The Four Stages of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Your progress in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be roughly measured by your development in these four stages:

  1. Survival
  2. Defense
  3. Control
  4. Offense

Like you can see in the diagram above, these stages are built one on top of the other, starting with survival and defense at the bottom and progressing up through control to offense. This framework will help you understand what you or your students need to work on at each stage in your journeys.

Survival is the sub-foundation that everything else is built on top of. You could lump survival and defense together because they usually go hand in hand, but I like to put survival as its own category below everything else. Survival skills include:

  • Breathing OK under pressure (not holding your breath or hyperventilating).
  • Keeping your arms in and protecting your face and neck.
  • Not panicking, berserking, or gassing yourself out.

You can think of survival as happening below technique, or only using very simple "techniques" like a defense posture under bad positions. You are preventing yourself from dying, but not much else.

Defense begins in earnest once you understand the techniques that are being done to you and have your own techniques to respond with. For an in-depth look at the defensive concepts, check out my article Becoming a BJJ Houdini.

Control is a broad category of skills that include keeping guard, passing guard, achieving and maintaining dominant positions, and anything else you do to gain control and advanced your position.

Offense is the realm of submissions and finishing fights. This is the icing on top of the cake, but you need to remember to bake the rest of the cake that goes under it.

If we wanted to get very specific, we could break this down into a few more stages, such as defensive control and offensive control. Just understand that the edges of each stage blend together, and sometimes a technique can accomplish defense, control, and offense at the same time.

These four stages can be mapped to a student's progression through the belt ranks:

  • White belts start with survival and defense as their primary concern.
  • Blue belts still have a strong emphasis on defense but can now develop control and even some offense.
  • Purple belts need to be able to control everyone to the point that offensive opportunities naturally present themselves.
  • Brown belts are so solid in their foundation of defense and control that they can focus on offense and submissions.
  • Black belt is reaching a high level of proficiency in all four stages.

You may be wondering, does this mean that white belts should not learn submissions or even sweeps and only do escapes from side control? No, of course not. There are so many techniques and skills to develop and it takes years of practice so beginners need to be exposed to everything, but they are expected to work on survival and defense the most.

Looking at jiu-jitsu as progressing through these four stages, we can address some problems students have as they move up the ranks. A very common complaint by blue belts (and some over-eager white belts) is that they have a hard time getting submissions and finishing fights. When I hear this, I’ll ask these questions:

  • Are you escaping bad positions easily?
  • Are you getting tapped out quickly?
  • Are you able to maintain your guard?
  • Are you gaining dominant positions and keeping them?

If they answer yes to all of those, then I tell them “Sounds like you’re doing exactly what you should be doing.” Being able to get out of bad positions and into good ones is what I expect of blue belts, and submissions are not especially important yet. I will tell them to keep at it, and to pick one or two basic submissions to work on for the main dominant position they most commonly get to, such as a collar choke/armbar double attack from mount.

When a purple belt comes to me with the same complaint, I am less concerned about their defenses. Instead, I want to see how they are chaining their techniques together to create opportunities to attack. In particular, I want to see an offensive guard that is hard as hell to pass and high-pressure guard passing.

A brown belt will have a highly developed game without any big holes, and should constantly be finding ways to advance position and threaten submissions. Black belts are much the same, just with more experience.

If this framework for thinking about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu opened your eyes to anything new, I would be happy to read your comments below or on whatever social media post you found this article through!

Matt Kirtley

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