents itself it is always better to treat the illness.
There are three major areas that can fix most of the problems in your game; basics, health/fitness, and strategy.
Basics- The easiest thing to fix on the list by far and usually the last thing that blue belts want to work on. So you’re getting stuck in Side Control, you know the escapes, but they’re not working. My guess is you need to work on your hip movement and body angle. When you look at these two basics you’ll probably have your Guard passed less and then when you do you’ll be better prepared to defend against it.
Health and Fitness- Do you notice that your game is deteriorating after the first round? Do you get swept a lot from Guard because you don’t have the leg flexibility to base effectively? These are two examples of how a persons health/fitness can play a huge role in your grappling. Keep in mind that everyone has some type of issue with their body, whether it’s due to injury, age, genetics, or an affinity for being lazy.
Sometimes I get stuck in a position, or choose a particular path in grappling because I want to avoid a specific body part or body pressure. This can affect the overall outcome of my grappling sessions. It is up to me to either rehabilitate the injury OR modify my strategy to accommodate my situation.
Strategy- What is your game plan? Are you going to play top or bottom? Do you like to submit from Side Control or Back?
I know that there are some very high end players that have the same strategy regardless of who they grapple. I however, do not have that outlook. Thankfully I’m a large guy (6’3, 210lbs) and I have the option of playing the big man’s game as well as the little man’s game. If you think I have the same strategy against a guy that is 300 lbs as I do with a guy that is 125 lbs, you’re crazy.
The ability to assess the situation and make strategical changes in the middle of a match is one of the signs of becoming an advanced grappler. If I mount an opponent and lock up an Arm Triangle and I just cant finish it I’ll worry about why I couldn’t finish it later; it’s time to adapt, change strategies, and move forward.
One of the most painful things to watch is a student try the same armbar setup from guard over and over only to see the opponent easily defend it. The problem is not necessarily with your armbar. Maybe you should adjust your strategy, sweep your opponent, and try something else.
Thankfully my students trust in my judgement and practice what I tell them to. This will greatly improve their skills, solve many of their problems, and set them down the road to success. So the next time you have a problem and you track down one of those magical black belts don’t be disappointed when they give you the answer you need. Especially when the answer you want probably doesn’t exist.
Jeremy “The Gerbil” Arel
Black belt under Professor Roberto “Gordo” Correa
Great Grappling Brazilian Jiu Jitsu