Basics of Grip Fighting on the Ground

You’d think grip fighting would rank at the top of the “grappling fundamentals” list. When you grapple with someone, you have to grab them, and if they’re wearing clothes, those clothes are an ideal target for said grabbing.

Yet when I started jiu-jitsu, I remember my knowledge of grips lagging behind. I don’t want this to happen to you, and so although I’m hardly an expert on grip fighting, I’m going to list some of the principles I wish I’d known all along.

Because grip-fighting is its own universe, we have to narrow it down: this post will focus on grip strategy for when you’re on your back in guard, although a lot of the principles apply everywhere else in a fight or grappling match. Let’s talk about two crucial overarching principles first.

Control Inside Space: We’re more powerful when our arms are pulled in close to our bodies. This makes it easier to push and pull an opponent, harder for them to push and pull us, and creates a barrier to them striking us. This is why pummeling is so important in nogi situations and MMA — and the principle holds true when wearing the gi as well.

For a simple example, from your closed guard, try grabbing the outside of your opponent’s sleeves. Not only would your opponent be able to punch you pretty easily, you’re less able to control their arm movements. Now, pummel inside and put your hands on their biceps. The situation changes. I’m not suggesting the hand-on-bicep play as a preferred position: just trying to illustrate that if your opponent’s grip-fighting has allowed them to successfully control inside space, you need to address that.

Deny Their Grips First: An ounce of prevention is worth a 16 ounce can of whoop ass. I think Confucius said that, or Stone Cold Steve Austin. Whichever. If your opponent can’t effectively grab you, they can’t effectively grapple you.

Judo players are some of the best at this. I’ve watched Olympian and world champion Jimmy Pedro’s Grip Like a World Champion DVD several times, and I still feel like an high school student auditing a Ph.D class when I do. Pedro illustrates both of these principles in this short spot:

This second principle might seem self-explanatory, but its importance can’t be overstated. If they don’t get the grips they want, their game never gets going. As Jimmy Pedro says in the video, the more skilled person is always going to win given equal mastery of grips. But if you get into a situation where your grip is much more advantageous, you can win exchanges with opponents who are more skilled than you are. That’s powerful.

If we initiate our ideal grips, we can do double-duty: if I control the sleeve well, getting a deep grip and putting my knuckles on the back of my partner’s wrist, I can both get good control and prevent my partner from re-gripping.

Now let’s get into what grips you want. The attacks you prefer inform the grips you want, and vice versa. Let’s talk first about what we can do with grips when we’re in the guard.

Note: there are endless possibilities (and you’re welcome to share your favorites in the comments), but these are some solid fundamental grip options to begin playing with.

When We’re In Closed Guard, or They Pass From the Knees

Collar and sleeve: We reach for the cross-collar grip (deeper the better) with one hand. For example, my right hand would reach deep in my opponent’s right-side lapel. Then, my free (left) hand grips my partner’s same/mirror side, in this case his right hand.

This allows us some control of our opponent’s posture, since we can use the collar grip to prevent them from posturing up, and accesses powerful fundamental attacks like the cross-collar choke and the scissor sweep. Because we have control of one sleeve, our opponent can’t post that way, and so if we off-balance them in that direction, they risk losing top position.

Cross-grip on the sleeve: This powerful grip is the counter-point to the mirror grip. If I can grab my opponent’s right sleeve with my right hand, for example, I can turn that opponent’s body at angle that allows me to expose their back. If we get a good grip here, we can put constant pressure of a back attack on our opponent — which also sets up fundamental sweep options like the pendulum sweep, taking us to mount instead of the back.

I will often set up the cross-grip off of a grip break. Check out the Vicente Junior video  below for good grip break tips.

When They Stand To Pass Our Open Guard

If they’ve opened our guard and stood up, they have more mobility — but they also have a less stable base.

The answer to problems in jiujitsu is usually “move your hips,” so don’t think getting grips alone is going to save you here: you’ve got to engage your legs and hips and move. But a couple of basic grip configurations will help you get started.

Personally, I don’t do a lot of grabbing the collar when my opponent stands. Lots of people who are better than me do this, though, so don’t think it’s wrong if you wind up liking it! I just find that the collar grip is easier to break when people are standing, so since I have weak grips, I am more likely to grab a grip that’s tougher to break — like the belt. We’re not going to talk about belt grips here, but I use that as an example.

Two options that are good to start with, and also serve as jumping-off points for the more advanced open guards:

Sleeve and the heel/cuff of one pant leg: If I get a sleeve — mirror side or cross-side — this sets up fundamental attacks like my favorite sweep, the tripod sweep. I like to grab the heel of one leg, because it diminishes their mobility, and also because it allows me to play De La Riva guard. Even if you don’t do De La Riva guard, though, controlling their leg and stepping on their hip diminishes their mobility and allows you some control/attack options.

