Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper

The Orbit of Jiu-Jitsu Techniques

In even a single year of jiu-jitsu, a student will see a wide range of techniques. At two classes a week with an average of two techniques shown per class, a student will “learn” 208 techniques. Then factor in the odd private lessons, a seminar or two, instructional material, and the casual exchange of tips and tricks that happens at any generic open mat, and you quickly end up with a volume of material that’s just not practical to learn all at once.

The result is that a lot of techniques are left to the wayside, and even the newest jiu-jiteiros adopt a pattern of looking for the moves that they “need.” They naturally want a technique that solves a problem they have when they roll, or they want the technique that elevates their performance by building directly on top of the game they have.

As far as jiu-jitsu goes, all of this is pretty normal. The opportunity that many jiu-jiteiros miss, however, is that they rarely return to the techniques that didn’t make the cut the first time around. And if they do return, it’s because an instructor forced them to in a class (which is a nice stroke of luck for the student, that he or she happened to be in the right class at the right time). 6 months, a year, or two years later, that one technique you passed on drilling extensively could be the linchpin for a game-changing development for you.

The technique that doesn’t seem useful today could be useful in the future.

I say this because I was just reminded me of this fact, and that reminder has me going back through what I can recall from previous classes and seminars to see what else I might be missing. For me, I have been working on my butterfly guard for a few years, and a long time ago I learned an overhead variation of the sweep that just never seemed necessary to me. My bread and butter sweep would either do the trick, or something in my recounter arsenal would mop up the problems I had.

Then I come back from an injury, and suddenly I’m faced with the exact scenario the overhead variation was designed to address. For whatever reason, I didn’t see it often enough before (perhaps my rusty technique means I am making mistakes and allowing it to happen), but now that technique matters.

If I had discarded it completely—which means that I declared it eternally useless and thus not worth recollecting any fashion at all—I would be missing an opportunity to expand my game. Fortunately, I made a mental note of it when I first saw it, so when it made its return orbit I could take advantage of the opportunity.

I don’t have a mega memory that makes this easier for me, but I do a few things as a student that might help you catch a technique you’ve already seen when it’s orbit crosses paths with you again:

  • Identify why a technique would be useful. Even if a move is not a fit for you right now, figure out what situation the technique is best for. It doesn’t matter if you don’t encounter that situation often enough to warrant drilling the technique a lot now, but making that mental observation of “This technique would be good if I start finding myself attacking with front headlocks” is a more positive association than “I don’t need this.”

  • Give every technique a sincere drilling effort. If you tell yourself a technique is useless, you might be inclined to drill it half-heartedly during the class or seminar where you are learning it. Even if you see no clear place for it to fit in your current game, still put the same amount of enthusiastic and thoughtful repetitions into the move as you would with any other technique. Doing the technique with attentiveness can help you recall it later.

  • Context matters for memory. When you learn a move, take a second to mentally observe who is showing you the technique. A year from now, that observation might help you track down the instructor or training partner who can remind you of the details you need.

  • Be a more general student. Having a specific game you like to play is normal for advancing jiu-jiteiros, but try to be a bit more academic about your learning. By that I mean spend time outside of your narrow area of study and maintain an active interest in learning other types of games. You don’t need to master them or even drill them all that much, but exposing yourself to positions you never intend to play (at least right now) will help you identify things you’ve seen before, and will also help your defense down the road.

  • Play the flashcard game when you watch competition footage. When you watch matches, challenge yourself to identify what a competitor is attempting do with their technique or what their options are from a certain position. By trying to predict what a competitor will do next, you force your brain to scroll through the options you have stored away—even if they aren’t ones you use—to figure out the possibilities.

You will hopefully be in this sport for many years to come, so while we can’t hope to remember everything we have ever learned, these tips should help you to recall a few helpful techniques from your own personal archives. You never know when a technique will come rocketing back to relevance, but if you make an effort to be ready for that to happen, your jiu-jitsu will greatly benefit.

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Moving Beyond “Right” or “Wrong” Techniques

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.

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The Case for Stubbornness

As a character trait, being stubborn is usually considered negative. Someone who is stubborn insists on a path no matter what, sometimes in the face of overwhelming opposition. They grit their teeth and refuse to be swayed.

In jiu-jitsu—and in sports in general—a certain kind of stubbornness is mandatory to achieve success. If you are not willing to fail repeatedly until you get it right, you will likely find it difficult to progress, especially as your competition gets tougher and tougher. To learn, and to grow, you have to be willing to believe that a technique or a move can work for you and hold that belief over a long stretch of training and through countless screw ups.

Here’s an example: Christian Flores is a skateboarder, and he isn’t shy about saying that he knows he isn’t the best or even the most consistent skater, but he’s passionate. He had a trick in mind that he wanted to land, and it took him two years to get it right. By his own estimation, he went to the same spot 10 times a year and attempted the trick 100 times each go, and on two occasions had to go to the hospital as a result of failing. So that’s a lot of attempts before getting it right.

