Longevity in Jiu Jitsu (Surface Dwellers, Part 3)

We should all take an honest look at what we want from Jiu Jitsu. Why are we training?The reasons will vary from person to person.  Is one motivation for training better than another? Maybe.

For everyone that has stepped onto the mats there has been some pull or spark of interest in the art. For those who have stayed any length of time there has been something much more. Call it obsession, fascination, passion or love for the art.  There is some reason people stay.  If this is true, shouldn’t people want to stay for the long haul?

It is hard to imagine someone dedicating a significant amount of time and energy to develop themselves through Jiu Jitsu then suddenly stop.  Yes, it happens. someone might find a new passion or Way. So be it. But I think a significant amount of people that quit Jiu Jitsu after being so dedicated and passionate do so for other reasons.

Not progressing

Every practitioner goes through periods of plateaus. Times where they feel their improvement in the art has stopped. They feel stagnant.  This is a crappy feeling but it is completely normal.  We should accept this, if not like it. From my experience, Plateuas signify a “growth spurt” soon to come.  Plateaus, while they don’t feel good, signfy (to me at least) that conscious technique is in the process of digesting into subconcious instinct. (ie, developing muscle memory).  This process takes time.  Students are encouraged to wait it out.  This “Plateau Cycle” happens to all of us.

However, sometimes people stop progressing for other reasons. They are training with wrong motivations.  They are willfully being a Surface Dweller. They only want the  thrill of “victory” over another instead of a deeper understanding of Jiu Jitsu.  Surface Dwellers don’t have any interest in SELF DEVELOPMENT that can be gained through the Way of Jiu Jitsu. They’d really just rather have the “tap.”

To the Surface Dweller, a “tap is a tap.”  Everything is a means to that end. This method of training has its limits. Eventually, the practitioner hits a pretty big wall in their training.  Their technique has not evolved.  They can’t get away with forcing the submission any longer. Their training partners, who were not Surface Dwellers, have progressed and are more savvy now.  This frustrates the Surface Dweller.  Training then usually stops.  This wrong motivation or mindset, while perhaps yielding initial success, has fizzled out.

A few Surface Dwellers will stick around at this point however. Though they typically only seek out new practitioners whom they can easily dominate and crush.  This behavior is deplorable and must be checked!  It sets a toxic example.


Typically, the new practitioner is at more risk of injury than a seasoned veteran. The newbie’s lack of proper technique is overcompensated with physical attributes. Thus, they force.  And by forcing technique against resisting opponents / training partners injuries happen. The new practitioner is at the surface by no fault of his own.  Proper instruction is vital to the survival of the White Belt.  An environment that encourages efficiency and smooth technique helps develop the White Belt and points the way below the surface.

“Grinders,” who may or may not be full fledged Surface Dwellers, usually sustain significant injuries as well. The grinding, smashing and brute force method (in lieu of efficient technique) can get someone a lot of “taps.”  When you are athletic, young, quick, strong or super-flexible you may indeed see success against your opponents or training partners. At least in the short term. But, there is a cost to such grinding (ie, forcing technique or submissions). Injuries happen frequently in this mode. Or, if not significant injury, general wear and tear of the body.  Knee and shoulder surgeries at some point are common amongst the Grinders.  I have witnessed very athletic and youthful practitioners wear out there bodies after a few years.

Cost vs. Benefit

We must weigh everything we do in Jiu Jitsu by its cost.  We have to decide if want to sacrifice our energy and our bodies for a short-term shallow “success.”  Is it worth it?  The default Surface Dweller mindset, a “tap” is worth a high cost.  Depleting your energy to exhaustion or straining your body to the point of fatigue or injury to get a submission is completely short-sighted. This method leads one to burn out, making overall progression in the art stop.

A question I pose to my students frequently is this:  Would you rather get an armbar “tap” from a worthy opponent, or receive a fuller, deeper understanding of the armbar itself?  The former wants the one-time reward, the latter wants the everlasting principle.  I will take knowledge over a little “tap” any day.

The journey and the Big Picture, not the quick fix and worthless “taps.”

When we think about longevity and efficiency, Jiu Jitsu then becomes an art.  A very sophisticated Martial Art.  It becomes a matter of what we want from our training and what we are willing to pay for it.


Surface Dwellers, Part 2

What I call “Surface Dwellers” are those people who are hyper-focused on Submissions and over use their physical attributes (strength, speed, flexibility) in lieu of proper technique to achieve them. What I call “proper technique,” is a combination of correct mechanical movements and correct timing. The how and the when.

What I have found is that Surface Dwellers will minimally learn the mechanics (how), and almost always neglect timing (when).  Physical attributes, like strength and flexibility, are then used as substitutes for this lack of timing. This forcing makes the technique choppy, ugly and inefficient. This is not at all proper Jiu Jitsu, even though it can resemble it.

