Inverted Gear Blog

Cross-Pollinating Grappling Rules

My first grappling love was wrestling. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo soon followed, and in the last few years I have added Sambo. I watch most jiu-jitsu PPVs (can’t wait for Polaris 5) and most major IBJJF tournaments. I live in North Eastern Pennsylvania, so we get to see great wrestling at Lehigh University and at local high schools. On the Sambo front, I watch my friend Reilly Bodycomb compete, and a year ago I was in Paraguay as the unofficial translator for the U.S. team for the Pan American games. For Judo, I still follow the career of a few of my old training partners from my time at Cranford Judo, both of which are national team members.

So you could say that my love for grappling is pretty serious.

The reason I tell you all of this is that very often when I hear talk about the problems with BJJ rules the IBJJF system which has become default for the majority of tournaments. We seldom look outside of BJJ to see how we might improve competition rules. While they might not be BJJ, other sports have had to address similar issues, whether those issues were tactics abusing the current rules or safety issues, especially for kids matches.

Here are some of the rules I would like to be implemented in some form:

1. Standardized resetting positions. Every major tournament seems to generate some sort of controversy surrounding a reset position. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has evolved, and the advent of the post-modern BJJ games has made restarting positions increasingly difficult. We are not just looking for who had half guard or closed guard anymore. Some of the berimbolo positions or lapel guard positions are incredibly complicated, and it is incredibly hard for a referee to look at the position for maybe fifteen seconds and then recreate it perfectly, match after match after match.

Folkstyle wrestling uses standard positions: one neutral, one bottom, and one top. We can take a look at the FILA grappling rules to see how these look in a grappling context. If the action rolls out of bounds, we could use a standardized open guard position, for example, to restart the match.

FILA Submission Grappling's Reset Positions:

2. Lift to stop. A video of a teenage competitor injuring his neck after being lifted by his opponent has been making the rounds on social media. Thankfully, he is expected to make a full recovery. Much debate has been made about how the match should have been stopped, or how we need to train with those situations in mind and be prepared for slams. How about we borrow a rule from Judo and Sambo instead?

If you are locked in a submission and you lift your opponent, the action stops. You are then reset standing. This puts emphasis on performing submissions in a way where it is difficult for your opponent to lift you, instead of relying on the rules to keep you safe. If a standing reset is too much to ask for BJJ, but how about a restart from open guard? While this rule is not necessary for purple and above—ADCC already allows slams—but it could be a great way to protect both young and new competitors.

3. Kneebars and ankle locks legal at all levels. Ever since the 50/50 guard entered the BJJ metagame, this issue has occurred at the lower belt levels: One opponent goes for a legal ankle lock and the other opponent changes the angle, turning the legal ankle lock into an illegal kneebar. The result? One person gets DQed and then a bunch of people shout and argue in Portuguese. This happened at Worlds this year.

The competitor in the blue was DQed as it was deemed a legal technique and the competitor in black argued he was trying to transition to 50/50. Now with the way the game is headed I think it would be beneficial for everyone to allow both kneebars and ankle locks at all belt levels, and get rid of the silly reaping rule, as reaping positions will result from escaping kneebars. Sambo has allowed both ankle locks and kneebars, and contrary to popular belief these are no twisting leg locks allowed in sport Sambo, and they don't seem to have an issue with injuries many BJJ players fear so much.

These three rule changes won’t fix every problem in BJJ competition rules, but they will help. Our sport is evolving rapidly, and our rules should follow suit. If we insist on ignoring the latest developments in technique and strategy, our dated rules might actually hurt competition growth in general.

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Top 4 Beginner Sweeps

Due to an injury to one of my friends, I have found myself pitching in covering the fundamentals classes at his academy. Even though at one point I would teach about 4 fundamental classes a week, it’s been a long time since I taught a class of mostly fresh white belts. Most of my time teaching has been the odd advanced class at my home gym or mixed groups at camps or seminars. Thinking about what is best to teach raw beginners is a welcome change of pace.

I went back and thought through what my favorite moves were at lower belts and also recalled what approaches worked best when I had my own beginner’s program. I created a list of what to teach, covering four or five moves for sweeping, escaping, passing, and submitting.