Double sleeve grips: Michael Langhi is magic with these. I like controlling sleeves because when we control sleeves, we control posts — where our partner can place their hands. If they can’t post a hand, there’s a good chance we can roll them over that direction and get on top.

Just like sleeve/heel grips are good entry points to De La Riva guard, the double sleeve grips are solid entries to the world of spider guard. When we have the sleeves, it’s a short jump to step on biceps.


But what if they get their grips before we get the chance to get ours? If they do get the grips they want, you can break their grips, of course. The great Vicente Junior, along with his black belt Lance Trippett, show some good drills for doing that:

Another option can be to re-grip, which Jason Scully shows from the top guard position here:

The more I learn about grips, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Grip fighting is a vast thing, and you won’t ever learn all you need to understand.

This post is intended to provide a framework for you to explore and to go down whatever rabbit hole of grip resources you choose — like any of the videos linked here. Check out this Reddit thread for more tips.


Demian Maia and complete jiujitsu

Demian Maia is, by any measure, one of the finest representatives of jiujitsu. You probably already know this, especially if you watched his most recent fight with Carlos Condit. It was a masterful performance against an accomplished opponent where, despite Condit knowing precisely what Maia wanted to do, Maia achieved a submission victory while taking virtually no damage.

One apparent lesson from this: despite what you might hear in certain circles, jiujitsu is a complete martial art. One less-readily apparent lesson, which is no less important: fundamentalism in any form is dangerous.

To explain what I mean, let’s start with self defense. True self defense means we train to protect ourselves from harm. This means avoiding bad situations, but also preparing for when dangerous situations arise. Being locked in a cage with a UFC-caliber fighter certainly qualifies as “dangerous.” This is why Royce Gracie’s performances in the early UFCs so animated martial artists: here was living proof that, during a no-time-limit fight with effectively no rules, a smaller opponent skilled in jiujitsu could defeat huge, dangerous attackers.

During Maia’s last four UFC fights, he’s absorbed 13 significant strikes — fewer than four per fight, against the best mixed martial artists in the world. That’s protecting yourself. That’s further testament that jiujitsu — original complete Gracie jiujitsu — is still effective.

Just listen to Maia himself, ever humble about his own achievements, explain why it’s the art that’s doing the vital work of protecting him:

Most of us will never fight in the cage. But there are lessons there for each of us: jiujitsu a complete art composed of striking, grappling, takedowns, and standing self-defense, along with a philosophy of self defense. Inspired by the Maia-Condit fight, the past day I’ve been re-watching Demian Maia’s DVD about stand-up techniques. It might surprise some people that Maia has an hour-long instructional of this nature, but it should only be a surprise you if you view jiujitsu through the prism of ground grappling. Original jiujitsu was designed to be a standalone martial art, and that’s the jiujitsu Maia does. As he says:

“I’ve always believed in Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art and not only a sport. That’s why I have always trained all aspects of the art. Despite being a competitor for years, I never stopped training self-defense or takedowns. I still do the same with my students today.”

This is a consistent theme in Maia’s interviews throughout the years. He’s a jiujitsu world champion, Abu Dhabi champion, and UFC title contender — but he’s never stopped training the self defense aspects of Gracie jiujitsu. He still does it all.

To me, this is an important lesson for those who are competition-focused to the exclusion of all else. Competition is fun, but — whether we’re talking about sport jiujitsu or MMA — winning awards in a setting with predictable, mutually agreed upon rules is just a part of what the art is about. It’s certainly a far cry from the early UFCs, where virtually anything went, and you had to be prepared to stand, to fight from your back, to be on top on the ground, or any other situation.

In some ways, the growth of sport jiujitsu has created incentive to specialize: one effective means to win a strategic game is to focus intently on a subset of that game, then force your opponent to play it on your terms. It’s why we see complex, ever-evolving aspects of the modern lapel guards: if you can trap someone into playing that game, and you know that game miles better than your opponent, it’s a smart way to win. This incentivizes people who are exceptional at the berimbolo, for example, to get into berimbolo-ready positions, and drill those technique to the exclusion of others. But if you’re going to do that, and only that, you’d better be able to get to that position in every situation where you might have to defend yourself.

Can you imagine a position, in grappling or fighting, where Demian Maia would be lost? I can’t. There are reasons that his jiujitsu is the subject of much study for the masterful way he moves through positions. I can’t help but think his completist approach is a reason why.

When I hear people complain about training self-defense, it’s usually because they’d rather be doing something else — like sharpening their sport tools. There’s nothing wrong with working on your favorite techniques. There is, however, something wrong with failure to develop a well-rounded skill set. There is also something wrong with failing to see self-defense techniques for what they are: techniques designed to give anyone tools to protect themselves in common situations outside of sport grappling.

