Building Your Gameplan Around Combo Attacks

After my post about how to fully develop your grappling gameplan, people asked for help with the nuts and bolts of how to draw their gameplans. This a follow-up visual guide to explain that.

I’m going to talk about the building blocks of a gameplan, how to think about combos, and how to look at the big picture.

Let’s start with two types of combos.

Linear Combos

A linear combination progresses as you succeed at points along your way towards a goal.

At a beginner level, the progression may be broadly defined, without any special connection existing between each step except that one follows the other.

Example: takedown → pass the guard → side control → mount → armbar

As you get more detailed, an advanced progression can depend on specific grips you already have as you progress and reactions you expect from your opponent.


  1. Osoto gari with collar and sleeve grip → knee-on-belly → near side armbar (sam grip throughout)
  2. X-pass → knee-on-belly → opponent turns away → seat belt & chair sit → back attack system

Lateral Combos

A lateral combination is when you can alternate between several options, usually from the same position (or closely related positions), especially when a path becomes blocked.

Example: scissors sweep to the left ↔ reverse scissors sweep right ↔ take the back

A lateral combo is about using complementary techniques so your opponent is unsure which one to defend while you are happy to take whatever is most available.

The Real World is Both Linear and Lateral

Thinking of combos as linear or lateral is an (useful) abstraction, but reality is much messier than that. A gameplan is built on both kinds of combos. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you switch to something else, and sometimes you do a mix of the two and no one but you can tell the difference.

The goal of a gameplan is to be able to know what you want to accomplish and how you deal with the ways your opponent will try to stop you.

Take Inventory

Before jumping into flow charting, I recommend writing down your favorite moves from each major position. This is most useful for beginners to see where they are lacking knowledge. When I get white belts to do this exercise for the first time, it is often a mind blowing experience.

You can also rate your confidence level for each of these positions (top and bottom), either on a 1-5 scale or with smiley/frowny faces like I do below.

With this table filled out, you now have a list of techniques to work into your flowchart.

Creating and Expanding Your Flowchart

Your first pass at drawing out your gameplan will usually progress in a linear fashion: “here’s how I start, and here’s how I get to the finish”. We are not worried about problems yet.

You can apply this process to an entire match (“Starting from standing, I get a grip and do takedown X, then…”) or for one position (“Starting in closed guard, I get a collar and sleeve grip and do sweep X, then…”).

Once you’ve got something on the page, go back to the beginning. Run through your flowchart again, but this time ask yourself questions like:

  • What are most common counters to this?
  • What if I cannot get what I want?
  • What combos well with this?
  • Do I need to switch to another move here, or to just do the first move better?

Now you’re getting into lateral combos. Your flowchart is probably starting to branch like this:

Go back to the start again, or to another critical spot (like the start of your guard passing). Here are more questions to ask yourself:

  • If my plan goes wrong, what is my back up plan?
  • If I get totally off my gameplan, are my escapes, defenses, and recovery skills good enough?
  • What areas of this gameplan need more detailed connections so they really gel?
  • What areas are too complicated and need to be simplified?
  • Does my gameplan reflect my real skills, or is this just a wishlist of techniques?

Now your map is getting fun:

You can find software and apps to create flowcharts like this, or have some fun and get a big piece of butcher page and some markers or a dry erase board.

Zoom Out and Keep It Simple (Stupid)

At the end of your gameplanning, you should be able to zoom out and create a “big picture” gameplan that looks something like this:

Each bubble (and the connections between the bubbles) can contain many “if...then...else” decision trees, but you want to be able to sum it up simply.

Remember that no matter how beautifully you have laid out your gameplan, it is just a nice idea. You have to back it up with many hours of drilling and sparring. Putting it on paper just helps you make sure you are directing those training hours to develop a worthwhile strategy. Many traits that are important to your success can’t be put into this chart: improvisation, reflexes, intuition, determination, grit, cunning, trickery, explosiveness, etc.

Send Me Your Gameplans

Have you drawn up your grappling gameplan? I want to see it! Submit it in the comments below, or message it to me at Aesopian.

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