Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper
Every gym I’ve ever been to has an enforcer. This isn’t an official title. It’s a role that goes mostly unspoken and when it is talked about, it’s communicated in code between instructor and student—half-statements that seem to echo the doublespeak of 1984.
“Look out for the new guy, he’s really tough!” said with a laugh.
“Meet so-and-so. They have some previous experience,” said with a little extra direct eye contact.
And then, other times, it’s a discreet nod done from across the room.
The message: Take this guy through the paces. Show him what jiu-jitsu can do, and if he’s rolling really rough, shut that down with some noticeable authority.
The challenge with the enforcer role is that it feels inherently violent. A new person has stepped on to the mat, and they might be big, or they just might roll too hard for that particular class level. The instructor then pairs the student with an enforcer—if the instructor him or herself doesn’t step in themselves to play that part--and the enforcer uses experience to humble the troublemaker or exhaust them to the point that they are no longer a danger to themselves or others.
So, let’s be honest, if we step back and really think about the idea of an enforcer, it’s weird.
I’ve been teaching jiu-jitsu from pretty much the day I started. Yes, I wasn’t really qualified to teach, but I founded a University club with a few other white belts because we wanted more time to train (and couldn’t afford to pay for more mat time at our school). So, even as a white belt, I felt some responsibility to take the tougher rolls that came into the room. The new guy that wrestled in high school or the muscle head that thinks he’s a fighter. Better they roll with me, the most experienced guy in the room (a really low bar in this case), than with a newer student.
As I rose through the ranks and took on more formal teaching roles, even running a satellite school for a brief stint, I often found myself playing the role of the enforcer. If I was running class, I had to grab the guy that rolled too rough, or I had to take the new guy and deal with a round of him testing me to see if I was really worthy of teaching him.
What I’ve come to realize, however, is that the violence of being an enforcer doesn’t solve the actual problem we’re aiming to solve.
We don’t talk to a new person about how they’re rolling too hard or how they might end up hurting someone. We send in a ringer to rough them up, and if we want to add a big serving of potential embarrassment, we send in someone that is much smaller than the troublemaker. The problem, it seems to me, is that we have fallen into a trap where we think that violence will actually solve a problem, and we might also be coping with a bit of group ego as well. Using the enforcer can often be just as much about protecting more vulnerable students—the smaller students, the less experienced students, or the injured students—as it is about saying, “Hey. Just because you beat up one of our white belts doesn’t mean that you’re better than us.”
If I tap a troublemaker out in a few seconds of starting a roll, by virtue of simply capitalizing on a big mistake in an efficient way, the reaction has never—ever—been “Oh I must need to slow down and make more methodical and tactical choices with my grappling.” No. They just go harder. And then harder. And then harder. Eventually, after a few months of taking classes and rolling with dozens of jiu-jiteiros, the osmosis of a healthy training pace may sink in. But that’s a slow process.
After years of playing the enforcer, I stumbled into a better approach: Use technique to shut down the rough and tumble style of a new and overly zealous student, and then actually talk to him or her. After two quick taps, I pause the roll and say, “Going harder isn’t the solution. You need to make better choices. Try doing this instead.”
And then, if they continue rolling really hard, I take a dominant position where I am least likely to take a stray elbow to the nose (belly down back mount is nice) and let them thrash like a beached fish for a few moments. Then I use a coaching voice to say that their approach is only making it worse, and I give them a simple tactical solution like “Protect your neck and start peeling off my feet.”
Rinse and repeat with a good dose of patience.
I’ve seen a high level of success with this approach because what we forget when we send in enforcers is that the average new student simply doesn’t know any better and isn’t actually trying to hurt anyone. In fact, some of them even express some level of horror when you explain the danger they could pose to other students. If we can set aside our own egos and take the time to communicate, we might be able to use enforcers less often and accelerate the transformation from spazzy new student to model jiu-jiteiro.
But if the person is just being a jerk, by all means, drop the shoulder of justice.
A secret part of me gets giddy when a new student joins my class because I get to re-tell one of my favorite jokes. When we are working on a submission or some sort of positional control—usually involving a cross face or a good bit of pressure—I saunter over and explain how exactly the technique works and all of the little ways it painfully exploits the biomechanics of your opponent’s body.
So I finish the explanation, and I say, “You know how they call jiu-jitsu the gentle art? Well, it’s only the gentle art for the person that’s winning.”
