Catching the Snitch Hidden in Crystal Lake
My jiu-jitsu journey has been a lot like my experience with Disney movies. When I was a kid, I thought I understood Disney movies, but when I rewatch them as an adult, I pick up on layers of jokes, hidden gems, and innuendos that whooshed over my bowl cut and Pokemon card collection. Jiu-jitsu has been a similar experience. I’ll come back to an idea I played with years ago only to discover that it is far more valuable and impactful than I first realized.
When I was a fresh blue belt, I felt pretty bad ass. I was young, in the best shape of my life, and training every day of the week and twice a day on weekdays. By virtue of athleticism and mat time alone, I was a handful for many of my purple belt training partners.
And then this quiet purple belt from Iceland joined us for a month. He hardly spoke, and when he did, it was a half-whisper. He didn’t look particularly threatening either—kind of scrawny with shy, reserved body language. The first time we got to roll, I figured I could at least get a few positions on him if not tap him out.
We touched hands. I sat back to pull guard. And then he walked around my guard into knee on belly.
Wait. How did he do that?
He armbarred me, so we reset.
Paying more attention this time, I set strong grips, but he put a hand on my hip, did a little shuffle, and there he was in knee on belly again.
After a full round of futility, the buzzer sounded. I asked him to explain what the hell he just did—because it seemed like pure sorcery—and he said, in his soft-spoken voice, “If I get a hand on your hip I can control your hip and then it’s not a problem to pass. I just have to control the hip.”
He took a second to show me what he meant before moving on to the next training partner, but it didn’t make sense to me. It seemed too simple. It clearly worked for him, but my attempts to make it work for me consistently failed. I gave up on the technique and stuck to my other guard passing techniques, a hodge podge of counters and grip breaks that would sometimes get me safely clear of my opponent’s legs.
By the way, that same purple belt competed in the open division of the ADCC later that year and beatJeff Monson. His name was Gunnar Nelson.
A few years after Gunnar showed me a glimpse of his wizardry, I was working on Marcelo Garcia’s Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques and referencing other Victory Belt books for guidelines on instructional formatting and structure. I saw a similar position to what Gunnar had showed me in Marcelo’s materials and also in Andre Galvao’s Drill to Win. I took the technique into the gym, and suddenly it clicked. Now the position—a movement that Galvao calls the “hip & knee pin” in his book (pg. 148)—is the core of guard passing game. Whenever I am in guard, gi or no-gi, I want one hand on my opponent’s hip and one hand on my opponent’s knee. If I get that position, I feel like I just caught the Snitch in Quidditch.
My own jiu-jitsu journey is full of stories like these, and when I talk to black belts, they tell similar stories. They saw a technique at one point in their training and in the moment either did not understand it or understood it but could not possibly imagine how it would ever apply to their games. Then, several years later, the dusty memory of a long-discarded technique pops out of their memories like Jason popping out of Crystal Lake. Suddenly, it makes sense, and more importantly, it becomes a killer part of their games.
There are a lot of lessons you can take from this anecdote, but the most important one is this: Do your best to drill and learn every technique your instructor shows you, even if you cannot immediately see its value or application. If you give every jiu-jitsu idea a fair chance, then you are more likely to pick it back up when it comes back into your orbit two, three, or six years later.
Just because you don’t need the technique today does not mean you won’t need it tomorrow. Stay open minded. Stay studious. And be willing to revisit ideas again.