Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jiu-Jitsu is Not the Gentle Art

One of my readers recently sent me a question, and it touched on a conversation that I have had many times with my students, so I thought it would be helpful to share my answer with everyone.

“One thing that I really have a problem with is 'pulling the trigger.' I got a guy in a submission, had it, but I could not ‘go.’ I felt bad about hurting him. I apologize so damn much when I train, knee on belly: 'you ok?' armbar: 'you ok?'  So, not only am I really in my head all the time, I am worried about people all the time. So, when I roll I think, think, think, and get flipped, spun and tossed.” -Mike

This is a surprisingly common problem in jiu-jitsu, and it’s not a terrible problem to have.  If you, and I mean both Mike and my readers, feel bad about hurting your training partners, that’s a good sign.  You are starting at the right end of the spectrum, which is a much better place to be than the opposite, where a student has no concern for the safety or the health of his teammates.  It is much easier to work with someone that cares than who does not care.

The hidden problem here is a misconception of what jiu-jitsu really is. We call jiu-jitsu the gentle art, but that's actually really misleading. Technically, jiu-jitsu can be gentler in practice than a striking art—where you would have to bash someone’s teeth in to subdue him—but when you are talking about jiu-jitsu versus jiu-jitsu, it's only gentle for one person, and that's the person that's winning. For your jiu-jitsu to be effective, you have to be assertive in certain situations.

Pressure and control are important, and when applied correctly, they will be incredibly uncomfortable. Knee on belly sucks. A cross face sucks. A body triangle sucks. And that's the point. Your pressure creates control, and discomfort forces movement, which creates openings for transitions and attacks. Applying pain is a part of jiu-jitsu.  When I trained with Jay Penn in Hilo, he always used to say, “Pain equals compliance,” and it’s true.  If you are not using your weight or putting your opponent in bad positions, you are ultimately giving him space and freedom to counter and attack.

Applying a ton of shoulder pressure to your opponent's chin when you have side control is a part of an effective side control and is perfectly acceptable (unless of course there is a huge gap in skill or weight). However, whipping your way through an Americana like you are Usain Bolt eyeing the finish line is unacceptable, and I'm sure you can see the difference between the two. One is temporary discomfort while the other is a potentially permanent injury. 

You should always give your training partners ample opportunity to tap.  As you train, you will learn where the “points of no return" are, which will allow you to reach that point quicker and quicker and then finish slowly.  If they are not wise enough to recognize that they are in danger, transition to a choke, tap them out, and then explain to them that they should probably think about tapping sooner because not everyone is as nice as you are.  Warning: only have this conversation with someone that you outrank.  If your rank is equal or inferior to your training partner, you are better off analyzing your technique to make sure that your details were in order and then shrugging it off.

Beyond giving your partners time to tap... pressure, pressure, pressure!  Don’t feel bad about pressure.  Good technique requires pressure, and good technique leads to effective jiu-jitsu.

Completely unrelated: how I feel trying to avoid eye contact when "that guy" wants to roll with me.

The conversation about this article on Reddit is taking off.  Check it out.


  1. I was rolling with a higher female belt (a blue one) a few nights ago and I sort of hesitated finishing a submission for a split second. I was afraid that thrusting my hips to the floor to finish the belly down armbar might injure her. She ended up escaping and we ended with a draw. The same instance could have easily been a difference between winning or losing in a tournament.

    This post got me to realize that I should work on hitting the "point of no return".

  2. When I roll with my teammates, I like to hold a submission right to the edge and then let them escape the submission. It gives both of us a chance to practice our techniques and perfect our performances.

  3. Excellent points made in your article. Never crank a submission in training without giving them ample time to tap.

    I will say I dislike it when my training partners don't apply a submission fully. I don't mean crank them but even apply any pressure. I hate it when they have like an arm bar and just sit there. I don't tap until I feel some discomfort as I don't want training partners to think their technique is perfect when it's not.

    Hope that makes sense.