Cue the big laugh, and my students, who have heard it before, politely humor this small bit of joy in my life.
Lately though, I’ve started to think that calling our sport the gentle art is entirely inaccurate, no matter what end of the victory equation you’re on. After ten years in the sport and a career that has afforded me the opportunity to work with a number of accomplished black belts, I can’t help but notice a trend: grapplers are broken people. I haven’t met a black belt that doesn’t have a laundry list of injuries. Some are small nagging pains, but each jiu-jiteiro seems to have at least one injury that could be grounds for stepping away from the sport completely.
I’m talking about herniated disks, pockets of fluid in the spine, fractured vertebrae, and pinched nerves in the neck. These are in addition to bad shoulders, torn up knees, and mangled digits that barely resemble fingers. It seems as though earning a black belt has some pre-requisite of self-destruction, and then white and blue belts have the nerve to complain about their instructors not rolling enough.
But that’s not the point I really want to make. My bigger concern: Are we ignoring an important conversation about grappling longevity? We spout rhetoric about training hard and training often and promote this dream of being a world champion, but we don’t talk about the very real costs that come with that journey. And is the price worth it? Could we shift our perspective on what training should be to better preserve the health of ourselves and our students?
Some areas of our training worth considering:
- Techniques that rely on inversion—Building your game around inverted techniques means that you will spend a lot of time on your shoulders with the potential for downward pressure that strains your neck and lower back. Sure, you could win some matches, but is the wear and tear really worth it, especially with younger and younger competitors adopting these strategies. Could neck injuries be the jiu-jitsu version of Tommy John injuries?
- Techniques that put significant, repetitious strain on major joints—I interviewed a high level competitor known for a triangle game, and he casually mentioned how it had wrecked his knees. Even in my mediocre jiu-jitsu life, four knee surgeries have taken triangles off of the table for me. Eliminating triangle chokes all together is clearly not a solution, but perhaps encouraging variety in our students’ games is wise, especially with leg locks continuing to grow in popularity.
- Competition training intensity—The previous generation of competitors, the Rickson Gracie era if you will, has not escaped the toll of injuries. Even Rickson who many considered to have the “purest” technique is a shamble of injuries collected through many years of training and difficult competition. At the same time, we have to admit that the original generations of jiu-jitsu competitors did not train with the same frequency and intensity as the new generation coming up. The bar has raised, so if the founders were unable to escape a lifetime of injury, we have to assume that the situation might be worse for a generation growing up at a time when competition is fiercer than it has ever been.
And I don’t have the solution. All I have is a concern that our twenty-something competitors are going to use up their bodies the way that other professional athletes often do, hitting their 30s with the knees and backs of 70 year-olds, and that our admiration of these competitors will drag casual jiu-jiteiros into a training approach that is not sustainable for them either.
In the digital age of jiu-jitsu, there is no shortage of training aids. You can supplement your training with private lessons, seminars, YouTube videos, instructional DVDs, books, magazines, podcasts, GIFs, and internet discussions. You can even take the premium route and subscribe to one of the many technique databases headed up by the likes of Marcelo Garcia or Saulo Ribeiro. Even with this myriad of resources at your disposal, you should take time to do your own research.
You should analyze competition footage because it will help you to:
- Inject new ideas and techniques into your regular training routine.
- Reverse engineer how techniques work through thought and experimentation, which will help you learn new techniques from instructors as well as instructionals.
- Uncover details and ideas that might not be explicitly covered in a lesson or video.
- Expand your horizons by forcing you to try new things and to be okay with failure.
For as much as you gain from breaking down the footage of a competitor, the process is unlikely to come naturally. For me, I had no idea where to start when I was a white belt. When I watched high level grapplers or fighters compete, I suspected that I should be learning something from their performances, but I would soon get overwhelmed and revert back to enjoying the spectacle of the incomprehensible magic playing out before me.
To get a handle on how to breakdown footage on my own, I started reading Aesopian’s (Matt Kirtley) Brabo choke analysis by sheer luck. The material is nine years old at this point, but even now it’s a great example of how to take a few seconds out of a video clip and distill them into something that impacts your training in a meaningful way.
