Inverted Gear Blog / Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

3 Common Pitfalls As You Move Up the Ranks

Over the years, I have seen BJJ students run into many common problems. I am guilty of many of these myself, and now when I work with my students I try to steer them away from making this mistakes as well. My thinking is that if I can help you skip over the obstacles that slowed my own progress, you can learn more and advance faster than I did. Here are the top 3 pitfalls I talk to my students about:

  1. Becoming a technique collector.

As a white belt, your biggest problem is usually that you simply don’t know what to do. Your instructor comes along and shows you a move for a certain situation. Now you know when you’re in a certain spot, you do that. So by that logic, you just keep learning every possible move you can do in every position, and then you will have it all figured out.

The fix here is to realize you can only be good at so many moves and to pick the main ones you want to work on. Cut out the rest (for now). You may incorporate more techniques later, but you have to start with something.

  1. Trying to be too unique and original.

This problem usually strikes at blue or purple belt. This is when you are getting getting some skills, and nothing feels better than doing a cool move no one saw coming. Like the technique collector, you think success is having more techniques, especially strange ones that no one knows how to stop.

The fix is to cut back to basics and work on your foundational skills that will have the broadest applications. These are likely the first moves you learned. Look at the classics in greater depth instead of chasing after the next hot move.

  1. Being afraid to try moves you are not yet good at.

The pendulum swings both ways, and instead of trying too much, you may be afraid to try anything at all. Fear of looking stupid and failing is common, but you need to overcome that if you want to keep improving. People with this problem will often become “good” at stalling and count not tapping as a measure of success.

No doubt, you need to be able to defend submissions and shouldn’t be making fundamental mistakes, but sometimes you need to try something and fail so you can figure out how to do it better next time. To get over this problem, you should set a goal of using certain techniques and go for them “win or lose.”

Each of these pitfalls relates to the techniques we choose to work on, and all can be overcome by simply changing your mindset towards how you train. If you saw yourself in any of these, take an honest look at how you are training and see if you can do better. The first step is recognizing the problem and seeing the need to change.

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Get a gi to give a gi

A year ago, my friend Sean contacted me to tell me about a school club a few of his teammates from Main Line United were helping out with. The Workshop School is a project-based charter school that takes an innovative approach to teacher and learning. Sean and his teammates were pitching in to help by incorporating a jiu-jitsu program into the school’s offerings. When I saw that the students were using "jawn" -- a Philadelphia catch-all colloquialism -- for an ornament project, we had to get involved.

In case you don't know, "jawn" is an all-purpose pronoun that's unique to Eastern Pennsylvania, mainly Philadelphia, that can refer to any person, place, or thing, such as "pass me that jawn" or "see you down at the jawn." The kids at The Workshop School have adopted it as their logo and use it in fabrication projects.

After emailing back and forth for a few weeks, we visited the school. We got to meet the kids and talk them through the gi design process. They were great to work with, being part of a project-oriented school showed right away, and after some brainstorming we had a pretty good idea what they wanted their gi to look like. 

One thing was clear, they wanted their bestselling item to appear on it somehow, so adding their signature JAWN somewhere on the gi was a given. After a few redesigns and samples, we arrived at what you see here.

Now this is the part where we need your help.

Not all the kids at the school can afford to buy a gi. Most of them are wearing hand-me-downs given to them from Main Line United members. We are trying to use the “buy one, give one” model to get them outfitted in fresh uniforms. Here’s how it works:

  • You place a pre-order for a gi
  • For every gi bought during the preorder we will give one gi to the kids from the workshop school
  • Our goal on this project is to give 25 gis to the school
  • Preorders will be open for a week, then we expect gis to arrive somewhere in mid-October.
  • This is our first time doing something like this, but if we can do some good for these kids we would like to explore doing this more often

If you are interested in a new gi and would like to help these awesome kids train jiu-jitsu this is the gi for you.

Place your pre-order today.

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Ask a Panda: Who Has to Move It, Move It?

Question: I am a purple belt with four stripes. The other day I was rolling with a blue belt when two other purple belts, one with no stripes and one with two, collided with us. I asked them to move, but they said two purple belts outrank a purple and a blue, even though I pointed out that I have more stripes than either of them. The instructor agreed with the purple belts, but at the end of the very same class made sure I was higher in the ranking line than they were when we bowed out. What is the correct way to handle these kinds of situations? Does my rank trump two purples with fewer stripes even when I am rolling with a lower belt, or are the two purple belts in the right?