Now what exactly is Timing?  Timing as we have established is the when to use a move or technique. As I see it, timing then requires a certain combination of sensitivity and awareness.   We are taught to identify Cues, some visual and some by feel. These are indicators of when a mechanical technique can be utilized. These Cues are the “green light” for a movement or technique.  Cue awareness and recognition are usually gained through experience, or “mat time.” The more you train, the more you naturally gain this sensitivity and awareness.

However, this development can be hindered.  How?  By wanting. By childish insistence. By wanting instant gratification. By being way too fixated on Submissions. This willfulness causes blindness in regards to Cue Recognition.  And, as we have discussed, without proper Cue Recognition there is no timing.  And without timing, we force (ie, over use our physical attributes).

White Belts:  You are naturally at the surface.  You have yet to learn fundamental Jiu Jitsu mechanics and Cue Recognition. Thus, you will no doubt  over use your physical attributes.  This is normal.  However, as you progress, you should, little by little, subsitute this with proper technique.  With this progression in the art, you will see that achieving Submissions the right way is far easier (physically speaking) than forcing them.  But in order to get Submissions the right way we may have to be patient and wait for it to present itself (Gifts not thefts, remember?). This is something Surface Dwellers are not good at. So, white belts, dive deep and work to leave the surface behind.

If you expect to go deep in the art I suggest you let go. If you are a Blue Belt (or above), stop clinging to the surface because of a fearful need to appear powerful (or at least not weak.)  When we let go and drift downward into the unknown, we evolve.

To me, Jiu Jitsu is far more beautiful, sophisticated and effective when its is done is an equanimous manner.  This only happens at the deeper levels. When timing, mechanical movements and awareness are smooth and in sync.

NOTE:  You may substitute “Submissions” for “Sweeps” or “Guard Passes.” Although these are a more sophisticated form of Surface Dweller.




Surface Dwellers and Wall Flies

Everyone comes into Jiu Jitsu with different motivations, aspirations and personalities. That’s obvious and understandable and I can accept almost all types of people. I try very hard not to be judgemental, and mostly I succeed. However, there are two types of Jiu Jitsu practitioners that I don’t care for. More accurately, I don’t care for the way in which they train.  Because these types are my antithesis. They don’t follow my way. I simply call them The Surface Dweller and the Wall Fly. I’ll explain.

The Surface Dweller

The first aspect anyone sees in Jiu Jitsu are submissions. They are the most obvious and identifiable parts of Jiu Jitsu. It is natural and expected then that the new practitioner would be focused on submissions. But we soon realize that there is so much more to Jiu Jitsu than that. For there to be any chance of submission, more must be learned. So, we develop technique. Layer upon layer of technique.  Proper technique is based on leverage, angles, timing (which includes cue recognition , awareness and distraction), and weak vs. strong muscle groups (physiology). Even the submission-focused practitioner goes deeper into Jiu Jitsu out of necessity. They learn proper technique  because they know they need it to gain submissions on skilled opponents. These submission-hunters aren’t Surface Dwellers per se, more like predators.  They use proper technique when they have to. They have gone under the surface as a means to an end…the submission. 

True Surface Dwellers are a different matter.  They are still fixated on submissions, but they don’t care to learn proper technique. Instead they substitute their size, strength, speed, flexibility or any physical attribute they may possess to accomplish the goal.  We can see this when a bigger, stronger person plows over a smaller weaker person. The submission may be gained in spite of good technique not because of it! Surface Dwellers don’t care. They won. They are primitive cavemen. Evolution and sophistication is not their goal. They force the submission. HULK SMASH!  This is not the art of Jiu Jitsu, it only resembles it. 

“How we get the submission is more important than the submission itself.”

The additional problem with the Surface Dwellers is they tend to avoid training partners that they can’t physically dominate. They then become Wall Flies as well.  

The Wall Fly

The Wall Fly is someone who frequently sits on the side lines of the mats instead of being on the mats.  Maybe they observe, rest, or critique others. Mostly they are goofing off or talking about random stuff unrelated to Jiu Jitsu. I am not referring to those that are truly resting a round, have an injury, or are new and waiting to gain the courage to roll. I am talking about the time-wasters.  That’s ultimately what a Wall Fly is. Someone who squanders opportunities to train and improve out of sheer laziness. They are the folks who have to be 100% fresh in order to roll, so they sit out every other round. 

“Nothing in Jiu Jitsu (or Life) is free.”

In order to do anything, we sacrifice something. Time is the most obvious example.  We go to work, give our time, and receive a paycheck. We choose one activity, we sacrifice the ability to do another one.  Time is a limited commodity and is precious. When we commit to Jiu Jitsu we give up a lot of things. If time equals money, then being a Wall Fly is like throwing money out of the window.  

The more annoying Wall Fly is the one that struts around like a peacock on the mat but not actually doing anything. They are the ones resting on their laurels while the workers work and improve.  The Wall Fly lacks work ethic. 

In conclusion

The art of Jiu Jitu has an enormous amount of depth to it. That is, it has
layer upon layer of complex and intricate details. Some people refer to this as “hidden or invisible Jiu Jitsu.” I see it as multi-layered and simply
refer to the art as having “depth.” At the advanced levels it isn’t
invisible, just very complex and subtle. It takes sensitivity and awareness developed
through years of training to discover and then, eventually, master.  I will never understand why anyone would choose to stay on the surface of the art.  Why not see how far down it goes and enjoy discovering the unknown?  Why waste time loafing around when you could be exploring the art?

The Ethics of Aikido and the Hierarchy of Submissions

Most of the traditional martial arts have a code of ethics intertwined within them, but Aikido’s ethics are very interesting. Specifically, how Aikido addresses the ethics of utilizing technique. The ultimate aim in Aikido is to adequately defend oneself and leave the attacker completely unharmed, even when they mean to kill you.

This may seem completely impractical, but don’t dismiss it too quickly. Upon closer examination into the art of Aikido everyone should see some practical value. Granted, the Aikido haters have made very valid arguments regarding the practicality of the art in a real self-defense situation. Generally, that the techniques only work against a very moronic, overly extended attack with some level of cooperation from the attacker. This is very true. Mostly, Aikido does not address even mildly skilled attacks or the issue of a resisting opponent. Given this legitimate criticism, Aikido has some pretty lofty ideals to leave an aggressive attacker completely unharmed. However, the whole art shouldn’t be thrown out because of some bad or unrealistic elements. It is better to take what is useful and leave what is not. Aside from any physical movements or techniques in Aikido, I want to focus on the ethics of doing no harm. Should practitioners of BJJ adopt that same mindset in their training? This question will certainly be divisive amongst the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community.

Why does Aikido espouse these ethics? It is most certainly because its founder Morehei Ueshiba’s religious leanings, which include a combination of Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. But, beyond that, there is an important element of technical development that must accompany anyone who adopts these ethics. The Aikidoka strives not only to leave their attacker unharmed because their affinity to fellow humans, but also because they themselves must have the highest technical ability in order to do so. In the case of Jiu Jitsu, having the “Highest Technical Ability” is the ultimate goal. Or at least it should be. The BJJ practitioner should have such skill and “Technical Gap” as to merely play with an aggressive attacker like a cat with a mouse. In this case, there is no need to harm the attacker. The attacker can be controlled in a calm and equanimous manner. A recent video was posted online of Matt Serra, who is Renzo Gracie’s first American black belt and unarguably a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu badass. The video shows Matt, who was at a restaurant with his family, get into a confrontation with an individual who was causing problems. The video (click HERE) shows Matt effortlessly control the individual. He wasn’t hurting him, choking him, or breaking his arms (which he most certainly could have), instead he just calmly mounted him and nonchalantly controlled him. The reason Matt Serra could do this is due to his high level of expertise in Jiu Jitsu. The “Technical Gap” here was extremely wide.

But this becomes an issue when the attacker has a skill set closer to our own. When the “Technical Gap” is smaller. In Aikido, the techniques more or less require a very un-technical attack. A lunging, over extended haymaker punch or over-hand chop. Timing, footwork and circular motions are then used to create dynamic off balancing and leverage. This is all very useful and good if the attacker is completely unskilled. The same techniques will fail horribly against any skilled martial artist. But, there are technical elements, we as BJJ practitioners, can adopt into our repertoire. Circular and blending motions just to name a couple. Technical aspects aside, we can also adopt the ethics of doing no harm. Maybe because we just want to be ethical human beings, or because in order to achieve such ideals we need a huge “Technical Gap.” This inspires the BJJ practitioner to work hard and gain mastery of the art. But to gain mastery of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu takes a very long time and is extremely difficult. This is because the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is quality checked and pressure tested against resistance every step of the way.

In BJJ, dealing with resisting opponents is standard practice. These opponents will have varying degrees of technical development. SKILL versus SKILL everyday. Not SKILL versus NO SKILL. The resistance training method in the BJJ keeps the sword sharp and readily usable. The saying “Iron Sharpens Iron,” is certainly apt for BJJ. When the “Technical Gap” is smaller between us and our opponent (which is commonplace in Jiu Jitsu) we don’t have the luxury of “playing” with them. We must employ multiple layers of strategy and technique to control our opponent. This is very difficult. And this difficulty (ie, resistance) hones our weapon (ie, technique) to a razor sharpness. And in this quest for control, we employ submissions. We must utilize these submissions because we have to gain the advantage. But not all submissions are equal.

