Friday, June 15, 2018

Thou Shalt Not Pass-Open Guard Concepts

Often, this blog discusses more philosophical topics.  This months blog is going to be a little more technical in nature, and cover arguably one of the most important positions in Jiu-jitsu.

In my opinion, the guard is the position which really distinguishes Jiu-jitsu from all other martial arts, even including other grappling based arts.  The guard brilliantly gives the person on the bottom of the fight the opportunity to not only survive and defend from a seemingly inferior position, but also provides a platform for a plethora of sweeps and submission attacks.  This is one of the primary reasons that a smaller person, skilled in the art of Jiu-jitsu, can effectively control a larger, stronger, more athletic opponent.  Because of the leverage provided by the use of the legs and hips, the guard position helps to neutralize the opponent on top.  Being on top is always an advantage in a fight.  However, while the top person has the advantage of gravity, they are typically either standing on both feet, kneeling on both knees, or one one foot and one knee.  This means that, essentially, the top person primarily has only their hands to work with.  At the same time, the bottom person utilizing an effective guard, has both hands and both feet at their disposal, while at the same time not having to worry about loosing their balance.  This helps to minimize the advantage of the top person.

The guard is a position that has been very highly developed.  Particularly in the more sportive applications of Jiu-jitsu, there are many highly specialized variations of the guard.  However, if we break it down to its most basic form, there are three versions of the guard.  Closed guard (with the legs wrapped around the opponent's waist), half guard (where the bottom person is controlling only one of their opponent's legs in between their legs), and the topic of this post, the open guard.

In the beginning stages of Jiu-jitsu training, most students find the closed guard to be the most familiar and comfortable.  Obviously, if the top person wants to pass their opponent's guard, they must first open the guard.  So, naturally, many beginning students tend to expend a lot of energy trying to stop their opponents from opening their legs.  However, while the closed guard does offer some very good defensive and attacking options, more experienced students often tend more towards open guard variations, as it offers more options for sweeps and submissions.  The open guard can be a struggle in the beginning though, so let's go over a few general concepts that may help with your utilization and retention of the guard.

Nobody Opens Your Guard
This first concept is very important, and deals with the transition from the closed to the open guard.  This is a very brief, but very important moment in time, where either you or your opponent will gain an advantage.  When I say "nobody opens your guard", that doesn't mean your guard is an impenetrable fortress and that no one has the power to force your legs open.  What it means is, when you start feeling your opponent pressuring your guard, don't wait for them to pry your legs open.  Open your own guard on your terms, so that you can establish your grips and foot placement, giving you an advantage over your opponent.  If you hold on, waiting until they ultimately force your guard open, they will have an advantage in timing and often in position, that may lead to them passing your guard.  As a general rule, if you're not sure what to do, open your guard and place your feet on your opponent's hips.  This is a good default position in the open guard.

Distance Control
Control of the distance is one of the key concepts in the guard, whether we're talking about a fight, involving striking techniques, or just a grappling match.  In either case, you need to effectively manage the distance between you and your opponent.  As previously mentioned, placing the feet on the hips is a good way to manage the distance. This represents the furthest distance that you can establish between yourself and your opponent.  Particularly if you are dealing with someone bigger than you, it's generally a good idea to keep them further away, until you are ready to close that distance on your own terms.  However, whether you are using the bottoms of your feet, your shins, knees, hands, forearms, etc.  you need to always be aware of managing the distance between yourself and your opponent.  When they are able to close that distance, controlling your hips, and establishing a chest to chest position, your guard is passed and you are pinned, now facing the problem of recovering your guard or escaping a bad position.

Grips
Grip fighting is a huge aspect to every position in Jiu-jitsu, and it is especially important when fighting from the guard!  Achieving and maintaining positive grips and foot placement on your opponent, while denying their grips is critical to success.  This is a constant and ongoing process.  In order to take advantage of the fact previously mentioned that in the guard, you have four limbs to your opponents two, you MUST always seek to keep all four of those limbs engaged in the fight.  Both hands and both feet have somewhere to be all the time.  You shouldn't be hanging out in a position where you aren't utilizing one of your available tools.  Generally, your feet are looking for posts, or hooks.  This can be on the hips, as previously mentioned, on the biceps, shoulders, front of the thighs, or behind the knee or ankle.  Your hands can also be used to push or pull, whether utilizing the material of the gi, or more no-gi gripping using undercooks, overhooks, and head control.  Try to make sure that your grips make sense for what you are trying to accomplish, and not working against each other.  You should have a reason for every single grip or foot placement.  Also, make sure to pay attention to the grips your opponent is making, as they often will give away their intentions.  Don't be afraid to break grips and reset if you find yourself behind in the grip fighting game.

Controlling Inside Space
This is a general concept, and not a hard and fast rule, but generally speaking, it is to your advantage to control the inside space.  That means that your arms and legs are controlling the space inside, between your opponent's arms and legs.  This will often involve pummeling and exchanging grips, but if you can stay on the inside and keep your opponent outside, it reduces their ability to put weight on you or attack you directly through the center.  This will also generally lead to superior grips and attacking options for the person controlling the inside.  This concept is also extremely important when striking techniques are involved.  Keeping your arms, and in some case legs, inside your opponents arms on the bottom gives me much better options for defending strikes from the bottom position.

