Make the Right Turns Right-er-er-er

One of the conversations I find myself having with new students is the idea that jiu-jitsu is not always about who makes the right and wrong technical choices in a match. In a competitive art where winning and losing seems black and white—such is the nature of written rules, usually—we expect the idea of “right” and “wrong” to be black and white as well.

There’s more to it than that. As Captain Picard once said in Star Trek: The Next Generation, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

For jiu-jiteiros, that means understanding the complexities of a match and using that understanding to enhance our ability to learn and improve. That all sounds good in the abstract, but let’s make it a bit more concrete so that you can see what I mean.

You’ve played Mario Kart, right? Well, any racing game will do, but we are going to stick with Mario Kart.

Now, remember what it feels like to play a new track for the first time. While your friend—probably the goober who owns the game and gave you the crappy, sticky, loaner controller—zips out ahead, you struggle with just navigating the course. You don’t know what turns are coming or what obstacles are hiding around them, so you careen all over the course, often sliding off the track and into the grass or water.

Simply knowing the track is a monumental advantage. When you don’t know what comes next, you can’t plan for it, so you either drive more slowly or you blunder into a pit. Either way, you are likely to lose the race to the more experienced player who can take every turn with zero-hesitation and a high-level of finesse.

Jiu-jitsu is not so different. When you get sucked into another grappler’s game plan, you are forced into racing on their track. They may have built the game plan out of familiar pieces, but they know the loops and turns and traps better than you do, and if you try to outrace them on their own turf, you will likely lose.

And this is where the idea of right and wrong in jiu-jitsu gets murky. You can run a technical race—where you don’t fall off the track or hit a banana peel—and still lose. If your driving was on point, why would you still lose? Probably for one of these reasons:

  • Your opponent is more efficient on the course than you are, shaving extra seconds off through better execution.
  • Your opponent has a faster cart than you or got an external power-up, giving him an edge you didn’t have.
  • Your opponent might know secret shortcuts that you do not or perhaps has the skill to execute them where you do not.

In these cases, you still took the right turns at the right time, but your opponent found ways to make the right turns… well… right-er.

Where this is challenging for a jiu-jiteiro is that during a match, the difference between right and right-er can be minuscule, but those little advantages add up. A half-second saved here, a half-second there—You might not be able to pick out a single moment where you made a huge blunder and blew the match, but every little bit of ground you lost eventually came back to haunt you. And that’s not even addressing other factors that may have been at play, such as a physical advantage or some fancy new trick that surprised you.

This is why analysis of how you did in a match or a roll needs to go beyond right and wrong. You may have had the right answer for your opponent’s attack, but you reacted to the opportunity a second too late or perhaps your opponent overwhelmed you with strength or speed.

No, this is not about finding an excuse for why you lost but rather to be more specific and productive with how you learn from the experience. In many cases, you already know the right answer. You just need to spend more time drilling and rolling so that you can launch your own techniques at exactly the right time.

You don’t necessarily need to find a new course to race. You just need to spend more time on it.