There is a hierarchy to submissions based upon how capable the attacker will be to continue their aggression. The smaller the joint is, the more likely the attacker can keep fighting. The Hierarchy is as follows (from least to greatest):

  • Wrist (gooseneck, cowhand, Nikyo, Sankyo, KoteGaeshi)
  • Ankle (straight ankle lock, toe-hold, cross-body ankle lock)
  • Elbow (arm bar)
  • Knee (kneebar, heel hook)
  • Shoulder (Kimura, Americana, Omoplata)
  • Hip (Hip locks)
  • Neck & spine cranks (Twister, neck cranks)
  • Neck strangulations (Rear naked choke, Guillotine, circle chokes)

Wrist locks are the lowest of the hierarchy. Losing mobility of the wrist and hand is minor in the grand scheme of things. A tough opponent can keep fighting through this. As we progress up the hierarchy to bigger joints, the likelihood of our opponent continuing diminishes greatly. Then we come to the highest technical submission, the neck strangulation. Restricting blood flow to the brain by constricting the carotid arteries renders the attacker unconscious and completely incapable of continuing aggression. It is also the most humane submission, leaving the attacker uninjured (unless it is not released then it renders death.) So, technically speaking, the Jiu Jitsu practitioner should choose the highest order of submissions, the strangle. But life and combative situations are seldom ideal. We accept the reality of the situation and take the opportunities we can to affect our opponent. If the “Technical Gap” is tiny, then we may have no choice but to take the submission that presents itself. The weakest and mostly ignored joint, the wrist, is usually an easy target. So we may feel the need to snag a wrist lock in lieu of a higher order submission, such as an armlock or kimura. We can even use threats of submissions as a means to climb the ladder of submissions. We can put our opponent in a situation that he must defend his arm so that the pathway to his neck is clear. All things being equal, we should always choose the highest order of physical submissions, the neck strangulation.

So, we practice our skills and sharpen our techniques at every rung of the technical / submission hierarchical ladder. We do this day in and day out with our training partners/team mates in the dojo. Each training partner will have different levels of skill and experience that challenges (ie, sharpens) our skill. This method of training within the smaller “Technical Gaps” is a crucial and necessary step to widening that gap. To advancing our skill. So that we may be able to toy with an attacker like a cat with a mouse, just as Matt Serra did.

Could Matt Serra have annihilated that guy? For sure. So why didn’t he? Because he didn’t need to. His level of expertise is at such a high level through years of training that he could have controlled him in his sleep. If Matt were to harm that guy, it would have been purely due to a malevolent ego. It would have been unethical. Remember, Jiu Jitsu is “The Gentle Art.”

The adoption of an Aikido “leaving the attacker” unharmed philosophy is the GOAL, a skill set to aspire to. However, the only real way to get there is through pressure testing our techniques in realistic/resistive situation with other skilled opponents. To do this, submissions are necessary because the “Technical Gap” is small. They must be utilized to gain advantage that can quickly go to our opponent. If, as BJJ practitioners, we can hold our own with other skilled BJJ practitioners, then we can effortlessly control the unskilled attacker. In this case, outside the dojo in a real life self-defense situation, submissions may not be necessary. Calm and relaxed control is all that is needed, as in the case of Matt Serra. There then is no need to harm. So, it can be argued then that the ultimate submission is NO SUBMISSION. I often refer to this a Psychological Submission. If we agree with the ethical stance of Aikido, we view aggressors that mean us harm as being of a lower evolutionary order. They are just operating on a lower level. To harm them is an option, but at the cost of our own higher order. If we take these “attacks” as a direct insult to our ego rather than them just being unevolved, then we ourselves de-evolve.

That should be the ideal of every BJJ practitioner. To be so masterfully skilled that we can just play with our attacker, and choose to show mercy. But BJJ practitioners also understand that mercy may not be an option. We may have to break a limb or choke someone unconscious to protect ourselves or others. We understand that to truly “play” with an attacker we must first accept reality and prepare for it by utilizing the hierarchy of submissions on skilled and resisting training partners for several years.

Failing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Learning anything worthwhile is going to have its challenges.  That’s good. Challenges are what make us all evolve. Obstacles are a necessary ingredient for success.  If its not somewhat challenging then we quickly become bored. Like playing Tic-Tac-Toe, what’s the point?

