If you come from a traditional American sports background, submission based Jiu Jitsu is unlike any sport you’ve ever played. Even if you’re a wrestler, once you get to the ground, people are doing things you can’t really understand and people who are much smaller and weaker than you are submitting you routinely. It’s humbling, while also scary to consider that you’ve spent your whole life walking around the Earth without any ability or understanding of how to defend yourself against some large, and growing, percentage of people who know this sport.
If you did wrestle, many of the positions where you’d feel comfortable bringing someone, your natural inclinations, might set you up for some other form of destruction you don’t see coming.
Having played football, baseball, and basketball growing up, my athletic background has served me in rolling, but as you begin, you’re routinely found in positions you have no idea how to deal with. A traditional athletic background provides you with some attributes in your toolbox that are going to serve you like strength, athleticism, quickness, and a physical intelligence regarding how to use your body, but the sport of Jiu Jitsu is so foreign.
Being a white belt is just about showing up to your school’s beginner classes, getting the basic movements down (like the art of shrimping), and learning the basic moves in the sport of Jiu Jitsu. It’s about understanding what side control, passing the guard, heel hooks, or lockdown even are. Words like ashi garami are literally a foreign language to you. Understanding how to control someone’s legs in the leg lock game is incredibly confusing.
Within the 10th Planet system, going from white to blue belt means gaining a grasp of the wild language of the system and the flows. The overall A through H flows are designed by Eddie Bravo to provide students with basic routes to submissions from various starting points. Moving through the routes provide students with thousands of reps in almost every conceivable position in the sport before they even get to the blue belt level. This makes actions and reactions something ingrained in the student’s muscle memory, rather than something they need to pull from memory.
Being a white belt is a bit of a blur, if you’re as obsessive as most people are when they get the itch, you’re taking in more information than you know what to do with. You’re training on a daily basis, taking in what your instructor is saying, and just hoping it fits in somewhere.
The goal is to show up enough times to eventually have a clue what’s going on. It’s a practice based on the faith of seeing people who are purple belts, and are putting beatings on you, and knowing that if you keep showing up, you’ll be there too. And you know it’s possible because everyone who is a purple belt is nice enough to communicate that they once sucked too, but with much kinder words.
One tip I learned as a white belt from Brandon Mccaghren of 10th Planet Decatur was to focus on where an opponent’s head, hands, and feet are because, if you know where those are, you know what he’s doing. While obvious once you’ve heard it, that’s a good first principle to remember in the chaos of beginning the sport as you’re wondering how you deal with everything that’s going on.
- A days are granby series, meaning moves from various starting positions that have a granby incorporated as a key path to the submission or way to change the dynamic of the play.
- According to Chauncey Nu’usolia, owner of 10th Planet North Dallas, B days are Hail Mary’s, which “are a flow to get you into a position to submit your opponent. So a starting point and end point that has a submission, basically you’re coming to the end of your match and you need a finish.”
- C days are pressure passes, so ways to pass someone’s guard via closing the space and creating pressure.
- D days are standing passes, so ways to pass someone’s guard from standing with space between the two competitors.
- E day is quarter guard day, so all the plays once someone has broken your guard, but is yet to pass it.
- F day is a butterfly guard day, so various paths that use the butterfly as key sweeps or movements towards submissions.
- G day is top half passes, so ways to combat the quarter guard and work towards passing the guard.
- H day is focused on the open guard from seated, so “flows that focus on closing the distance between you and your opponent” according to Nu’usolia. It’s essentially the opposite of D day.
If you understand the 10th Planet warmups, you have a basic understanding of ways to move your way out of trouble and into places where you are at an advantage to create a potential submission. Submissions include chokes, neck cranks, arm bars, kimuras, Americanas, ankle locks, heel hooks, toe holds, and wrist locks if you want to piss off your training partners. Knowing the points of pressure on each of these submission attempts is critical for finishing the move as you move up against higher level opponents who know the minute movements that result in their being able to escape your submission attempt.
It’s important to know the progression of what are the most dominant positions as well, so you don’t move backwards if you don’t have to. As I saw in an article from Inverted Gear, assuming you are on the top or dominant side, the hierarchy of the most dominant positions for submissions are, in order: rear mount (back), mount, knee-on-belly, side control, turtle, half-guard, open guard, and closed guard. Closed guard, meaning you are the one trapped inside their guard.
Offense can be from anywhere if you know how to do it, but in terms of positional dominance, that’s a good list.
With this understanding of the basics of the game, you can build off of that and the blue belt mentality, whether you have the belt or not at this point, is about stepping into a new stage of awareness. It’s when you start to get a grasp of what your A game is, while developing the understanding of where your weaknesses are with strategies to improve them.
Are you struggling with leg locks? If your school has a leg lock class, be in there every time you can, do some research, and be sure to watch as much film on it as you can. Gain the understanding of where your legs are supposed to be for control in the various positions, know where you can be attacked from. Understand where your legs need to be to maintain positional control.
If you have a need to focus on the pressure game, then what are the various pressure passes you want to excel at? What are the levers you’re going to use to maintain control over opponents, while making them uncomfortable? How will you control your opponents hips, head, and/or shoulders to control their movement? Where will your grips be from any position? Not just in terms of pressure.
What are some pressure passes you can use that will then translate into a side control advantage, then how will you use that side control to take further steps towards submissions?
I don’t think a blue belt has a total understanding of the principles of the game, at least not in a way that properly articulates the totality of a concept, but it’s the beginning stages of figuring out what the game is.