It’s no secret that I love sport jiujitsu. What I dislike is fundamentalism: the attitude that what I prefer is the only pure way. It impedes learning and progress. To return to Demian Maia, he trains original, complete jiujitsu, including self defense — and finds a profound template for success there.

There’s a flip side to this, though. Many self defense purists are skeptical — or even out-and-out hostile — to sport jiujitsu. My own experience tells me that competition is one of the most powerful tools for improving one’s self defense abilities.

But this is about Demian Maia. Maia competed from white belt all the way through black belt, entering sport jiujitsu tournaments at every belt level and winning the worlds at a couple of them. Indeed, despite his status as elite fighter, he even said he’d like to take a gi jiu-jitsu competition match if the situation was right.

He’s not alone. In the upper echelons of MMA, most of the top-tier jiujitsu fighters also competed successfully in sport jiujitsu while wearing the gi. (Only Frank Mir stands out as an exception, although it’s possible I’m missing someone.)

The anti-competition argument goes that if you train sport techniques, you’ll be unprepared for a real-world confrontation. I disagree with this, both at the premise and the conclusion levels, and my reasoning could be the topic of an entirely different post. In the context of this post, though, I think both the arguments against training self defense and to competing can be answered this way: a well-rounded martial artist should at least explore both. We can learn different things from different experiences, and to reject out of hand certain experiences seems like fundamentalism.

It’s not my usual tendency to tell people what to do without being asked. We all have different goals, and success should be defined according to those goals. For those of us who want to have complete jiujitsu, though, we have to remember that the art is rooted in self defense. And for those of us that want to have the most effective self defense possible, we should consider that competition can help — not hinder — our progress toward that goal.

Demian Maia, a truly complete jiujitsu fighter, is an example of this. We could all do worse than to emulate him.

Visualize It, Don’t Criticize It

This morning at 6 a.m. jiu-jitsu class, I talked about iterated algorithms. Let me apologize here to all of the students that I hit with that number before daybreak or coffee, and thank the one person who nodded vigorously when I asked “does anyone know what an iterated algorithm is?” (An algorithm that’s been iterated. Duh).

I’ll get back to math-nerdiness in a moment, but let’s start with peer-reviewed study nerdiness. Why should you keep reading? Because this post is about a very simple way that you can improve competition performance — with minimal effort and no risk of injury. You can even do it if your time at jiu-jitsu class is limited. That simple method is visualization.

When I say visualization, here is what I mean: you use your mind to visualize the way you want your match to go. When I’m preparing for competitions, I do this a lot during my off-the-mat time. In fact, I’ll be doing visualization constantly all the way up to my time in the bullpen preparing for tournament matches. I’ll visualize myself doing all the techniques that I’d do if the match goes exactly the way I want it to: single leg takedown, knee cut pass, knee drive to mount, mounted collar choke. In my mind’s eye, I guide myself through all of these steps.

To name one benefit, it helps me be calm and focus in that nerve-wracking time before I step on the mat. But there are more benefits, and study after scientific study has shown that using visualization techniques has myriad benefits, including improving sport-specific skills, improving strength and coordination. Bluntly, visualizing a guard pass will help you pass the guard more effectively. 

Skeptical? A host of studies bear this out, on topics as widely varied as strength training, golf, judo and other skills-based competitive activities. While I’m hardly an expert on this research, I’ve read more than a few studies on the topic. There is a broad general agreement on the fact that visualization has benefits, although the theories about why these benefits exist vary. But you don’t care overmuch about the why, do you? You want to pass the guard better. You want better results.

So let’s get you there. First, I’m going to review some of the visualization studies I’ve read. That’ll hopefully convince you that this is a thing you should be doing, because this is rigorous, peer-reviewed research. Second, I’m going to tell you my method of visualization, which hasn’t been tested by anybody, but seems to work for me. Then we’ll get back to iterated algorithms. How can you not stay to the end after that teaser?

Visualize! ... but not like this.

Visualize! … but not like this.

Here’s the big picture: many, many different studies have been done on this, trying to establish whether we can prove that visualization effects are real. I’ll get into the specific studies in a second, but sometimes the most convincing evidence is a review that takes into account a bunch of research. Let’s say, for example, someone did a meta-study that examined more than 20 research projects into visualization’s effects. If they found a general trend toward major benefits, that would tell us something, no? Check this out:

Empirical research suggests that mental practice may enhance the performance of motor skills. Many variables have been shown to mediate the size and direction of the mental practice effects. The purpose of the present study is to provide an overview of research examining the role played by these variables in mediating the effectiveness of mental practice. In order to integrate the findings in the literature and to further analyze the relative contributions of each of these variables, a meta-analysis was performed according to the procedure outlined by Smith, Glass, and Miller. Twenty-one studies that met the criteria of having both an adequate control and a mental practice alone group were included in the meta-analysis. The forty-four separate effect sizes resulted in an overall average effect size of .68, (SD = .11) indicating that there is a significant benefit to performance of using mental practice over no practice. (emphasis added)

In summary, scientists picked 21 of the best studies they could find, and those studies had to have a way of determining whether mental practice alone could be shown to have a benefit. In those studies, there were 44 “effects” shown from visualization. And while these effect sizes varied, they were found to show clear and significant benefits to performance across the board.

Whenever I read a single study, my inner skeptic tells me to be cautious of the conclusions. You can find one study that says virtually anything you want it to. When it’s a couple of dozen well-designed studies across decades, you get on much more solid ground.

If groups of studies are more convincing, specific studies are more fascinating and evocative. Just check out the narrative from this guy’s thesis, describing a couple of important research projects and their conclusions.

In addition, Eddy & Mellalieu (2003) elaborated that the use of imagery techniques to imagine performing a specific sports skill has been shown to improve the physical performance of that. Using the mind, an athlete can register positive images over and over, enhancing the skill through repetition or rehearsal, similar to physical practice. Therefore, with mental rehearsal, minds and bodies become trained to actually perform the skill imagined. Imagery and visualization is the development of creating a mental image or goal of what he/she wants to happen or feel. Research by Newmark (2012) supports visualization was first applied to sports performance after the 1984 Olympics, when Russian researchers studying Olympic athletes found that Olympians who had employed visualization techniques experienced a positive impact on their biological outcomes and performance. (emphasis added)

To a certain extent, this is intuitive. Our brains run on electrical impulses, and using our brains to visualize, say, a sweep, seems like it should get the right patterns set in our brains. Besides, most of us spend an all-too-brief time actually on the mats during the week. The knowledge that thinking about the motion of shrimping while you’re sitting at your desk might improve your jiu-jitsu is powerful. While there’s certainly no substitute for hard physical training, it’s helpful to know that mental training — which you can do anywhere — can afford additional benefits.

This is how I visualize. (Note: not really)

This is how I visualize. (Note: not really)


When I say “benefits,” I’m talking sport-specific benefits. Take golf, for example. Two different studies tracked golfers on their putting accuracy: one found “significant performance improvements” in putting from visualization, and the other found that “using positive imagery” (i.e., imagining a successful putt instead of a missed putt) had a “significant main effect on performance improvement.” We’re talking a very specific motor-skills task here, folks: visualizing yourself striking a putt and having that putt go in makes your putting more likely to be accurate.

It’s not just golf, of course. Martial artists will be thrilled (and hopefully unsurprised) to learn that visualization while training judo not only helps you learn judo techniques, it also helps your “imaging” knowledge, your ability to successfully visualize. Like any task, the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more you think about it, the better you get at thinking about it. When you put it that way, it seems like common sense, right?

Finally, one study that really blew my mind — and, to some researchers, hints at the mechanism by which visualization works. It’s one thing to talk about visualization improving your body’s coordination. But research shows that it increases your actual muscle strength as well. Read that again. Visualizing muscle movement actually increases your muscle strength. You remember in the Matrix, how Keanu Reeves had never used his muscles before, but he still could, y’know, move? Turns out that’s not so unrealistic.

Researchers asked 30 young, healthy volunteers to participate in the study. Eight of them were trained to perform “mental contractions” of their little finger muscles, without actually moving the muscles. Eight other people did the same mental task, but with elbow movements. Six other volunteers actually did the finger muscle movements instead of thinking about them. Then the remaining eight weren’t trained at all, physically or mentally, and served as a control group.

After the 12 week study concluded, they found this:

At the end of training, we found that the [mental-only finger movement] group had increased their finger abduction strength by 35% (P < 0.005) and the [mental-only elbow flexion] group augmented their elbow flexion strength by 13.5% (P < 0.001). The physical training group increased the finger abduction strength by 53% (P < 0.01). The control group showed no significant changes in strength for either finger abduction or elbow flexion tasks. The improvement in muscle strength for trained groups was accompanied by significant increases in electroencephalogram-derived cortical potential, a measure previously shown to be directly related to control of voluntary muscle contractions. We conclude that the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength. (emphasis added)

This tells us that yes, physical exercise is best for building muscle — but mental training can build strength, too. The mind is powerful.


Norman Rockwell did visualizations. Be like Norman Rockwell.

Norman Rockwell did visualizations. Be like Norman Rockwell.

One caveat: the practice of visualization in these studies isn’t standardized, so there’s some variability in how people use terms like “visualizing” and “imaging.” This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it: in fact, if that judo study is to be believed, the more you do it, the more efficient you’ll be (just like jiujitsu itself).