Putting Up Walls
Before you can develop an effective attacking guard, you have to make sure that your opponent isn't passing your guard.  This means working on your guard retention and guard recovery techniques.  There are specific defenses for various passing strategies, but the basic concept is putting walls between yourself and your opponent.  From a defensive standpoint, space is your friend, and you want to put as many barriers as possible between you and your opponent to maintain that space. These barriers, or walls, can be the bottom of your feet, your shins, the front of your knees, your hands, forearms, or elbows.  Your opponent is generally trying to establish a chest to chest position to pin and control you.  As they attempt to break through these barriers to accomplish this goal, your job is to always replace the walls.  For example, if they are able to remove your feet from their hip and close the distance, your job is to replace that wall with another one, such as the front of your shin/knee, or if they are closer, maybe a stiff arm, or forearm.  As you are defending your guard, keep the concept of always trying to protect yourself behind walls and replacing these walls as your opponent attempts to break through them.  As mush as possible, these walls should be frames, reinforced off of the floor, aligning your body in such as way that as your opponent applies their weight, you are utilizing the skeletal structure of your body to resist the force they are applying using the solid surface of the ground.  This will allow you to support much more weight for a longer period of time with less physical exertion.  Often, these means having to move yourself to create space to replace or recover these walls.  That leads us to our next concept....

Hip Movement
Having a good guard means having good hips.  This is something that you must develop if you want to have the ability to effectively defend and attack from the bottom.  As a general rule in Jiu-jitsu, if you can't move the other person, you should move yourself.  This usually involves some form of hip escape or shrimping.  This is one of the primary means of creating space when on the bottom of the fight.  This is why Jiu-jitsu practitioners spend so much time practicing this basic fundamental movement drill.  Being able to move your hips is imperative for creating space while defending and escaping, but it is also an essential part of many attacks.  In order to have good hip movement, you have to have good structure and contact with the floor.  Power in Jiu-jitsu is generally not created through the use of explosive movements.  This is because Jiu-jitsu is about efficiency of movement, and explosive, dynamic movements require a lot of energy.  Real power is created through good structure, stability and balance, and that means that you need to have points of contact with the floor.  Sometimes, the floor can be replaced by utilizing your contact with your opponent, but your feet need to have contact with a solid surface in order to have power to move your hips effectively.  As an example, try to lie flat on your back with both feet in the air; now try to lift your hips off of the floor.  You can't do it without the use of explosive movements and core strength.  By simply placing at least one foot on the floor, it is very easy to move the hips.  So, in the open guard, your feet need to have good points of contact at all times.  That means either placing them on your opponent, or on the floor, so that you always have the ability to move your hips.

Maintaining the Knee Line
From a guard retention perspective, a good way of thinking about maintaining the integrity of your open guard position is to draw a "line in the sand".  This line represents a point where if you keep your opponent beyond it, you are generally pretty safe and can have a better platform for launching your attacks.  Inside of that line, your opponent is now encroaching on your space and presents a legitimate threat of passing your guard.  That line should be the front of your knees.  The general procedure to pass the guard involves systematically breaking through the barriers by controlling and passing (usually in order) the feet, then the knees, then the hips, then the shoulders, then the head.  Once the head and shoulders are controlled, your guard is passed and you are pinned.  You are no longer dealing with guard retention, you are now in the territory of escaping and guard recovery.  When your opponent starts to get past your knee line and begins controlling your hips, your ability to move and create space is significantly reduced, and they are getting dangerously close to passing your guard.  In this range, your frames become primarily the hands and arms, which don't allow you as much space between you and your opponent, and can't support as much weight for an extended time period.  As with most things in Jiu-jitsu, the earlier you can start to defend the better off you will be.  So, pay attention to not letting your opponent pass the line of your knees.  If they do, you need to immediately address it through movement, pummeling, or replacing walls.  Usually a small adjustment earlier can prevent the need for a much bigger movement later.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense
The guard is an amazing defensive tool, but you can't rely on simply defending.  The bottom line is, being on top is generally superior to being on the bottom.  So, if you're on the bottom, and you're only defending, it is a matter of time before a skilled opponent will break through your guard.  A good guard is an active guard.  You have to always maintain good fundamental guard retention and defensive concepts, but you should be attacking your opponent from the bottom.  If you keep your opponent busy dealing with defending your attacks, it is much harder for them to pass your guard.  Attacking doesn't mean just haphazardly going for armlocks and chokes.  This can often lead to your opponent passing your guard and gaining a better position.  The best way to attack your opponent, in almost every position in Jiu-jitsu, but particularly from the bottom of the guard, is to attack their balance, posture, and structure.  There are various specific techniques and strategies to accomplish this which are beyond the scope of this article, but your focus should be on finding ways to weaken your opponents structure by breaking down and controlling their posture, and/or finding ways to break their balance.  By breaking the posture or balance first, it becomes much easier to attack your opponent through the use of sweeps and submissions.

The guard is definitely one of the most important positions in Jiu-jitsu.  Utilizing some of these strategies will hopefully help you to make your guard more effective, so that you can more efficiently defend and attack when you are on the bottom of the fight.  Of course, you have to put the time in on the mat to put these concepts into practice, but if you put the work in, your guard can become a nightmare for your opponents to deal with!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Embracing Discomfort

If you've spent any significant amount of time on the mat, you've probably heard the mantra "learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations".  While this statement is definitely very true, it is often much easier said than practiced.  The reality is, we spend most of our time on the mat, as well as in life, trying to avoid situations that cause us pain and discomfort.  Now, you shouldn't be regularly experiencing "pain" in Jiu-jitsu training.  Obviously, make sure that you protect yourself and tap in plenty of time to avoid injury.  However, if you've spent any time at all sparring in Jiu-jitsu class, you have certainly experienced discomfort.  It goes with the territory.  We've all had that feeling, when you're underneath a larger, stronger, or more skilled opponent, where you feel the crushing pressure as if someone parked a truck on your chest, you feel like you can't breathe, and all of your efforts to try to move and escape are in vain.  This can be not only frustrating, but downright terrifying!  If you are one of the people who experience a sense of claustrophobia in this type of situation, you are not alone!  This is actually very common.  However, it is something that can be overcome.