When I teach beginners, I like to start by covering sweeps. The sweep game is a great place to start for white belts because the small victory of going from the bottom to the top is rewarding, and it gets them thinking more about base and timing early on in their careers.

Any move I teach beginners, including sweeps, must meet the following criteria:

  1. Simple
  2. Develop movement patterns that will be needed for more advanced moves.
  3. Are not attribute dependent (long legs, strong, flexible, etc.)
  4. Able to rewind to a safe position if the move fails, like closed guard for example

The sweeps I chose for this criteria were the following:

Scissor sweep: I often introduce this sweep first because it starts introducing concepts of unbalancing, or kuzushi if you want to use fancy Japanese terms, and it also introduces a transition from closed guard into an open guard attack.

Headstand sweep: I think this sweep is crucial at the lower levels. If your open guard is not developed, you need a way to deal with someone standing to pass. To this day, this is one of my favorite closed guard sweeps.

Arm across sweep: Bringing the arm across and going for the pendulum sweep introduces what I like to call unfair gripping. Understanding the principles behind this sweep opens-up more advanced guard and control concepts.

Two on one back take: I will throw this one on the sweep section even if it does not mee the IBJJF definition of a sweep. Many times when attacking sweeps paths to the back open. The mechanics behind this one greatly help new students, especially when collar and armdrags come into play.

The beauty of fundamental sweeps like these is that even if you are not a beginner, returning to them can help you to enhance your game or unlock new, high-percentage paths for your techniques. And when you start teaching—even if it’s just covering the odd class or answering questions during an open mat—having some ideas of what might be best for beginners will help you to lead the next generation of jiu-jiteiros.

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Please Don’t Make Me Pull Rank

After I had been teaching jiu-jitsu for a while, a twenty-something man started coming to my classes. He had never trained before, but he had somehow decided he knew a lot already—shades of the Dunning-Kruger effect plus, I’m guessing, YouTube. From the get-go, he had a habit of telling his training partners how to do techniques (usually incorrectly) and asking questions that seemed less about clarification and more about proving what he knew and what I did not. I tried to be patient with him, letting him know I was happy to work with him but asking him to stop being disruptive in class. He would either laugh or stare at me, and then during the next class he would shout out again.

One time he must have hit my last nerve, because I changed the way I responded. He called me over to say that his partner was not doing the technique sequence correctly, and could I help. When I started walking the partner through the sequence, he interrupted repeatedly and “corrected” me (e.g., “Don’t you mean X?” I didn’t. “Why wouldn’t he do Y there?” Because he would lose position). I finally said, “All right. Your turn.” I made him run through the technique sequence, and every time he messed up, which was often, I said, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong.” He started to get flustered, and I made him complete the sequence. Then I said, “You need to think more about your own training and less about everyone else’s. Got it?” He did not respond, but I could see from his face that my message had started to sink in.

When it was time for open training, I pointed at him and said, “Let’s go.” Then I tapped him with the same mounted Americana 5 or 6 times in a row. This required that I get to the mount each time from a neutral face-off, which I had no problem doing.

After I tapped him repeatedly, there was a little time left, and I decided to let him sweep me. He said, “Oh, you gave me that.” Progress? I chose to think so.

I responded with “Yup.” Usually I would tell a student that he got the sweep because he had gotten all the details right, but this guy got no quarter.

After that, he continued to come to my class, but he was noticeably quieter and less brash. I did my best to let him know he was still welcome, and to indicate that the change in his behavior was much appreciated.

I did not like doing that to him. I do not even like describing how easy it was for me to do it. However, I had to weigh his need to feel like he knew more than he did with my need to provide an effective learning experience for the entire class, because the two needs were mutually exclusive, my need took precedence, and my subtler attempts to send the message had not registered. If I had it to do over, I would probably come out and tell him the same point I am making here: I do not like to pull rank, but I will if I must.

To me, pulling rank refers to those times when I must remind one or more other people that there is a pecking order, and that the person or people I am reminding are lower on it than I am. Usually the behavior that prompts me to pull rank involves some disruption of class or some transgression against another student, though there are many other reasons.

I am not alone. I know many people—friends, colleagues, and mentors—who have worked hard to earn their rank in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and continue to work hard to live up to it. Like me, these people see their rank as an important part of who they are. But also like me, based on my observations of them, at least, most of the black belts I know and respect do not enjoy lording that over others.