Rather than take you through all the methods used in these studies, I’m going to tell you how I do it, why I do it that way, and what that has to do with an iterated algorithm. I haven’t been the subject of any research studies since I was a kid, so I can’t prove what I do works, but it makes me feel more prepared, and that’s valuable in and of itself.

Given that the research shows that positive imagine has a greater impact — and that Marcelo Garcia says “I don’t worry about what the other guy’s going to do” — I start out by visualizing my ideal match, where everything goes right. I see myself doing the techniques that I’d choose to do if everything works perfectly. For me, those techniques are:

Single leg takedown > Knee cut guard pass > Knee drive pass to mount > Mounted collar choke

What can I say? I’m a simple man who likes choking with his hands. This plan, given the techniques I know and do, is my optimal world. Obviously, you can change it up and insert your ideal match techniques as well. I run through these techniques in my mind over and over before my match.

As we all know, no plan survives engagement with the enemy. Often, people are pesky, and they don’t let you just dominate them from stem to stern. Plus, sometimes I just choose to pull guard. And finally, it’s boring to imagine the same match in the same order over and over.

An iterated algorithm is a concept from math. You start with a number (or point), then process it somehow to obtain a new number or point. When you integrate that new number/point into the process, you create a “feedback mechanism” — and after a while a pattern emerges.

You can think of how I do visualization as several iterations, or, if you prefer, a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I start from the ideal match (Single leg takedown > Knee cut guard pass > Knee drive pass to mount > Mounted collar choke). Then, I insert some changes into the system. What if I get taken down? Maybe it’s:

Get double legged > Recover guard > Tripod sweep > Knee cut guard pass > Knee drive pass to mount > Mounted collar choke

Or what if the process is disrupted in the middle? Maybe he recovers guard, and I have to pass again:

Single leg takedown > Knee cut guard pass > He recovers guard > Torreando pass > Back Take > Bow & Arrow Choke

You can see that the possibilities are infinite. But two commonalities remain: first, I always visualize finding a way to win the match; and second, I keep the visualizations to my A-game techniques, the most likely tactics that I’ll have to use. This keeps all my best options in the top of my mind. It also gives me something to do in the bullpen, which is nice.

In most competitive pursuits, the person who is able to impose their game on the other party wins. This is why drilling and rolling are both important: getting to your happy place quickly and efficiently is critical.

If you want both your mind and your body to get to that happy place more often, try visualization. No iterated algorithms required.




How A Critic Is Different From a Hater

In that moment, I was as mad as I can remember being.

I was at a major tournament with a bunch of people from my school. One of my good friends and teammates was about to compete (I won’t say names, so as to obscure the details, since the principle isn’t about this specific incident). He was competing against a highly-regarded competitor from a major competition school. The two competitors were ready to step on the mat, and I was preparing to coach and yell support.

What I wasn’t prepared for: a large upper belt from the other guy’s school starting to talk loudly about … well, let me just quote:

“Our guy is going to crush this guy,” he said. “I mean, LOOK at him.” He continued from there. It got progressively more disrespectful, and although this guy out-ranked me and out-weighed me by a fluffy 100 pounds, it started to feel like he was the Chester half of Chester and Spike.  He went on about how our guy looked compared to his guy. Eventually, I asked my roommate to stand between me and this guy so I wouldn’t say or do anything stupid.

The match started, and the fluffy brown belt kept talking — until it became apparent that this would be a tough match after all. At about two minutes in, he stopped talking altogether. The match was neck and neck the whole way. My teammate wound up losing, but it was a terrific performance, and I was proud, and the portly gentleman was both much relieved and much quieter. He exhaled, did a small celebration, but there was none of the mess-talking that had been so present before.

Then came the moment that solidified in my mind that I would one day tell this story. One of Fluffy Brown’s teammates asked about when they’d see him compete.

“Oh, I’m basically a hobbyist,” he said. “I train twice a week, and I don’t compete any more.”

After I heard that, I had to take a walk.


TR trained jiu-jitsu. He knows what's up.

TR trained jiu-jitsu. He knows what’s up.


You’ve no doubt seen this quotation from President Theodore Roosevelt before. That’s because it’s classic, and it expresses numerous important ideas. Foremost among them is that it’s better to come up short again and again that to simply point out “where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” If we want to build great things, we have to try, and we usually have to fail at first. As the playwright Samuel Beckett put it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I want to make a clear distinction here. Though Roosevelt uses the word “critic” here, I don’t think the guy I’m describing counts as a critic. I would use a different word, a word that is thrown around a lot, and is often overused and misapplied. That word is hater.

Critics, in fact, are valuable. No one is above criticism. In fact, we should welcome good-faith criticism. It’s how we learn and grow.

