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  • Writer's pictureCoach Paul

How I Learn(ed) Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

I’ve practiced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for well over 20 years now and I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go and come back again, evolved. I’ve seen the evolution of the art, the split in ideologies of the self-defense vs. sports crowds, read countless internet debates regarding what constitutes a good technique or good teaching methodology vs poor ones. Now instead of boring you with a detailed history of everything that I’ve seen, I’m going to tell you what’s worked for me over the years in refining my practice of the art and it revolves around my educational foundation in the sciences. Keep in mind that this is a living document and changes will be made over time as I discover new methodologies to incorporate and occasionally replace what I’ve used in the past.


Section 1 - Using the Scientific Method to Make your Jiu Jitsu Better


Ask a Question, Keep it Simple


What interested me most about BJJ was it’s pragmatism. For me, it’s always been about what works for you, not for the guy next to you, but for you. I won’t lie. Early in my career, I fell into the classic trap that many of us got caught in: technique hoarding. Technique hoarding is where I would go from one technique to the next to the next, never really mastering any one but always feeling the need to collect more.


The premise was simple, “If I knew more than the next guy, I would beat him.” You have to understand, it was the pre-YouTube days and scraps of information were hard to come by and coveted. This thinking was correct, but only to a point. I found that I would get “just good enough” at a move but never really had a deep understanding of what I was doing. What’s that mean? It meant that my knowledge of a technique was limited by both the information that I was given and the way it was conveyed to me. Techniques worked when conditions were ideal but failed a lot when they weren’t. Funny thing is, no one ever told me that. You either could or you couldn’t and it was up to you to figure out why.


What I soon realized was that there were a lot of what-ifs that needed answers. What if my opponent outweighed me by 100lbs. What if he’s stronger, faster, more athletic? What if my opponent put his hand here and not there? What if he shifted his weight to the wrong side? What if he (insert variable)? What if I can’t get/break a grip? What if I can’t invert? What’s my bailout? You get the picture. The questions were endless and based on scientific inquiry, they all had to be addressed. It seemed a daunting task, but this is why you often hear that BJJ is a journey with no end. So how do you start? Ask a question, keep it simple and start researching it.


Research and Hypothesis


I’m going to mention again and expand on what I said earlier about the general availability of BJJ information as it colors my own development in the art. When I started BJJ, there was no YouTube, no detailed instructionals, no sites like MGOnline, BJJFanatics or (name one of the dozens of BJJ sites), heck, there was barely an internet. There were no curriculums. Classes were taught on a “whatever the instructor fancied” basis. There were no BJJ books, a few wrestling books and a few dozen classic judo books available. I had a bit of a judo background to call upon, but that was mostly from a standup point of view with a few submissions that were never really thoroughly explained.


BJJ research, for me in those days, was generally done by asking more experienced players questions and/or just watching them roll. With that as context, the point that I’m getting at is this: in this day and age of practically free information, there is no reason that you can’t get the information for whatever subject it is that you’re researching. Add to this the incredible resource modern instructors and senior students can be and the answers can be right under your nose. One caveat. How do you sift through and determine what’s good information and what’s bad? Generally, consensus, but your instructor is a great person to ask.


Here’s an example from my journey. My basic question was: How do I get really good at the lasso position? It was a simple enough question at the time and I worked on it. For 4 years. Turns out it wasn’t that simple. A simple question would have an answer. I kept getting more questions. I’m still working on it. Once I got a handle on the position and started to dig for a simpler question, I came up with the first one that drastically improved the position for me, “How do I maintain the sleeve grip with my opponent giving it a good rip every chance he got?” I went back and looked at all the grips that I thought would work: judo, cat’s paw, pistol and formulated my hypothesis: If I use grip “X”, then I can maintain control of my opponent. Simple. To the point. What do you do next? Test your hypothesis.


Test, Test, Test


Modern BJJ mats are a lot like a scientific laboratory. You can test pretty much any theory you want and with the exact variables you want provided you can set up the proper environment. This usually means finding a highly competent training partner or training group. I’ve come to embrace the idea of testing really specific parts of my game, tearing it apart, putting it back together again. In a word: tinkering.


Any facet of your game can be tinkered with and at more granular detail. Going back to my previous example, I had gone through a few testing cycles for my lasso grip. These cycles were usually a few weeks long and involved a few steps that I’ve refined for myself over the years. Some of you may have heard me refer to it as the “Ladder”:


Step 1. Work a technique without resistance, getting a general feel for it and using the variable being tested, my grip in this example


Step 2. Work the technique w/variable with minimal resistance but with very specific instructions to my partner on how I wanted the resistance by type and intensity from a specific position


Step 3. Work the technique w/variable with a specific intensity but randomized resistance or vice versa, randomized intensity and specific resistance from a specific position


Step 4. Work the technique w/variable against a fully resisting opponent from a specific position


Step 5. Incorporate the technique w/variable in a roll


Go up and down the Ladder as you see fit, trying to keep conditions relatively the same each time. Sometimes the answer reveals itself the first go around, sometimes it takes multiple iterations. Keep going until you find an answer. There are no right or wrong ones but keep in mind that the answer may not be the one that you were expecting or wanted.