Ironically, the best way to inoculate yourself to this type of panic sensation is through continued exposure to being put in these types of positions.  The good news is, a large part of the stress that you feel in these positions is mental.  Of course, there is some physical discomfort, and there are certainly technical things that you can learn to do to reduce the physical toll of having someone's weight on top of you.  But one of the biggest things you can train yourself to do is to learn to relax, breathe, and think your way out of the situation.  Avoid the temptation to panic.  After all, you're not dying.  You're just temporarily in an uncomfortable spot, but rest assured it won't last forever.  If you can learn to control the demons in your own mind, the voices telling you to quit, you will be better for it, and the next time won't be as bad.  First, slow down....try to slow both your breathing and your thought process.  Do your best to protect your neck and limbs to find a position that you can first survive.  You don't have to escape right away.  If you're not taking damage, meaning that your opponent can't strike you, or submit you, they are just on top.  You're simply dealing with gravity.  Try to have a mindset of survival first, before escaping.  Often times, in a panicked attempt to escape a bad situation, we make our situation worse, possibly even leading to a submission.  And remember, Jiu-jitsu is a two-way street.  As much as you may be on the worse end of certain positions, you will, at some point, find yourself back on top where you can begin to impose your will on your opponent.  That is the time to remember that feeling of helplessness on the bottom.  If you can use your superior position and pressure to cause your opponent to mentally break, it will be much easier for you to open them up to launch your own attacks.  Remember, in Jiu-jitsu as well as life, it is better to give than to receive!

The idea of learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations applies not only on the mat, but in life as well.  We all have times in our lives where we face adversity.  Sometimes it is a consequence of choices that we've made, other times, it's just about what life presents us with.  Pain, sorrow, loss, frustration-all of these are parts of life that, while we would rather avoid, we all must face at some point.  And, the reality is, if we just learn how to breathe and survive, and realize that we can get through it, it will make us better for it.  We've all heard the saying, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger".  There is a lot of truth to that statement.  Because, both in Jiu-Jitsu and in life, it is often through discomfort that we develop the most and if we approach it with the right mindset, we will ultimately be better for it.  Life isn't always what you make it....sometimes it's about how you take it.  So next time you're stuck in that miserable position on the mat, or in life, try to focus on the big picture, survive in the moment, and be grateful for the experience, because  it is critical for your development!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Managing Expectations

If you've trained Jiu-jitsu for any significant amount of time, you've seen some of your training partners come and go.  Often, people who were regulars on the mat, seem to start showing up less and less, and then may eventually fade away completely.  This is a very common phenomenon in almost every Jiu-jitsu academy all over the world.  So, it begs the question, why do so many people quit training, and what can you do to make sure that you don't become one of those statistics?

One of the reason many people quit training is because they don't properly manage their expectations.  Maybe you heard about the effectiveness of Jiu-jitsu as a self-defense system for the average person. Maybe you even saw some videos online, or watched some fights in the UFC and saw for yourself firsthand how a skilled Jiu-jitsu practitioner can easily dismantle their opponent, and you thought, "I need to learn how to do that!".  You came into the academy, put on a gi, and did a few introductory classes.  Maybe you were a natural athlete all your life and just assumed, this is something you'd be good at.  Maybe you're in good shape, tough physically and mentally, and as you sized up the other "average looking" people in the class secretly thought to yourself, "I got this...I think I can handle these guys".  But then, you found yourself getting dragged around the mat by someone half your size, completely helpless! Your expectations didn't meet with reality. You could get frustrated, and decide, maybe this is not for you after all.  This would be one way to deal with it.  We call that the easy way.  Basically, denial.  But there is another way; you swallow your pride, recognize that your expectations were not based on reality, but were based mostly on ego, and get back on the mat, and commit yourself to learning the art!

Maybe you've made it through those first few months of training.  But life gets busy.  You started this journey because you were really committed to learning the gentle art, but now, due to your busy work schedule and family obligations, you just aren't able to train more than once or twice a week.  You see your teammates, who started training about the same time as you, consistently making progress, When you spar, they seem to have suddenly bypassed you in skill level and are much better than you on the mat.  You think you really should have been better by now.  Your expectations don't meet with the reality of the situation. How do you deal with that?  You could stop showing up, make excuses about how much you really want to train, but you just don't have time (the reality is nobody has free time-we make time for the things that are important).  You could walk away from the mat...but always in the back of your mind, you think about what could have been.  Maybe years later, when you run into your old training partner you started with, who is now a brown belt, you think that could've been you, and you promise yourself you will return to training "one day".

OR...you could accept that you are where you are.  Yeah, life gets in the way sometimes.  You may not be able to train as much as you would ideally like to.  But, training once a week is better than not at all.  And you look for ways to improve your time management to allow you to get a little more mat time.  Usually, where there's a will, there's a way.  Don't put excess pressure or expectations on yourself.  Just accept that you are where you are, and understand that when you come in and train, you ARE getting better, whether you realize it or not.

Maybe when you're in class, you really try to pay attention to every detail as the instructor explains the technique.  But then, when it's time to drill, you just can't seem to get it.  You get frustrated because your a smart person, and it doesn't seem like it should be that complicated, but you just can't get the move.  It must be that this just isn't a good move for you.  Maybe the instructor just didn't explain it right.  I mean, you did attempt it with your partner AT LEAST twice, before throwing your hands up in exasperation (of course it didn't help that your training partner-who also doesn't understand the technique was providing you with full resistance the entire time as you attempted to replicate what your instructor showed).  You get frustrated and resign yourself to the fact that you just don't "get" Jiu-jitsu, maybe it's not for you...

OR...you could recognize that your expectation, that you will understand the technique right away and be able to replicate it with the same smoothness as someone who has been on the mat many years more than you, is not in line with reality.  Jiu-jitsu is hard, and learning it is a process.  It takes time.  Trust me, your instructor, or that upper belt that you are emulating went through the same learning process and the same struggles as you did.  Everyone was once a white belt.  And.....even though you may not see it, they are STILL struggling with things too!  Learning Jiu-jitsu is a never-ending process.  There is no finish line.  There is no point where you will understand it all and execute it flawlessly.  Just enjoy the process, ask questions, do your best to understand the move, and try to apply it in live training.  Trial and error is a big part of the process.  Don't get frustrated if you don't understand something right away.  You just may not be ready for it yet, but trust in the process, and rest assured that down the road, if you just keep training, it will eventually click!