With these obstacles and challenges comes failure. We are very familiar with failure in the BJJ community.  Some of us may not like it, but at least its accepted at some level.  I suggest looking at failure as an incentive. An opportunity rather than a set back.  As with a majority of BJJ, the correct mindset makes all the difference.


When a technique “fails” us, there are two main reasons.  The first type of failure is MECHANICAL DEFICIENCY.  This means that you have not drilled and repeated the technique enough to deeply understand the moving parts (ie, the mechanics).  You have neglected your technique due to apathy and laziness, or its just a new technique to your arsenal. Either way that failure is on you.  That’s your deficiency. So, when you recognize this deficiency, you have a clear indicator that you need to practice more.  That’s in your control.  If you are misunderstanding key details, seek out your coaches and pick their brain. Take the opportunity to fix what needs to be fixed. This is what the first part of every class is dedicated to.

However, even when we have a solid mechanical grasp of a technique it can fail.  This brings us to the second type of failure, DEFENDED TECHNIQUES.   Your opponent’s skill can shut down your technique.  Example: Let us say that you have a solid Pendulum sweep. You attempt it on your opponent and he is aware of your intent. He can then “roadblock” or defend your sweep if he has the skill to do so (let us say that he does).  When your opponent defends your Pendulum sweep, is this a failure?  Yes and no.  Remember, failure is an opportunity. In order to defend the sweep he has to give up something in return. Nothing in Jiu Jitsu is free.  If your opponent closes the door on you he has opened a window. You just need to be aware of the open window and seize the opportunity.  The classic example is this:  When your opponent defends a sweep he is susceptible to a submission, and when he defends a submission he is susceptible to a sweep.  This “linking” of techniques permeates the higher levels of Jiu Jitsu.  Awareness is increased with an internal openness. A mindset of non-attachment and fluidity. A mental DISCONNECT if you will.  This is what the second part of every class is dedicated to.

Do you get angry when your technique fails?  This is not good. Fail graciously and see it as an indicator, a cue, and use it as an opportunity for growth.  The first type of failure is a bitter pill to swallow if you are lazy. That’s an easy fix. Stop being lazy and drill.  The second type of failure is a gift! Your skilled opponent has just provided a golden opportunity for your evolution.  So when you are bested by skill, you should smile and be grateful.  Like I said, mindset make all the difference.



At the core of every technique in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu there is a principle (or many), an underlying concept that transcends the specific technique being taught or learned.  When we practice a certain technique we start off with grasping the surface elements to it. The physical movements or “pieces” to that technique are important to get familiar with. But after some time our understanding of that techniques goes deeper. We go below the surface and become familiar with a principle that not only allows that technique to work, but can be applied to a wide range of techniques. So, we need to drill the specifics of a technique repeatedly for two reasons: To absorb the physical movements into our subconscious (ie, muscle memory) so that we can stop thinking and just react instinctively, and to gain an understanding of the principle that gives the technique its utility.  Once we start understanding principles (and there are many) we can then link them to other specific techniques, seeing similarities between them. Once this happens learning specific techniques gets significantly easier. Thus, our skill level begins to take off.

One of the most powerful and useful principles I have learned is something I call CONNECT/DISCONNECT.  This principle has intertwining external and internal aspects.  A physical and a mental side.


In a nutshell, CONNECT is the attachment part, where we are one with our opponent. We move together, physically linked. It is not just in physical contact, it is where we are glued together. There is no separation. DISCONNECT is when we detach (to varying degrees) and move independently of our opponent. There is some separateness that is allowed so that we can alter our relative positioning to our opponent.   This is an easy enough concept to grasp, but when should we connect or disconnect?  That’s more difficult and heavily involves awareness and timing. Here we have to look at the internal aspect of the principle.


Training and experience (mat time) will mostly solve the answer of WHEN to connect or disconnect. However, a correct mindset will help with this.  Generally, wanting something stubbornly (what I call “insisting”) is counter-productive to the development of our TIMING.  And as we know, TIMING is the “when” to do something.  So, simply put, when we “insist” on having our way and wanting something aggressively, we ignore the CUES that may be right in front of us.  When we get fixated on a certain technique we get tunnel vision and unaware.  This lack of awareness hinders timing.  So, “insisting” is a misapplication of CONNECT.  Therefore, to aid in our cue recognition and timing we must DISCONNECT from wanting ANY specific technique. Our awareness must zoom out and cover a broader scope (ie, DISCONNECT) so that we may discover the paths of least resistance. We remain mentally disconnected until we need to focus our awareness (CONNECT) and zoom back in and analyze a problem at hand. This “awareness-connection” helps with scenarios that are completely foreign or new to us. Our analytical or thinking brain then needs to take over and problem-solve.  We CONNECT to the problem, figure it out, internalize and digest it into our subconscious. Then we can DISCONNECT once again and flow instinctually. To me, mental DISCONNECT is synonymous with FLOW. And only when we can flow internally can we flow externally.


