Balancing Technique and Aggression

Balancing Technique and Aggression

I often see blue and purple belts begin to adopt a possum-style of grappling. They sit back and play a loose, flowy game, relying entirely on their ability to bait and outwit and counter. Against lower belts or against partners who adopt a similar pace, this approach works out just fine, which reinforces that it’s the right thing to do.

And then they roll with someone who is both highly technical and incredibly aggressive, and their flowy world of keeping it playful comes crashing down around them.

Here’s the problem: Our early years in jiu-jitsu often breed a misunderstanding of the role of aggression in jiu-jitsu. Two things happen in that era of our jiu-jitsu journey:

  • We observe that as we try to be more aggressive and push the pace we seem to get sloppier and less technical in our movements.
  • We notice that our coaches and upper belt mentors roll with us using a lazy, effortless style.

Therefore, we conclude that highly aggressive grappling is less technical than passive, counter-attacking grappling.


Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. So wrong.

In jiu-jitsu, technical aggression is your ability to move forward, dictate the action, and move with some level of speed without sacrificing your technique.

When we first start training, we have to dial back our aggression out of necessity. We simply do not have the ability to be both aggressive in our style and also technical, so we have to slow down and take our time to better understand and execute new techniques. If we do not ease off the gas pedal, we become the legendary white belt spaz. We thrash and kick and elbow noses, and we either get a talking to or the local enforcer knee-walks over to show us what’s what.

At some point, however, we have to reintroduce aggression to get the most out of our technique. Whether your goal is self-defense or sport or MMA, being able to push the pace, assert your game, and still stay technical is an essential skill. Aggression is something that can and should be practiced because it will prepare you to deal with fast, athletic grapplers. It will help you to more quickly get to your strongest positions.  And it will help you to learn how to force counters and recounters from your opponent without having to wait for them to make the first move.

If you are a lazy, passive grappler right now, that’s okay. I had that problem too, and after some input from coaches and mentors, here is how I solved it:

  • Introduce more intense drills. Chain together a sequence of counters and recounters and drill them at near competition speed to get more comfortable working quickly but with finesse.
  • Don’t go too fast. Instead of flipping your rolling into hyperdrive right off the bat, slowly ramp up the aggression. As soon as your technique starts to degrade, dial it back a little bit and push forward again when your technique improves.
  • Pick what you want. Are you working on butterfly guard? Insist on getting to that position in every roll. Yes, you will make a lot of mistakes along the way, but the reward on the other side is a big one.
  • Decide what kind of training day it will be. For me, I can’t always roll with intensity both for the sake of my health and for the sake of my students. To avoid becoming a lazy grappler, I decide ahead of time what kind of training day I am having. Am I working defense today or am I working offense? Then I roll accordingly in every session.
  • Pick your training partners. Some of your training partners will be more accepting of more aggressive rolls and more capable of doing them safely. Seek out those folks and try to get more time with them.

Aggression in jiu-jitsu is healthy, and in my mind, critical. I hope this helps you elevate your game the way it helped mine.