Maybe when it's time to spar,  you feel that little nervousness in the pit of your stomach as you get on the mat.  Even though you know that all of these people, your friends and teammates, don't have any bad intentions and aren't really going to hurt you, you still have a little anxiety at the thought of being taken down and put into a position from which you can't escape.  You shake hands with your training partner, and quickly find yourself in a bad spot....things are not going as planned.  You really expected to pull off that sweep you've been working on all week, but now you find yourself on your back, looking up at the lights, with all of your partners body weight on you.  You can barely breathe....you struggle in every direction to escape, but it just seems to be getting worse the more you move.  Now you're exhausted, and now your partner catches your arm in a tight submission hold.  You really don't want to tap.  After all, everyone in the whole academy is watching (probably not really, but that is your perception).  You wait till the last possible moment, and fortunately, your smarter side kicks in just in time to make you tap the mat to avoid getting seriously injured.  Maybe you waited a little too late, and tweaked your elbow a little bit.  You jump up, frustrated and angry, and storm off the mat.  This whole Jiu-jitsu thing just isn't working out....

OR....you could get caught in the submission, and recognize that the tap signifies a learning opportunity....maybe you made a mistake, or maybe your partner just has more experience in the position than you do.  In either case, it's something you can work on and try to fix in the future.  You shake your partner's hand, say "nice job" and then (at the appropriate time) ask them how they caught you and what you may be able to do to avoid being caught like that in the future.  You recognize that Jiu-jitsu is learned through failure.  You understand that nobody got good at Jiu-jitsu without tapping.....a lot!!!  You make sure that you tap in time to avoid injury so that you can train tomorrow.  You shake hands a go again.

Maybe it's promotion time.  You stand in line with all of your teammates, anxiously awaiting your name to be called for your next stripe or belt promotion.  After all, you've been showing up, you work hard in class....surely, your instructor has noticed your efforts and will reward you accordingly.  As you see your teammates get called up one by one, and your name isn't called, you just assume that your instructor is saving the best for last.  But then, suddenly, the promotions are over.  There must be some mistake....surely he just somehow forgot to call your name.  After all, you deserve it right?  Probably not.  Your expectation of what level you should be at isn't meeting the reality of your instructor's assessment.  Again, there are several ways to handle this.  You could protest, openly question your instructor directly....or maybe you prefer to just talk behind their back to your friends, family, or fellow students about how you really deserved to have been promoted.  You could get mad.  You could try to "prove" your worthiness by taking it out on your training partners in the next round of sparring.  You could leave, go and find another academy where you know the instructor will quickly promote you to the rank that you know deep down inside you really deserve.

OR...you could trust your instructor.  After all, they've been doing this a long time, and they see you on the mat everyday.  They are well aware of not only your abilities, but your potential.  They also know if you've been showing up consistently and what you do when you're there.  They've seen many students come and go through the ranks and believe it or not they DO have your best interest in mind.  The fact that they may be holding you to a higher standard than what your expectations led you to believe is in fact a compliment.  It means they understand that you have the potential to be better than you are.  They want you to be successful, and they are looking at the big picture, the long term, not just the next belt or stripe.  They understand, through experience, that promoting someone before they are ready could ultimately be a recipe for disaster that could lead you to stop training altogether because you can't yet live up to the expectation of the next rank.  You recognize that the belts are not the reason for training, and are merely markers along the way of your progress.  You could have a discussion with your instructor in a constructive manner, with an open mind, to see what they think you need to do to reach the next level.

The bottom line is, manage your expectations, don't let them manage you!  No matter how long you train, you will always want to be better than you currently are.  And if you just keep training, you WILL get better.  Enjoy the process, understand that learning Jiu-jitsu is a marathon, not a sprint.  And just go with the flow.  Dedicate yourself to doing the best that you can and making the most of your time every time you're on the mat, and understand that wherever you are in the process, that is where you are.  Don't let yourself get frustrated with the ups and downs of training.  Just keep showing up, get on the mat, and trust in the process!  Most importantly, don't forget to enjoy training!  That is why you started in the first place!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fighters vs. Martial Artists

There are plenty of tough guys out there...and a lot of them are very skilled fighters.  However, that doesn't make them "martial artists".  There is a difference.  It is ultimately up to you which category you fall into.

Clearly, in a martial arts class, you will learn how to fight.  In fact, Jiu-jitsu is considered to be one of the most effective fighting arts on the planet!  And through learning to fight, you may, and likely will, develop a level of "toughness".  Constantly dealing with being put under pressure, being put in compromising positions, and learning to still survive and keep going can develop a lot of grit.  But these things alone don't make you a martial artist, at least not in the way that I think of the word.  Being a martial artist takes more than physical fighting skill, more than toughness.  It is really about your character.

At first, many might scoff at the idea that learning how to throw people, choke people, delivering devastating strikes and breaking limbs is a good way to develop your moral character.  But, it in fact can do just that.  However it does not come automatically.  It has to do with your intention.  We learn to fight because we understand that we have not only a right, but rather an obligation to be able to defend ourselves and our loved ones if placed in harms way.  But, as the famous quote says, "with great power comes great responsibility".  We carry ourselves confidently in the face of adversity with the knowledge that the skills that we develop will keep us safe, but also understanding the responsibility to avoid having to use them if at all possible. We train to fight so that we don't have to.