When your instructor tells you to stop taking top position against new people, that’s not hate: that’s identifying the next step in your evolution. When a visiting black belt takes the time to explain why you’re not finishing from the back, it can feel like a scolding, but it isn’t. It’s a learning opportunity. It’s criticism, not hating. A good critic is invaluable, because a critic identifies flaws in your approach — and flaws can be fixed.

A critic has the doer of deeds’ best interests at heart. A good critic tells you where you’re making mistakes in open guard positions so you can fix those mistakes. A hater doesn’t deal in good faith: they point out the weaknesses in your open guard (or career, or life) so they can feel better about their own.

A critic advances us towards becoming our best self. A hater tries to tear us down to their level. Your coach is a critic. Your supportive teammates are critics. The guy who makes fun of you for trying is a hater.

It’s important not to confuse the two. A good high-profile example of confusing the two came recently when Rener Gracie penned a note entitled “to the loyal haters.”



#Haters #Dang

Gracie University has come under a good deal of scrutiny over the past few years, first for online belt promotions. More recently, it’s been because of the rapid proliferation of schools with lower-belt instructors.

In Rener’s note, he refers to the folks scrutinizing the way Gracie University has developed as “haters.” That’s not accurate, in my view. Of course, there are some people on the Internet that will take any opportunity to take pot shots at anyone. Many of the people who were concerned about the online belt system, though, were respected black belts. And even people who think a Certified Training Center run by a blue belt might be a good solution for a rural area with no legitimate training for 100 miles — I count myself among these — think it’s a terrible idea to drop a blue belt who has studied mostly online right next to a school run by Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belts and pretend like there’s nothing wrong.

Notice what these have in common: each has a solution. People have legitimate concerns about online belts? You can modify or end that program. People think that a mostly-online blue belt shouldn’t be represented as equivalent to a 10-year black belt? There are structures that can be put in place to guard against that.

None of this is possible, though, without being open to critics — not haters, but critics.

Sometimes, folks like to think they have haters. If you’re being singled out for criticism, you’re special. You’re different. You’re important. And if you are these things, then any critique of your work is simply hating.

There are two problems with this. First, it doesn’t necessarily reflect humility. We all can make mistakes, and few of us are so important that people are going to sit around thinking of meritless criticisms.

And I think most people do operate in good faith. I think more people want to help you than want to hurt you. I think you’re not much different than anybody else, trying to get better at something you like doing, and the people criticizing you aren’t hating so much as trying to demonstrate they have something to offer. I think Morrissey was wrong.

What, then, is hating? Hating is when you’re not critiquing in good faith. It’s when you’re criticizing Rener Gracie just because of who he is, rather than the way he’s going about his project. It’s when someone tries something new and, instead of honestly interrogating the project to see if it’s worthwhile, you treat the project like Rick James treated Eddie Murphy’s couch.

If you’ve noticed, there’s a fine line to walk here. I don’t think that only people who compete have a right to criticize others (although if you don’t compete at all, you might shy away from criticizing other people’s teammates in front of them during a tournament); instead, I think that criticism should come from a constructive place. On the other side of things, I think people who create things need to be open to critical thoughts from observers.

Here’s the most important thing. If you take only one thing away from this post, I would have you remember this:

It’s easier to destroy than it is to create; tearing things down is also quicker than building them.

If we want to have good things in the jiu-jitsu community, we have to not be quick to tear down the people who try to build them. If we want to have great things in the jiu-jitsu community, the people who build things have to be open to hearing what might make their efforts better.


Making the Mind Empty in the Surf

Surfing and martial arts share much. Top-level practitioners, for one thing: a healthy percentage of the Brazilian black belts I met grew up surfing, and professional surfers like Joel Tudor have taken up the gi with great enthusiasm and success.

You can see why, since both arts require adaptability and grace in the face of powerful opposing forces. The ocean’s tougher than all of us.

Another point of commonality: the experience that surfers (and psychologists) call “flow,” that optimal experience of life. Jiu-jitsu people use the term “flow” sometimes, too, but it’s more typical in the circles I run in to hear it called “mushin,” a Japanese word that roughly means “empty mind.”

There’s really no experience like it. I got it when I was doing competitive debate during high school and college, and haven’t had it since — until jiujitsu.

Putting this type of experience into words is a weighty task. I won’t make too strenuous an attempt, because it seems contrary to the very notion of an empty, flexible mind. I’m merely going to describe how it seems to me during a perfect sparring or competition experience.

They come for you and grab you, hard. You off-balance them and then you’re on top and they don’t know what happened. Things are slow, slower than life ever is.  They try to grip you again, and you watch their hand come open as it reaches for you. It could take what seems like a second or what seems like a year, and you know where on your body it will land precisely.

But you’re not there any more. The hand’s efforts are useless. Then you let them grip you, just to show them they shouldn’t grab you there, and suddenly they’re tapping.

