Understanding the Game
There are many different tools used to increase performance. Goal setting, visualization, repetition, competition, and a variety of other things can be very helpful in skill gains. As you progress through your Jiu-Jitsu career, you will find that your understanding of grappling evolves and changes. You will view things differently as a black belt than you did as a white belt. This change in your views is very hard to explain, and often times can only be understood by someone who has made the journey. Even though I acknowledge this task to be very difficult, I will do my absolute best to explain to you my views of BJJ.
Let me start off by saying this; Technical fighters are the lowest level of trained fighter. To be technical means that you can regurgitate techniques upon request or when presented with a specific situation. This can be as simple as using the Toreando Pass (Bull Fighter Pass) when your opponent places his/her feet on your hips or something as complex as Cartwheel Pass when your opponent is in a seated position. The complexity of the move is not really important, but the mere act of viewing it as a move can lead to problems down the road.
I am NOT saying that being technical is a bad thing, I’m saying it should be a given. Think of each technique as a tool in your toolbox. As you acquire more tools you will be able to build nicer things. There will be some very important tools that every grappler needs (shrimping, bridging, ect) and some tools that make jobs easier (flying triangles). Not every tool is needed to build an awesome house, but some tools make it easier than others. I will however say this, if you are not practicing techniques and you find yourself in a situation that you need to use them (in a competition or a self defense situation) you will be the equivalent of a master carpenter who owns no tools. I dont care how talented of a carpenter you are, you’re not going to build my house with your bare hands.
At this point you may be asking yourself “what is the next level of understanding” and the answer to that is conceptualization. Being a conceptual fighter/grappler means that you have progressed passed the “what” stage and moved onto the “why” stage. By understanding “why” you stack your opponent in an armbar you can help defend your arm in many different ways while avoiding a lot of the “tricky” things your opponent might try and distract you with.
This simple way of looking at things explains why many of the older BJJ black belts never named positions, submissions or transitions. Too many of our grappling forefather’s side control consisted of 6 or 7 different positions (what I call Kesa Gatame, Scarf Hold, Belly Down Side Control, Reverse Sit and all the variations). Some of those old timers still shake their head at our younger generation’s need to name everything.
By understanding why you are doing things it allows you to explore movements and defenses that fit your personal style. If your arms are longer than the average grappler than you may find through experience that you are more susceptible to some submissions than you are to others. This information is very important because it will allow you to assign value to each individual technique and how they apply to YOUR game (as opposed to how a particular technique fits into the general grappling community).
Conceptual understanding of techniques will also allow you to move onto the last level of understanding. Because understanding what your opponent is doing does not let you understand their next move, however understanding why your opponent is doing something often leads to being able to plan a response. The ability to plan a specific response to your opponents actions is paramount to strategy, and strategy is the last level of understanding. To formulate a proper strategy you must understand both the “what” (techniques) and the “why” (concepts). Understanding why your opponent is doing/performing a particular movement will lead you to predict techniques and formulate intelligent counters.
Technical grappling puts the focus on the individual performing the techniques (thus the person acting is usually the person winning). Conceptual understanding puts the focus on the technique itself, building a deeper understanding of ones own body and how it moves in space against other peoples bodies (think prioperception). Strategy allows you step beyond the bounds of your own body and focus on the movements, intention and objective of your opponents actions. When you understand your opponents goals you can account for them in your strategy.
For many of you, grappling with a game plan is very difficult. You enter a match with the best intentions. You plan on doing “X” but all of a sudden you’re doing “Y” and your strategy falls apart. This can be due to a number of reasons, but the three most common are 1. Your opponent had a better strategy than you 2. Your opponent IS better than you or 3. You do not have a mastery of the two lower levels of understanding. In order for there to be mastery of Techniques and Concepts there will be very few times that you ask yourself “why” or “what” while grappling.
For example, if you just got swept and you say to yourself “what sweep was that” or “how did he do that” you have not progressed beyond the conceptual understanding stage (with a few exceptions). The only thing you should be thinking about is how to defend from that next position and continue to progress your strategy. The is no room in your brain for analysis of technique while high level grappling…analysis of strategy yes, analysis of techniques no.
The biggest challenge in this journey of understanding is being real with yourself. You need to asses where you are in your learning cycle and set your goals based on your current understanding of our art. If you are a beginner than you need to focus on being a technical fighter. Memorize your moves, do countless repetitions and do your best to perform them while live grappling against resisting opponents.
If you are an intermediate then you need to look at the bigger picture. Instead of looking at individual techniques you need to look at the concepts that tie them all together. Suddenly guard passing is about getting around the legs and not applying any one specific technique. Most of your techniques will be condensed down to simple concepts. For a lack of a better explanation, sometimes a guard pass is just a guard pass (yes I stole that from Bruce Lee and his “a kick is a kick and a punch is a punch”).
If you are at the strategy stage of your understanding and your training has hit a wall, you might be TOO technical. If you are trying to pigeon hole every technique and make it work, even when it does not apply, this can lead to a lot of frustration and problems. And let’s face it, if your opponent knows the same techniques as you, performing them can be VERY difficult, if not impossible. Think of trying to make someone laugh by telling them a joke that they have heard countless times before. Then the success/failure of the joke/technique is solely based on your delivery. This can become increasingly difficult as you continue training with the same people.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, because in all honesty, it is what makes our sport so awesome. You can learn defenses to moves and progress through the sparring session with a back and forth manner. It also allows you to streamline your movements and to increase your economy of motion, making every movement use the least amount of energy while still obtaining the highest level of effectiveness.
Our sport has so much depth to it that you’ll often find yourself switching between the levels of understanding. You will constantly be reassessing your techniques, your understanding of the movements surrounding them and your strategies based off of those assessments. Our sport is continually evolving and I suggest you just open your mind and allow yourself to move between the levels while continuing to train. By having the ability to move between the levels of understanding, it will ensure you constantly add to your game with new techniques, concepts and strategies. By adding to your “toolbox” you will insure your game always stay relevant to the current trends in competition and self defense, which at the end of the day, is our main goal.
Prof. Jeremy Arel
Black belt under Roberto “Gordo” Correa