Now, there are some considerations. The mat is like a scientific laboratory and it’s not. You’re not testing in a vacuum and even the best training partners can get tired, bored or just make mistakes. Maybe you get tired, bored or make a mistake. Time is also a factor. Testing a single component of a single step of a 5 step technique may be getting too granular for some people to focus as the time it takes to test may just be too long. I can’t answer these questions for you. The beauty of the method is the beauty of jiu jitsu. Do what works for you!


Analyze Your Results - Did it Work for You?


Well, did it work for you? That’s probably the most important question that you can ask yourself in analyzing your results. How often and how consistently would be the logical follow ups. This will inevitably lead to more questions and send you right back to the top of the process. Tedious? Nope. It’s part of the fun.


My results told me that the cat’s paw was the best grip for the position, FOR ME. That’s an important detail. When I teach others, I’m always careful to add that phrase. It’s one of the dichotomies of the art that a technique should work for everyone out of the box, yet empirical data doesn’t support this.


To a certain degree, the art can be syndicated and taught to the masses, but it’s my firm belief that what you’re going to be good at isn’t necessarily the same as what the next guy is going to be good at. The art of BJJ should be tailored to the individual. It’s not a popular notion, but one I’m convinced is true, but I’ll save it as a topic for another time.


Back on topic, I found that the cat’s paw worked in most of the tests that I put it through. It was the most reliable and effective and I could control my opponents, even under extreme duress. So now I had an answer, I COULD control my opponents. But could I, say, set up a sweep? What about submissions? Ahhh, more questions. Back to the top of the endless loop!


4 years later, I was still tinkering with my lasso guard. As of this writing, that was 13 years ago and I’m still finding new things about the position!


Section 1, Review and a Few Thoughts


Here’s a quick rundown on the process of improving a technique:


  1. Ask a simple question - This can be about almost any aspect of any step of any technique. The important part is to keep it simple.

  2. Research the question - Get as much information as possible on the subject. Your resources are almost limitless

  3. Test - Test thoroughly with the “Ladder”. I’ve found that multiple iterations of going up and down the Ladder helped me find my answer more quickly. Get the answer to your question. It may not be what you wanted or expected or it could align perfectly with your question.

  4. Analyze your results - You have your answers. Do they align with your question? Maybe. Do they generate more questions? Probably. Back to the top!


There you have it. My current methodology for improving my BJJ in a nutshell. I can’t really take credit for it as the scientific community would have a cow. There are other learning methodologies that I use as well. Different recall methods and focused learning techniques that help me to incorporate new techniques and concepts into my game. More on those in later sections!


Section 2 - Getting Good, Not Necessarily Fast, But in a Shorter Time Than You Think


This section probably applies more to experienced BJJ players but I think that everyone can glean some pearls of wisdom.


I’m going to start this section with two fairly controversial ideas:


  1. You don’t need to know a lot of techniques to be effective at BJJ, but you should be REALLY good at what you do know

  2. If you want to get good at BJJ, 80+% of your BJJ training should be spent on the Ladder, training specifically, and 20% or less should be spent rolling


A lot of my students have heard me give analogies about the breadth vs. depth of knowledge in BJJ. BJJ is a really, really big world, the borders of which aren’t always clearly defined. The collection of techniques and technical challenges that we pose for our training partners is almost limitless. So where to begin? And what’s this talk about only needing a few techniques? More on that later.


My second idea is probably the more controversial of the 2. I’ve seen the arguments. I’ve had the arguments. Rolling is the crux of BJJ. It’s the constant testing, the crucible that makes it the effective art that it is. To that I say, well, yes. And no. There are so many ways to test your skills other than a full roll and I’ll make the argument, more effectively, than a full roll. Again, I’ll expand on this.


Less Breadth, More Depth


Writers, engineers, builders, crafters, phd students. What do they all have in common? They understand that a foundation, a framework, is needed to support the work that’s to come. That’s the breadth part of BJJ. There are roughly 4 main positions, a couple of secondary positions and quite a few hybrid positions in BJJ. It could be argued that the guard is like 100+ positions, depending on how you define a position. Now multiply the number of known techniques (more are developed everyday) by the number of positions from which you can work said techniques and you can see why BJJ gets so mind-numbingly complex. And why I frown upon collecting techniques for the sake of just having more techniques. Mastering them all would take several lifetimes.


Now keep in mind, I want beginners to have a decent breadth of knowledge. A variety of reliable techniques that are fairly simple to learn and are lower on the attributes needs list. We call these techniques “fundamentals”. Now what constitutes a fundamental for one person may not be the same for the next, but I’d list the fundamental technique families in this order of importance for most beginners:


  1. Survival

  2. Escapes

  3. Control/Retention

  4. Reversals

  5. Submissions


I’m not going to put a number of techniques to each of those categories because I think those numbers are different for everybody. Anecdotally, I have a training partner who I’ve known for close to 20 years who went from white belt to black belt with basically 3 moves: the stack pass, the sliding collar strangle and the triangle from the guard. 3 whole techniques. Think about that for a second and relate it to your own journeys up to now. More on him in a second.


Now let’s flash forward a couple of years, more or less. You’re a blue belt. Maybe you’ve competed, maybe you haven’t. Doesn’t matter that much. You’re at a school with an actual curriculum and you’ve cycled through two or three times so you’ve a good base of understanding of all the positions. You’re tapping the white belts with a decent amount of regularity and it’s usually with the same technique. Over and over again. Somewhere along the way, you discovered that this technique just “worked” for you. Why?


Here’s where things start getting interesting. Getting back to my buddy, we’ll call him Cisco and his three moves, there were a few things that I observed watching him. First thing I noticed about Cisco was his wiry strength and incredible grips, both great attributes to have for a grappler. He also had long, thin and strong legs. He was a born triangler. And, finally, perhaps the greatest asset Cisco brought to the table was his mind. He was logical and methodical and forced us, his training partners to be the same just to keep up. A lot of this work was done in a 160lb package.


Years of training with Cisco taught me a few things. First was that you don’t need a lot of techniques to be good at BJJ but the few things that you are good at, you have to be REALLY good at. What’s that mean, exactly? It means, that among other things, you should be ready to handle all of the what-ifs of a given technical situation. You will end up with a fairly extensive list, but not necessarily an exhaustive one. You can leave out things like “what if my opponent picks me up and Hulk smashes me”. Possible, but unlikely.


The second thing I learned was that if you put yourself in the same situation over and over again, you’d not only learn the basics of technique but also how to deal with all the nuances that your opponents would throw at you. The Ladder (see Section 1) was born. For you scientists, engineers and tinkerers out there, this process will seem very familiar.


The third bit that I learned from Cisco was that he’d use basic concepts to fill in the gaps that might appear in his game especially when he was dealing with something he hadn’t necessarily seen before. The subject of concepts could fill a book so for now I’ll just illustrate with this example: I’m trying to pass guard and my opponent puts me into a situation that I’m not familiar with. I can’t nullify the guard, per se, I’ve never seen it before so I don’t know what I don’t know. But I do know what my opponent needs to do to sweep/reverse/submit me. I can leverage that knowledge to provide a non-specific counter and buy myself a few precious seconds to think. The longer you do jiu jitsu, the more of a valuable tool this becomes especially when utilizing a limited set of techniques.


Empirical data seems to support this thought process. If you watch most high level BJJ matches, players are only using a very small subset of techniques available to them and those techniques are usually interconnected in some substantial way. Some people call it their “A games” and add on “B games” as well that compliment or support their A games. A lot of these players could be considered specialists.


So there you have it, if you want to be really good at BJJ, you should specialize and beat everyone with the thing that you know best. Right? That answer is again, maybe and is wholly dependent on your goals in the art. Do you want to be a high level competitor? Do you want to someday teach BJJ? Or is your goal simply to stay fit and have fun? Whatever your goal, the fact is, there’s only so much time in a day especially for those with a life outside of the gym.


And here we finally come to the punchline. If the spectrum of BJJ ran, say, a thousand techniques, I’d argue that you only have to be really good at about 10 of them at any given time to be able to handle yourself against a peer and survive against someone who happens to be better than you at a particular game.


Ok, here’s the inevitable argument that BJJ gets really boring with only a few techniques to work. It did for me. What I did to solve this dilemma both made my BJJ better and kept it fun. But not everyone’s going to agree with me and I’m ok with that.


Focused Training: Drill More, Roll Less


Drillers are killers. We’ve heard that phrase bandied around for a lot of years now. I think it may have been Andre Galvao and his drill to win book that popularized the idea. The book itself had a lot of calisthenics and BJJ type movements, but very few actual BJJ techniques but I think people still associated the word drill with these types of movements.


To me a drill can be so much more. Drills comprise a whole world of training opportunities and encompass everything from learning the steps of a technique to full blown positional training with full resistance. The most important thing to understand with drilling is there are a set of predetermined conditions that, once satisfied, ends the drill resulting in a reset of the position. Some people call specific training or positional training. My methodology is what I’ve come to call the “Ladder”. For a refresher on the Ladder, go back to the Test, Test, Test portion of Section 1 and you’ll find the information that you need. Those are the steps that work for me. Find out what works for you!