I don’t use the word sublime a lot, but not much else qualifies. The world is gone. Life is right here.


We often talk about martial arts as a practice, and other disciplines from sporting to religious to philosophical use that same terminology. The end results you’re aiming for with these disciplines differ widely. It’s the practice that brings focus, clarity, and the ability to experience what we call flow. It took me years to get there in both debate and jiu-jitsu, and I’m certainly not there every session. But, as with yoga or music or whatever your art of choice is, it’s the practice that matters.

Buddhism talks about emptying the mind in the context of meditation. This is a painting by the Chinese artist Gao Qipei:

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You’ll notice that a poem is inscribed at the top of the painting (about which there’s another fascinating story, involving Bertolt Brecht, but that’s for another time).

The poem is about using a quiet mind to tell the difference between good men and evil ones. Here’s a rough translation:

“The deep clarity of the empty mind
corresponds to the vast emptiness of the sky. 
All these malicious and evil men
can be seen in the stillness of contemplation.”

There is a difference between using mental clarity in evaluating someone’s personal ethics and in knowing intimately whether the kimura is available, but how you get there is the same: slow progress over time, culminating in the acuity to know instinctively what to do when the time is right.

Besides, every discipline has different aims, some of which exist beyond good and evil. To paraphrase Ash from the Evil Dead films: “Good, bad. I’m the guy with the heel hooks.”

The idea of mushin is divergent from daily life experience for most of us. We work day jobs that require constant attention. Whether you’re sitting in an office or waiting tables, your mind is active and thinking about minute details. If the world slows down in these spots, it’s not because of the flow, it’s because the quotidian is making you watch the clock.

What does this all mean? It means that the New Year is almost here, and with it, I’m thinking my annual thoughts about what to improve during the next trip around the sun.

I always play the Lawrence Arms song “100 Resolutions” at this time of the year, because the chorus is something to aspire to. You can see why it’d make me think of mushin:

This year I’ll try not to think too much.
This year I’ll try to stand up for myself.
This year I’ll live like I’ve never lived before.
This is my year, for sure.

This year I’ll practice more. Not just jiu-jitsu, but all the things that get me away from clock-watching and toward quiet. This year I’ll flow more and force things less, and I’m not talking about while rolling. The world will always make waves in my life, but I will learn to surf them better.

These are all things I wish for you, too. Happy New Year, everyone.


Why BJJ Lineage Matters

Without a fighter from Japan and a few Brazilian pioneers, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Without a black belt from Vermont, I wouldn’t be competing at high-level tournaments. Without a select handful of dedicated people, I would be a completely different person than I am — a less happy, less tough person leading a less fulfilled life.

That last paragraph is about my lineage in jiujitsu, the teachers that have trained me. We think about that a fair bit in the martial arts.

Interestingly, a new guest article on JiuJitsu Times purports to not see why lineage matters. While I see where the author is coming from — yes, in a fight or a tournament match, no one cares who your instructor is — the piece wildly misanalyzes what lineage is and why it’s important. Continue reading

There is no such thing as spider guard

“A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.” –Raymond Chandler

A new guard comes out every week. It’s remarkable how, after billions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human grappling, completely unforeseen positions somehow crop up every time there are DVDs to be sold.

It’s also interesting how, when a new guard is “created,” we’re treated to marketing efforts that inform us how innovative it is, how cutting edge, how devastatingly effective.

Hyperbole has its value, of course, as the Raymond Chandler quotation from above emphasizes. You’ve got to believe in what you do, and you have to market your instructional. Also, believe you me, I’m going to engage in a little hyperbole, right now.

Here is is: There is no such thing as spider guard.

Or worm guard. Or koala guard, or God help me mantis guard. There is no such thing as any of these.


This isn’t real, and if it were real, it would be called “Reverse De La Riva.”

There is only the guard. And the guard has principles. Every good and useful position within guard adheres to these principles.

Many times, fancy terminology for allegedly innovative positions disguises the fact that these “new” guards have been played for years — or worse, it distracts us from one fundamental concept of good guard play.

Now, obviously I don’t mean “the positions typically described as spider guard positions do not exist.” That’s where my own hyperbole comes in. I want you to consider the idea “there is no such thing as [insert name of guard position]” in terms of a thought experiment.

The positions exist. But when discussing the guard with new students, it’s more helpful to explain to them the concepts of what a good guard means rather than tell them “go straight to this specific guard position that you must use.” When we describe these positions, we should see this terminology as helpful visual shorthand and nothing more.

First, I’ll talk about why the last paragraph I wrote is true. Next, I’ll focus on why understanding the fundamental principles of guard is important. And finally, I’ll talk about what this idea means for those of us who train.


Why Is There No Such Thing As Spider Guard?