In the time since 2007, other jiu-jitsu writers and content creators have started to share their process. By reading or watching their work, you can start to train yourself to see what they see and look for what they look for. It’s still not a total independent analysis on your part, but it’s a good step forward. Here are some worthwhile individuals to follow that produce content for free:
- BJJ Scout
- Ostap BJJ
- T.P. Grant's Judo Chop
- Jack Slack (more striking-focused but still a good resource)
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with what good analysis looks like, you can start to do your own. Eventually, you’ll have your own process, but try these steps to get started:
1. Find a question to answer. If you enter your competition footage analysis sessions with the amorphous goal of “observe and learn something new” you will struggle. Instead, try to define the question you are trying to answer. You can take inspiration from your own training—how do top grapplers address the spider guard grips when they are trying to pass?—or you can watch a grappler you admire until you notice a movement or technique that is at least somewhat new to you—how and why did that work? Once you have a specific question to answer, you will have a clearer structure for continuing your analysis.
2. Try to watch grapplers that have a large volume of available footage. There are a slew of talented brown and purple belts out there that are great competitors, but it won’t be as easy to find footage of their matches as say Keenan Cornelius or Rafa Mendes. If you start your analysis with top active competitors, you are more likely to see a consistent gameplan across matches, which will you help you to probe at the “why” of a technique’s execution.
3. As you compare footage from match to match, look for differences as well as similarities. If you took my advice from point two and are watching as much footage as you can from one singular competitor, you are likely to see them execute the same move in different ways. This is your opportunity to start identifying variations and counters for a particular position. If your chosen competitor likes the lasso hook, try to identify the differences in matches that might lead to them choosing a different variation. Are they responding to an attack? Is his or her grip different? Where is the opponent’s center of gravity and how is his or her posture?
4. Compare techniques between grapplers. If you figure out that two grapplers like the same basic position, you are likely to find that their technical approach will not be exactly the same. One might prefer different grips, different entries, or different counters. When you can identify these differences, you can start to guess at the pros and cons or one variation over another. Both grapplers are likely aware of the cons when they make a particular choice, so that means they really like the pros. There is bound to be an interesting insight down that rabbit hole.
5. Look for instructional footage that matches your competition footage. Depending on the grappler, you might be able to find an instructional video where he or she teaches the technique trying to analyze. That doesn’t make your competition footage analysis any less fruitful, however. By referencing the instructional, you can check your own work—did you notice the right details?—and you can start to pick up on things that the instructor might not have taught. Even the most thorough videos don’t account for every nuance or counter, so by watching competition footage you might see a scenario that the instructor didn’t talk about or better yet you might be seeing the most up to date version of the move.
6. Take notes and archive footage. Since you are likely working from YouTube videos, keeping a log of your observations and the links you view is in your best interest. Losing track of the perfect match is unfortunately very easy (the thumbnails on jiu-jitsu matches all look the same), and writing down your thoughts can help to foster more in-depth thinking. Also, it’s worth noting that YouTube videos have a habit of disappearing. While I don’t advocate pirating match footage, making a back-up with a YouTube download extension or plug-in might be wise.
7. Take your observations into the gym. All of your thoughts and insights are purely hypothetical until you actually try to apply them. This will not be an instant victory for your training. You will likely struggle to recreate the technique you were studying, and you’ll have to experiment with subtle variations in grips, movement, and positioning. This is actually a helpful part of the process that will deepen your understanding of technique if you don’t let it frustrate you too much.
Analyzing competition footage is the mark of a true jiu-jitsu nerd, but it’s also a powerful way to accelerate your development. I hope you find it as fun and rewarding as I do.
A few years ago, jiu-jitsu concepts became all the rage, and for good reason. When YouTube jiu-jitsu hit a critical mass, we had no shortage of individual techniques. We could find hours and hours of footage of our favorite competitors and instructors famous and obscure teaching their secrets. With the volume of knowledge going up, students naturally craved a more meaningful way to stitch them together, to zoom out and think about the art at a level higher than individual techniques.
So instructors started talking more the concepts and strategies that drive everything from biomechanics to competition strategies. For a while, this elevated jiu-jitsu learning, but now we have a similar challenge with concepts as we have with individual techniques: There are so many people talking concepts (and in so many different ways) that we almost need another level up from to help us make sense of this deluge of material.
In my mind, that level up is a learning framework, a process for taking the concepts you know and using them to accelerate your learning. For example, when you’re learning a new technique you can take what you know about biomechanics and use it to analyze the choices you’re making in the move. If you’re compromising one of your rules for effective biomechanics, you should figure out why this is the exception to the rule or perhaps correct your error.
I say all of this after having struggled with how best to do this in my own jiu-jitsu. I wanted a way to consistently reverse engineer what I was learning so I could more quickly determine what made a move “tick.” At the same time, I wanted to make sure that I could articulate anything I learned for the sake of my students. An insight was not worthwhile, to me, if it was purely intuitive. I had to be able to turn around and give it to someone else.
Here is the process I’ve come up:
1. Up and down are relative. What I mean by this is that you can find common threads in mechanics if you step back and ignore the idea of gravity for a moment. Freeze your position and rotate it like a 3-D model in a piece of software. When you do this, you realize that guard has a lot in common with mount and that the mechanics of the armbar from guard are nearly identical to the armbar from mount, except when you turn the gravity back on you get an extra mechanical boost. Suddenly, you can teach a student one technique for two positions rather than the student compartmentalizing the armbar in two different boxes.
That sounds simplistic, but finding this common ground between positions can help you problem solve and troubleshoot more efficiently. Why is your armbar from guard effective but your armbar from mount ineffective? Well, you know that from guard you need to climb up the back to pinch near the armpits and cut the angle. Are you doing that from mount? Now, whenever I learn a new position I start to flip it around in my mind to see if it has anything in common with something else I know. For example, the berimbolo made more sense to me when I saw that it had in common with the waterfall or crab ride position.
2. Most transitions are in two streets. I call this the idea the “rewind principle.” If you can enter one position from another, you can probably do the reverse. It’s not always true, but as you dissect a new position it can help you to uncover new opportunities without having to learn brand new techniques. For me, I this epiphany when I was doing an armbar from the back with my opponent turtled. I could do the same move almost step for step in reverse to take the back from a belly down armbar. Suddenly, I had a double threat where I used to think I was simply working for an armbar.
For a blue belt, this was a big deal, and it’s been a part of my learning process ever since. If someone teaches me a transition, I soon start look to start at the end and work backward to where I started. Even when it doesn’t work I walk with helpful insights. If I can’t rewind a technique, that means there is probably a point of no return, and knowing where that is helps me decision-making process during a roll just as much as knowing that I could do the same move in reverse.
3. Grapple with your bones. I picked this when I was rock climbing with a friend. He was an avid climber, and I was visiting for the weekend. When I asked him how he could climb so long without getting tired, he said that the key was to use your bones to build your structure and support rather than trying to do a pull up over and over up the side of a mountain. I almost fell off the climbing wall when I realized the implication.
Sure, we talk about building frames, but a good frame is more than making a shape with your body. A good frame puts your bones and weight to work rather than your muscles. Now, as I’m learning a new technique, I evaluate what I am using to execute the movement. If I find myself using a lot of strength to do the move on an non-resisting opponent, I know that something is not right. From there I can go over my technique and troubleshoot the problem myself, experimenting with variations in positioning to find the sweet spot where my bones do the work.
4. Move yourself, not your opponent. Where grappling with your bones helps you to think about static positions and frames, this principle is about how you move. The majority of your jiu-jitsu should hinge around how you move yourself rather than counting on being able to move your opponent. The more of a disadvantage you face in size, the more difficult it will be to move someone that doesn’t want to be moved.
And yes, this principle applies to sweeps and takedowns. If you take your favorite sweep apart and look at its component pieces, most of the work you do is about getting yourself to the right place so that you have as much leverage as possible to finish the move. If you feel like you are doing the lifting, you are either not in the right position or you are using the sweep at the wrong time.
There are dozens of additional concepts that you could incorporate into your learning, but these are my favorite because they become clear questions that I can ask myself mid-training to evaluate and refine my technique. Because of that, these few ideas have had a profound impact on my training and helped me to become a teacher at the same time. I hope they do the same for you.
If you want a full instructional on this type of thinking, my cloud instructional 3-D Jiu-Jitsu is completely free. Read it today.
My fight journalism career began 10 years ago with Lockflow.com. From there, I wrote for Ultimate Grappling (which became Ultimate MMA), Fight! Magazine, Victory Belt Publishing, and The Escapist. At the busiest point in my career, I was writing 10 articles a week and producing a video podcast (The Lockflow Show). These days, my fight writing is limited to jiu-jitsu, and even that writing focuses almost entirely on instruction.