Answer: In these kinds of situations, “correct” and “incorrect” are going to depend in large part on what your instructors say. It is true there is a generally accepted protocol when it comes to belt/stripe rankings, where the highest-ranking person trumps everyone else, even if that person is rolling with someone brand new to the sport. For instance, a third-degree black belt could be rolling with a first-day white belt, but if they ran into two second-degree black belts, etiquette would dictate that the second-degree black belts move out of the way.

There may be exceptions, however. I am fond of saying that “foot beats face,” for instance, which means that if I see someone’s heel coming for my forehead, I am going to move if I possibly can, regardless of whether I outrank the person that heel is attached to. (I developed this philosophy through unfortunate experience, and as a result, I tend to focus more on safety than ceremony.) Or perhaps a higher-ranking pair is in a stable position (e.g., one is inside the other’s closed guard) while the lower ranked pair is in the midst of a scramble, which means the higher-ranked pair could more easily move. The point is, this generally accepted rule about who must move for whom is not hard and fast, and it may be interpreted differently by different instructors.

In the case you mentioned, the issue seems to be that the rule—one person’s higher rank trumps any two people’s lower rank—is being applied inconsistently. As you mentioned, when you line up to start or end class, you as the highest-ranked purple belt are placed at the front of the line. But when collisions occur on the mat, a different rule seems to apply, at least according to the instructor who taught that class.

I suspect that in many schools this is one of those pieces of jiu-jitsu etiquette that is not taught explicitly, but instead is something students pick up tacitly as they become acculturated to training. Perhaps this is true of your school as well. Instructors who do not teach this are not trying to be obtuse. Rather, they are probably like fish who have become unaware of the water in which they are swimming, and, as such, they do not immediately recognize what it is like to have just dived in.

My suggestion to you is that you ask your instructor for clarification of the assumptions you are making about rank and who must defer and when. Feel free to use this article as a starting point. The upshot is, if you are confused, chances are others are confused as well. Your instructor might welcome the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions, as this will lead to an even safer and more respectful training environment.

Thank you for the question, and good luck!

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Coping with Contradictory Instruction

When you teach jiu-jitsu, you will routinely encounter uncomfortable situations. You might have to discretely tell someone that they need to trim their toenails. You might have to explain why pressing one’s chin into a training partner’s eye socket is in fact not a good idea. And you might have to field any number of questions about jiu-jitsu and about technique, from the benign to the bizarre.

For all the weirdness, one of the most difficult scenarios for me to navigate—both as an instructor and as a student myself—is the contradictory instruction problem. One instructor shows the technique one way, and another instructor shows it another. In isolation, the problem is less pronounced, but isolation is a rarity in jiu-jitsu.

I’ve had both of these situations happen to me as a student: I traveled to take a lesson with a black belt whom I admired, but when I returned to my home gym I was told that I was doing a technique incorrectly, even in cases where what I was doing was explicitly based on the input of the black belt I visited.

Or, and this is a true story as well, I was in a class being co-taught by two black belts. When one black belt came around, he would give advice and correct my mistakes. When the next one came around, he would say that I was doing it incorrectly and set me back to executing the move how I was before the first black belt came around. But then the first black belt would come back around and be visibly frustrated that I was back to making the same errors again.

To be entirely fair, these scenarios can be equally confusing and frustrating for an instructor. One of the hardest minefields to navigate in jiu-jitsu instruction is when a student says, “Mr. Miyagi does it this way. Why don’t you do that?” That leaves the instructor trying to maintain some semblance of expertise on the subject while at the same time avoiding any statement or action that discredits the other instructor. And even when you try your hardest to be respectful, a student will still very often go back to the original instructor with a story about how you said that he or she was wrong.

Dealing with seemingly contradictory instruction can create enough problems that it hinders progress for everyone involved. At the same time, it’s inevitable. The nature of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art is that it will be expressed differently from person to person based on a host of factors.

