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.





  1. hi thanks for the insights! At what point do you recgonize in yourself that your using too much body / mechanics Ratio . some time I ago I felt and my opponent felt my jits was more true jits( I had very good mechanics and flow/timing) But i got crushed cuz they were way stronger!!.. I have to say when I started more body training I used my body more and more and it helped me!! although its good in ji jitsu to have physical attributes, I noticed It SLIGHTLY tipped the balance between mechanics and physical attributes. when do you constantly feel you are using the best mechanics possible? because one way or the other a CERTAIN amount of force(pressure) is needed.

    1. Noah, you are right. There is absolutely no way of doing Anything in Jiu Jitsu (and life) without some strength. Physical attributes can definitely be used! And if you look at ANY competition footage you will 100% see them using their strength (and other attributes). This is because the technical level between the two competitors is very close. This small “technical gap” and the GOAL of competition (to win) makes using their strength necessary. What I am concerned with is students using these attributes as their PRIMARY method of doing Jiu Jitsu. The right way is “Technique First.” I emphasize to my students to minimally use their physical attributes as an additive to their proper technique. And only ever use most of their attributes in dire situations. The goal in training should be for your Jiu Jitsu to be mostly effortless.

      If you are “getting smashed” by a bigger guy using good technique use it as a learning tool. Feel how they are using their technique. And if they are JUST using brute force and shitty technique, don’t worry, they will stagnate and be left way behind by those who practice the right way. I have seen this lots of times. the huge guy smashes little guy. He can get away with it for a while because the little guy’s technique hasn’t caught up. Once it does the little guy starts giving the big guy trouble. The big guy then will either try and “revenge tap” the little guy or just avoid him.

      A good rule to follow to make sure you are not over using attributes is measuring how tired you get. If you are huffing and puffing after each round then you know. If you have to sit out rounds due to fatigue then you know. If you do get exhausted, it should be from too much movement and flow instead of lots of pushing and pulling.

  2. Thanks for this reminder.

    Lately, I’ve found myself struggling with these concepts. I’ve found that triggers like anger, fear, and pride, when unchecked, trigger a surface dweller mentality in me. These days it’s rare but on some occasions I see it surfacing to remind me that it’s still there. When it shows up I feel ashamed.

    Is there a way to be permanently free from this mentality?

    Are there certain conditions where a surface dweller mentality is a necessity (e.g. survival) or can I leave it behind altogether? At this point in my training, I hate the fact that I still see glimpses the surface dweller inside of me from time to time.

    I want to eliminate it completely and permanently. Is this even a worthwhile goal?

    Thanks for taking the time to share these concepts with us.

    1. Andrew,
      Those emotions (anger, fear, pride) are human and will usually trigger a Surface Dweller mentality in everyone (myself included). Is there a way to be totally free of them? Probably not. But I think NOTICING these feelings arise is a great step. Notice, observe them, and let them pass by. Like bad weather. Your hindering emotions (anger, fear, etc…) are just a bout of bas weather. But YOU are not the weather. You are the whole sky. Above it. There is calm atmosphere above a storm front, we just have to zoom out to get there. Then we can notice the storm below and just let it run its course, pass by, without getting caught up in it. Easier said than done I know. Negative emotions are powerfully magnetic. But, to me (because I experience the same thing occasionally) NOTICING these things helps me navigate away from them. As far I can tell, seeing them for what they are (bad weather) weakens their hold. I think it takes practice though. I have found being coached in Mindfulness has been really helpful for me.

      Next question: Are there certain conditions where a surface dweller mentality is a necessity (e.g. survival) or can I leave it behind altogether? YES, absolutely. In desperate situations we can always go primitive and comeback to the surface. When the stakes are high (life and death. Competition maybe?) we can put our physical attributes in overdrive and do what needs to be done. However, we should never train to be a Surface Dweller. A Deep Diver can easily ascend to the Surface, but a Surface Dweller can never dive deep. So, we go “Surface Dweller” when we are desperate. But, we should train enough with the right mindset NOT to ever be desperate. This is seeking perfection and will never realistically be attained, but that is the direction we want to go. Like Jordon Peterson says, you need a Monster inside of you that can be called upon when needed (ie, Surface Dweller), but that Monster should always be INTENTIONAL and under your control. This means, to me, that CHOOSING to rise to the surface is acceptable. When your default is the surface, then you have major work to do. I think, we should retain the ability and option to rise to the surface when necessary…But we work hard so that it wont be necessary. A subtle contradiction maybe.
      Coming up the ranks, there was many times I felt as you do. Especially at Blue Belt. I felt I had to prove myself. Then a weird thing happened (you ad I have talked about this before)…I “let go” and everything clicked. Things were flowing (mentally and physically). I don’t know how to instruct anyone on how to “let go,” but I know it is all mental. I stopped comparing myself to anyone. I just relished (ie, accepted) my current level of sophistication, looked at myself honestly, and “burnt off the deadwood” more or less. My quick story may assist you…I don’t know. Let Go. Like Chinese Finger Cuffs, the more you struggle the more restricted you become. When you relax and let go, you become free.

      What I refer to Surface Dwellers are those individuals who have no desire to become more sophisticated and evolve. They just want shallow “victories” and glory. Ego, then, is hindering them. Hope this helps.

  3. Thanks for the clarification.

    This mindfulness, letting these emotions come then pass has been a game changer for me. When I practiced this mindfulness I realized that I believed these emotions were part of my identity rather than something tied to false beliefs.

    I sat with that realization for a few days. Still not sure how to address that yet.

    I’m working to understand my monster. I understand the importance of integrating my shadow but I find I’m afraid of it.

    Still more work to do.

    Your advice on feelings – notice, observe then let them pass by lifted a huge burden off my shoulders.

    Thank you so much.

    1. Absolutely. You’re very welcome. There will be “flare ups” of getting swept of in negative emotions (we are human), but just Observe. It helps for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *