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.”
You want to scream “I WOULDN’T BE ASKING IF I COULD’VE AVOIDED IT, NOW WOULD I!?”
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?
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:
You can further divided these into three groups based on timing:
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: