Becoming a BJJ Houdini

Every white belt has asked a black belt for help only to hear this annoying answer:

“Don’t get there in the first place.”


Still, the answer is true. The solution to most problems is “Avoid it.” But how do you learn to do that? That’s what we’re going to discuss now. (Don’t worry, we’ll also talk about what to do when you can’t.)

When looking back on a tough situation you found yourself in sparring, ask yourself: “How did I get here and why?

“I was crushed under side control.”
“Because they passed my guard.”
“Because they grabbed my knees and threw my legs away.”
“Because their hands were free.”
“Because they broke my grips and I didn’t regrip.”
“My guard was loose and I wasn’t sure what sweep to do against a standing opponent.”

Now you’ve hit the root cause of the problem. You had some control of the match back when you were in guard, but you lost it. Everything that followed was you just trying to survive instead of progressing towards a win. You thought being crushed under side control was the problem, but your weak guard was the reason.

Let’s pull camera back and look more broadly at how to develop our defensive skills.

How you deal with problems in BJJ can be roughly categorized four ways: prevention, defenses, escapes, and counters. Here is how I define those as distinct from each other:

Prevention is avoiding a problem before it’s really a threat. Examples: good posture in guard and grips, keeping your arms to yourself when in bad positions, positioning yourself so you’re open to the least number of threats.
Defense saves you when the problem couldn’t be avoided. Examples: stacking to prevent an armbar from being finished, tucking your chin and controlling the wrists to stop chokes, grabbing inside your thigh to stop the kimura finish.
Escapes get you out of the problem, most likely to a neutral position. Examples: returning to guard from under side control, twisting out of rear mount to be in their guard, driving your outside arm into a triangle to be back in closed guard.
Counters take advantage of their attack and reverse it somehow to give you an advantage. Examples: attacking a footlock as you are being swept, turning their kimura grip into a kimura against them, rolling out of an omoplata into your own omoplata, the Von Flue choke when they try to guillotine you.

You can further divided these into three groups based on timing:

    1. Early
    2. On-time
    3. Late

Defenses and escapes are the most closely linked, since a good defense should lead to an escape. These skillsets are about surviving when you get deep in the weeds. What you do to stay alive is often not pretty or easy, but you do what you’ve got to do. Defenses and escapes can be early, on time or late. When you’re late, it’s likely just defense and escapes that will save you.

Prevention is where you get the biggest return on your investment over your lifetime of training, but it is built on skills a beginner doesn’t yet have, like balance, pressure, positional awareness, strategy against particular types of opponents, etc. The good news is that you should be developing all of those if you’re getting half-decent instruction. Prevention is usually about being early or right on time to deal with the problem before it blows up.

Counters assumes the greatest skill level, since prevention, defense and escapes flow into a counter offensive. Timing and sensitivity play a big role in smoothly countering, but even a beginner can start learning basic ones. Counters usually happen when you’re early or on time.

In the reality of a fight, the divide between these classifications is less clear and more fuzzy. Is a really early defense actually prevention? Is an escape that ends with you in a good position actually a counter? Can I defend until I can counter? This is where semantics break down. The answer is yes, it’s probably all of those things. The classification doesn’t need to be clear as long as the outcome is good.

You need to spend time deep in the problems to develop the ability to survive, defend and escape. This is the big value of positional sparring: it forces you to work on the crappy situations you would otherwise avoid. This is where you will spend most of your time as a white belt and new blue belt, likely against your will.

As you gain experience, work to raise your awareness of earlier warning signs. What was the earliest moment you can connect to your current problem that you still had a chance to fix with minimal effort? This is where you start to really feel the “jiu” in “jiu-jitsu”, the flowing counters and re-counters.

In your quest to become a grappling Houdini, here’s a motto for you to follow:

“Prevention is best, but be prepared to survive the worst.”

“(Or just tap and try again.)”