When I was new to jiu-jitsu, a wide-eyed and bushy-tailed white belt, I struggled to grasp the idea of when to use a particular technique. I thought that if I mastered the series of steps that made up executing a move, then I would be able to use that move effectively when I rolled. In practical application, being able to do the move—as in the physical coordination and finesse required to move from the start to end of a technique—is only the most basic prerequisite of making the technique work in a live situation.
You have to master the when, or the timing of the technique. In the flurry of a roll, that’s not always easy, so let’s break it down.
The when, or the opportunity, to use a technique has three elements (or at least this is how I think of it):
- Trigger: What is the stimulus (or indicator) that tells me I should use this specific technique?
- Space: How much space is between me and my opponent, and which variation of a technique is appropriate for that space?
- Movement: Where does the opening for a technique begin and where does it end?
I picked up the idea of triggers from reading early Aesopian blog posts. A trigger is what tells me that I should use a certain technique. “If your opponent puts her arm here, you should do this.” When we are white belts, triggers are really basic and clear situations, like someone reaching across your body in your close guard to give you the armbar. As you get to be more advanced, triggers become more and more nuanced because skilled training partners are less likely to make big obvious mistakes. Instead, you have to identify small gaps that you can exploit and build into something bigger.
Analyze techniques as you learn them to ingrain the trigger in your mind. Ask yourself questions like:
- How is my opponent positioned in the ideal opportunity for this technique?
- Why would my opponent end up in this position (what is he trying to do or how can I get him here)?
- How much of the position can I change before the technique won’t work anymore (what if her foot is here instead of there or the grip lower instead of higher, etc)?
When we are white belts, we often learn the “easiest” versions of techniques and build into more advanced variations and set ups later. Think back to the first armbar you learned: It was probably from mount or closed guard, and your training partner hands you the armbar with little resistance. You have a comfortable amount of space to work as you isolate and cut the angle for the submission. Later, you learn that you can dig out an armbar when an opponent stacks you or that you can hike your hips into the air and climb into an armbar when your opponent stands in your closed guard. When you get really fancy, you learn that you can even jump into an armbar from the standing position.
The mechanics of the armbar are not all that different—you need to get to the same essential position to finish the attack—but the amount of space available changes how you react to the trigger of the arm being out of position. Generally (very generally), there are three types of space: close, mid-range, far. The mid-range tends to be the easiest to learn because your opponent is close enough for you to access the grips you need without much trouble but not so close that you feel squashed or like you are spelunking to get the attack you want.
When you are learning a new technique, try to start with the mid-range variation first and then explore close or far later. Ask yourself questions like:
- How much space am I working with, or which space variation am I in right now?
- How would this attack change if my partner was close or farther away?
- At what extreme, close or far, is this technique no longer practical?
In a classroom environment, we often learn techniques in very static situations. Our partners stand exactly where we need them to, and they wait for us to execute the technique of the day. This is a perfectly acceptable way to learn something new, but for us to move from drilling to live application, we need to also think about movement. The opportunity to use a technique is often on a gradient, the in-between as an opponent moves from point A to point B.
Even a relatively inexperienced white belt will not flop an arm on your chest and wait for you to armbar. They might be making the wrong decision, but they are trying to do something or get somewhere with the movement. The most advanced grapplers build a web of funnels so that even when their opponent makes the “right” move they have a more powerful counter prepared.
To improve your ability to launch an attack in transition, isolate the position during rolls or open mat (working only from closed guard if you are improving closed guard attacks). Work with progressively more skilled opponents as you get better, or ask your partners to scale back resistance until you improve. As you practice, ask yourself questions like:
- Where is my opponent trying to get to when I use this technique?
- What are the absolute earliest and latest moments that I could apply this technique?
- Can I move myself into the ideal situation for the technique? How would I do that, and when is the best time?
No matter how good your instructor is, covering all of this nuanced material in a class is difficult, and that challenge is made more complex by nuances in bodytypes and physical abilities. If you can develop a process for how you think about jiu-jitsu ideas and for how you analyze and breakdown technique, your learning will dramatically improve. Better yet, you can bring well-formed and specific questions to your instructor when you get stumped.