21 February 2013

A Jiu Jitsu Brunch: Advancing Positions, life on the mat:


(In advance I want to thank Paul Gorman for his insights during this conversation, as well as Jay Jack for insights on this subject in other conversations about the following, I'm sure their insights probably show up below.)

Sport vs Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for self-defense?

One of the great, and often neglected training tools in any martial artist’s tool kit are the post training conversations.  These can cover a wide range of topics, and leave the realm of Jiu-jitsu altogether but they generally have some kind of jiu jitsu focus at some point. Even when they do veer off the topic of BJJ, these conversations bring us closer together as teammates and make us more open to sharing our techniques, and asking each other questions.  So talk people.

Today as we shot the breeze about training, someone posed a question to me that I think led to a useful framework for thinking about sport BJJ and BJJ as self-defense.

The question that provoked my thoughts was this. “Now you are more into Jiu Jitsu as self defense and don’t care so much for the sport aspect right?”

It’s a valid question and one I think betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what sport BJJ should be as opposed to what it sometimes is.  Or maybe I should say, what sport BJJ can be.

Sport BJJ evolved from a specific set of strategic goals found in sound self-defense oriented BJJ.  The problem immediately arises though that once you set your art into a gaming model, people invariably become concerned with winning that game. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but if we think of our art as also martial, it is important that we start forming these delineations, of sport only technique/strategy, vs any situation technique/strategy in our minds in an honest way. We also need to be able to communicate these differences in equally honest and well-defined ways. Keep the context straight.  I want to avoid thinking I can fight and defend myself just because I have an excellent sitting guard. I’ve actually seen people who think they can fight because of this attribute. I think this must be a mistake.  Self-defense begins with sound BJJ, not the flying triangle, or the latest turtle attacks. 

For the record, I love sport BJJ and all the sport specific games that have evolved within that context. It is easy to admire skill, dedication and effort. However, tournament glory isn’t for everyone. Some players (most?) are in a BJJ academy to learn how to defend themselves not win medals. There is some potential for confusion though as the training for both sport BJJ and self-defense BJJ is essentially the same. Rolling. This is the secret of BJJ’s success as an effective martial art of self-defense (the same is true of wrestling and Judo). Rolling is just sparring for grapplers.  We try, at nearly 100% power and effort, to apply our techniques against resisting opponents who are trying to do the same thing to us. Grapplers have a lot of experience dealing with live, resisting opponents.  This makes translating training hall skills to real world situations pretty easy. We train how we fight, and that makes all the difference.  But how do you know you are doing well in training and affecting good BJJ strategy beyond submitting your opponent?

BJJ strategy is based on a system of positional hierarchy.  Strategically there is a worst place to be, and a best place to be, and a sea of better than positions in between.  The points systems of BJJ competition evolved from this positional hierarchy and the point system was designed to encourage competitors to use good BJJ to earn points and win time limited matches.  In BJJ we want to win the take down, failing that we want to escape from the bottom, stay on top, pass the guard, work to submit an opponent etc.  That is BJJ strategy. That is what the point system of sport BJJ was meant to encourage. If you were earning points in a competition you were doing good BJJ, the whole point of which is to control your opponent’s movement through positional dominance.  And positional dominance is important because it is the pathway to submitting your opponent with high percentage techniques, or beating your opponent with strikes (on the street obviously) from a position of safety that can itself lead to high percentage submissions, or more beatings. That is the inherent logic of BJJ and what the point system was meant to reinforce.

The game of BJJ went the way of all games.  Rules evolved, competitors started to forget why they do what they do (what they do became the goal of winning matches), and what was once a great training aid became something of a fantasyland (at least as it relates to martial skills). It’s a really fun fantasyland, but its still a fantasyland.  Consider some greats of sport BJJ, guys with unique games like Eddie Bravo, or Marcello Garcia.  How many times have you seen them just sit on their butts and win a medal with awesome BJJ sorcery?  I’ve seen it happen a lot. It isn’t sound self-defense BJJ. I’ve seen competitors given fits by opponents who essentially adopt downward dog (a yoga pose) and back into them.  In a sport context this is really fascinating, fun to watch, and as a competitor provides a neat puzzle to solve. Again isn’t self-defense.  Sitting down in an altercation, or backing up, butt in the air, hands on the ground, in a combative downward dog are likely sure fire ways to lose IQ points and whatever else your assailant was wanting to take from you.  When you turn any practical combative art into a game, you will create a system wherein people will become obsessed with winning that game. There will also be rule changes that come from attempts to make the sport entertaining for fans.  This is not just a BJJ problem, but a problem with all combative sports.  Boxers and kick-boxers no longer know how to punch a person without gloves on, without breaking their hands.  The quality of ground fighting among judoka has deteriorated because their competition focuses on a narrow subset of the Judo arsenal (on the part that can earn them an instant, dramatic win).  And in sport BJJ, people concede takedowns, pulling guard, competitors are content to fight from a variety of guards.  That is to say they utilize strategies that are not sound self-defense BJJ to win points and competitions.

Again, I want to say, there is nothing wrong with sport BJJ.  It’s a fun game. It develops quality attributes, like strength, endurance and sensitivity. But if you want to say you also have sound self-defense BJJ, then you need to understand the strategy of BJJ and utilize it often while rolling.  You should also be able to explain both approaches to BJJ to the general public as well as the people you teach and train with.

It is also good, I think, to remember that sound self-defense BJJ is also good sport BJJ.

See you on the mat!

Addendum:
Set against the plight of the so-called traditional martial arts, we grapplers don’t have it that bad.  Consider the following vignette and then be glad you train in the era you train in. 

In the 1960s and 1970s a sport full of dedicated, and very skilled martial artists evolved called point Karate.  To win a match you had to get three points before your opponent.  Only clean techniques could earn points.  The contact was pretty light, but the technique was sharp, and crisp.  A sharp punch or a kick or knee would earn a point, the ref would yell break and the competitors would reset, do it again until the match was over. The logic of this scoring made a certain amount of sense. Who ever gets the first clean shot will probably win in the real world. A moment of reflection reveals that this is actually a fairly useful training tool, teaching useful skills like non-telegraphic movement, and encourages the development of speed, and good technique. Anyone who has seen point karate of late will see how badly making a game of martial arts can damage the practice of those arts. Decades of rule changes and whining on the part of competitors, has changed point Karate into a mockery of a combat sport. It has ceased even to develop combative attributes. A point, once earned only by clean technique with controlled contact, can now be earned with any old contact.  Now the most common technique in point Karate is the jumping hammer fist. To say this is a useless technique in self-defense, would be to understate matters by quite a lot.     

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