Through the rigors of training, we also will encounter struggle.  We will fail.  We will deal with obstacles in the path of our development.  How we learn to overcome these obstacles and deal with failure helps us to develop not only physical toughness, but inner strength.  These are opportunities to  confront and work on our own inner demons-fear, doubt, hopelessness, negativity, etc.  Facing and overcoming these things helps us to grow and become better people, and THAT is what martial arts is ultimately about-becoming the best version of you that you are capable of!

Since the earliest days of organized martial arts, going back to the Feudal Era of Japan, people realized that warriors or fighters who were not of strong moral character could be very dangerous.  That is why the Japanese warrior class developed a code of ethics, known as Bushido, that would guide them in their daily lives, both on and off the battlefield.  This Warrior Code still exists today, in various forms, in many martial arts academies.  We have a version of this hanging on the wall of our academy, the 7-5-3 Code™.  This code which was organized by the Valente Brothers, is a way of representing how we can best live a healthy, prepared, and virtuous life both on and off the mat, and how our training can help us to deal with problems in our daily lives.

This 7-5-3 Code™ refers to the "Seven Virtues of a Warrior": Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, & Loyalty; the "Five Keys to Health": Nutrition, Exercise, Rest, Hygiene, and Positivity; and the "Three States of Mind": Awareness, Balance, and Flow.  You can learn more about the 7-5-3 Code™ here.

There are countless examples of people who have been great fighters, world champions in boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, or mixed martial arts, highly skilled in many respects; but lacking in moral character.  Some have been involved in drug trafficking, child molestation, rape, or even murder. Some may not have even committed any of these types of overt acts, but yet the way that they choose to lead their lives leave a lot to be desired.  These are not, in my opinion, martial artists.  Of course, we are all human, and we all are subject to make mistakes.  None of us are perfect by any means.  However, the martial artist always strives to be better, recognizing their flaws and imperfections, but always working to overcome them.  They lead their lives in a purposeful way, trying to not only better themselves, but to make the world they live in, and the people around them better.  Ultimately, that is an individual choice.  But, the benefits of the latter are numerous.  I would encourage all of you to consider that way you lead your life, and let your training help you to fulfill a greater purpose than just becoming a hardened human weapon.  I am privileged to be part of a team that highly values moral character, not just physical skill, and one that, I think cultivates these qualities in all of our members.  Train hard, be hard to kill, become a very tough, skilled, and technical fighter...but also, strive to be a better human!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Fighting Strategy of Jiu-jitsu

Jiu-jitsu, as it was originally conceived, is a fighting art.  It was designed for combat, and as it evolved through years of trial and error in real fights, developed into one of the most sophisticated and effective forms of fighting the world has ever seen! Most Jiu-jitsu practitioners from my generation got into the art because we witnessed what Royce Gracie did in the early days of the UFC, taking on bigger, stronger, very skilled opponents, and vanquishing them with techniques of the "gentle art" that his family was so paramount in developing.  Some of the things that continues to make Jiu-jitsu such a dominant martial art, and a staple of every professional fighter, is the liveness of training-constantly putting our techniques to the test against a resisting opponent in a live setting-and the fighting strategy that makes it so successful. So what exactly is that fighting strategy?

The Jiu-jitsu fighter does not seek a fair fight.  If we are to assume that our opponent is likely to be bigger, stronger, and more athletic, it is already, by its very nature unfair.  So, the strategy of the Jiu-jitsu fighter is not to meet the opponent on equal grounds.  Rather, in order to provide the best chance of being successful, the Jiu-jitsu fighter seeks to put themselves in a situation in which they can do damage to their opponent, while minimizing their opponent's opportunity to do damage to them.  This is the basis behind the concept of positional dominance that is so key to understanding Jiu-jitsu's fighting strategy.  There is a hierarchy of positions, based on providing the fighter with the most control over their opponent, while simultaneously limiting their opponent's opportunities to effectively do damage.  At the top of this hierarchy are positions such as the mount, back control, and knee on belly.  These are positions in which one fighter clearly has a positional advantage over the other, from which they have more opportunity to launch attacks including striking techniques and submission holds over their opponent, who is in a clearly defensive posture.  Other techniques, such as forms of the guard, are more neutral positions, in which the fighter, while on the bottom of the fight (which is always an inferior position) can utilize their arms and legs to effectively control their opponent and minimize their potential to inflict damage, while also providing them a platform to launch successful attacks.  This heirarchy of position is fundamental to understanding the Jiu-jitsu fighters strategy, and leads to the often heard adage "position before submission".

In other words, the Jiu-jitsu fighter doesn't proceed with reckless abandon, relying on strength and athleticism.  Rather, they follow a carefully conceived strategic framework, looking to always improve their position relative to their opponent first, before launching an attack.  Achieve a dominant position, effectively controlling the opponent and neutralizing their ability to effectively attack, and then finish the fight through striking techniques, or some form of submission hold, utilizing leverage to give them a mechanical advantage over their opponent.

Utilizing this idea, there are several easily recognizable phases of a fight, and specific strategies in each that the Jiu-jitsu fighter uses to accomplish their goal of defeating their opponent.  The first of these is where the fight normally starts, with two fighters standing on their feet squared up with each other.  We can refer to this phase as the "free movement phase".  Because there is no contact yet between the two fighters, they both have freedom over their own movement and neither is in control of the other.  This phase of the fight can be very dangerous, because, without contact, the fighters rely primarily on their visual cues alone to anticipate the movements and reactions of their opponents.  Often, in this phase, the fighter who has quicker reaction time, better footwork, etc. will have the advantage.  But, what is important is that, at least in theory, it is a fair fight.  Anything that one fighter can do, the other fighter can do as well.  In this phase, the Jiu-jitsu fighter's objective is to stay out of range, utilizing footwork and striking techniques to keep the opponent away at a safe distance until they have an opportunity to establish a clinch.

