The Orbit of Jiu-Jitsu Techniques

In even a single year of jiu-jitsu, a student will see a wide range of techniques. At two classes a week with an average of two techniques shown per class, a student will “learn” 208 techniques. Then factor in the odd private lessons, a seminar or two, instructional material, and the casual exchange of tips and tricks that happens at any generic open mat, and you quickly end up with a volume of material that’s just not practical to learn all at once.

The result is that a lot of techniques are left to the wayside, and even the newest jiu-jiteiros adopt a pattern of looking for the moves that they “need.” They naturally want a technique that solves a problem they have when they roll, or they want the technique that elevates their performance by building directly on top of the game they have.

As far as jiu-jitsu goes, all of this is pretty normal. The opportunity that many jiu-jiteiros miss, however, is that they rarely return to the techniques that didn’t make the cut the first time around. And if they do return, it’s because an instructor forced them to in a class (which is a nice stroke of luck for the student, that he or she happened to be in the right class at the right time). 6 months, a year, or two years later, that one technique you passed on drilling extensively could be the linchpin for a game-changing development for you.

The technique that doesn’t seem useful today could be useful in the future.

I say this because I was just reminded me of this fact, and that reminder has me going back through what I can recall from previous classes and seminars to see what else I might be missing. For me, I have been working on my butterfly guard for a few years, and a long time ago I learned an overhead variation of the sweep that just never seemed necessary to me. My bread and butter sweep would either do the trick, or something in my recounter arsenal would mop up the problems I had.

Then I come back from an injury, and suddenly I’m faced with the exact scenario the overhead variation was designed to address. For whatever reason, I didn’t see it often enough before (perhaps my rusty technique means I am making mistakes and allowing it to happen), but now that technique matters.

If I had discarded it completely—which means that I declared it eternally useless and thus not worth recollecting any fashion at all—I would be missing an opportunity to expand my game. Fortunately, I made a mental note of it when I first saw it, so when it made its return orbit I could take advantage of the opportunity.

I don’t have a mega memory that makes this easier for me, but I do a few things as a student that might help you catch a technique you’ve already seen when it’s orbit crosses paths with you again:

  • Identify why a technique would be useful. Even if a move is not a fit for you right now, figure out what situation the technique is best for. It doesn’t matter if you don’t encounter that situation often enough to warrant drilling the technique a lot now, but making that mental observation of “This technique would be good if I start finding myself attacking with front headlocks” is a more positive association than “I don’t need this.”

  • Give every technique a sincere drilling effort. If you tell yourself a technique is useless, you might be inclined to drill it half-heartedly during the class or seminar where you are learning it. Even if you see no clear place for it to fit in your current game, still put the same amount of enthusiastic and thoughtful repetitions into the move as you would with any other technique. Doing the technique with attentiveness can help you recall it later.

  • Context matters for memory. When you learn a move, take a second to mentally observe who is showing you the technique. A year from now, that observation might help you track down the instructor or training partner who can remind you of the details you need.

  • Be a more general student. Having a specific game you like to play is normal for advancing jiu-jiteiros, but try to be a bit more academic about your learning. By that I mean spend time outside of your narrow area of study and maintain an active interest in learning other types of games. You don’t need to master them or even drill them all that much, but exposing yourself to positions you never intend to play (at least right now) will help you identify things you’ve seen before, and will also help your defense down the road.

  • Play the flashcard game when you watch competition footage. When you watch matches, challenge yourself to identify what a competitor is attempting do with their technique or what their options are from a certain position. By trying to predict what a competitor will do next, you force your brain to scroll through the options you have stored away—even if they aren’t ones you use—to figure out the possibilities.

You will hopefully be in this sport for many years to come, so while we can’t hope to remember everything we have ever learned, these tips should help you to recall a few helpful techniques from your own personal archives. You never know when a technique will come rocketing back to relevance, but if you make an effort to be ready for that to happen, your jiu-jitsu will greatly benefit.