Greater than the sum of the parts

If you’ve had the opportunity to train with a variety of BJJ instructors, you’ve probably noticed that they teach the same techniques a little differently than each other. One teacher might introduce technique A, while another might start you off with a variation A1, and another might insist on variation A2. One instructor might teach technique B1 as the basic and later introduce B5 as an advanced variation, while another might do the reverse.

One reason for this is that techniques don’t stand on their own in a vacuum. You can’t really say “this is the most effective way to perform an armbar, this is the most effective way to kick, this is the most effective way to escape the mount, etc so I’m going to just practice those techniques and I’m going to be unbeatable.” A technique in isolation is only half the story at best. More important is how the technique fits with other techniques and works into your larger strategy – what is referred to in BJJ circles as your “game.”

Once you realize this, you start understanding why different instructors will emphasize different variations of the same technique. One instructor might be a small guy with a fast-paced attacking game and will use technical variations which allow for maximum mobility and grabbing submissions in the midst of a scramble. Another might be a methodical figher who prefers technical variations for taking away his opponents space and patiently crushing the wind out of him.

The game that works well for one individual may or not work well for another. We all have different body types, different personalities, and different priorities. The best game for a skinny, flexible, cautious individual focusing on self-defense will probably not be the same as the best game for an strong, inflexible, aggressive heavyweight focused on gi competition.

Some coaches will teach their preferred game as a one-size-fits-all approach. Other coaches will teach individual techniques and leave it up to the individual student to develop his or her game in the crucible of free-grappling and sparring. This will usually work out eventually, but if you are having trouble with the process it can be useful to take a step back and ask yourself some questions to consciously eveluate your game.

What is your ultimate end goal? What is your over-arching strategy to reach that end goal? What is your first go-to technique to begin executing that strategy? What is your flowchart for moving to follow-up techniques when your first technique gets countered? Are there sections of that flowchart which are unclear? Do the techniques you favor work well together so that one flows into the next? Do they support your overall strategy and move you closer to your end goal? Why are you choosing this technical variation instead of that variation? Are there certain areas where your game is better developed than others?

I’ve just started applying these questions to myself and the results are illuminating. My guard game is reasonably good, and one reason is that I have a clear strategy and I know how to execute it. First I protect myself from strikes and I work on breaking my opponent’s posture. Then I start working my angles. If my opponent exposes a limb then I take the submission, otherwise I continually attack his base to set up a sweep or take the back. If he backs off then I get to my feet. I have lots of little “what-ifs” worked out for different reactions my opponent might give me.

In contrast, my takedown game is quite weak. I know plenty of throws and takedowns and can demonstrate them adequately in isolation, but my actual performance in randori is mediocre at best. For a long time I attributed this to inadequate strength or speed or conditioning or practice with the individual throws. Recently, through, I’ve realized the biggest problem is lack of a game plan. When I go out to practice stand-up randori I don’t have a clear idea of what my first move is going to be or what my immediate follow-up will be when my first attempt gets stuffed. One of my goals for the rest of this year is to try figuring out at least a rudimentary game plan which will allow me to make good use of the takedowns I already know.

I haven’t yet figured out the best way as a coach to help someone figure out their own game. One thing I am trying to do is at least explain techniques in context so that students can see how they fit into the big picture. If anyone has suggestions that have worked well for them in coaching, please leave them in the comments.


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