Early in our jiu-jitsu careers, we tend to have a problem and solution mindset, and this view of jiu-jitsu is actually pretty narrow. For example, you might get stuck in a headlock a lot, so you ask your instructors (or YouTube) for the solution. This thinking continues as you encounter new positions. What do I do when his legs are like this and my arms like this? Boom, another solution.
And then something weird happens. You run into someone that uses a different solution to solve the exact same problem.
When I was teaching three or four times a week, this got to be problematic because I was not a black belt, and right after teaching a move I’d sometimes hear, “Well so-and-so-black-belt says that you should do this instead.” This is where the problem and solution mindset starts to breakdown. Jiu-jitsu is not a series of simple math problems where the same problem will eventually work out to the same solution. In many cases, choosing one technique over another is actually not about picking the “right” technique over the “wrong” technique.
In reality, your decision is much more nuanced. No technique is 100% effective. Every position or attack or escape is fraught with pros and cons, and being aware of this give-and-take dynamic can help you to make smarter strategic and tactical choices.
Here’s an example: Finishing the armbar from the top.
When you finish the armbar from the top, which arm do you prefer to use as your primary arm hook? Do you use your arm closest to your opponent’s head so that you have a free hand to grab your opponent’s leg? Or do you prefer to hook his arm with your arm that’s closest to his leg, leaving your other arm free to grip fight?
As you can see in the very old GIF above, I prefer to keep the arm closest to my opponent’s head free. But if you flip open someone else’s instructional—say something from Eddie Bravo—you might see a respected instructor teaching you to use the opposite grip from me so that you can hook the leg.
One is not right and one is not wrong. Instead, you have to decide what strengths and weaknesses are acceptable and what makes the most sense for your style.
Let’s break it down:
- Pros of hooking the leg from the top armbar: Opponent has less mobility, slows down transitions, potentially gives you an opening to transition to leg attacks.
- Cons of hooking the leg from the top armbar: Both of your hands are occupied, armbar grip breaks will mean using your feet more often which could be an escape risk, the hand that you would use to attack the head or neck is occupied.
- Pros of keeping the arm near the head free: You can use both hands to break the grip for the armbar, the arm hugging your opponent’s arm is in position for an arm drag motion which could expose the back
- Cons of keeping the arm near the head free: Your opponent has a stronger bridge, transitioning to a leg attack would be difficult, you have to rely on your leg pressure to control his ability to sit up
For me, much of my game is built around the arm drag. I always to take the back, and I’m very comfortable with the arm drag mechanic from almost any position. When I am attacking for the armbar from the top, I either want to get the submission or use it to take the back when my opponent sits up, which makes my preferred grip positioning pretty handy.
At the same time, I like to use my feet and legs sparingly because of some knee problems, so while I sometimes bring my feet into the armbar fight, I won’t do it as much as someone that prescribes to the Eddie Bravo school of thought might. I used to be a big fan of the biceps slicer from this position, but believe it or not, that pressure actually hurts my knees before it hurts my opponent, so I’ve stopped using it, and I also thread my feet inside for the grip break in a different way as well.
That’s me, and that’s my game. My preference is not better or worse in comparison to someone that prefers a leg hook. I’ve made a strategic and tactical decision based on the strengths and weaknesses of the position and based on my own style.
At a certain point, jiu-jitsu is more than knowing how to solve the problem in front of you. It’s choosing the solution that is right for your body type, right for your game, and right for the opponent in front of you. To make those sorts of choices requires you to collect and assess a wide range of techniques. And when you look at jiu-jitsu this way, you can start to see how two high-level grapplers can have very different games. They’ve taken the time to carefully build their styles, technique by technique.