Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper

Distilling Technique Down to Concepts

All triangle choke entries involve one of two mechanics: You either pin the arm close to the body to enter the triangle position, or you extend the arm away from the body so that you can thread your leg out of the gap and over the shoulder.

For the hundreds of possible triangle choke entries, that’s it. You pin the arm, or you stretch it out wide.

Yes, there are mountains of details that will go into any potential entry, but my point is not to oversimplify. Instead, if you can see what every entry has in common, you can start to unite all of the muscle memory and troubleshooting you learned for various positions into one bucket. This way, you aren’t learning 10 different ways to execute a triangle choke, but rather 10 ways to get to the same place.

In my mind, it’s a bit like the “All roads lead to Rome” idea. You might be coming back into town from an unfamiliar place or direction, but at a certain point you reach familiar roads. You can turn off the GPS and either cruise on mental auto-pilot or improvise to troubleshoot new problems as they arise (without having to pull out Google Maps and re-plot your trip).

Unfortunately, we tend to redraw the map from scratch when we learn a new technique when we should be taking the time to review the map we already have and figure out how best to connect the new route to what we know.

Returning to our triangle choke entry example, when you can categorize your techniques into similar batches, you can not only simplify the troubleshooting process (since many challenges will have commonalities, entry to entry), but you can start to see opportunities for attacks. For the wrist-pin triangle entry, if your opponent’s hand is close to their body, you can potentially pin it for a triangle. If the hand is far from the body, perhaps posted on the mat, you can loop in for a triangle choke.

In application, this gets pretty creative. Perhaps you are pinning the wrist from the back with seatbelt control to enter a reverse triangle or maybe you are swooping in for a triangle as your opponent fights your whizzer, posting their hand out wide for base but exposing their neck.

The goal of distilling a technique down to these basic pieces is so that you can be learning a new position, see an ingredient for an attack, and ask yourself, “Could I do this technique here?”

Then, as you experiment with the possibility, you can ask yourself follow up questions like, “When I do this technique in other positions, I angle or move my body like this. Can I do that here?”

Or

“Based on how my opponent defends other entries, what can I do to stop or counter similar reactions with this entry?”

When you do these mental exercises frequently, you will find that you instinctively improvise your way into common ground in ways you might not expect. Spending a significant amount of training time identifying the right stimulus or trigger for a technique trains your body to react automatically. If you have trained for even a little bit of time, you have probably had this feeling already. Your arm just found the neck for the choke or perhaps in the fit of a scramble you latched on to an armbar only to later go, “Oh hey, that was neat!”

To do this on your own, work through the following:

  • Simplify a technique down to its most basic steps. Imagine you are explaining it to a five-year-old. What is the bare minimum of explanation you can muster to explain what is happening?
  • How is your opponent positioned that makes this technique possible?
  • What movement do you have to do to execute the technique?
  • How much variation in the movement or position can you have and the technique still work? In other words, what is the smallest window possible and the largest window possible?
  • What does this technique have in common with other techniques you have learned? Are you using movements like shrimping, bridging, standing in base, or framing (even if in small pieces)?
These mental exercises can turn into powerful insights. You may run into dead ends as you experiment and encounter failures, but that’s okay. The more important part is that you are developing a process for thinking about jiu-jitsu and how techniques actually work. That will pay huge dividends later as you become more and more advanced and need to find solutions to new problems.

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Mastering the “When” of Technique

 

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?

Trigger

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:

  1. How is my opponent positioned in the ideal opportunity for this technique?
  2. Why would my opponent end up in this position (what is he trying to do or how can I get him here)?
  3. 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)?

Space

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?

Movement

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?

Conclusion

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.

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Chasing the Good Ol’ Days Magic

10 years ago, the jiu-jitsu scene in Pittsburgh was radically different. Where most cities—like New York or San Diego or Seattle—had attracted multiple black belts and sprouted thriving jiu-jitsu cultures, Pittsburgh was still clawing its way to relevancy. When I started, there were no black belt instructors available, and it would be several years before there was more than one gym within driving distance to choose from.

In those days, with so few training options available, many of us pooled our resources and our knowledge to make the most of our training time and to learn as much as we could.

Back then, my blue belt was a hot commodity. A local professional fighter invited me to join him and his friends for weekly training sessions in a local high school wrestling room. One of the guys was a coach and teacher there, so we could key in late in the evening and train undisturbed for hours.

The ritual is one that I miss. Pulling into a vast parking lot after dark, looping around the building to find a cluster of cars gathered around the side door by the mat room. If you were early, a group of fighters would be huddled there too, riffing about MMA or about girls beneath a streetlight. With myself as the exception, everyone had aspirations of MMA stardom. They had bouts booked and dreamed of climbing the amateur ranks to eventually turn pro.