The next phase then, is the clinch.  In this phase, the fighter closes the distance, attaching themselves and tightly wrapping their arms around their opponent.  The purpose of the clinch, primarily, is to enable to Jiu-jitsu fighter to safely transition into a grappling range, where they can better control and anticipate their opponent's reactions, and utilize their body weight and leverage, while minimizing their opponent's ability to land damaging strikes.  By closing the space between themselves and their opponent, the take away the distance necessary to land powerful strikes which have the potential to knock them out or do significant damage.

After establishing the clinch, the Jiu-jitsu fighter will often seek to take the fight to the ground.  This can be accomplished either by off-balancing and taking down their opponent, or, in some circumstances, pulling a form of guard, accepting the bottom position, with the strategy of utilizing the legs to defend and attack from the bottom.  The ground grappling phase is what Jiu-jitsu is most commonly known for.  Why is this such a common theme in the strategy of Jiu-jitsu fighters?  Often, fights will end up on the ground naturally.  As the two combatants are moving around, pushing, pulling, attempting to establish control, often there is a loss of balance that results in one or both participants ending up on the ground.  This can be seen often in street fights where going to the ground isn't a strategy, but more often just a matter of circumstance.  For the Jiu-jitsu fighter though, it is often a deliberate strategy.  By taking the fight to the ground, the Jiu-jitsu fighter is able to minimize the size and strength difference of a larger opponent, particularly if they are able to control the top position.  Because the ground provides a stable surface, the Jiu-jitsu fighter can more effectively use their body weight to control their opponent's movement and immobilize them, restricting their ability to escape.  This leads to our next phase of the fight-securing a dominant position.

Dominant positions are those in which one fighter has a distinct leverage advantage over their opponent, and one in which they are able to more effectively able to utilize offensive maneuvers, including powerful strikes and joint locks/chokes to subdue or control their opponent.  And, conversely, a position in which it is difficult for the opponent to launch any form of effective offense. Again, there are a heirarchy of various positions, with positions such as knee on belly, mount, and back control being at the top. In this manner, the Jiu-jitsu fighter can slowly wear down a more powerful opponent, allowing them to struggle and tire themselves out, while using efficient movements and a minimal amount of energy. The Jiu-jitsu fighter's main objective is to maintain dominant control first, before seeking opportunities to finish the fight right away.

Finally, the ultimate objective is to finish the fight, subduing the opponent by means of striking techniques (often these strikes are meant primarily to create movement and open up opportunities for submissions or improvements in position-particularly if the opponent is much larger and more powerful) or submission holds (chokes and joint locks).  These holds may be used simply to control the opponent or to render them unconscious (in the case of chokes/strangles) or incapacitate them by hyperextending various joints, causing (sometimes permanent) damage to the bones, ligaments, and tendons.  In the context of training, this "kill" is represented by the tap, where one person willfully submits to the other, so that these positions and techniques can be practiced safely.

All of these various phases of the fight encompass a general strategic framework for the Jiu-jitsu fighter.  These are not hard and fast rules, but more guidelines.  Often these phases will happen in different orders or some maybe bypassed altogether, as the situation dictates.  For example, it is not ALWAYS the best idea to take the fight to the ground, due to environment factors, multiple opponents, etc.  But following these general principles will help to better understand the strategy by which the Jiu-jitsu fighter can be effective, even when confronted with a larger, stronger, more athletic opponent.




Friday, January 12, 2018

Resolve to Make Your Jiu-jitsu Better!

Well, here we are...it's a new year!  This is the time that we traditionally look back on the past year and resolve to be better.  The stereotypical New Years Resolutions, most of which typically don't last more than a couple of weeks.  This is a great time to rededicate yourself and really make a commitment to training again!  That's a great start, but what can you do to make sure that you actually follow through?

Unfortunately, in Jiu-jitsu, the statistics are not in your favor.  Those who have spent any significant amount of time on the mat can attest to the many, many people that they have seen come and go over the years.  I remember distinctly, and am somewhat embarrassed to admit, that, prior to being a school owner, when I was just another student training, I got to a point where I wouldn't even bother learning someone's name until they made it to blue belt, because chances are, once I got to know them, they would disappear.  I'm not proud of it, but it's true.  I don't recommend this practice by the way.  I was just continually disappointed by teammates that didn't share the same commitment level I did.  Unfortunately, many of you....even some of you who consider yourselves extremely motivated and dedicated right now, will eventually fade away.  I sincerely hope that this is not the case....but my past experience says otherwise.  This doesn't have to be the case for you though, and I hope that it's not! So how can you make sure that you live up to the goals that you set for yourself and make sure you don't fall through the cracks?

Make Training a Priority
Everyone will miss class from time to time.  Sometimes, life just gets in the way.  Illness, injuries, or unexpected situations may come up once in a while and keep you off the mat.  Just try not to make it a habit.  Showing up for training is a habit....not showing up is also.  Make it a priority to get to class consistently.  If you want to be serious about your training and make real progress, consistency over time is the key.  If training is just something you do when nothing else is going on, invariably, something will come up.  Make it a regular and important part of your schedule.  Block out your training times on the days you plan to train so that other things don't interfere.

Don't Take Extended "Breaks"
Sometimes, you need to take a week off that mat.  Sometimes, you need to let your body recover, you need to reset mentally, maybe you're taking a short vacation (although often you can take your gi with you and find a way to train).  This is perfectly normal and OK.  However, I don't recommend taking extended breaks from training.  In my experience, it is very rare for a student to take a break for a month or more and ever return to the mat.  Even with the best of intentions, other things begin to take up that time that you previously dedicated to training and take priority.  And, the longer you are off the mat, the harder it is to come back, both physically, and mentally.

Hold Each Other Accountable
Jiu-jitsu is hard.  We all struggle from time to time, and everyone has days where they would rather just stay home on the couch than go to class.  Often, what keeps us coming back in is our training partners.  Hold yourself and your training partners accountable!  Call up that teammate that you like to train with and make sure that they're planning on showing up, and they will return the favor for you.