So, what’s a student to do? Well, try these suggestions:

1. Do as the Romans do. If you are taking a class from an instructor, do the technique the way he or she is teaching it, even if you learned it differently from someone else in another class. This is not only respectful, but it’s good for your jiu-jitsu. You might find that the new variation works better for you—or perhaps a piece of it does—and even if it does not, you will have a better understanding of what’s happening if someone uses the variation on you.

2. Weigh the pros and cons. Many technical variations are the result of careful calculations of pros and cons. For example, I once had a scissor sweep debate about whether the top knee should be parallel to the mat for the sweep or kept more vertical. For me, I like to drop the knee to parallel to get the full power of the sweep, but the other instructor preferred to keep the knee erect to lower the chances of his legs getting smashed together. One is not necessarily wrong, and no variation of a technique is without its weaknesses. Even if your teachers do not call out the specific differences in variations, you should be able to work them out through experimentation in drills and in rolling

3. Consider the context. Techniques that seem similar can often be mistaken for being the “same,” but in actuality a key difference in positioning or timing can be the differentiating factor. This problem is less common as you climb the ranks, but for newer students the nuance between why you might execute a cross collar choke with the second hand on top versus the second hand underneath can be easily overlooked.

4. Word your questions carefully. There is nothing wrong with asking an instructor to go into more detail about the technique he or she is teaching, but you can make it easier on everyone if you frame your questions thoughtfully. If you say something to the effect of “Sensei Kreese shows it this way, so why do you do it differently?” you might create a problem. If you instead say something to the effect of “Why do you like to grip the collar this way as opposed to this option or this option?” you make the conversation more about the content of the lesson and less about which instructor is right and which instructor is wrong.

5. Remember the problems of remembering. In your mind, you may believe that you perfectly recall how a technique was taught, but the possibility of your being incorrect is very real. If you have not put considerable effort into drilling a move and have not seen it taught multiple times by the same instructor, you might actually have it wrong, so tread carefully when you start thinking in terms of one instructor having it right or wrong.

The more gyms leave behind the tribal mentality of us versus them (we are right, and they are wrong), the less contradictory instruction becomes an issue. At the same time, however, we have a responsibility as students to be thoughtful about our own training and to consider how our own interactions with class material can flavor a discussion. If you are considerate about how you learn and how you ask questions, you can make the challenge of contradictory instruction easier for yourself and for your teachers.

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6 Submissions Every White Belt Needs to Master

These 6 submissions are what I believe every white belt needs to develop as the fundamental attacks. Each submission was picked because it develops skills and movements that later techniques are built on, and because despite their simplicity, they are still high percentage finishes at the highest levels of the sport.

Armbar from closed guard

You need move like you a boxer needs a right hook. This is one of the most fundamental submissions that should be in everyone’s arsenal because it allows you to dictate how your opponent behaves inside your guard. The moment he overextends, you can take his arm off.

Triangle from closed guard

Just like the armbar, the threat of the triangle lets you dictate how your opponent behaves inside your guard. Even if you don’t make it your favorite submission, you should develop a respectable triangle (for your level) so that you can make people fear it enough to help you set up other attacks.

Cross collar choke from mount

As with all of these submissions, our attack allows us to dictate how our opponent must react or be caught in an quick submission. Any time their hands move away from their face, you want to know you can slap on that second grip and get the tap.

Armbar from mount

With the hand in the collar for chokes, you are going to get a lot of people attempting to upa you. That’s where the armbar comes in. When they turn to bridge, they expose the arm. If they give up on the escape, you can switch back to the collar choke. This combo is the quintessential double attack.

Spinning armbar from side control

This move can be difficult for beginners to learn because it requires a movement that is unnatural at first, which is why you should start practicing it early. Once you get it down, it gives you that ability to attack the far side of your opponent and transition smoothly from side to side, giving them nowhere safe to hide.

Double lapel choke from back control

In my opinion, this is the most powerful submission in BJJ. This is one of the highest percentage chokes when you get the back, and it should be in everyone’s arsenal. Once you refine this finish, you are a major threat from the back.

While submissions should not be the primary focus of beginners, you need to start early on these so that you can be ready to implement them as the rest of your game develops. These 6 submissions were chosen because they are the simplest techniques that still work at the highest level. Threatening strong, simple attacks lets you dictate the terms of engagement with your opponent. When they slip up, you'll be ready to catch them.

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