For the next hour and a half, we’d rotate through drills and sparring rounds. Whoever had the most experience in a subject lead the training on that topic, and sometimes we would circle up and swap theory and technique that we might have picked up separate from the group. The room thundered with pad work, and if someone got angry, it was at themselves for a mistake.

We trained hard, and as we filed out the side door and back into the night, we’d pick up on the conversation threads that we dropped on our way in.

What I loved about this ritual was that even though MMA was an individual sport, the people that came to the mat room had a “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality. Nobody was paying dues. Nobody was tracking memberships. You came to improve, and you paid by being a body for someone else and by sharing the knowledge you had. Even when guys weren’t preparing for fights, they’d come because they knew that their training partners needed them.

My impression of jiu-jitsu gyms is that most started this way—a few people in a garage pouring over old VHS tapes and tattered issues of Grappling Magazine—but along the way the spirit of this sort of training can fade. As numbers grow and business interests increase and friendships drift, the comradery of being in “it” together fades. People scan their cards. They take class. They leave.

I don’t mean to wax poetically about some nostalgic memories. My point is that this magic that comes with first starting something new and immersing yourself in a collaborative creative process doesn’t have to die. It will likely need to evolve as you approach a decade or more of training, but the magic doesn’t need to wither away completely.

In my own way, I’ve been trying to find ways to revisit what made training feel special and find ways to keep my adoration and passion for jiu-jitsu burning brightly for the long haul and through hard times. Here is what I’ve come up with:

  • Embrace what jiu-jitsu means for you, and accept that meanings can change. When my health started to decline and my capacity for training multiple times a day (or even multiple times a week) disappeared, I recognized that what I loved most about jiu-jitsu was being in a good training environment with good people. Today, I will pass up a fancy seminar for 2 hours of hanging out in a mat room doing rounds with close friends. I am still addicted to the learning aspects of the art, but that learning is fuel for making these sessions even more fun.

  • Give back as much as you take. While I agree with the consumer-centric perspective of modern jiu-jitsu (that you, as a student, are paying for a service and are therefore a customer), the idea of a team should not be forgotten. That saying about boats and tides does ring true, as corny it may sound. You might not be running class, but being a good training partner or taking the time to pair off with a new student are things that you should be able to find enjoyment from. If you help to set and maintain that example, the quality of your training experience overall should improve as more people follow that lead.

  • Training will never be perfect all of the time, so lean into the harder times. When jiu-jitsu is new and fresh, every session is fun and interesting. As time marches on, however, the grind as some call it can get pretty rough. If your expectations are set to the white belt high level of everything be awesome, your blue and purple and brown belt years will be harder to face. This is why you need to reflect on what jiu-jitsu means for you and what aspects of training bring you joy. If you start to feel jiu-jitsu getting dull or grueling, give it a chance to swing back around, and then revisit those important (to you) aspects to drag yourself out of the worst slumps.

  • Fill in the blanks that a formal environment creates. When I was first told to take charge of my own training, I thought that just meant holding myself accountable for drilling or showing up to class on time. Today, my perspective is that the formal structure of a well-run academy simplifies a lot of the potentially difficult aspects of training jiu-jitsu—Finding mat space, finding training partners, getting worthwhile instruction—but that skeleton will not automate all of your jiu-jitsu experience for you. You can take charge of your own training session by coordinating with students to be present at an open mat to work on specific material, by caravanning to seminars and tournaments with your training partners, or by being a positive force in and out of class (for example).

While I recognize that nostalgia can make an imperfect experience seem perfect in retrospect, I think that I’ve been able to rekindle my love for jiu-jitsu by looking at what I enjoyed about those sessions and using those experiences as a measuring stick for my future training choices. The faces and mats by different, but I know what I enjoy about jiu-jitsu, and I’m putting in the work to structure my training around what matters to me. And that’s produced instant returns for my development and for enjoyment.

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Pros and Cons of Gym Hopping

Over the course of the last ten years, jiu-jitsu schools and individual jiu-jiteiros have largely accepted that cross-training is a good thing. An instructor who salts the earth for students who dare visit a neighboring academy is typically viewed as unreasonable and perhaps even toxic. Thus, the pendulum has swung away from Creonte culture and into a new jiu-jitsu world where students with time and resources train at multiple gyms in a single week.

In the denser cities where academies are plentiful, I have met grapplers who will teach at one school, drop in to two other schools, and then meet up with a bunch of friends for an open mat (or a varying blend of those options). This level of access in jiu-jitsu is relatively new, and seeing grapplers take advantage of cross-training and idea-sharing is really exciting.

As that pendulum swings away from closed doors and intense discussions of what loyalty means, we should also be wary of the opposite extreme could mean for your development as well.

