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.


The Ultimate Submission

The CHOKE in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the pinnacle of all submissions.  When properly applied it renders the opponent unconscious.  That’s it!  Game over.  Seem easy enough?  Well, I want to express my understanding and opinion of THE CHOKE so that my students (and hopefully the BJJ community as whole) apply this submission in all its various forms, with the highest level of sophistication.  If we aim for a high level of sophistication, we represent ‘The Gentle Art’ for what it is.  An effective, highly evolved, ethical, self-defense system.

But the term CHOKE is a misnomer.  We use the term only for simplicity.  But STRANGULATION has too many syllables I guess.  But, that’s what the submission really is…a strangulation.  Restricting the flow of blood to the brain, leading to unconsciousness. But for continuity and simplicity, I will keep referring to it as a CHOKE.

Levels of Sophistication

Not all chokes are equal.  There is an interconnectedness of target and application to Continue reading →



– It is easy to understand how an outsider watching Jiu Jitsu would only see armlocks, chokes and the occasional footlock. These are the highly visible aspects of the art. The Submissions! Easily recognized. But they are only the tip of the iceberg. The dedicated practitioner of Jiu Jitsu will gradually get a deeper and deeper look underneath the surface. Seeing the depths that are hidden to the untrained. How deep one goes depends on two things: Mat time & Mindset.
Mat Time? Easy. Train consistently and often. 2 to 3 classes per week minimum is recommended.

The correct mindset is helpful to achieve mastery in Jiu Jitsu. With the wrong mindset we can only go so far in the art.

Continue reading →