Participate in Team Events
This goes along the lines with the previous point.  The social aspect of Jiu-jitsu is very important.  It keeps us engaged and keeps training fun, because we're among friends.  So, cultivate this!  As much as possible, participate in team get togethers and events off the mat.  Engage with your training partners outside of class.  The bond that we share on the mat through sweat and blood is very valuable, and this is a good way to make that even stronger.  And it is very important because, again, these are the people that you're going to show up for.

Keep a Notebook/Journal
This is a great way to not only recall details of technique, but also to keep track of your progress.  I recommend writing your notes immediately after class while it is fresh in your mind, and then reviewing your notes before the next class.  Remember to write down any questions you have to, so that you can remember them the next time your instructor asks for questions.

Keep Jiu-jitsu Fun
What keeps us coming back to Jiu-jitsu is that we have a lot of fun doing it! Sure, it's hard work, there's frustration and sometimes confusion.  But, you should leave training with a smile on your face.  A lot of this is about having the right attitude.  Don't take it too seriously.  Of course, you want to pay attention to detail and always work on improving, but try not to get to frustrated when you screw up.  All of us do, and it's the process by which we learn.  So, maintain emotional balance.  Don't get too emotionally attached to your mistakes, just learn from them and move on.  But keep smiling and stay positive, because as long as you're on the mat, you're getting better whether you realize it or not!

Set Short Term Goals
Sure, ultimately your goal may be to receive your black belt in Jiu-jitsu, and that's of course a very admirable goal.  However, it's a very long road to get there.  So, it helps if you break that off into more manageable chunks, so you can better track your progress.  Maybe it's your next belt, or even your next stripe.  But, it doesn't have to be tied to rank at all.  Maybe it's trying to figure out that sweep from the guard that you're struggling with. So, spend the extra 5-10 minutes before or after class with a partner getting some reps in with that move until you feel comfortable.  Then, maybe your goal is to hit that move on all of your training partners at your level.  Start with the smaller ones first, then work your way up.  When you can successfully pull it off at will on all of them, start trying it on the people who are a little ahead of your level, and so on.  No, chances are, as a white belt, you're probably not going to pull off your new move on one of the brown or black belts.  But go for it anyway!  It will show you the vulnerability of the position and give you some insight on where it fails and where to go from there.  And, you will definitely get much better at the position than you were previously.  Keep your long term goals in mind, but focus on more reasonable, more attainable smaller goals along the way, and before you know it, you will be knocking on the door of that long term goal!

Always be Working on Something
Technique wise, you should always have something specific in mind that you are focusing on.  It's a good idea to focus on what you feel are weak areas-positions you struggle with-and really dive into those.  Drilling and reps are your best friend, but specific positional sparring is also a great tool to help you master these positions.  The point is, have a specific focus every time you show up, particularly in sparring.  If you're working on, for example, escaping side control, you have to put yourself in that position so that you can work on your escapes.  So, if that is your focus, when you're sparring don't spend a lot of time trying to take down your partner and maintaining top position.  Whatever it is that you choose to work on, it helps you to maintain a little more focus and purpose to your training sessions.

Listen to Your Body
While it's good to push your limitations, sometimes you need to listen when your body is telling you it's had enough.  It's great to work hard, but allowing your body to recover is just as important.  It's OK to take a day off.  Sometimes you may need to take a week of.  That's fine.  Just don't let it turn into multiple weeks, and try not to make it a consistent habit.  But, it's better to rest a few days, then to keep pushing too hard and get injured and potentially miss more mat time.  Sometimes this means staying off the mat, but often you can come in and just watch class and take notes or just do some light drilling.  You don't have to spar every time you train, and every time you spar doesn't have to be a fight to the death!    It's a long road, so pace yourself.

Remember Why You Started
Why did you first walk through the doors of the academy?  Maybe it was because you wanted to get in better shape, to find a new fun activity, to learn to defend yourself, to improve your focus or self-confidence?  Whatever your personal reason, I would be willing to wager that you are closer to achieving that now than you were when you first started.  Keep that in mind when you feel like you want to give up.  You've invested a lot of time, money, and sweat to get to where you are now.  But you still have room to continue to get better.  And you will....if you stick with it.  Everyone has times where they feel like just quitting.  It's definitely the easier way.  There are plenty of excuses you can make for why you didn't achieve what you set out to do.  However, there are many more reasons to stick with it!  I promise you, if you dedicate yourself to consistent practice, the rewards will be well worth all the effort!  I don't know too many people who have quit Jiu-jitsu that look back on that decision in a positive light.  Most of the time, what I hear from these people is, "man, I wish I had never let myself quit".  But don't worry....if you are in that situation, it's never to late to come back to the mat.  Your instructor and training partners will be very happy to welcome you back!  You are going to be somewhere ten years from now....you might as well be a black belt in Jiu-jitsu!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Taking Accountability

One of the biggest transitions that a Jiu-jitsu student will make along their journey is when they take make the step to take ownership and accountability for their own training and progress.  This is a huge landmark moment in a student's development, and it generally signals the beginning of a rapid period of growth.  And this moment comes sooner along the process for some than it does for others. In the beginning, a new student doesn't even have a concept of what Jiu-jitsu is.  They show up for class each day, expecting to be fed new information and do their best to absorb it.  They go through the motions, trying to replicate to the best of their ability what the instructor is showing.  At this stage, even though the student may be very enthusiastic about learning the art, they often don't have the capability to know what they can do to help to expedite the learning process.  But one of the best ways to see progress in your training is to really take your development into your own hands.  Here are a couple of ways that you can help to take accountability for your own training.

