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  • Writer's pictureCoach Paul

Organizing your learning: From Technique to Position to Game

In my earliest days of BJJ, I was completely clueless on how to order my training. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. There was so much new information and it was coming so fast and piecemeal that I couldn’t even begin to organize it in any usable form. So I did the exact opposite. Instead of trying to organize the chaos, I just sat back and absorbed it. I’d say my retention rate was somewhere between 10-20%, maybe.

It wasn’t ideal, but it was what I had to work with in the mid ‘90’s BJJ teaching environment. Curriculums, if they existed, were rudimentary at best, and the passing of BJJ knowledge was heavily technique based with an incidental sprinkling of concepts by the more forward thinking teachers. Bear in mind that most of the Brazilian instructors still had a huge language barrier hurdle to overcome at this point as well and you can see where things could become lost in translation, even with the simplest ideas.

Your typical class would start with at least 30 minutes of warm-ups/calisthenics/conditioning work which, in some gyms, were just insane. Hundreds of body weight and partner exercise reps and routines that would put some current CrossFit WODs to shame. A few minutes of instruction on whatever tickled an instructor’s fancy that particular day would be followed with a few reps by each training partner. Then it was on to rolling the all important sparring sessions that set BJJ apart from all of the other martial arts (except judo, wrestling, boxing and variations of those arts). Rolling sessions would last anywhere between 30 minutes and up to 2 hours on some days. Survival bias was in full effect as it appeared that only the toughest, strongest and craziest people would make it through to a black belt with a dropout rate somewhere around 90-98% according to estimates. Early memes writers would pride themselves on this “fact”. Anecdotally, I can verify that of the 20 or so guys that I started with me as white belts, only 2 of us became black belts, but I feel it was more the result of the training methodologies and mentality (think Special Forces selection) that maintained those numbers more than anything else.

So where did I succeed when others quit? I had finally gotten to a place in my training where I had seen enough BJJ to get a basic overall picture of what it was all about. I was also obsessive about my training. Ironically, it was injury and time off the mats that really accelerated my learning curve. The idea of flow rolling wasn’t as widespread and accepted as it is today and “Let’s roll light” was code for it’s the championship round of the Worlds. I was injured. A lot. I was going too hard, too grossura, as my coach liked to say and it kept me off the mats for weeks at a time. Looking back, it was a blessing. As I recovered, I was able to reflect and work on ideas that were interesting to me. The beginnings of my training “Ladder” were built during this time. Also developed were the 3 levels of organization that I used to make sense of it all.

Level 1 are the techniques themselves. Learning techniques in the early days of my training was a matter of going to class and absorbing what I was taught. I took good notes and asked a lot of questions. Bear in mind, this was the pre-YouTube era and information wasn’t quite so readily available. Sometimes I got really good answers, other times the response was, “because that’s how it’s done.” A lot of the time, I was left to my own devices to figure it out on my own. Looking back, I think this was a good thing and it shaped my overall ability to learn and eventually teach. I was struggling to get bits of useful information and then struggling to put it together in a useful, coherent whole. And that’s where I think I may have found my learning advantage. As my struggle on the mats made my physical jiu jitsu better, my mental struggles made my learning jiu jitsu that much better.

Level 2 are positions. The BJJ community has always embraced the idea of positions. It’s a fundamental tenet of BJJ teaching that everything is taught from a position and scoring in tournament BJJ has always been based on positions as well. So it made it natural to organize techniques into the positions that you work them from. And that’s just what I did. I’d learn a technique and slot it into a position and as I got better and better at doing this, I started seeing and learning whole positions instead of just individual techniques.

Level 3 are the games that make up the sum total of our effective techniques and positions.. Combined, all of my techniques and the positions that I worked them from constituted my overall game, the breadth of which changed depending on my needs, my learning conditions and my current interests. The beauty and challenge of BJJ is making it all work in a fairly seamless fashion, but once it does, the sense of accomplishment can’t be described!

Level 1 - Techniques

Jiu Jitsu isn’t easy. And it’s perhaps this fact that makes learning it and succeeding at it so very rewarding. Classical studies on mastery have pegged the number of dedicated learning hours to be somewhere around 10,000 hours or around 10 years, depending on who you ask. Let’s do a little mental math: Let’s say that you could train 2 hours a day, 7 days a week. To reach that 10 thousand hour mark would take you roughly 14 years to complete! Add to this the fact that “mastery” in BJJ can mean so many different things and your head starts to spin. Where do you begin? At the beginning of course with techniques. Fundamental techniques.

The question of what constitutes a fundamental was brought up in section 2 and, though debatable, can be loosely defined as fairly simple to learn and reliable techniques that are lower on their reliance on attributes such as strength and flexibility. Think first day beginners class stuff like the bridge and roll escape from the mount, the armbar from the guard and mount, collar chokes, closed guard maintenance. Basically, all the moves that would allow you to spar with some proficiency in your first months of training.

