That Uber Micro: Actions Per Minute in BJJ

Chess is typically the default analogy when you discuss strategy (and I’m just as guilty as anyone else). We often hear jiu-jitsu called human chess, but chess has one major shortcoming when you compare it to BJJ: It’s turn based. In chess, when my opponent goes for a move there is nothing I can do to stop him. I can only react after the damage has been done. In jiu-jitsu if I recognize what my opponent is doing, I can move and stop him.

This is where another strategy analogy might be better. There is a whole genre of “real time strategy” or “RTS” games. Amongst the most popular RTS are StarCraft and Warcraft. In an RTS you control units, structures, and resources as you work to establish position on a map against an opponent looking to do the same.

I grew up playing Warcraft (the RTS games that came before the MMORPG) and StarCraft. The thing about these games is even if you and your opponent do the exact same thing, if your opponent does them faster you will eventually lose. So the game is not only about what moves you are making and their order but how fast you execute them. If you can take more actions per minute than your opponent this is a huge advantage.

If we look at BJJ and look at a competitor like Rafa Mendes, it seems like he is moving on a different speed. The way he passes guard is amazing. His opponents can't keep up with his movement. As they defend the first pass attempt, Rafa is already on the second or third of his passing sequence. Eventually, Rafa’s consistent and highly technical speed overwhelms their defense and he gets the pass.

As we move up the ranks our actions per minute naturally increase. White belts are notorious for going for one move then stopping, then going for another move only to stop again. When we get to blue belt, this gap between moves starts to narrow. At purple belt, we start to flow and find connections between moves. At brown belt, we start to flow and recognize patterns within our games, and at black belt we are able to move and stay ahead of the game by not only recognizing patterns, but taking more actions with more fluidity to execute on those patterns quickly and effectively.

Even when a black belt flow rolls, his mind scrolls through dozens of options and weighs them far more quickly than a lower belt, so the actions per minute are high even if they are mental and perhaps at times unconscious.

How to Improve Your Actions Per Minute

  • Don’t hold position. Play a game instead of just doing everything you can to hold dominant positions. See how many times you can transition. Side to side, to knee on belly, to mount, to the back, to knee on belly. Set a quota of say 6 transitions before you go for the submission. The only way your transitions will get better is if you practice them.

  • Drill key movement chains. Get used to moving through different positions. Start in closed guard, your opponent stands, you sweep from open guard, come up start to pass, your opponent turtles, you take his back, he escapes, you mount and go for an armbar, your opponent escapes, you go back to closed guard. 

  • Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Will all your transitions work? No, they will not. You will go the “wrong way” quite a few times but the more you practice the better you will become at this kind of game.

  • Start slow. You don’t learn to drive a racecar by slamming the gas to hit 100 mph on your first ever lap around the track. Having a high level of actions per minute is only helpful if they are the right actions. As soon as you go too fast and start to lose control, your speed will end up working against you. If you find yourself flailing and bopping training partners in the nose, scale it back.

With enough practice, your jiu-jitsu will feel more and more like a Zerg Rush to your opponent. If he or she doesn’t know what that means, sorry for outing you as a super nerd but you can thank me later for helping you to advance your BJJ.