If you’ve read any of my prior pieces, it’s no secret I’m a big fan of analogies, similes, and parables. Before ever signing up for jiu-jitsu, I remember my friend had a Bruce Lee poster with his famous “Be water, my friend,” quote on it. It didn’t make a lot of sense and I loved making fun of him for it. Obviously there isn’t a whole lot to it. Just keep an open-mind and don’t take a myopic approach to martial arts. Such an obvious idea, why does everyone love it so much?
A few years later I started to roll. I felt like the only thing really separating more advanced students than me was that they obviously knew more than I did. If an opponent took their arm, they know how to get their arm back. If their opponent goes to choke them, they know how to get out of harm’s way. In my mind, all I needed was more experience and more knowledge and more YouTube tutorials and I could start closing the gap.
Oh, Bruce Lee Knows What He’s Talking About
When I got injured, all I could do was watch. Jiu-jitsu was by far the most fun I’ve ever had and to sit and watch for three months was brutal. However, the more I watched the advanced students, the more I realized how stupid I was. It wasn’t that the more advanced students knew more than me (I mean it was) but it’s also that they flowed better.
I know, a few paragraphs ago I said it was kind of a dumb concept, but I get it now. Go figure the guy who many consider the greatest martial artist of all time knew what he was talking about, eh?
When I roll, and an opponent grabs a hold of my arm, my initial thought is “f*ck you, I’m going to get my arm back,” it’s all I focus on. When someone is, as Bruce Lee said, “being water” they take notice when an opponent takes their arm, but it isn’t all they focus on. A more proper mindset for me to have when an opponent grabs my arm is “Ok, so they have my arm, what are they leaving open that I can exploit?”
You’re rarely going to always know what to do when you’re just starting out and often when an opponent grabs hold of your arm or puts you in a choke there won’t be much you can do. However, forcing your brain to stop focusing on the thing you just lost and instead focus on what your opponent is giving you is a great first step. If you’re interested in what a more experienced grappler has to say on this topic, Jon has some great posts about Effective defense and weathering the storm.
The closest thing I have to grappling experience is playing offensive tackle in high school. You’re taught to extend your arms as quickly as possible. This helps keep defensive lineman off of you. So, whenever I roll, pretty much the first thing I do is extend my arms. Recently, I was rolling with a brown belt and he said something that stuck with me, “your elbows are your babies, you should always know where they are.”
I never know where my elbows are. You know why? Because there is so much other cool stuff to think about and pay attention to. The other day, someone used my gi to choke me. A piece of clothing I was wearing, was used to choke me. That’s like straight out of Steven Segal movie. Last week, we learned how to perform an Anaconda choke, which is essentially the coolest thing I’ve learned in 30 years of living on this planet. We’re constantly learning so many cool chokes and transitions, so who cares where my elbows are?
Why You Should Care Where Your Elbows Are…
Armbars. I get arm-barred at least 7 times a session. Knowing where your elbows are will help keep you from getting arm-barred. Knowing where your elbows are, you’re also less likely you’ll just give your opponent your arm and let them do whatever they want with it.
If my elbows are my babies, when I started doing jiu-jitsu, I was essentially putting them into a stroller, and rolling said stroller out to the middle of the street and then deciding to check my phone. I was literally the worst parent in the world.
However, the great thing about jiu-jitsu is the more time you invest the quicker you recognize mistakes. Slowly but surely I’m realizing how much the little stuff matters. Pay attention to your elbows, treat them like they are your babies.
Prior to breaking my foot I learned two different chokes. Even though you learn them slowly, and over the watchful eye of instructors you’re bound to have some awkward miscues. Mine happened when repeating the choke we had just learned.
I was partnered with a black belt which was really cool, because he could diagnose exactly what I was doing wrong and then dumb it down so my brain could understand. The first three times I did it, I wasn’t keeping the choke tight enough and he slipped out of my arms. I have a fear of hurting someone (weird that I chose a hobby that involves choking people, right?) so often times I’ll try and be as gentle as I can.
The fourth time I performed the choke perfectly. Well, as perfectly as a third-week white belt can, and he tapped. Then a weird thing happened. We were wrapped up so tight, that when I let go, the choke didn’t immediately alleviate. My partner needed a minute to catch his breath. I felt like an asshole and profusely apologized. He told me there was no need and he had me drill it again.
The same thing happened. Regardless of how limp I went with my arms, legs and chest, it still didn’t give him immediate relief when he tapped. What was I doing wrong? I in NO way wanted to hurt this guy, or have him think I was holding onto a choke for an extra second to really be malicious. So I asked.
My partner told me that sometimes it happened, as long as I was letting go, it was completely fine. “People who come here understand and don’t mind it, so don’t worry about it.” We then switched roles and he performed the choke on me. And while the same thing happened to me, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was.
