10 Steps to Adding Unorthodox Techniques to Your Game

Grappling trends come and go, and new techniques pop up every season. When I started training, everyone was trying to figure out x-guard and arm drags. Now it is leglocks and heel hooks. Eventually, the best elements of these techniques get folded into “standard” jiu-jitsu but not before the initial rush of grapplers scrambling to learn the secrets of the new hotness.

This guide will help you be one of those early adopters. Here are my 10 tips for adding new or unorthodox techniques to your game:

  1. Do your homework. Before you launch into learning that cool technique you saw in a GIF on Reddit, let’s make sure it is worth the effort. Gather up the answers to these questions:
  • Who is good at this technique or position, and at what level do they compete?
  • Do they have instructionals available? If not, does someone else?
  • Can you find tournament footage of it in action?
  • Has anyone done a competition footage analysis?

We only have so much time and energy, so make sure it’s well spent. By answering these questions, you might discover that the technique is perhaps too new to justify an intense investment of your time and study or that you just don’t have the resources yet to really understand it. This step prepares you for the next steps.

  1. Understand its fundamentals. Notice I said “its fundamentals” not “the fundamentals.” We call the basic moves of jiu-jitsu “fundamentals,” but here I’m referring to the key principles, concepts, and building blocks for the new position you are trying to learn. Even strange positions--if they are good--are built on certain basic rules: body mechanics, off balancing, leverage, timing, etc. The ones that don’t have solid fundamentals are often gimmicks--maybe you get a few surprise taps, or it could be a counter to a very specific “flash in the pan” technique that caught on at your gym.  Find the answer to these questions:
  • How does it work?
  • What makes it fail?
  • What key points of control do you need to maintain to be successful with it?
  • When is the right or wrong time to go for it?
  • If you had to reduce to a few core rules, what would they be?
  1. Study your role model. Back in step one (do your homework), you should have picked out one or more competitors/instructors whose competition footage and/or instructional videos to study. With all the YouTube and BJJ video subscription sites available these days, see if you can find even more about them. Watch competition footage in slow mo and take notes. Channel your inner BJJScout. You may spot details or variations they fail to teach. Keep an eye out for seminars where you can go to learn it in person. You may be surprised how different a technique feels when done by your hero compared to what you could cobble together from Instagram clips.
  1. Find a partner in crime. Having a training partner who is learning the same material can boost progress for both of you. You gain the benefit of their experiences, and they may spot details you missed (and vice versa). Having a trusty partner who shares your goals greatly increases learning speed.
  1. Practice outside group class. Get together with your loyal training partner outside of regular class hours to do the extra work. Teachers often get annoyed when students sit off to the side during regular class hours and do their own thing instead of doing what the rest of the class is doing. Either show up earlier or stay later, and use open mat time to work on your new material.
  1. Put in the reps (but mix it up). There is no getting around it: “Repetitio mater studiorum est. Repetition is the mother of all learning.” I quoted Latin so you know it’s true. Put in reps whenever you get a chance. In those extra training sessions with your buddy, mix it up by doing random practice. That means that instead of practices 3 techniques by doing 3 sets of 10 reps, do 30 reps where you mix up which technique you do at random. You can do it where your partner calls out the technique to do, or they just feed you the trigger to do it. Jason C. Brown wrote about block vs random practice on the blog here: Applying the Science of Motor Learning to Your BJJ Practice.
  1. Do positional sparring. When you get together with your buddy, set a timer and put in rounds of positional sparring. Take turns attacking and defending. Start where the target technique is most relevant and sometimes feed your partner the trigger they need to go for it. Raise the difficulty as you improve. Work up a good sweat and don’t stop to talk until you’ve put in enough rounds of trial and error.
  1. Go for it in free sparring. Try it on a few clueless white belts then work up the food chain as you have success. You will need to put your “A game” on the back burner while you develop this new material. Be mindful that old school teachers may get annoyed if you neglect the techniques they teach you in favor of your “YouTube zhoo-zhitzu,” but as long as you stay inside the agreed upon rules for your school you are probably OK.
  1. Find the connection to your existing game. Often when someone (especially intermediate level grapplers) tries to emulate someone else’s style, they run into difficulty because it doesn’t connect to anything else they are doing. Some techniques gel better with others. Your personal style may not suit a certain technique or position, at least not without experimenting.
  1. Expect to fail more than you succeed in the beginning. When you bring a new trick to your school, you will often enjoy early success (and the rush of excitement that brings) followed quickly by everyone shutting your crap down hard (and all the salty tears that brings). Do not be discouraged if you have a rough time with the new techniques. Think of yourself as a “white belt” in those moves even if you aren’t a white belt any more.

Putting those 10 steps into action will take months of hard work and mat time, but you will be rewarded for your efforts with exclamations of "What the hell was that?" from your opponents. Do me a favor and share your experiences and technical findings in a video or blog post. I’d love to see what you come up with.