Show Up-This one is probably the MOST important.  Unfortunately, you can't get better at Jiu-jitsu sitting at home on the couch.  You have to come to class.  The people who come in and get on the mat consistently get better.  The ones who don't, won't.  And while your instructor and teammates may and should check on you from time to time if you haven't been in for a while, ultimately it is up to you.  Everyone has a life outside of the academy and things that sometime will get in the way of making it to class.  But those should be an exception.  Make training a priority and you will find a way to make it happen.  The best way to do this is to put it on your calendar on your regular training days, and to hold yourself accountable.  Even when you're tired, you've had a long day, just show up. If you can get through the door and step on the mat, the rest will take care of itself.  And I promise, you will feel better after and be glad that you showed up.  The key to your development is consistency, so try to avoid taking extended breaks off the mat.

Trust your Instructor-This one is huge.  While you may not understand why your instructor is telling you to do things a certain way, and you may think that there is a better way, you have to trust your instructor and have faith in the system.  They have spent many, many more years on the mat than you have, and have likely gone through the same processes, struggles, and questions that you are currently.  They are showing you to do it that way for a reason.  If it doesn't make sense to you know, it probably will down the road.

Take it Slow-You can't develop a high level of skill in Jiu-jitsu overnight, no matter how much you desire to.  Everyone wants to be better, no matter what level.  Just show up.  If you're in class, you will get better.  You may not notice immediate results, as it takes time, but be patient and trust in the system.  It is better to try to understand Jiu-jitsu in smaller pieces.  Don't worry if you don't get the whole big picture right away.  Just focus on one thing at a time.  Eventually, it will come together.

Take Notes-I encourage all of my students to keep a notebook and bring it with you to class.  Right after training, go make your notes about that days class, in a way that you can understand them.  Then, as you have time, review your notes throughout the week.  You won't remember all of the details the first time you see a move, but each time you review it, you can go back and update your notes.  Take notes AFTER class.  Don't take notes DURING class. Otherwise, you will likely miss important information while you are focusing on writing your notes.  Another strategy that I have seen some students employ is to take "video notes".  Many instructors may not want you to videotape techniques during class, but you may be able to grab a training partner after class and videotape yourself going through the technique you just learned so that you can help to remember it later.  Just be sure to check with your instructor and make sure these things are for your use and don't end up on YouTube!

Ask Questions-Instructors LOVE questions!  Please don't be hesitant to ask, or think that your question is dumb.  Don't be embarrassed if you don't understand something.  Chances are, other people have the same question as you do.  Even if it seems too simple, ASK!  Your instructor is not going to berate you for asking a question.  A good instructor looks forward to students questions.  Sometimes, you may think of a question later, after class, while lying in bed or driving to work.  Try to take a moment to write it down so you remember later when your instructor asks for questions.

Get in Extra Training-It doesn't take a whole lot of time, but you would be amazed at what 10 minutes of extra drilling before or after class will do for you!  Grab one of your training partners and go over positions and techniques that you are having trouble with.  The best way to improve positions that you are struggling with is to get your reps in.  Often, the technique will start to clean itself up just through repetition.  The guys who get good are typically the first ones on the mat and the last ones to leave!

Watch Video/Read Books-There is a huge amount of access to information about Jiu-jitsu available online, in books, dvds, apps, etc.  While these should never be a substitute for showing up and training at your academy, they can be a great supplement!  You have to be careful, because while there is a lot of great material out there, there is also a lot that is very suspect.  Ask your instructor if they have any recommendations on additional resources you can access outside of class.  This is also a great way to stay engaged and focus on training on those (hopefully) rare occasions that you can't physically make it into the academy.

Traveling? Take your Gi!-I always recommend that my students take advantage of any opportunity to travel at other Jiu-jitsu academies while they are traveling.  It keeps you active and on the mat during those times that you are away from home, and is a great way to get other perspectives and to meet and train with a lot of awesome people!  Please make sure that you check with your instructor first and make sure that they are ok with you training elsewhere while out of town.  They may also be able to recommend good places for you to train.  This is NOT the same thing as regularly showing up to another academy down the street from your academy or in the same town.  While some instructors may be ok with this, chances are most are not, so always maintain an open line of communication.

Attend Seminars-These are great ways to supplement your training.  Seminars can be expensive, but if you walk away with even one new technique or concept that you can use for the rest of your Jiu-jitsu career, it is well worth it!  Ask your instructor for their recommendation on seminars that would be good for you to attend.

Train with a Specific Focus-You should always be working on something.  Pick one area that you feel needs improvement and really try to focus your training around that.  Of course, you need to focus on what is being shown in class at any given time and train that during class.  Don't be the guy that is working on some other move on the side during class that is completely different than what your instructor just showed.  But during your open mat time, before/after class, in sparring, try to have a specific idea in mind that you are working on.  If you're working on escaping the mount for example, you have to let yourself be mounted in sparring so you can focus on it.  Put yourself in positions to be able to focus on what you're working on at the time.

Show up for Sparring-Sparring is one of the most important and fun elements in Jiu-jitsu.  Don't avoid it.  It is essential for developing your timing, reflex, and sensitivity.  It is the laboratory where we have the opportunity to experiment with our techniques.  Your techniques WILL fail, and you should embrace that and see it as an opportunity to learn and fix your mistakes.  Also, don't avoid the "tough" opponents.  The ones who challenge you the most are some of your best training partners for your development.  They will not only help you develop your toughness and mental fortitude, but will also help you refine your techniques.  You don't have to go all out every single round either.  Pace yourself, take a round off when you need to rest, and sometimes back off the intensity and just focus on flowing.  But the live component of training is one of the keys that makes Jiu-jitsu as effective as it is.

Work on your Weaknesses-It is easy to avoid the things that give you the most trouble and just use your "go-to" techniques that you know you usually have success with.  However, this is not the best way to improve.  Strive to be well rounded in all aspects of your training.  If you spend more time focusing on your weak areas, before you know it, they will also be strengths!

These are just a few simple things that anyone can do to help be responsible for your own learning and if you can implement some of these ideas, you should begin to see incremental improvements in your progress in developing your Jiu-jitsu.