I experienced the “technique vs. strength” debate almost immediately after starting my jiu jitsu journey because of my awesome “newb” strategy: grab whoever I rolled with and hold on for dear, sweet life. But I didn’t want to be “that way” so I listened when a good training partner gently suggested that I would learn more from literally letting go. So what my technique was horrible? Failing and getting passed/submitted would teach me more than clinching to save myself.
My game has evolved since then, but it seems the strength discussion really hasn’t. In my understanding, the argument goes something like this, “strength makes the difference between people of similar experience and technique” and/or “superior size and strength makes up for a modest skill deficit.” This is certainly a reasonable argument — I know I’ve used the little muscle I have to make up for some bad technique. But I think it’s time to re-frame the question– to let it go so it can evolve too.
So here’s my suggestion: break the question into two parts. First, are strength and technique necessary conditions for “success” in BJJ? Second, are they sufficient? Success means different things to different people. For the sake of discussion, I’ll define success as being competitive in local-level grappling meets. Moving on.
Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Success in (sportive) BJJ
We know intuitively that there’s a difference between what you need to achieve and what’s nice to do in life. The things we need to get done on our way to our goal are necessary conditions. For example, if I want to get more money for the work I do, I need to keep my job.
Generally, keeping my job means showing up and doing my work, but just tuning in my work is isn’t going to convince someone to pay me more, so showing up is necessary, but not sufficient do my goal. Sufficient conditions are the things or circumstances that guarantee the outcome we want. These are tougher to pin down. It’s also very, very rare that any one necessary condition is also sufficient to achieving success. You may show up to work, but still get fired for reasons beyond your control.
Now, turn jiu jitsu your job. “Is technique necessary for success?” I’m fairly certain anyone reading this is going to answer yes, but if you are unsure, you could always ask former Mr. Utah Lance Batchelor how he feels about the subject. Showing up to class, learning technique, and sparring is like showing up and doing your work. You have to do it. This doesn’t mean that technique is sufficient for winning your local tournament, but your probability of success is next to zero if you have no training of any sort and regardless of other factors like strength. Technique is necessary, but not sufficient.
Is strength necessary or sufficient for success in BJJ? BJJ Life blogger Peter Baker thinks it’s at least necessary. Baker points out times when being stronger can certainly help you, but it struck me that his suggestions for the guard and being in side control referred to techniques that were necessary to use the strength. If you don’t know sweeps, having powerful legs won’t help much when you have someone in guard. It won’t hurt, but it won’t help.
If you aren’t able to maintain the guard, you end up in the next position, bottom side control. In the best case scenario your strength gets you out of side control if there’s a scramble and you are agile. But in sportive BJJ, escaping side control to a neutral position gets you a 3-0 deficit. If you win the scramble and get credit for a sweep somehow (this requires an actual sweep since there are no points for escapes or reversals), you’re still down 3-2. This still doesn’t show that strength isn’t necessary, but it certainly isn’t sufficient for success. To decide if it’s necessary you have to ask whether someone with no additional strength training could learn jiu jitsu and succeed.
Here’s what Master Helio Gracie had to say:
The Jiu-Jitsu that I created was designed to give the weak ones a chance to face the heavy and strong. It was so successful that they decided to create a sportive version of it. I would like to make it clear that of course I am in favor of the sportive practice and Jiu-Jitsu, based on rules and time limits, which benefits the heavier, stronger, and more athletic individuals.
The primary objective of Jiu-Jitsu is to empower the weak who, for not having the physical attributes, are often intimidated. My Jiu-Jitsu is an art of self-defense in which rules and time limits are unacceptable. These are the reasons for which I can’t support events that reflect an anti Jiu-Jitsu (quote courtesy of Syracuse Jiu Jitsu).
Clearly, jiu-jitsu was created to make strength insufficient for success. I’m going to do something dumb and try to push his argument farther. The quote conveys that the rules and time limits seem to favor bigger, stronger, and more athletic individuals.
I can see how they could– for example, a stronger competitor gets an advantage and is able to maintain his/her position using strength for the length of a match– but my discussion of scoring suggests that technique weighs heavier on the outcome. It’s at least unclear whether rules and time limits favor the strong. If you ask me (and you are reading my blog), strength is neither necessary nor sufficient. In fact, technique enables strength to become an advantage– it is necessary for using strength effectively.
The Only Sure Thing in Life (Even More Than Taxes)
I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in pushing the strength and technique discussions in a new direction, but I will close with something I hope you’ll think about. We all start our jiu jitsu journey with different athletic backgrounds and natural strength endowments. We may also have different reasons for starting and different destinations. Yet, there’s one thing that we all have in common when we start– we age and our strength declines.
Even if you very strong, at some point in life strength will fail. Strong tendons will become brittle and snap. Muscles atrophy and muscle fibers will become shorter. Bones lose their density. Conditioning will become less effective because the body will replace muscle tissue with fat. In short, it’s going to suck. This is why I sincerely hope strength is not necessary in jiu jitsu. If it is, then the journey will have to end sooner rather than later.