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.








  1. Another great post Jeff! the idea of “Looking bad”….to who? to yourself? to others? and if to others is the fear, we must remember that everyone else judges the activity differently. Some will be disappointed in your “failure”, others proud of your risk. If a tight rope walker is to consider the opinion of others in his development, he should assure it is from the opinion of other tight roper walkers.

  2. This makes sense.

    Does this mean then, as a thin wire practitioners, if we struggle to flow against the wide plank practitioners that we are not thin wire practitioners?

    How do we flow against those who absolutely insist on forcing their will when the opportunity isn’t there?

    1. Being a “thin wire practitioner” is a mindset and approach to how we apply our Jiu Jitsu. It is a method/mindset to get us out of being so conservative when we roll. The “thin wire practitioner” is willing to RISK, to open up and allow movement. There is a way to walk the tightrope offensively (dominant position) and a way to walk it defensively (inferior position). OFFENSIVELY, the basic way to look at it is to CORAL the opponent instead of CONTROL the opponent. We allow our opponent movement options. The offensive tightrope walker wants the opponent to move, thus exposing transition or attack possibilities. If the offensive player who DOESN’T allow movement options AT ALL is more than likely a Wide Plank person. This person is risk-adverse and afraid that the opponent will escape and elude him. The tightrope walker on the other hand is completely OK with the possibility that the opponent might escape and/or turn the tables on him, because he knows that succeed or fail, technical and transitional lessons will be learned. This RISK leads to proper transitional FLOW through repeated successes AND failures! The Risk-adverse wide plank person may have less “failures” than the tightrope walker in the short term, but in the long term they are short-changing their growth in the art. So, the practitioner has to ask themselves an important question: Would I rather have a complete understanding of a specific Jiu Jitsu technique or transition OR would I rather have victory over my training partner and get the TAP? One or the other. It is a choice that shines a light on our outlook. One way is competition with self and striving to increase understanding of the art and ourselves, the other is competition with others, trying to be better or look better than someone else. The latter is clearly ego-driven. Not good. Now, DEFENSIVELY, The tightrope walker applys the same mindset/approach…RISK. If the opponent is CONTROLLING and you cannot move, then move in your mind. Sometimes we have to concede o the shitty reality and do what we can. A suggestion would be to make very small movements (as much as your opponent will allow) and wait for him to attack, thus giving you some minimal space to escape. Move not matter what even if the movement can only be in your mind! If the opponent is more sophisticated and a tightrope walker himself, then he is most likely CORALLING you. In any case, you have movement options because he is allowing them. Take the opportunity to move even through they have the upper hand and can catch you. Worst case, you get caught, tap, and learn. Best case, you find the escape path your opponent did not prepare for or was aware of and escape….and learn. If you just lay and pray, unwilling to move when the opportunity to do so is there, then you waste valuable rolling time and precious lessons. Hope this helps, Andrew.

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