Now, there’s an old adage in BJJ: “If you can’t move yourself, you can’t move your opponent.” I’ve heard that like a mantra since my earliest days of training, struggling through those brutal warmups that we used to subject ourselves to. Flash forward to today and armed with 20 years worth of hindsight, that statement has proven to be true. For every technique, there exists an underlying movement or set of underlying movements that will help you in performing that technique. Even fundamental techniques in BJJ require some learning of these underlying movements to make them more effective, so it makes sense to spend a good amount of time practicing them. Some of the better known movements are:

  • Shrimping

  • Bridging

  • Rolling

  • Hip Heists

  • Leg Pummels

  • Etc.

The list isn’t exhaustive but it does cover a lot of the movements that you’d need in a basic BJJ intro curriculum. The message here is simple. Whatever technique you learn, whatever it is that strikes your fancy, learn the underlying movements at its core and it’ll make learning the new technique that much easier.Look at any so-called “advanced technique” in jiu jitsu and I can show you the underlying techniques and movements that it’s built upon. It really is that simple. But just like you don’t learn to fly a plane that first time in a cockpit, you can’t just pull off any technique without practicing the basic movements it’s built upon!

So, how do we go from being taught techniques to being able to internalize them and ultimately using them against resisting opponents? Repetitions. As many good repetitions as possible and with as many nuances that you and a training partner can muster. I’m not talking about those 5 minutes of going over the steps after your coach has shown you a technique but really drilling and training them for days/weeks/months. Remember the ladder? It’s a great way to work a technique. Use it.

It’s said that success breeds success and I’d like to take a moment to explore this in the context of BJJ training. I will admit that the training environment of the late ‘90’s was much less supportive than it is today and I firmly believe that the student retention rate for a lot of schools had a direct correlation to the harshness of the training. Today’s training can run the gamut from those “old school” gyms to the “jiu jitsu for everyone” gyms. I’m somewhere in the middle. A balance must be struck between the tough training that forged our art into the effective one that it is and retaining students who would otherwise quit. To put it another way: be kind to the white belts. Nurture them and help them to grow into your future training partners by helping them to succeed early on with their technique training.

Level 2 - Positions

I’m pretty sure that everyone reading this work has heard of, played with or stepped on a Lego brick at one point or another. Those fantastic little plastic building blocks that will fit together in just about any configuration and any color way that you can think of. If it’s a lego block, it will fit with just about any other lego block. The trick is to create something coherent instead of a just jumbled mess. BJJ is a lot like that. You can have a huge collection of techniques at your disposal but unless you organize them in some fashion, all you really have is a huge collection of techniques, aka, a jumbled mess.

Fundamentally, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has always offered at a least a rudimentary organizational system: the position. The basic school of thought in most BJJ teaching circles is to partition everything into defined positions. Most beginning practitioners will know the 4 basic positions of BJJ, the roots of which were purportedly developed in the mean streets of Brazil:

  • Mount

  • Side Mount

  • Back Mount

  • Guard

Each of these positions actually constitutes 2 positions if you think about. Top and bottom to be exact, so now we have 8 positions to work from. It can get much more complicated than that, but we’ll keep it simple for now for the purpose of illustration.

My first guard was the closed guard. It was actually the first position that I was ever taught on my very first day of jiu jitsu. Back in those days, it was practically the only guard (half guard was a desperation position, spider guards were in their infancy and the only person doing De la Riva guard was Ricardo himself) so it was really the only thing that I had to work on as far as guards go. Looking back, it was really a blessing in disguise.

I would say that focussing on a single position really forced me to learn the inner workings of the techniques within the position. What worked, what didn’t work and when it worked, the timing of techniques were things that I had to consider. Just like the lego pieces, as I learned techniques, I was able to slot them into the position. Two really important factors that I had never considered, however, were one, how to enter into techniques, especially against a resisting opponent and two, how to make techniques work together more or less seamlessly. We know these two concepts today as set-ups and transitions.

A lot of my early years in jiu jitsu were spent trying to force techniques. My entire athletic existence had been about 90% effort and 10% technique. If it didn’t work, go harder and make it work. Years of training BJJ taught me differently. It taught me the value of patience, of, for example, “cooking” my opponents, getting them tired before working a technique on them. It also taught me that you can’t just walk up and triangle someone, but in a sense, you can make them triangle themselves. We call these preliminary moves set-ups and they could fill a book depending on the technique and position being discussed. I’ll get to a more specific example of a set-up in a bit, but first, I’d like to talk about the second a-ha moment for me, the need for transitions.

Transitions are the glue that help techniques combine seamlessly and effectively. Again, you could write a whole book on transitions and again, it would be wholly dependent on the techniques you are combining and the position(s) that you’re working them from. Put simply, a transition is a movement or group of movements that aid you in going from one technique or one position to another. It could be a grip switch for example or a change of the angle of your knee. Whatever the movement, the most important factor for any transition, in my opinion, is the time it takes to go from one “safe place” to the next. What’s a safe place? If BJJ is about controlling your opponent, then a safe place is a control point, say, closed guard with a collar and sleeve grip, for example. Any technique attempt or positional shift will require some movement on the part of the guard player and this may create moments for their opponent to take advantage of. Remember, if jiu jitsu is a game of inches, minimizing these moments of vulnerability is key!

A great example that illustrates both setups and transitions is the relationship between the armbar and the triangle. There are a few factors that make these good subjects for this discussion. First, aside from being individual techniques, they are also taught as positions in modern BJJ teaching circles. Second the setups and transitions between these techniques are inextricably linked. For example, You put your opponent into an armbar from the guard and they pull their arm out. The de facto response is to switch to a triangle. And conversely, a stacked triangle can turn right into an armbar. Third, the transitions between these techniques/positions are extremely quick when a certain level of proficiency is reached, leaving you less vulnerable to a counter.

I’d like to add that learning jiu jitsu for me has evolved from simply learning techniques into learning positions. My focus now is on all the possible combinations of moves and countermoves in a given position. Adding learned positions to other learned positions in a modular fashion allows me to add whole pieces of my jiu jitsu, techniques, setups, transitions, etc. and to grow and adjust it into a whole picture: my game.

Level 3 - Game

Game describes the idea of what type of jiu jitsu you do. Traditionalists would say that there is only one jiu jitsu game: jiu jitsu, but that’s too simplistic. I think of my game as more a snapshot or a period in time of my jiu jitsu journey. If you go back to our discussion about the breadth and you take a look at how truly massive it really is, then you understand why limiting what you’re going to work on at any given time makes sense. Look at the greatest BJJ players of our generation, names like Marcelo Garcia, Bernardo Faria, Roger Gracie, the Mendes Brothers.

Marcelo’s game is the butterfly guard and all of its iterations and connected positions. Bernardo is all about half/deep guard and the complimentary over/under pass. Roger Gracie’s game is deceptively simple. Collar-sleeve closed guard to sweep to mount to cross collar choke. The Mendes Bros. are de la Riva specialists.

Just how did their games develop? For some, it was attribute based. Marcelo, for example, has stated in interviews that his butterfly game just felt natural for his build: shorter, thicker legs and strong hips as well as an incredible sense of timing. Sometimes, games develop out of necessity. Gui and Rafa Mendes developed their games against mostly larger, older opponents as juniors coming up in the competition scene in Brazil. For others, it was games that they had developed as juniors. Bernardo Faria has been doing the half-guard and the over/under pass since his yellow belt days. Roger Gracie’s upbringing in the Gracie Barra system shows in his fundamentally sound and incredibly deep “basic” game.

The above examples can give you an idea of where to focus your training. Some people will just go with what feels natural to them, to approach their training based on their attributes: strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, body dimensions, etc. This is in fact a great starting point for a lot of beginners. For example, bigger stronger individuals will find that a top based, pressure passing, control game would probably suit them better. More flexible practitioners may have an easier time inverting and will develop games that take advantage of this fact.

On the other end of the spectrum, lighter players, sometimes by design, but usually out of necessity, will probably find themselves developing their bottom games more. As necessity is the mother of invention, smaller lighter players are usually the biggest innovators in our art. Names like Helio Gracie, Robson Moura, Leo Viera, Bruno Malfacine, Caio Terra, the aforementioned Mendes Brothers, all smaller players, who out of need created amazingly technical games. As an aside, I’ve noticed that three particular groups of people tend to develop much better technique skills and much more quickly than do the rest of us. One group comprises people who started jiu jitsu as children and continued into adulthood and they tend to have natural and fluid movement and excellent timing. The other two groups, women and smaller men tend to pick up techniques, especially defensive ones like proper framing and escape movements, much more quickly. Why? They’re in positions that require them to learn those moves all the time. Put another way, they are getting tons of de facto reps. See where the logic of the Ladder plays into this?

Last but not least, are those who just found what worked for them. This was either through a training system or enough personal interest in a particular subject to devote time to hone the necessary skills. For others, it could have simply been trial and error. I think that most of us find ourselves in this last group. I certainly did. I wasn’t the biggest, fastest, strongest or most flexible person on the mat by any stretch of the imagination. I had a lot of interests and finally realized that I had to quit jumping from one to the next and to focus.

Whatever game you develop, ask yourself a few questions to help you to decide. Why are you doing BJJ and where do you want to be in a year, 5 years, 10 years? Are you a competitor, because this will definitely dictate what you should be learning and how you should be training as well as the time you need to devote to each. Are you a serious hobbyist who wants to know all that there is to know about? Are you just doing it for fun, camaraderie and to stay in shape? If you still are undecided, ask your coach and your community. That’s what they’re there for!

Section 3, Review and a Few Thoughts

The take away from section 3 is fairly simple. Organize your BJJ in a way that makes sense for you. For me I put everything into 3 levels:

  • Technique

  • Position

  • Game

The great thing about this organizational model is its modularity. Like the Lego blocks analogy, I can pick and choose what I want to add and subtract from my current repertoire, always knowing that a piece is readily available for me to bring back should I ever want to. The only requirement, for me at least, is that, after enough practice time, that the piece, be it technique or position, prove functional to my overall jiu jitsu game.

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1 Comment

Willow R. Neilson
Willow R. Neilson
Apr 07, 2022

Cool post! Very insightful

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