It follows that we must switch from CONNECT to DISCONNECT and back again forever.  It is impossible to stay in either of these states continually.  Physically, CONNECT/DISCONNECT allows us to transition. its all about MOVE, HOLD, MOVE, HOLD, etc.  Mentally, it is necessary to be aware and follow the path of least resistance. We DISCONNECT from wanting or insisting on anything and accept the opportunities that arrive before us. If, for whatever reason, there are no opportunities at hand and no path of least resistance, we can zoom back in and CONNECT to get the ball rolling again. When we get stuck like this, we can call upon our analytical brain to problem-solve.   It would be like a river flowing that suddenly gets damned up by debris. We must then send the troops out into the river to clear the debris and get the it flowing again.  But beware, once the debris is cleared the troops need to get back out of the river so it can flow. If they don’t those troops that helped clear the debris then become another type of debris. In this metaphor, the initial debris is a new or foreign problem that we don’t have the subconscious skill level to solve yet, the Troops are our analytical or thinking part of our conscious brain, and the river is internal flow, reality acceptance and non-judgement.

Knowing when to CONNECT and when to DISCONNECT is vitally important. The physical/technical application of this principle is easy to learn. Just train often and consistently. Listen to your coaches and put forth effort. Don’t waste opportunities to drill or roll.  With the internal side of this principle we should start by relaxing our body as much as possible. The mind not only affects the body, but the body can also influence the mind. Be aware of your breathing and muscle tension. Realize that not every moment is life-threatening. Be calm whenever possible, and it is always possible.


Can this CONNECT/DISCONNECT principle be applied outside the realm of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? Is it useful in everyday life?

Lessons learned ON THE MAT can be applied OFF THE MAT as well.


The Beauty of Struggle

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a struggle. From day one we are taught challenging movements that seem completely foreign to us. Rolling forward, backward, shrimping, bridging. We labor as we learn the complexity of techniques. Then we add another human being on top of us trying to strangle us and break our limbs. There is difficulty in BJJ no doubt. That’s why not everyone does it. Or why most who start it eventually quit. It’s just too damn challenging for most.

But that difficulty and inherit struggle is what gives it Brazilian Jiu Jitsu its teeth, its power and its beauty. The student who accepts (better yet seeks out) this struggle is naturally refined by the process. He goes from soft to strong. From clumsy to coordinated. From caveman to poet.

So the struggle pays dividends if the practitioner is willing to put in the daily work. There is no short cut. No easy way. It’s a grind day in, day out. Get addicted to the challenge. Seek it out. Don’t shy away from it.

BJJ can be a metaphor for life, so here goes: Life is struggle. Life is suffering. Life is pain. It is riddled with difficulties and challenges. There is no way around it. It is what it is whether you accept it or not. What would it be like if we accept or seek out the challenge of life? What if we treated it like a game (kind of like Jiu Jitsu competition)? How resilient would we become? How much would we evolve?
Is the parallel clear enough?

We may like the idea of being skilled at BJJ or life, but ideas have absolutely no value without action. Nothing happens without work (aka Struggle). Of course we will come up short numerous times. We will mess up a lot. That’s part of the struggle too. These “failures” are just more challenges and opportunities for refinement. No action, no results.

We all have given the gift of volition (the faculty or power of using one’s will). Laziness, comfort-seeking, and non-action leads to atrophy and decay of our volition. What a waste. Comfort softens us while challenging work makes us strong and resilient. And BJJ isn’t comfortable as any continuing practitioner will attest to.

We should seek challenges, struggle and adversity. We should accept set-backs and failures as part of the refinement process. We should also allow our children to struggle. To make them work. To let them be uncomfortable.  The world and adult life isn’t going to be easy so they shouldn’t be coddled. Let them struggle early on so that they can become resilient. This is critical for their overall mental/emotional well-being!

The art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu provides a tried and true path toward self-mastery and human excellence (as well as being a highly effective self-defense art). With BJJ as our “way” all of life’s other struggles become significantly easier to handle. Because the art teaches us how to be resilient, clever, aware, efficient, accepting, and flowing. We can’t control the waves, but we can learn to surf. Either that or we can allow life to batter us around as we whine and complain about our lot. So, stay soft or get strong. The choice is ours.

Don’t pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.

-Bruce Lee


Two main ingredients in Jiu Jitsu are PRESSURE and FLOW.  But which is better?  Different styles usually emphasize one over the other. Some styles give each their equal due.  The politically correct short answer is that neither one is better than the other. They are interdependent.


