If you play video games long enough, especially MOBA games like League of Legends or DOTA 2, you will hear the term map awareness thrown around—Usually in the form of “you freaking noob you have no map awareness.” In these video games, map awareness refers to knowing where the other players in the map are, where you are in relation to them, knowing which ways you may be attacked from and knowing what your best escape routes are. Much like noobs, many grapplers have terrible “map awareness” or a sense of “mat awareness” if you will.
Mat awareness is knowing the following:
What position you are currently in. This means going beyond the basic positional definitions like guard or half guard and becoming aware of all the funky weird positions you find yourselves in when you start sparring. You often see white belts freeze mid-roll because they have no idea where they are when a position gets even a little bit complex. More experienced grapplers also experience this when they start experimenting with different leg entanglements whether in leg locks or crab ride/berimbolo positions.
Common attacks and common escapes from a position. From a given position, you need to be aware of the most common attacks and escapes so that you can be ready to either capitalize or defend. While this will at first feel like a static point in a roll with static options, eventually you’ll see attacks and escapes as paths into and out of a position (an escape can be a path into a position just as much as a path out of a position). Accounting for the danger of a position is always key, but once you know what to look out for, how you play a given position should start to become more strategic.
- Where are you on the mat itself. Are you close to the edge of the mat or another training partner? Of all the things we have to keep track of this is one the most important ones. Is very easy to injure yourself or a training partner by landing outside the mat or on top of each other. Every so often is necessary to look around and making sure you are not moving into danger. This might not be a technique taught on a DVD, but it’s one of the practical realities of training with a team.
Now that we know what mat awareness is, how do we improve it? The answer to this question, like most, BJJ questions is mat time. The more you train, the more you will develop these skills. However you can speed up the process by doing a few things:
Learn every position. But don’t stop there. Every time you learn a position, play a game of BJJ connect-the-dots. How can I get here? What other entries to this position do I already know? What are the most common reactions that I can expect? What should I do when I encounter this reaction? You will be surprised how this simple drill will improve you mat awareness and keep you mentally sharp as well.
Leave your comfort zone. Having an A game for competition is great, but you should not restrict yourself to only a small number of moves. If you have a tournament coming up and you want to sharpen your game, by all means go for it, but you should devote a percentage of your mat time to exploring new positions, even if they fail. Having a good grasp of different guards will make them much easier to pass, for example. So even if you never intend to play X-guard, playing with it is an important part of your broader learning experience.
- Work with specialists. Figuring out a new position entirely on your own can be difficult and time-consuming. Finding someone in your gym—or perhaps at another gym if you’re up for a road trip—who already understands what you’re trying to learn can help you shortcut a lot of basic mistakes and problems. At the higher ranks, it’s not uncommon for an experienced black belt to talk to a purple belt about a position that the purple belt happens to be really good at. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t have the answers, and then go find them!
Mat awareness is an ever-evolving skill because grappling itself is always changing. Competitors are getting better, and new techniques are entering the sport each day. If you aren’t putting a consistent effort into looking at the big picture, you might wake up one day to discover that you are four years behind, depending on a style that has been nerfed years ago.