The last time I blogged about my general position and progress in BJJ was around Christmas (well, on Christmas Eve, in fact). I’d like to take a moment to introspect and take stock, as it were. At the time, I was reflecting on the breakthrough (at long bloody last!) of attitude—of making it a habit to roll to win at least some of the time, because it’s a mentality I need to be able to switch on, and a focus on fighting between the canonical positions rather than just in them. I’d also just started playing a bit of open guard.
Shortly before that, I had made a list of skills I have and lack in various positions. Notably, I decided that I really needed to work on
- armbars, triangles, and pendulum sweeps from guard
- standing guard passes (emphasised by my failure in my second tournament)
- butterfly guard, where my skills were nil to none
- taking the back, and improving my attacks from there
- more armbars from top (mount and side mount)
Over the past few months, one of the natural developments of my game has been to stay much more active and mobile in my top game. I ascribe this largely to two factors: One, I have made an effort to be more active in guard passing and being ready to switch from side to side. Two, I have had occasion to roll more with very new and inexperienced people, not least since joining judo, where the focus is evenly divided between standup and groundwork rather than heavily on the latter, and where much of the groundwork addresses turnovers—so that, per mat hour of total experience, I have just done a lot more groundwork. When rolling with people whom I can more or less submit at will¹, I’ve taken to doing other things: Giving up positions to work from inferior ones, providing advise and/or opportunities to my partners…or focusing entirely on positional control, moving from knee-on-belly to mount to knee-on-belly on the other side; pivoting side mount from side to side… And while I have sometimes done this mostly because it seemed gratuitous to force someone brand new to the sport to tap out ten times in a round, it has in fact rapidly translated into a skill in its own right.
Thus my top game has changed from a fairly indiscriminate effort to be heavy, placing as much weight as possible on my opponent’s upper body, to a more focused control that allows me to stay more mobile. To use side control as an example, I used to apply pressure with my chest and my shoulder and pretty much any part of me that goes on top of my opponent in that position. Now, I try to apply all the pressure with the cross-face shoulder. (Or I might be applying pressure to just one shoulder or one quadrant of the upper chest from side control or N/S; or I might apply my weight in mount differently than just being heavy down the center—and so on.) My working hypothesis is that this is not a less effective pin, in fact it may be more effective in that my weight is less distributed and can be focused more on a mechanically weak point (if I’m doing it right). At the same time I’m not so glued to the ground or to my opponent, so I’m better able to move and take advantage of any opportunity that arises.
This has lead to a radical increase in the amount of armbars I catch (successfully or not). If my standard response to a bridge in sidemount was to just remain heavy, it’s now becoming increasingly mixed up with allowing my opponent to get onto his side, but with me pivoting to the opposite side and attacking the arm. (Of course this means that I need to catch the arm, and not leave space for it to escape. Thus using more focused pressure is no excuse to play looser!) Armbar quotas in general seem to go up quite a lot as I stay more mobile on top, whether in mount, side mount, or knee-on-belly. It also feels like a more effective smaller-man’s-game, which I need to work on: I’m not tiny, but neither am I one of the bigger or stronger guys at the gym. Exploiting bridges and bottom defences rather than blocking them takes less strength. (And is more ju, as it were…)
I have also, very recently, started working on butterfly guard. The breakthrough came from one of those obvious things that needed just the right kind of clear and explicit statement, unsurprisingly from Kabir, who talked about going side to side with the standard butterfly sweep. If I try to sweep left, and fail because my opponent posts or bases out, that’s OK: I can just quickly switch my hips and sweep for the other side. Heureka!, or as Huxley might have said, how extremely stupid not to have thought of that: but there you are. I’m not yet having much success with the standard butterfly sweep, as I find the sitting-up position difficult to maintain, but I’m having much better luck with half butterfly guard, and using butterfly hooks to lift and sweep whenever my opponent bases out to block any sweep. And doing this—constantly attempting sweeps with butterfly hooks—is allowing me to keep my hooks much stickier, making not just my butterfly guard but my open guard in general much harder to pass.
This is an area that needs a lot of work, but then I’ve only been focusing on it for a couple of weeks. I feel pretty encouraged with my success so far.
In some ways it’s kind of startling how different my game looks right now compared to, say, when I wrote my last introspectives in December. At the time, my bottom game was mainly closed guard and a bit of basic, feet-on-hips or maybe half-arsed spider guard stuff thrown in; my top game focused on getting to mount for the cross choke, which was by far my most frequent finish. Now, my guard game is mostly butterfly guard (admittedly because it needs work rather than because it’s my A game), and by far most of my finishes are by armbar, though I’ll still go for cross chokes when I see them. I’m very happy with this transition, because butterfly is something I’ve long known I need to work on but never felt I had enough of a handle on to even begin; and because I knew damn well my armbars were lamentable from disuse. Additionally, I like armbars because they transfer so well to everything: Gi, no-gi, judo…
I think I’m mostly in a phase where I should keep doing what I am already doing. I am currently working on several of the areas that I knew needed work: I do a lot of butterfly; I go for a lot of armbars; and if I’m passing the guard, 80% of the time I’ll stand up for the pass. All this is as it should be: I have put a lot of hours into weak areas, and while they need more work, they’re nowhere near as bad as they were half a year ago.
If I look at my list of four months ago, the main thing I see there that I should be doing, but am not doing often enough, is attacking the back. Especially against larger opponents, I have a tendency to get stuck on my back (in guard) or (worse) in bottom turtle, unable to finish anything. I’m not good at guard submissions, and it’s my current thinking that the short-legged man’s attack on a 30–40 lbs heavier opponent probably should not be the triangle. I need to get better at taking the back, notably climbing to the back from guard and very notably via arm drags from butterfly and similar as well as from half guard. I also jotted down baseball chokes from side control, which are perhaps not a bad idea but don’t currently feel like a priority. So in summary,
- keep working on butterfly guard
- keep working on armbars
- increase focus on taking the back
- start working arm drags from butterfly
- start working for the back from bottom half guard
- start working more sweeps from bottom half guard
¹ I’m not trying to give myself airs; it’s only natural that when I’ve been doing this 4½ years and some guy is in his first month, I’m probably going to have a substantial edge.