Pressure is the continuous physical force exerted on or against an object/body at a point where there is contact.  This is best demonstrated in the top position due to the benefits of gravity.  Most BJJ schools emphasize pressure while passing the guard. For good reason. It is effective!  Bearing down weight onto your opponent’s defenses has great advantage. Pressure is linear or straight. Used in conjunction with gravity.


Flow is different.  It is the act of moving along in a steady, continuous stream.  In BJJ, flow is mentioned often, especially in regards to transitions. However, flow isn’t always large graceful movements.  Flow can be quite small too. A small twist of the hips or re-distribution of weight. Flow can be measure in several feet or fractions of an inch.  Flow is spherical or rounded. The radius of it can change according to the situation.


Both are obviously necessary and useful.  An ocean wave has both pressure AND flow.  If you have ever been in the ocean and had a wave hit you (or better yet carry you),  you will certainly have felt its pressure. But the movement of the wave is where its power lies.  If the wave encounters an obstacle, it tests it.  If the obstacle is a child’s sandcastle then it bowls right through it, crushing it.  If the obstacle is a boulder, then it envelopes it and flows around and over it.  Both instances showcase the
“path of least resistance.”


While grappling, be a wave.  Test the defenses and obstacles.  If it is a sandcastle go through it. If it is a boulder, go around it.  White Belts, when you hit strong resistance to something, change course.  Blue Belts, when you hit moderate resistance change course.  Purple Belts and up, when you hit mild resistance change course.  In this way, I believe, flow is better developed.

SIDE NOTE:  Neutral Ground Sheboygan heavily emphasizes FLOW.  Not because we don’t value pressure, but because FLOW is what is most often neglected.  Pressure is almost never neglected!  (My opinion)


The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu credo “Position before Submission” is well known and is a principle, although not used 100% of the time, that we should  adhere to. However, I think another credo that is certainly ignored by a great many of us who train in BJJ is this:  “Transition over Position.”

A simple definition of Transition is “the movement from one position to another position.”   The key word here is MOVEMENT.   Where positions are static, Transitions are kinetic.   They are like Yin & Yang, having a symbiotic relationship.  We need to both understand/utilize Positions, AND be able to Transition to other positions.  The problem arises when we over-focus on the Positions.  Granted, Positions are an integral part of the art, but so is movement. We can be experts at Positions and Positional control/dominance, but if we cannot move between these positions, we will never really be experts at Jiu Jitsu.

A Kindergarten analogy would be that of a dot-to-dot picture.

Positions are like the numbered dots.  Transitions are the lines we draw to connect the dots.  Simple enough?  It could be argued that the lines are actually MORE important than the dots.  When a child focuses only on the numbered dots, his/her lines will be squiggly and ugly.  But, if the child focuses on making each line perfectly straight in between each dot, the they will have a better, more accurate, picture.  The straighter the line, the prettier the end result.

In my opinion, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is best expressed through smooth, accurate movements. Transitions are a large part of that movement.  We know that transitions exist, but tend to overlook their importance anyway. Why?  This is what I think: Transitions are nebulous, hard to identify and define.  They are in flux, always changing and moving.  The brain gets fatigued trying to make sense of them.   Positions are much easier for us to grasp. They remain in one place and are easily identified and categorized.  Thus, they are far less confusing.   In short, Positions are easy, Transitions are difficult.   By nature, something moving has more complexity than something at rest.

There are many schools of thought in the BJJ community.  Each academy has its own style or culture.  No one style is better than the other, they are just different.  For me, the “flow like water”  style is where its at. It is the most challenging AND the most beautiful.  A true artist seems to float on or around his opponent effortlessly.  With grace and equanimity.  This is all due to mastery of Transitions.

Are Positions important?  For sure.  I am not discounting their importance.  All I a saying is that Transitions are , at minimum, equally important.

The beauty of the art lies in Transitions


To “flow like water” we must pay attention to our movement, Transitions in particular.  The movement does not need to be fast.  In fact, if we focus on speed our movement tends to be choppy.  Instead, the movements should be smooth.  With smoothness comes speed.  So, smoothness breeds speed, but speed does not breed smoothness.

Start viewing Positions like stepping stones to other positions.  Better yet, see them as lily pads.  Jumping from pad to pad swiftly before they start to sink.  If you do this you wont settle into a position to think or rest.

If you are in a Position and you don’t know where to Transition to (or how to Transition from), wing it!  Take a guess and just move.  If you guess wrong, you learn.  That’s worth it.  Messing up is a small price to pay for knowledge.  It is better than sitting still, afraid to move and not learning a damn thing.