When we use the guard, whether in a sport environment or a self-defense situation, there are certain things we must do. Primarily, we must control distance.

If we don’t control distance, we aren’t safe, and if we aren’t safe, nothing else matters. There are a variety of ways we can do this, both in closed guard and open guard. But all of them require us to understand this: we are building structures. Our structures could be a solid closed guard. They could be feet on the hips in proper position. Could be a leg lasso, or any number of things.

The particular structure is less important than the idea that guard is a process of creating our own powerful structures while preventing our opponent’s structures from developing.

Better build a structure quick: that collar grip won't get you anything. ... OK, nothing will get you anything.

Better build a structure quick: that collar grip won’t get you anything. … OK, nothing will get you anything.

In order to build good structures, I have to control the inside space. If I grab my opponent’s arms on the outside of his triceps, he is in a more powerful spot than I am — not to mention that he can punch me. But if I use my hands to make hooks on the inside of his biceps, or if I grab his sleeves and step on his biceps, passing and punching becomes nigh impossible until he breaks my structures down.

“Wait!” You might be saying. “You just said ‘step on the biceps!’ You just said spider guard doesn’t exist, but you’re describing spider guard!”

This is exactly the point I’m trying to make. To achieve the goals of guard, I need to build structures. In order to do this, I need to step on targets. The most powerful targets are typically hips, biceps and shoulders. Why are these most powerful? Because they control the inside space.

Try passing a guard or punching someone without clearing their hands, feet or knees off your biceps. As long as you hit and maintain those targets, your structures are working. You can call that “spider guard,” for sure. But it’s more important, especially early on, to understand why the position we call spider guard works. And that there are other positions in the guard universe that serve the same function.

As Royce Gracie black belt Roy Marsh put it in a conversation with me, “guard is just structures that allow movement which can then build better or new structures.” This is a really important insight — that structures allow movement —for the next section.


Why Is Realizing “There Is No Such Thing As Spider Guard” Important?

Early on in my training, the De La Riva guard made sense to me. It just felt natural. I think certain positions like this pop up for all of us: there’s just this one thing that you gravitate to as a thing you understand and enjoy.

The biggest mistake I made in my early blue belt years: when I got in trouble, I held onto that De La Riva guard like a sinking ship. That changed when I took a private with Vicente Junior, an amazing black belt directly under Ricardo de la Riva.

He gave me an insight that is also reflected in the Roy Marsh dictum above: the guard is about movement and transition. When someone clears your De La Riva hook, you can fight like hell to get it back —or you can transition and step on a hip. When someone stuffs your foot between their legs, you can exhaust yourself trying to get whatever guard you want back — or you can move to Reverse De La Riva.

Jiu-jitsu is about efficiency, and fighting like crazy for specific positions isn’t efficient. If I’ve built a good structure, that structure will allow me to move.

This guy gets to call it "Spider Guard." And watch him hit that target!

This guy gets to call it “Spider Guard.” And watch him hit that target!

For me, realizing that I wasn’t a De La Riva Guard Player was a key insight. My DLR hook could become a hook elsewhere (inside the lead leg) or hit a target (a hip, a bicep). That way, I control distance. I maintain control of the inside space. I play guard, not “De La Riva guard” or “spider guard.”

I think if we teach new students these core principles as we teach them particular positions, it will be better for their long-term growth. Don’t just “play spider guard,” understand why spider guard works — and what stops it from working. That way if they clear your foot from a target, you aren’t exhausting yourself trying to do exactly that one thing — or worse, totally lost.


What Does All This Mean?

I want to say one other thing about fundamental principles, and then I’ll give the three things I hope you’ll take away from this post. All of these ideas apply to passing the guard too. It’s a game of structures, or building them and breaking them down.

If we have good fundamentals, we can prevent a lot of problem situations. Often, adhering to these core concepts can defeat the so-called “modern” open guard before they get started. One of the things Ze Grapplez did very well in our match this year, and a key reason he won, was that he prevented me from even getting my open guard going.

He did this with sound pressure passing that stopped me from — stop me if you’ve heard this — controlling distance and dominating the inside space. Once he achieved that, I was playing catch-up and I never caught up. If your opponent stops your offense before it gets started, it’s hard to win.

So, to sum up:

1. Fundamental principles are important, and by and large they don’t change: think of targets and hooks and structures, not ultra-specific positions.

2. Thinking of yourself as a Spider Guard Player or a De La Riva Guard Player or whatever it is can blind you to one of the most critical aspects of guard — the ability to move and transition.

3. Don’t always believe the hype about the hot new guard. Close your guard. If it opens, control distance, dominate the inside position, build good structures and keep yourself able to move. Whether you call that open guard, panda guard or Double Secret Probation guard doesn’t matter.

Actually, just call it Dirty White Belt guard. I could use the clicks. Happy training!