Finding moves in negative spaces

When you are first learning moves in jiu-jitsu you often are taught how to exploit bad habits.  From the mount you are taught the spinning armbar in response to your partner trying to bench you off.  From the guard you are taught how to kimura or bump-sweep when your partner puts their hands on the mat.  These techniques share a common thread: you are assuming your partner is doing something wrong.

Jiu-Jitsu is often compared to chess, and this is one of those times where the comparison is apt.  Beginners are more likely to make mistakes and so the person who gets a submission is most likely the person capitalizing on their partner’s mistakes.  But, just like in chess, as time goes on you’ll find your partners less likely to make mistakes.  The rolls become more and more about finding the perfect timing, misdirection – and if mistakes do happen jumping at the chance to exploit them because they might not come again.

Ok – so whats the point?  Well, if as a beginner your instruction begins with “an unskilled person will do X” then as an advanced practitioner you’ll start to hear “a really good player will do Y.”  When your instructor says these words your ears better perk up and you need to start paying attention!

Last week my instructor, Sam Joseph, was showing us a drill to improve our guard recomposition.  The drill involved the guard passer wrapping their partners knees and swinging perpendicular in order to pass.  The person trying to recompose their guard had to push off of their partners neck while shrimping their hips out.

The drill itself was a valuable lesson in space management and a nice reminder of the importance of the ‘shrimp’ or hip-escape in BJJ.  But for me, the gem of the whole lesson was when Sam was explaining why keeping the distance is important.

If you let someone who is really good get high on your legs, they’ll reach up, grab the back of your collar with “horse-saddle” grip and instead of just pulling themselves up will spin you.”

This detail was mind blowing.

You see, I am a stack passer.

I’ll occasionally pass with a knee cut, but the stack pass is really my preference.  However, if you are trying to stack pass someone who knows what will happen if they let themselves get stacked, they will straighten their body out like board.  Previously I’ve simply tried to stack harder, and with gravity on my side I occasionally win.  But, instead of pushing harder (not a particularly jiu-jitsu-esque strategy) I’ve now taken to grabbing my partner’s collar and rotating them.  I go from parallel, mostly inside of their guard, to perpendicular and mostly on their side.  All I have to do after that is use the back of my hand to pass their leg off of my head and I’m in side control.

The result is that I am able to pass the guard more quickly, even when my partner is particularly adept at preventing themselves from getting stacked.

If you ever hear your coach say “unskilled players will do…” you should internalize the message as “don’t do…” – but the corollary of this is if you hear “good players will do X, so in response you need to…” you should work as hard to remember that detail as the response that was being taught!


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