Inverted Gear Blog / Matt Kirtley
Every white belt has asked a black belt for help only to hear this annoying answer:
“Don’t get there in the first place.”
You want to scream “I WOULDN’T BE ASKING IF I COULD’VE AVOIDED IT, NOW WOULD I!?”
Still, the answer is true. The solution to most problems is “Avoid it.” But how do you learn to do that? That’s what we’re going to discuss now. (Don’t worry, we’ll also talk about what to do when you can’t.)
When looking back on a tough situation you found yourself in sparring, ask yourself: “How did I get here and why?
Now you’ve hit the root cause of the problem. You had some control of the match back when you were in guard, but you lost it. Everything that followed was you just trying to survive instead of progressing towards a win. You thought being crushed under side control was the problem, but your weak guard was the reason.
Let’s pull camera back and look more broadly at how to develop our defensive skills.
How you deal with problems in BJJ can be roughly categorized four ways: prevention, defenses, escapes, and counters. Here is how I define those as distinct from each other:
You can further divided these into three groups based on timing:
Defenses and escapes are the most closely linked, since a good defense should lead to an escape. These skillsets are about surviving when you get deep in the weeds. What you do to stay alive is often not pretty or easy, but you do what you’ve got to do. Defenses and escapes can be early, on time or late. When you’re late, it’s likely just defense and escapes that will save you.
Prevention is where you get the biggest return on your investment over your lifetime of training, but it is built on skills a beginner doesn’t yet have, like balance, pressure, positional awareness, strategy against particular types of opponents, etc. The good news is that you should be developing all of those if you’re getting half-decent instruction. Prevention is usually about being early or right on time to deal with the problem before it blows up.
Counters assumes the greatest skill level, since prevention, defense and escapes flow into a counter offensive. Timing and sensitivity play a big role in smoothly countering, but even a beginner can start learning basic ones. Counters usually happen when you’re early or on time.
In the reality of a fight, the divide between these classifications is less clear and more fuzzy. Is a really early defense actually prevention? Is an escape that ends with you in a good position actually a counter? Can I defend until I can counter? This is where semantics break down. The answer is yes, it’s probably all of those things. The classification doesn’t need to be clear as long as the outcome is good.
You need to spend time deep in the problems to develop the ability to survive, defend and escape. This is the big value of positional sparring: it forces you to work on the crappy situations you would otherwise avoid. This is where you will spend most of your time as a white belt and new blue belt, likely against your will.
As you gain experience, work to raise your awareness of earlier warning signs. What was the earliest moment you can connect to your current problem that you still had a chance to fix with minimal effort? This is where you start to really feel the “jiu” in “jiu-jitsu”, the flowing counters and re-counters.
In your quest to become a grappling Houdini, here’s a motto for you to follow:
“Prevention is best, but be prepared to survive the worst.”
“(Or just tap and try again.)”
In part one of this series, I gave my best advice for newbie white belts and anxious new blue belts. Part two was for blue belts looking to level up to purple and purples figuring out how to keep progressing. Now I finally get to high level purple belts and brown belts on the verge of reaching black belt.
As a rank, brown belt can have a very wide spread in what that color represents. Nelson and I talked about this last time we trained together. Every belt can represent different things for different people, but it gets more pronounced the closer you get to black belt.
Consider these 3 fictional but common biographies:
What being a brown belts means to each of these people is very different, and their instructor will have promoted them for different reasons. The idea that “the same” belt can mean different things for different people is often debated, mostly by lower belts who want the higher ranks to be a definite and unbreakable statement. In making a promotion, an instructor is making a judgment that considers many factors, including the person’s skills, knowledge, dedication, contributions to the school and the sport, their ability against people of similar experience, size and age, tournament performance, and much more.
All that said, in the dream world where we can hold everyone to the exact same standard, here is my best advice for soon-to-be-promoted purple belts and brown belts:
Nail down what defines you as a grappler. The early belts were mostly about filling in the blank spots on the map. This exploration continues through the middle belts, where the focus is usually on adding more techniques, and less on refining what’s already known. By brown belt, you should know what you like and don’t like. You shouldn’t need many more techniques. Own your favorite positions and techniques. Cut out the fat and fluff. You should have a gameplan that you can skillfully execute with confidence against competent opponents.
Sharpen your signature submissions. A solid brown belt should be able to threaten submissions from almost every position. You should feel like you can submit anyone, even the black belts, if given the opportunity. All those years spent developing positional control were so you could be confident once you want to end the fight. The submissions don’t need to be anything fancy (in fact, it’s likely better if it’s just the classics like armbars, chokes, kimuras, etc.) but they need to be sharp, clean, and instill a sense of inevitable doom.
Deepen your appreciation of the fundamentals. The experimentation that often defines the middle blue and purple belts can be fun, but often has people chasing the latest trendy techniques or flavor-of-the-month guard. There’s a time and place for that, especially if you’re a competitor, but they can be a distraction from developing what you will really use throughout your lifetime of training. With all of the experience you’ve gained since white belt, you may be surprised by how much you can gain from reviewing your basics with the desire to see the deeper concepts and finer details. This is especially important if you want to teach and pass the art on to your students.
Shore up your weaknesses. With black belt on the near horizon, this is one of the best times to fix any glaring weaknesses. This may be escaping from certain positions that you’ve gotten good enough to usually avoid. You may define yourself as a “guard player” or a “top game player” to the neglect of the other, and it’s time to develop the opposite skill set. For pure sport BJJ players, the commonly neglected skills are takedowns, self defense, and leglocks. Your weaknesses could also be physical conditioning or mental aspects like a lack of confidence or negative beliefs about yourself.
Stay dedicated and put in the work. The biggest “secret” is that there are no real secrets. Keep coming to class. Study and drill your techniques, keep learning new things, and reviewing old things. Become more efficient, more fluid, more dynamic, more solid. Direct your personal progress by what you do at open mats and during free sparring. Keep your nose to the grindstone, but keep your passion and love for the art alive.
Photo credit to Mike Calimbas.
At the end of “Advice for Newbie White Belts and Anxious Blue Belts” I promised a follow-up for higher belts. Here's my advice for you blues and purples who want to keep making progress.
Looking back on it, the path through white to blue belt is fairly straightforward: come to class, learn new techniques, drill, spar, call it a night, and repeat. You’ll never get away from this general structure, but as you rise up through the ranks, especially into purple belt, the old routine can feel stale. The progress comes slower. You feel like you’re getting less out of the “here’s today’s technique, now drill it” approach. You may have felt you got more of your instructor’s attention as a beginner, but now you’re being left to figure it out by yourself.
The middle belts can be an awkward stage, but here’s my best advice for pushing through to the next level:
Take greater ownership of your personal development. In this modern age, this can mean watching instructional videos for specific techniques or studying match footage of your favorite competitors. Without going digital, taking ownership can mean setting goals and working towards them each time you train. Your goals could be to focus on specific techniques, positions, guards, submissions, etc. When you walk into the school, already have a clear idea of what you are going to improve that day, regardless of whatever happens in class.
Train combinations of basic techniques with a focus on timing and momentum. Most of the progress as a white belt comes from learning new techniques where you previously knew none. The problem is that this approach stops working once you have more than enough techniques for most positions. Now it’s time to refine the moves you already know, using the experience you have gained from years of live sparring. Set up drills to develop your ability to flow between techniques and positions to take advantage of timing and momentum. An analogy is that white belt is where you learn your alphabet and basic words, blue belts are building their vocabulary and learning grammar, and purple belts are expressing themselves in full sentences and paragraphs.
Develop your personal style, but stay open to new additions. By now, you should have a good idea of the positions and techniques you like. Have you ever taken the time to really lay out your gameplan? You’ll never get good at everything, but you can start by getting good at what comes naturally. Your gameplan should be adaptable (or rather you may need multiple gameplans) so you can handle problems like an opponent with aggressive wrestling, high pressure guard passing, tricky and flexible guards, sneaky footlocks, etc. When you identify a weakness in your gameplan, now you know the next goal to set.
Set handicaps when training with less experienced partners. Once beginners stop being a challenge, it can be easy to go on autopilot with your “A game” to get some ego-satisfying taps so you can lay your head down on a pillow that night with a smug smile on your face. Set a goal of only using specific techniques or positions, or putting yourself in bad spots so you have to defend and escape. Try this extra ego-destroying mode: don’t tell the lower belt know what you’re doing, let them feel like they really earned the position (instead of just laying there like a dead fish), and don’t say “Oh, I let you have that, so you know” if they tap you. Just smile and say “Good job!” and go on to the next round. (You can always smash them tomorrow if you really need to.)
Reevaluate your reasons for doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Years have passed since you first walked on to the mats. What were your original reasons for joining a school? Did you want to learn self defense, or lose weight and get in shape, or have a competitive outlet after leaving high school or college sports? Your life has likely changed since then -- have your broader goals changed too? Many people will achieve (or abandon) their original goals, but still keep training because they simply enjoy being on the mats, even without any specific goals. Not everyone is training to be a world champ, but you can always try to be better than you were yesterday.
Advice for White Belts
You took the plunge and started jiu-jitsu! Everything is new and wonderful and strange and confusing. Looking back on it, my time as a white belt was probably the most fun. That’s when you’re experiencing so many things for the first time. You get to feel the excitement of seeing the basic techniques with fresh eyes. You won’t fully appreciate it at the time, but those fundamentals are going be the classics you return to again and again for as long as you train.
Now is the time to really enjoy learning from trial and error. No one will look down on you for screwing up as a white belt. You may feel pressure to perform, and of course you should try your hardest, but no one will remember your “failures” at this point. Do your best, learn from your mistakes, and ask for help when you need it.
Use your newbie enthusiasm as fuel to build to a regular training routine. Now is the time to form habits that will keep you training for years to come. Start eating better and keeping a sane sleep schedule so your body and mind are ready for class. Your hyper-enthusiasm will die down eventually, and when it does, you’ll need workaday attitude in its place to keep you showing up to train, even on the days you had to drag your feet to the gym.
Once your body can handle it, add a simple strength and conditioning routine. You don’t need to go crazy with HIIT training with a high-altitude Bane mask like you’re filming a UFC pre-fight promo. Find a simple but smart routine that balance out the ways BJJ will overdo certain muscles and underdevelop others. Injuries will be one of the biggest obstacles to training for a lifetime, and you want to strengthen your body against the preventable ones. This is the advice I most wish I followed as a beginner because BJJ will screw up your joints if you don’t do handle it early.
You will be so excited when you get your first stripe! You will dream about getting that glorious blue belt wrapped around your waist. Don’t be surprised if when that day comes, your excitement is mixed with anxiety. You’re not alone.
Advice for New Blue Belts
You’re getting the hang of this. Keep your excitement burning but settle in for the long haul. You’re just getting started. (Spoiler: the same is true when you reach black belt.)
Don’t let the pressure of the new belt get to you. You may really hate doing poorly with those dirty white belt scrubs now. Who was watching when you failed to effortless subdue every opponent who dared stand against you? Will they talk about you behind your back? Are they counting taps? Worse yet, did sensei see?
Chill out. Just keep training and do your best. Enjoy your successes, but you can avoid the emotional rollercoaster by developing a healthy sense of Stoicism.
Keep working on your weaknesses. Your belt may have changed color but the reality is that you likely need to work on the same things that got you to blue belt: escapes, defenses, survival instincts, and good posture. This will go a long way towards easing your “new belt performance anxiety.” You can start adding in more fun stuff like developing your guard, learning to pass guard, and maintaining dominant positions.
Don’t be quick to write off a technique just because you’re not good at it right away. Blue belts (or even worse, some white belts) can be quick to dismiss a difficult new technique. Keep the open mind you had as white belt. Watch instruction with fresh eyes, and drill like the technique was meant just for you. When a move makes you feel stupid or uncoordinated -- assuming it’s a fundamental and not some gimmick from YouTube -- be glad for that. That move has the most to teach you. Put in the extra effort to really learn it.
Even if you don’t end up making it part of your game now, acting like it will broadens your knowledge and adds to your movement repertoire. This is especially important if you have dreams of becoming an instructor. You’ll need to be able to teach a wide variety of techniques, even ones you don’t personally prefer, because others will need to know them.
Until Next Time...
There you go! That advice should help you through those rough first few years. The key takeaway lessons should be: train a lot, take care of your body, keep an open mind, enjoy your enthusiasm when you feel it, and show up to class even when you don’t.
Next time I’ll talk about how to approach training into purple and brown belt. Let me know if you have any specific challenges you’d like help fixing.
After a tough round of sparring, when nothing goes right and you feel embarrassed and discouraged, it’s tempting to make excuses:
- “They were bigger and just squashed me.”
- “They were stronger and just muscled me around.”
- “They were sweaty and it was no-gi and they just slipped out of everything.”
- “They went berserk and just powered out with zero technique.”
- “They were a higher belt and I was outmatched so of course I lost.”
Don’t think that way! Even when it’s true. What do you gain from it? Those are dead ends. We’re not doing jiu-jitsu so we can beat smaller, weaker, clueless children (at least I hope not…).
You will run into people who are bigger, stronger, crazier, smarter, faster, more skilled, etc. Those all put you at a disadvantage. That’s just how the game works. Accept that. You can have these thoughts if you add this tweak: “So what could I have done better?”
Extract lessons from your frustrating experiences. Cultivate a mindset for finding the potential for improving through these difficult matches. Your ego (and your body) may take a beating, but you can turn it into opportunities for growth. Visualize your tough matches after class. Load a replay into your mental holodeck. If you’re like me, you naturally find yourself doing this when you’re standing in the shower or browsing Reddit at work or trying to fall asleep.
While mentally reliving your experiences, ask yourself questions like these:
- Did I make the right decision at each critical moment?
- What could I have done differently?
- Where could I have used a technique but didn’t try?
- When did things go wrong?
- Why did it go wrong?
- How could I have avoided that?
If your examination exposes a weakness, now you know what to work on next. Find time to remedy it: Ask your teacher or a friendly higher belt for help, research the situation online, put in more drilling, team up with a training partner to do positional sparring to recreate the situation, try to use the technique more in sparring, etc.
Here are a few more questions you can ask to evaluate how you solve your problems. The goal of these questions is to guide you towards greater effectiveness and efficiency:
- Is there a simpler solution?
- Can I minimize the demands for physical attributes like strength, endurance, or flexibility?
- Can I avoid needing to act faster by increasing my awareness of potential problems?
- When I’m physically outmatched, how can I protect myself and “cage the beast”?
- Is the reward for trying a technique worth the risk of it failing? How can I reduce the risk?
The nemesis of all smaller, weaker white belts is the bigger, stronger and crazier sparring partner who thrashes and smashes and hulks out on you. Many a DVD has been sold on the promise of revealing the secrets to defeating these grappling boogie men.
I’ll tell you the real “secret” and I won’t even charge you for it: There is no secret. Jiu-jitsu simply takes time to learn, and so much of that learning is frustrating, messy, and difficult. Skill is built through trial and error, and oh boy, does jiu-jitsu like to rub your errors in your face. Don’t get discouraged and don’t quit. Turn challenges into chances to grow.