A key facet of becoming a strong blue belt is developing an understanding of what "your game is" and building your body, your toolbox, off the mat along with the lessons you learn on the mat.
While Jiu Jitsu is sold as a martial art where the little guy can beat the big guy, you're entering competitions against people who are the same size as you, so what about your athletic make-up puts you in positions to succeed? How are you maximizing your on mat output? How do you elevate or maintain the strength, cardio, or flexibility you already bring to the mat, while improving on whichever of those you need help with?
A key concept to consider is what skills do you come to the mat with and what is the game at your weight. If you’re small, say 125 pounds, then quickness is going to be a crucial part of the game. So how do you intend on maximizing that quickness? If you’re 205 pounds, how do you intend on maximizing your strength and power? Overall, how do you simply maximize your explosivity for your weight? And, if you are an incredibly strong 125-pound competitor or a 205-pounder with crazy long cardio, then how do you use those to impose your will?
What are your natural advantages or the advantages you’ve build up? For example, coming from a football background, I had over a decade worth of strength training when I entered the sport, lifting heavy as a slot receiver, to maximize the power I was able to produce when trying to block outside linebackers and safeties, and protect myself from injury.
Others may come from a yoga or long distance running background.
Although I’ve spent a lot of time in my twenties doing yoga myself, one could safely assume that where I need to work on my flexibility and yoga, while maintaining my strength. I also needed to improve my long cardio as football cardio is based on shorter bursts, while Jiu Jitsu in competition can be an 8- or 10-minute sprint and Jiu Jitsu in open mat sparring could be as long as 60-minutes with minimal on 10-Round Tuesday.
A yogi or runner might be focused on building a little more strength, while maintaining that flexibility and cardio.
The ideal is that over time, your strength will still be your strength, while your weakness be improved to make you more well-rounded.
Our goals for the off the mat work is to create a meat vehicle that is least likely to break down. Of course, I want to impose my strength and will on people via that strength, but if I’m unable to be on the mat, then I’m unable to be consistent and I’m not capable of creating the level and speed of improvement in my game that I desire. If you’re unable to be on the mat, then you diminish your ability to get better, so we must do what serves that purpose.
If I’m feeling a bit worn down from Jiu Jitsu, then what am I doing trying to lift heavy? How does that serve my longevity? What is my body telling me I need?
Knowing what your body needs feels like a key aspect of my training. And on some days that’s going to mean that the class you really wanted to go to needs to be passed up for a lighter day of stretching, walking, foam rolling, and general recovery.
I came to Jiu Jitsu with herniated disks, so knowing what my body needs is of vital importance to me. While I can’t put myself in someone else’s body and see how they feel, I think this necessity for me has forced me into the position where I have to consider it very seriously. Over the last month with some neck issues, I’ve re-recognized the importance of just moving around when off the mat. Going for a walk around in the morning is a renewed practice, oftentimes stopping the walk just to move around in ways that stretch out the hip flexors, move the shoulders, and open up my body. Movement, mobility, all of that serves our purpose of getting back on the mat.
For you, if you’re looking to take the next steps in your game, you need to take an honest account of what your strengths and weaknesses are. Understand your areas of the body that are problematic, then constantly constructing, learning, and re-constructing off the mat practices that help ready your body for Jiu Jitsu each day. Knowing how you’re going to stack your programming.
Understanding how to program his training is one of the biggest factors in Georges St. Pierre’s success in MMA and his lasting impact on the sport. I’ve heard many stories of how he began to systematize his training to get the maximum return in the cage on his investment of training time. We need to do the same, whether that’s in the sole focus of Jiu Jitsu or you’re trying to enter the space of MMA.
When you’re on the mat, figuring out what your A game is means knowing the style of play that puts you in places where you feel you can achieve submissions. For some people, that’s a smashing top pressure game on the path to mounts, arm bars, and back takes. For others, it can be a game from the bottom designed around rubber guard or some variation of a leg lock game.
An example I think about is my battles with Adam Fujawa. He is 20 or 25 pounds lighter than me with a career as a professional snowboarder in his past, which was a sport he picked up very quickly, earning sponsorship's in the sport a year into him even engaging in it. So with Jiu Jitsu, Adam picked up rubber guard and leg locks really quickly because whatever kind of brain he has is remarkable at picking up small details and being able to apply them to physical movement.
We started at 10th Planet Austin around the same time, so my top pressure game and his bottom game were diametrically opposed to each other, which helped us improve our A games against our strongest opposition. Through this, we greatly improved our A games against each other.
As he and I have progressed though as blue belts, we’ve both watched as our games have evolved to become more well-rounded. This is where the maturity aspect of becoming a blue belt who is on his way to being a purple belt kicks in I believe, you start to figure out where your holes in your game are via tough rolls with people who can beat you, then you figure out how to improve your weaknesses via lessons from your instructor, private training, researching online, drilling, and rolling. The simple act of doing is the great teacher as well at this stage as you’ve begun to understand intuitively some of the things you can try to get out of difficult situations, so you can test them out when put in these positions.
To become a real blue belt, at least in your own mind, takes a level or professionalism that you grow into as you keep putting in the time. If you don’t take that step, then you’re caught spinning your wheels and not progressing, which might lead to your giving up the sport.
That professionalism is an understanding of what you need to do off the mat to be who you need to be on the mat. If you can do that, then you’re on your way to your purple belt.
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