Now let’s discuss the controversial part of this section. Am I saying that you should put more weight into drilling than you should in a full sparring? Yes I am. Let’s go with an example familiar to pretty much every first year jiu jitsu student. Let’s say you’re about 6 months in and have some sparring experience. You’re starting to understand the game a little bit and have it in your mind that you want to work on your arm bars from the closed guard. Slap. Bump. Go. You pull guard, opponent stands, breaks open your guard, passes. Now you’re stuck in side control. What happens next usually depends on the skill of your opponent:


  1. Your opponent is better than you - you’re gonna find yourself getting toyed with and played like a marionette.

  2. Your opponent is more or less even with you - you might find yourself stuck on the bottom for the next 4 and half minutes. Pretty common scenario.

  3. Your opponent is less skilled than you - At this point in your journey, it’s unlikely there are many people less skilled than you. Your success here is more likely due to your attributes (bigger, stronger, faster, more flexible, etc) than your actual skills. Note that I’m not knocking attributes. Developing them is as important in your journey as skill development is in your journey to become a complete jiu jitsu player.


Sound familiar? By the way, did you ever get to work on that arm bar? Not even close. Some self reflection and assessment will tell you a few things. First, your closed guard maintenance and retention needs some work. Second, your open guard retention definitely needs some work. Third, your escapes need some work. The list could be endless.


Why do we do this to ourselves? Because it’s the way it’s always been done. It’s part of BJJ gym culture from the beginning of time. We’re more effective than a lot of martial arts because we roll. I can’t argue with that statement because it’s true. What I can do is modify that statement to say that we’re more effective because we constantly test. And here’s where the Ladder comes in.


Let’s say I want to work on that arm bar. I grab a training partner, but where to start? Start backwards. Engineers and scientists call it reverse engineering. It’s the process of taking something apart, examining it and trying to reproduce it, hopefully with a better understanding of the internal workings and external functionalities of that thing. Start at the end, the finish and work on your finishing mechanics. Go up and down that Ladder until you have a firm grasp of the step that you’re working on. Focus and practice recall on all the pieces that make up the step. Put it all together, take it apart again. Rinse, repeat until you have a firm grasp of whatever it is you’re working on. If this sounds tedious, that’s because it is, but true learning and understanding doesn’t come easily. That last statement sounds ominous doesn’t it? But, just like learning something, the methods you use to learn become easier the more you use them!


In my honest opinion, this type of drilling should comprise 80+% percent of your training. It’s said that the best way to learn is to make mistakes, analyze them and fix them. Here’s your protocol for making thousands of these cycles for any part of your game. An added benefit that I’ve noticed is the lessened relative wear and tear on your body. Let’s not kid ourselves, rolling is fun, but it does take a toll, especially for the older grapplers out there. There is an argument to be had for the benefits of grit and determination that can be gained from those tough rolls and I am not going to deny that. But what we’re gaining here is skill development. Survivor bias may have tainted our view over the years by painting a picture that the best grapplers only roll. I’m not so sure. And we all know, “Let’s roll light” only really happens when you’re so tired that you can’t move.


So what exactly is the role of rolling? I’d call it the final test. Use rolling to test your drilling work and watch all your hard work pay off. It’ll also highlight the holes in your game and give you more drilling material to play with. And, as I mentioned before, a good hard roll is a good way in gaining the toughness and grit that we old school BJJ guys covet so much.


Section 2, Review and a Few Thoughts


Section 2 started with two fairly radical ideas in the jiu jitsu world:


  1. You don’t need a lot of techniques at any given time, you just need to be REALLY good at them to find success

  2. You should be drilling more than you are rolling.


There’s always the question of boredom when limiting the number of techniques being trained at any given time, but how many of us are truly good at multitasking? Modern neuroscience will tell us that we can only truly focus on one high level thing at a time. This may preclude autonomic, lower level functions like breathing, but how many of us held our breaths as white belts? What we call multitasking is really rapid attention switching and the more things that we juggle, the poorer we get at dealing with them. So focus, learn and when the skill is where you want it to be, then change it up.


Drilling will help you focus your chosen skills to a razor’s edge. It will be the most productive use of your time on the mats and has the added benefit of being a little easier on the body. I think that the drilling mindset can even help with the biggest issue in BJJ: ego. It takes all the tension of a roll and makes it a game with very low stakes. Oh, you passed my guard. Ok. Reset. Cool, you got the sub. Reset. No harm, no foul, no bruised egos. Well, I can dream.

Section 3 on the way!


BTW, if anyone has any questions or wants a topic addressed, DM or email me: FB, IG or paul@mountainbjj.com


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