What if you are afraid to Transition because you feel your opponent (training partner) might be baiting you? Do it anyway.  Stop being terrified of “the bait” possibility.  Force him to show you his cards (ie. the technique he has up his sleeve for you).  You will learn a great deal, and who knows, he may be bluffing.  In either case it will give you the opportunity to polish your movement or, in the worst case, practice your defense.

Caveat:  This is mostly for a TRAINING MINDSET where the goal is learning and improvement.  The COMPETITION MINDSET is about winning, not learning. Thus movement in competition tends to be much more conservative.  That’s because with movement comes risk.





An Analogy for Risk

Diving further into the concept of taking risks in our BJJ training and how important it is for technical development, I have come to compare it to that of a tightrope walker.  For our purposes here let us say that the purpose and goal of a tightrope walker is to be gracefully balanced and walk end to end with ease.  To remain supremely balanced on the thinnest of ropes. Likewise, our purpose and goal in BJJ is to have the highest technical accuracy that we can attain, and to flow effortlessly between these techniques.  So how can both the tightrope walker and the BJJ practitioner achieve these goals?

The Tightrope Walker

The tightrope walker must start off as everyone else, a novice.  He will start by attempting to walk a wider area where keeping balance is easier.  He may start by walking a plank maybe one-foot wide.

This will soon become too easy for the tightrope walker.  It is too safe and not challenging whatsoever.  To increase his skills (purpose & goals) he will then incrementally narrow the surface he crosses.  He may whittle it down inch by inch to get used to the narrowing surface. Baby-stepping (as it were) to increase his skill.  Or he may take bigger leaps and radically narrow the surface area.  He may then go onto something like a thick rope, with maybe a 2-inch width.

He will certainly lose his balance and fall several times. This “failure” carries with it gifts of knowledge/experience.  His body is learning each time he falls.  With each attempt his skill set increases.  Before too long he will be on the thinnest of wires.

The tightrope walker’s skill has evolved to a masterful level.  Had he remained content walking the wide plank he would never have achieved such heights.  He sought out the challenge and got out of his comfort zone. He did not play it safe.

The BJJ Practitioner

The Jiu Jitsu practitioner must also get out of his comfort zone if he is to increase his skill.  The novice has an incredibly small technical repertoire.  Generally,  he has two paths to choose from: stick with the small number of moves he has learned and may have some success at, or branch out and try new things even if they are done incorrectly.  The safe way (risk adverse) is to remain on the wide plank. To continue on the tried and true path. The growth way (risk accepting) is to challenge yourself with uncomfortable techniques and situations.  To narrow the surface area to the thinnest of wires.  One way leads to masterful skill, the other does not.

At a more skilled level, a proficient practitioner will have a different set of choices.  When he goes up against a person whose skill is equal or greater to his own he may have a tendency to be more conservative (i.e. risk adverse).  He has a choice:  Walk the wide plank (risk adverse) or the thin wire (risk accepting).

The “wide plank” people will only engage their opponent (i.e. training partner) when the path is safe and chance of failure is low.  They are too scared of being  bested.  They don’t want to look bad.  The “thin wire” people will engage their opponent knowing and accepting the risk.  They will walk the line.

Why are some practitioners “wide plank” people while others are “thin wire” people?  Here is my opinion:  WIDE PLANK people value image over substance.  They think of the immediate consequence of failure…looking bad.  Or, they just have an intrinsic hatred of failure.  They berate themselves at any slight mistake they make.  These are the folks who swear at themselves when they get caught in a submission or are swept. They have a fixed mindset.  Conversely, THIN WIRE people don’t think about image.  They think know deep down that mistakes are a part of learning. They keep the goal of progress in the art in clear view and they know that every so-called “failure” has with it an opportunity for improvement.  These people see getting swept or submitted by their training partner as a gift. When a THIN WIRE person gets caught in an armbar,  he smiles, looks to his partner and says, “that was nice armbar!”  They have a growth mindset.

To attain mastery in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (which I assume is the goal of every practitioner) we need to become acquainted with every aspect, position and situation.  We need to be exposed to it all.  Imagine if the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was an elaborate house. A 10,000 square foot mansion.  To really know the house, we would have to explore it. Go into every room, closet , bathroom, pantry, etc.  We could never really know the house by spending the whole time in just one room! We should risk getting lost and explore.  Similarly, we cannot really learn BJJ by staying on the wide plank.  By only doing techniques we are comfortable with or by not engaging our opponent until the path is clear (because against a skilled opponent the path will NEVER be clear).  There is no growth in comfort.


This is a tightrope walker…

…and this is not (below).

Clearly, not engaging keeps you safe.

The safe way leads nowhere.  The dojo is one huge safety net.  Walk the tightrope, take risks and expose yourself to the hazards.  In that way we can explore every nook and cranny in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.