Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Common BJJ beginner questions...

I received this email from a new BJJ practitioner and thought I would share with you her (anonymous) questions and my answers, for whatever they're worth!

I recently discovered your blog and I was wondering if I could ask you a question. I started BJJ this spring, and since then I've learned a lot, but sometimes it feels like too much. I feel like my instructor just taught me a bunch of moves for a variety of situations but I just can't remember them all-- or if I'm put into a position, my brain just starts going wild thinking about, should I submit, choke, sweep? and if I choose one, even more options come up and finally when I decide to do something, my opponent has already escaped. I've tried to just sort out which ones work best for my size, position, etc. but the next week my instructor would ask me to demonstrate a sweep that I don't use in rolling so I perform it poorly. Is there any kind of balance? Any kind of trick to help me remember everything?


Dear ___________,

OK-- finally, at a real keyboard! sorry for the delay!

What you described is 100% totally normal and was experienced by all of us as we began jiu jitsu.  I will say that there are probably 3-4 instructors I know of in the world who would not have you feeling this way-- but only because they structure the learning opportunities for rank beginners very differently AND they have ridiculously exceptional grasp of the theory of BJJ AND the ability to teach. 

I'm sure you know, being able to do something is not necessarily proof that you can TEACH something, and rarely do the two run together!  Plus, most classes are comprised of a range of experience levels, so the "bottom" people who just started have to kind of tag along as best they can.  It's a steep learning curve the first year (or if you're like me, year or two...)  BUT it's not YOU, it's everyone, so just keep plugging away...the short version is--- relax (impossible) and ride with it... eventually, it will start making more and more sense, either because of the natural progression of learning BJJ, or because your instructors get better, or both.

One thing you can do to help yourself process things and be more systematic is to think about BJJ outside of class.  What you're really lacking at this point is a plan... a program of action.  Kind of a recipe-- when a little kid approaches a street corner, mom always tells them "stop-- look both ways-- listen for a car."  You need the same kind of simplistic 1-2-3 kind of plan at the beginning which hopefully can be expanded and adapted to incorporate new stuff. 

I learned this when I was training about 3 months in a haphazard horrible way, and had been at a real BJJ school a week.  I decided I was going to compete!  (Get it out of the way when I couldn't possibly expect much of myself.)  On the way to the tournament with some teammates, they asked me what my gameplan was.  (I laughed.)  The advice I received was, pick your favorite submission. I said-- "uhhhh... I don't have one!"  They said PICK ONE-- so I randomly picked "guillotine." The next advice: Always go for that submission if you can't think of anything else to do.  (In other words-- if someone GIVES you a triangle, don't struggle to get them out of it so you can do your guillotine.  But when lost, go for a guillotine.)  The last piece of advice: if you're not in a position where you can go for a guillotine, get into better position.

This was great for me.  It reinforced that my ultimate goal is not points, not stalling, not anything other than submission.  It gave me a clarity I needed desperately.  And while it was no good at all as far as HOW to get into better position... it was a good starting point.  It helped me narrow down what felt like a yawning chasm of amorphous opportunity-- when I did have some kind of dominant position, it foreclosed those moments of freezing while thinking-- in which people always started causing problems by MOVING, durn them... and when I was on the bottom, it helped me define everything in terms of "can I do X from here? if not, I must get out of here." 

Think of it like a flow chart.  Maybe easier if you have submission you like that works from top and from guard-- that's probably why I picked guillotine then-- now, I am so top-dependent, it has fostered by sweep game out of sheer desperation to get back on top.. But the flow chart in its simplest sense goes like this:

Where am I?  If on top, go to X or submission.  If on bottom-- can I do X sub? can I do Y sub? If yes, do it.  If not, sweep, get to top.  Then go back to "if on top."

When you have only one sweep, for instance, you need to work very hard on understanding the physical elements that make the other person likely to be swept by that sweep.  A scissor sweep is a basic early-beginner sweep, but it's also very hard to do if they're sitting back on their haunches, which is the easy defense.  So you can't just try to FORCE them to be swept-- you'll sit there with legs akimbo and they'll pass.  Sometimes it is best for beginners to only learn a couple options from each position because it forces them (and their classmates) to really home in on the elemental side of BJJ.  "Hmm, scissor only works when they're putting their momentum forward.  How can I make them do that?"

Now-- the other questions you asked.  When you're rolling, you have to predict that learning new stuff NEVER goes well against people your level and higher.  It just doesn't.  And when you have just begun, there is NO ONE below your level (usually) unless you're a guy and you can out-muscle them.  Sheer force does work, sad to say.  But if you don't have sheer force to rely on, it's okay-- you will develop more slowly, but you will develop better technique than someone who is capable of muscling their opponents inefficiently.  But the longer you keep at it-- and keep trying, regardless of the fact that you will be losing most or all of your "matches" and rolls and rounds and so on.... eventually people will join up after you, and you will have a brief moment or two where you are weaker physically but have better technique. 

(I used to kid, sorta, that for me as a blue belt, there was a two week golden period in the life of every whitebelt-- in which they was experienced enough to not be a danger to me by spazzing, but not experienced enough to overcome my superior technique with just enough technique of his own plus all that muscle.  The trick was watching the new whitebelts and pouncing at the right time so I could use that whole two weeks to experiment and practice my offense.  The better I got, the longer that time period got-- now there's a good 2-3 months of most whitebelts for me.)

Sorry for rambling-- to summarize that-- you will constantly lose, and that's okay.  It doesn't mean anything about whether or not you're learning.

And your last topic issues-- your instructor wants demonstrations but it wasn't what you were practicing and you do it badly.  This too is commonplace.  I struggle with this.  There's simply no way to practice everything equally-- but you should make an effort especially now early on to use your open mat times for drilling.  Just make a list of every technique you have been taught-- it's probably somewhere near 30 by now if not more.  And pick three to five each time you train, and drill each of them just 5-10 times (more if you're determined) with a partner (be sure to give them drilling time too).  Let's say this week you drill sweeps from guard-- scissor, push, flower-- and next week your instructor wants you to show a butterfly sweep.  You screw up-- so what!  He doesn't expect you to do it right and no matter how well you did it, he'd find something to suggest for improvement.  Won't mean you won't be promoted or anything else.  The important thing is, you get into a routine whereby you systematically review and practice all the time.  Sometimes you won't practice the "right" thing to catch the instructor's "cycle" or eye or whatever, but who cares, you are going to be improving.

As for remembering everything-- omg no.  There's no way.  I have two notebooks I use for seminars and privates, and I have a box full of printer-paper-sized pages of notes I used to take during class proper (I'd pinch from the academy printer.)  I have hundreds of pages of exhaustive notes on techniques and I really don't remember anything instinctively outside of what I use all the time.  And instructors know this.  That's why in time you'll realize they repeat, repeat, repeat techniques.  

Every time you see a tech in class, you'll learn maybe 40-50% of it.  You'll go out and try it in live sparring and use it probably badly to one degree or another.  After a couple months maybe he'll show it again-- you'll see an additional 10% that didn't stick out to you the first time because you lacked any experience in trying to implement it yourself.  So you'll practice and try it more and more-- sometimes you'll totally forget a technique the minute class is over and you won't try it at all.  Sometimes what happens is there's no place in your game to park the new technique, so you just never come close to it.  

(Here's my lily pad theory of jiu jitsu.... as students, we learn by hopping from one lily pad of technique to another.  If we only know techniques that are widely scattered apart like lily pads far apart on a lake, we stay on one pad.  As we learn more techniques that are very closely related to the pad we're on, we can "make the leap" from one to the next, and get comfortable and familiar with that "neighborhood."  So you'll see a very common assortment of techniques to be taught together might be-- from closed guard, the armbar, the triangle, and the omoplata.  Or from closed guard, the hip-bump sweep, the kimura, and the guillotine.) 


Anyway, that was my long ramble on her questions.  Your advice and input is, as always, welcome :)


Anonymous said...

Welcome to bjj. My advice would be to to just simply train. I know thats the cliche answer but its true. We need to experience it all. The confusion comes when we start overthinking things. Jiujitsu is simple but we make it complicated.
Mike D Alliance NYC

Scottstev said...

OMG, I totally have that two week window as well. I trounce walk-ins for about two weeks (if I'm lucky), then slowly or not so slowly they overtake me as their technique improves. I perform better every month and the window widens every slow slightly.But, I'm definitely on a long journey. I just have to let those people pass and keep on trudging.

Keith said...

As a smallish guy, that window doesn't exist much for me. I've been training about a year and a half and have 4 stripes on my white belt; all you can do is leave your ego at the door, tap often and train relentlessly.

This post was really helpful to me, though, especially the bit about drilling week-to-week. Many thanks!