Flores fell down a lot. No, really, a lot. Watch the video.

Working on one trick for two years sounds insane to me, someone who tried standing on a skateboard once and promptly fell on his face, but when I look at what it takes to advance in jiu-jitsu, two years sounds completely reasonable. Once you get beyond blue belt and move into the twilight years of purple belt, your little technical projects—adding that new technique or strategy to your game—is no longer the one or two month fix that you had at white belt. You start to look at four or six-month chunks at a minimum.

In my case, it took me 6 months to really start nailing arm drags, and starting to nail butterfly guard was another 6 months. Beyond trolling white belts, the majority of those stretches were pure failure. I’d miss a detail or misjudge my timing or use the wrong variation at the wrong time. In jiu-jitsu screwing up might not mean dropping your head on cement like it does in skateboarding, but there can still be a significant amount of pain to mix in with your self-loathing when you realize that your arm drag failed and you are now getting your guard passed.

But that’s how you get really good. You say, “I am working on this thing,” and you insist on going for that thing relentlessly, every class and every roll. You get sick of it. Your partners get sick of it. And your instructor might even get sick of it. But you keep trying it. You keep trying to stick that landing no matter how many times you fail.

There is a little bit of that always get back up when you fall happy go-lucky fuzzy feel good sentiment here, but to me it’s more scientific than a simple moral victory. Yes, you won’t be defeated or denied, but each failure is a little learning experience giftwrapped in frustration. If you are willing to look past the parts that suck, you can learn a lot about yourself and the technique you are working to master.

After a lot of failure, you eventually map all (or virtually all) of the possible scenarios you can encounter when you try a technique. With all of the surprises taken off of the table, you can focus on the known, and gradually refine and hone until you are sharper and faster than anyone else you know with the move.

It takes time, though. And it takes falling down a lot. If you stick with it, you come out the other side a much better grappler, which really just means looking for the next opportunity to fail again.

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Jiu-Jitsu Should Change as You Change

The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world likes to throw around the word “lifestyle.” Live the jiu-jitsu lifestyle, man. Wear flip flops everywhere. Eat some acai. Wear some jiu-jitsu t-shirts that no one but fellow jiu-jiteiros understand. Maybe hit up a camp or two. And that’s about where our thinking about the jiu-jitsu lifestyle tends to stop.

Here’s the thing: We assume that jiu-jitsu will be a lifelong pursuit. That’s the nature of the art, but very few people talk about how your jiu-jitsu lifestyle will need to evolve and adapt to the rest of your life as you add year after year of training. A lot can happen in a year—You could get a new job, you could start a family, you could move, you could get hurt, you could have a family emergency. But, as a community, we don’t seem to put much thought into our jiu-jitsu lifestyle changing. We put it in this little vacuum and hope that our oasis will always be just as it was when we started.

Your jiu-jitsu lifestyle must change as your life changes.

That’s the only way you will enjoy the sport for the long run. If you create this idyllic idea of what it means to be a part of jiu-jitsu, you lock yourself into a set of life circumstances that will inevitably change, and after a few years you will find yourself hating the sport because you can’t train as much as you used to, or your body isn’t holding up, or all your favorite training partners packed their things and moved to another gym. The jiu-jitsu lifestyle should not be some static idea. It should grow with you as you, as a person, grow as well.

This means being willing to reevaluate what the “jiu-jitsu lifestyle” actually means for you. For me, after a series of injuries and a decade of working behind the scenes in the sport, I know I can’t train the way I did when I was 21, so I am learning to adjust my own expectations. Training everyday isn’t in the cards, physically or logistically, so my own expression of the jiu-jitsu lifestyle is rolling a few times a week and getting to that mental place where I am just totally focused on jiu-jitsu. That’s my bliss.

As an instructor and as a longtime student, other life events could trigger a jiu-jitsu lifestyle adjustment. Here is what I’ve seen and how I’ve seen jiu-jiteiros change positively as a result:

  • A new baby. For the normal person with a fulltime job and a marriage they care about, adding a baby to the mix almost completely destroys your schedule. Training three days a week may not be in the cards for the first few months, but with some open communication with your spouse and a healthy management of priorities, you can spend some time on the mat and still be present for your family. It just might not be at the volume of training you’d prefer.

  • A new job. Moving into a new professional role can come with a lot of stress. Your routine changes, your commute might get longer, and your responsibilities might grow. Like the baby scenario, maybe expect to dial back the training a bit for the first few months, but don’t stop training. Insist on making it to the gym at least once a week and consider adapting your training schedule to your work schedule, perhaps jumping into more morning schedules.