I do not like pulling rank because it forces me to highlight power and authority differentials, when I much prefer that students and instructors alike recognize and respect our different roles because we respect each other as people. When I am teaching, it is my job to lead class, and it is the students’ job to learn and, I hope, enjoy. Sometimes I am the student, too, and when that is the case, I act appropriately. Ideally, all of us recognize our roles and commit to fulfilling them. In situations where I feel I must pull rank, it is because some among us have decided they need not adhere to the group’s shared agreement of what constitutes appropriate behavior in the training context. It is as if all of us are all reduced to the color of our belts, and that way lies danger.

Sure, it can be difficult to suss out what constitutes appropriate behavior in a jiu-jitsu context, and I daresay that jiu-jitsu academies as a group do not have the best track record for establishing expectations up front. Academies are getting better at this, though, and if you do not know, there are ways to figure it out: observation, asking your drilling partner, and asking the instructor, for instance. When we are new to jiu-jitsu or a specific school, we can commit to learning how to enhance the learning environment instead of acting in a way that forces the instructor to protect it—and to rely on something other than mutual respect for keeping order.

Instructors and coaches, what are your thoughts on pulling rank? Students and teammates, what questions do you have about how to make sure you are not the person your instructor has to pull rank on? Post your ideas to comments.

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A Life Well Wasted


I borrowed the title for this blog post from a video game podcast that faded into inactivity far too soon. Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, I often encountered a pervasive cultural idea of video games being a waste of time, and that all of his kids playing Nintendo and Sega Genesis would eventually have to put aside childish things and grow up.

Oddly enough, I’ve encountered similar reactions to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. When my injuries started to pile up, my family assumed that I would be stepping away from the sport for good. I had relationships—romantic and otherwise—where the person on the other end also assumed that there would be an ending point for my weird pajama hobby just over the horizon somewhere. I’d come to my senses and do normal things instead.

From anyone outside of the sport, BJJ looks like a profound waste of time. It spreads like the Nightmare King from Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland across our schedules, demanding that we visit the gym more and more frequently. It wears down our bodies. It changes how we think and how we behave. And it even changes how we look in many cases—a black eye here, some cauliflower ear there.

As far as being an activity that is productive for society as a whole, yeah, sure, jiu-jitsu doesn’t come close to volunteering at a soup kitchen or grinding away at a business idea or pitching your script idea (Little Nemo: Slumberland Strikes Back) to movie producers, but that’s not really the point. For those of us who aren’t making jiu-jitsu a career—and that is by and large the vast majority of jiu-jiteiros—the sport is supposed to be a beautiful and magical waste of time.

As a hobby, jiu-jitsu has a number of peripheral benefits like getting you active and connecting you to a community, but above all of those things is the core tenant of any hobby: It’s supposed to be fun. Most hobbies, whether you are playing Magic: The Gathering or watching professional sports, are fun first and foremost to their fans. We can wax poetically about the positive things that can come with a specific hobby, but a lot of times that just feels like apologetics to me, as if something simply being fun isn’t justification enough for our spending time on it.

Doing something because you enjoy it is a worthwhile reward worth pursuing and protecting.

We have hobbies because we like hanging out with the other people who enjoy those hobbies. We like the memories we create, and we enjoy the way we interact with our hobbies—physically, mentally, and even emotionally. We could make an argument about how jiu-jitsu is better than other hobbies, but that’s not necessary. All that we should have to say is that we enjoy it, and that it doesn’t hurt anybody (beyond the usual scope of sport).

Fun for the sake of fun is sadly a part of our lives that can be lost in adulthood. For me, being on the mat is like being a kid again. I never got those superpowers that I wished for, but I can feel pretty close to a Tekken character when I chain together my favorite moves and sweeping the guy twice my size might as well qualify me for Jedi status.

If we put away all of our childish things, I think we risk losing a piece of ourselves. That pure in the moment enjoyment and focus is a special thing that should be treasured. Who cares if it doesn’t help the stock market or give you another line item on your LinkedIn profile?

I don’t. So let’s just enjoy jiu-jitsu for what it is: Fun.