Here’s why: the fight world does not support actual journalism.
This piece is, of course, a reaction to the UFC banning Ariel Helwani from UFC press credentials for life for being a journalist. A source told Helwani about the Brock Lesnar signing, and Helwani broke the news before the UFC could make an official announcement. The internet will be up in arms for a whole five minutes—like they were about the firing of Stitch Duran—and then they’ll go back to ordering PPVs. I’m not surprised by how events are playing out, and I’m completely confident in this prediction because for the UFC, time is a flat circle. We’ve done this dance before and we’ll do it again.
The UFC history of banning fight journalists from events goes back to 2005. Jeff Sherwood (of Sherdog.com) had his credentials yanked in 2005 when Sherdog and the UFC allegedly disagreed on how much money Sherdog should make from selling UFC DVDs. The credentials were returned in 2009, but then revoked in 2010. Cage Potato reports that when Josh Gross—another long time fight reporter—asked for an explanation, Dana White texted him “None of your fucking business.”
Loretta Hunt, also a Sherdog writer, published a story about backstage restrictions for fighter managers and agents, and Dana White went on a sexist tirade. That transcript is also available in the Cage Potato article linked above.
The UFC is pretty much the player in MMA, and they’ve thrown their weight around against journalists time and time again. There is nothing different about the Helwani incident that suggests to me that he will be treated any differently.
At the time I originally wrote this piece, Helwani was still banned, but multiple sites, Deadspin among them, have reported that his credentials have been restored, which is far better than the five year timeline I was going to predict. Despite his credentials being restored, all is still not right in my mind. In its statement on the matter, the UFC said:
"We believe the recurring tactics used by [Helwani] extended beyond the purpose of journalism. We feel confident our position has now been adequately communicated to the SB Nation editorial team."
So the UFC has told SB Nation how it wants its organization covered. Awesome. That's not a victory for journalism, and the article goes on to report that Helwani was once thrown into a wall by UFC security and was also at one time paid directly by the UFC. The waters keep getting murkier.
The bigger reality is that as long as journalists are treated this way, fight journalism will not evolve. Coverage will be limited to fluff interviews and repetitive generic coverage. Here’s why:
- The UFC is not the only organization to blacklist journalists. In fact, I have had high level grapplers threaten to blacklist me from their gyms and from their networks of training partners for some fairly benign writing. The sport is so small that threats like these actually carry serious weight, especially if you’re trying to make a living out of fight writing. So we should not be that surprised when the majority of fight journalism is little more than public relations. Journalists don’t want to be blacklisted, and the publications that release their work are even less inclined to take that risk.
- The size and structure of the fight world amplifies these problems. The number of top athletes in MMA and jiu-jitsu is relatively small, and the number of organizations hosting events is also limited. That creates a recipe where blacklists are exceptionally powerful. If you get locked out of covering any Atos grapplers, for example, your journalistic efforts in jiu-jitsu can be in big trouble.
- These problems aren’t limited to the fight world, though they are less common outside of it. Bill Simmons, for example, was suspended by ESPN for blasting Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice surveillance footage. Simmons alleged that Goodell was lying about not having seen the footage (which is admittedly murky territory for a journalist, without having proof). The suspension immediately called into question how an organization dedicated to journalism (ESPN) could be objective if so much of its business is tied to a positive relationship with an organization it covered (NFL).
- Fight fans don’t seem particularly interested in critical or investigative journalism. Unabashed hero worship is rampant. If a black belt posts entertaining things on social media, he can get away with unprompted street fights and spouting off racist or sexist remarks and any negative commentary—no matter how rooted in objective fact it might be—is quickly booed or downvoted into oblivion. Even the alleged Lloyd Irvin rape scandal took a lot of convincing for outrage to begin (how many grapplers and journalists saw inklings of the problems but never came forward?). But now, the outrage is mostly forgotten.
There are important, thought-provoking stories out there to be covered. The sport has so much growing to do, and a great deal of that growth hinges upon awareness for key issues. There are fighters out there that are as uplifting and positive as they seem. There are fighters out there that despite their cheery social media posts are sociopathic in the gym and in their personal lives. There are pervasive issues of sexism and racism that have existed in our sport form the beginning.
But we don’t talk about them, and every level of the sport is to blame—organizations, athletes, consumers, and journalists like me that didn’t have the mettle to risk it all for the sake of journalistic integrity.