  • A new injury. Your body will age, and some form of injury is virtually inevitable on a long enough timeline. Follow your doctor’s advice about recovery time, and consider backing off the super intense rolling sessions if you feel your body not being able to handle it. This is one of the hardest truths to swallow—that you’re not what you used to be—but the good news is that longevity is a bigger topic now in sports medicine than ever, which means that with some smart exercises and some mature decisions about your own capacity, you can train for longer and stay healthier in the process. You might need to make some changes, though.

  • A new marriage. I’m not a fan of people bagging on their spouses not letting them train. If you’re working a full time job and training five days a week, you’re not leaving much time for your loved ones, and that can create problems. Open communication seems to be the key here—at least it was for me and my marriage—and good communication also comes with compromise. If your only solution is that you should always get to train as much as you want, you will probably lose your relationship or your jiu-jitsu.

  • A new hobby. You are allowed to have other interests that are not jiu-jitsu, and you are allowed to be happy with training a few times a week. Every black belt I respect has eased off of the “JIU-JITSU IS EVERYTHING” mentality and picked up other interests to varying degrees. Studying something intensely non-stop for years and year is just not practical. If your goal is to train for your entire life, you might actually want to do something other than jiu-jitsu now and then to stimulate your mind and to expand your personal horizons. That’s okay, and it’s probably the healthier approach.

Adapting to life changes could mean everything from training more or less, training differently, training at a different school, or rethinking what you actually enjoy in the sport. Change is difficult to resist, and with the right mindset, you can make your changes healthy. Let your jiu-jitsu grow with you as you grow.

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Why Writing is the Key to Returning from a Layoff

Around 2010 or so, the training fad of the day was “mind maps,” which were essentially decision trees for jiu-jitsu positions in part popularized by the flowchart in Eddie Bravo’s Mastering the Rubber Guard and championed by a few dozen BJJ bloggers.

The instructional value of seeing a gameplan mapped out with “if this then that” logic was clear. It makes the progression of positions and counters easier to follow by condensing dozens of techniques and tactical decisions into a singular diagram. The mind map champions took this idea and applied it to their own games. By creating a flowchart of your preferred options—what you do when someone postures with grip A versus grip B and on and on—you give yourself a big picture view of your game that you might be missing.

By zooming out and creating this map, you can identify holes in your game. With the map in front of you, you can see that you have six solutions for one problem but only one solution for another (or perhaps no solutions at all), so the mind map becomes a tool for self-diagnosis and self-directing your training.

Photo Credit: Mastering the Rubber Guard by Eddie Bravo

Mind mapping isn’t talked about as much these days—it went the way of the balance ball drills and Ginastica Natural—but there is still value to the process. For me, the biggest value of mapping out your game is simply to have a record of what you like to do and why, which is a powerful asset to have when you’re coming back from a long layoff induced by an injury.

Let me give you an example.

I’m pretty much perpetually on crutches, so I’ll save the sob story, but when I’m not on crutches I write books and shoot a lot of videos. There was even a time where I was filming every one of my no-gi classes and uploading them to YouTube for my students to reference later. In essence, I have a back catalogue of informal mind maps to reference as I start the long process of de-rusting my techniques. What was once second nature can now take a bit of thinking to pull out of the depths of my memory.

Instead of sitting and thinking on it until it comes back to me, I can look back over my notes and my videos and learn my material again from myself.

That might sound strange, but there are many occasions where you are the best jiu-jitsu teacher for yourself, and this is one of them. Having a record of your game, even if it’s not completely comprehensive and not as detailed as an instructional video can save you a lot of time when you’re coming back from an injury. If you’ve never done any sort of jiu-jitsu journaling or mind mapping before, here’s an easy way to get started:

  1. Make a list of the major positions you find yourself in (your favorite guard variations, half guard bottom, half guard top, etc etc).
  2. List your top 3 or 4 techniques for each of those positions and the “trigger” or opportunity you look for as the prompt to use that technique.
  3. Don’t worry about being incredibly detailed for your first pass. As long as you write enough to remember what you mean 6 months from now, you’ll be in good shape.
  4. For bonus points, film a few of your rolls or make a list of YouTube URLs that teach some of the more complicated techniques in your list.

See? That’s pretty simple stuff. You don’t need to map everything to help your recovery process. More is better, of course, but the best solution is one that you will actually follow through with, so small is fine. If you can, come back to the document every few months to update it, and try to put it in a place where you won’t lose it. For me, cloud documents are ideal, but for you it might be a journal on your book shelf.

If you are in the unfortunate position of coming back from an injury, dust off your list of techniques and use it as your drilling guide. As you go through your favorite options, the details will come back to you more readily because you aren’t starting from zero, which will make your ramp-up back to 100% capacity more efficient and less frustrating.

But here’s hoping you don’t get injured in the first place.

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