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Impostor Syndrome: Why and How to Neutralize It

Recently I was invited to create a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructional. This was actually the second time I got the invitation. The first was probably about two years ago, and my response to that first invitation was, “What do I possibly have to share that hasn’t already been shared countless times?” I reasoned that everything I had learned had been taught to me by teachers who knew the movements better than I did and had more experience teaching. Why not ask them?

When it comes to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I have a chronic case of Impostor Syndrome. (Who am I fooling? I have Impostor Syndrome in most areas of my life.) I assume everybody at my level knows much more than I do and that it is just a matter of time before everyone finds out that I have been faking it all along. This has been true since I was a new practitioner just trying to get moves down, and as I take on more of a leadership role in my corner of the jiu-jitsu world, the Syndrome has spread to my beliefs about my teaching and coaching ability as well.

This is a problem for many reasons. First, it makes me miserable. Second, it makes it difficult for me to accurately gauge where I need to improve—if I believe I stink at everything, which is not true, then I cannot target my true weaknesses. Third, it sets a bad example for people who might look to me for leadership, and I have learned that when you wear a black belt, you are in a leadership position whether you want to be or not. Fourth, if I buy into the beliefs that Impostor Syndrome instills in me, I will not have the confidence to contribute as much to the jiu-jitsu world as I am capable of.

In recent years, therefore, I have worked hard on living up to the responsibilities I believe the black belt confers, which means combating Impostor Syndrome, particularly when it comes to leadership. One thing in particular has helped me with this. It is something everyone tells you all the time, from nursery school on, but it was in the context of teaching jiu-jitsu that I finally started to internalize the message: No one has the same constellation of experiences, personality, and influences that I do, and this results in a unique person known as me. In addition to being the subject of many Sesame Street-type songs, this has also been useful information as I work toward being the kind of practitioner and leader I want to be and that I believe my students and colleagues deserve. Here are a few ways it has helped me:

  • My body structure and comfort level with various movements have contributed to the development of my jiu-jitsu “signature,” which is evident to people who train with me. For instance, I use a lot of hooks and staples, and I have become effective at dropping my weight.

  • My world view inspires me to look constantly for the humor in any situation, and I incorporate that perspective into my drilling, teaching, and coaching, where appropriate, of course.

  • The types of ideas, perspectives, and people I have been exposed to influence the types of analogies and examples I use to enhance my teaching, and the ways I interact with teammates.

  • One of my explicit goals is to make people in classes I teach believe they can learn and that they belong, and to be a supportive and encouraging training partner. I believe positive energy has a positive effect, and I hope that belief comes through in how people feel when they learn and train with me.

The point of all of this is: I bring a unique perspective to jiu-jitsu simply by being who I am, and more and more, I am coming to believe that it is a perspective that makes a positive contribution. My Impostor Syndrome is a chronic condition, but through a combination of methods, I am managing it.

Want to combat your own Impostor Syndrome? Here are some suggestions for working on it:

  • Observe what your training partners tell you. As you develop a jiu-jitsu personality, your training partners will give you feedback, particularly when you are shutting down their games, and you will start to see patterns in that feedback. That is how I learned I feel heavy and that my hooks are annoying: enough people said so that I started to notice when it happened, which made it easier for me to cultivate it.

  • Notice that different jiu-jitsu leaders lead differently, and that that is okay. Think of some jiu-jitsu leaders you respect and resonate with. The next time you see them in leadership roles (e.g., teaching, coaching), notice specifics about what they do and say, what resonates with you about their leadership and what does not, and, most importantly, how their approaches differ.

  • Notice that different practitioners have different energy, and that that is okay. Conduct the same type of observation with your favorite training partners. What do you like about training with them? What do they have in common, and where do they differ? What do you have in common with them, and what is different about you?

I am still nervous about it, but the second time I got invited to do an instructional, earlier this year, I said yes. I remembered that the jiu-jitsu practitioner I have become is the culmination of a huge amount of work, experience, and learning, and that it will be valuable to someone. Who knows: Maybe the way I explain a technique will be exactly what a practitioner needs to finally internalize it. And if I did not learn to manage my Impostor Syndrome, then I would not have been able to help that person.

Do you have Impostor Syndrome? (I hope you do not, but I also hope I am not the only one.) How do you handle it? Post your strategies to comments.

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