The benefits of gym hopping are pretty straightforward but worth reviewing:

  • Exposure to new styles and approaches to training and technique
  • Fresh perspectives on your strengths and weaknesses from new instructors
  • More variety in sparring partners and challenging rolls
  • A broader network of friendships to make traveling, competing, and training in general more enjoyable

I’m a fan. I like the idea of open-sourcing jiu-jitsu and leaving behind the tribal idea that jiu-jitsu schools are somehow at war with each other. Homey, I pay a mortgage and won’t throw away boxes if my cat likes to play in them. I’m not interested in grappling for the honor of an instructor who will lock me out of his gym as soon as my credit card payment doesn’t go through.

So, let’s all train and get along and have fun.

At the same time, however, we should recognize that gym hopping can have drawbacks. The emphasis on can is intentional because the potential pitfalls are avoidable. I highlight them here so that we can continue the trend of openness in the healthiest ways possible. If you like to practice nomadic jiu-jitsu, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Not all grapplers are friendly, so be wary of rolling with strangers. Stay technical, protect yourself, and feel out the intensity. It’s natural for hometown heroes to test a visitor, and in truth, most people will be perfectly nice, but assuming that someone will take it easy on you is a quick way to get hurt.
  • Each gym is its own petri dish. I’ve met grapplers who will leave a class at one academy and drive to the next, dropping in on a class with a fresh gi but with no shower in between. Even the cleanest gyms are prone to outbreaks, and if you are a frequent traveler you will be exposed to more germs than most. Make it a point to practice basic hygiene (wash your hands, wear clean gear), but also be wary of what you carry from gym to gym. If you are training at multiple places in a day, shower in between.
  • A variety of ideas and techniques is invaluable but so is the long-term mentorship of an engaged instructor. If you love to gym hop, that’s great, but the impact of an instructor who has seen your game evolve over the course of years and can feed you new positions and ideas as you need is hard to replicate. If you gym hop, try to establish a home base with an instructor invested in your development. The tricky thing here is that these instructors are hard to find. Even if you train at the same gym every day of the week, you still might not have an instructor who cares enough to go this extra mile.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this aspect of jiu-jitsu culture evolves, and I hope that it continues being positive.

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The Bully Factor

These days, a good bit of my professional life is spent off the mat. I go to client meetings with construction contractors, lawyers, designers, and so on. And it seems like 1 out of 5 meetings involve someone striking a Karate pose when they hear that I train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

“I won’t mess with you!”

Or

“Do you think you could take me?”

Recently, though, while waiting for a meeting to begin, someone asked me why I had started training in the first place. They were surprised to hear that I was bullied growing up and that training was a way for me to come to terms with those experiences. After all, I am no longer the scrawny kid with a bowl cut, lugging a bag full of Pokémon cards, and clinging to the latest copy of Nintendo Power. I may not look like a kid that got bullied, but that kid is still with me in a lot of ways, and I like to think that he informs how I make decisions today.

In the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world, the idea of bully prevention gets thrown around frequently. Yes, training a martial art can give you confidence and teach you to defend yourself—and those skills are helpful—but that approach to the bully problem is one-sided. It only addresses the people being bullied and ignores the people doing the bullying.

Preventing bullying by only teaching the people being bullied is like preventing forest fires by only training fire fighters.

I don’t have a magical solution for transforming bully culture, but I can say with reasonable confidence that our sport can do more and have an even greater impact. Here’s what I would like to see:

1. Adult bullies are perhaps more dangerous than child bullies because they have more resources and a greater reach. They might not be chasing people home from the bus stop, but a toxic instructor or a toxic student can lead to more bullying as these behaviors are modeled and perhaps even condoned. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has had its share of high-profile manipulative instructors, and there are more of them out there than you think. We need to hold ourselves and our peers to higher standards if we ever hope to lower bullying rates in children.

2. We should teach young people what bullying behavior looks like just as much as we teach them how to stand up to bullies. Sometimes kids are actually just being kids, and they don’t realize that they are behaving like assholes. We should be talking to our younger jiu-jitsu students about the dangers of following the pack blindly and how they can use their confidence (and hopefully not but perhaps their jiu-jitsu) to protect people that can’t protect themselves.

3. Survivors of childhood bullying may approach their adult life in a manner that is very much influenced by their childhood experiences. What I mean by this is that you may find adult jiu-jitsu students who are not emotionally very far from their younger selves. This means that certain approaches to teaching may be less effective, and some challenges may be more difficult for them to overcome. We should be more mindful of these possibilities and be empathetic. Some students might not respond well to the frat-style insults meant to build comradery or may need more time to learn how to cope with getting beaten up and dominated by upper belts. Instructors should be more aware of this.

Bullying is a strange beast, but we know that it has very real consequences ranging from anxiety and depression to self-harm and suicide. We might not have the ultimate solutions today, but by being more mindful and aware of the full scope of the bullying problem, we can start to move closer to making an even bigger difference with our art.

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