Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sport vs. Self-Defense: Refresh Your Perspective

Having trained and taught for some time, I have had the pleasure and displeasure of having to share and defend jiu-jitsu with all sorts of different people. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that sport jiu-jitsu is a waste of time because we would never use x-guard or inverted guard or any other unusual position that you can think of in a street fight.

These naysayers are right about one thing: no, we probably wouldn't use x-guard in a street fight, and I probably wouldn't use butterfly guard either, but they are wrong about the why.

I wouldn't use x-guard in a street fight because I wouldn't have to. In a street fight, where it's my six years of grappling experience against some dude with Jack Daniels courage, simple positions like mount, back control, or closed guard will do the trick just fine. In this scenario, a simple problem warrants a simple solution. Anything more than that is a waste of effort on my part.

Jiu-jitsu, at its core, is about forcing your opponent to make a mistake. At the highest levels, this becomes a chess game of positioning, where I stack up enough minor advantages to force my opponent into a corner, where his only remaining choices are the "wrong" choices. Unlike an experienced grappler, an untrained attacker will almost immediately make a crucial mistake, and this is well-known to jiu-jiteiros. We have the opportunity to roll with brand new white belts or our silly friends at parties, and we know how quickly someone that does not know jiu-jitsu gives up their neck. It's a choke buffet.

Royce solving a simple problem with a "simple" position.
Positions like x-guard or De La Riva or reverse De La Riva are solutions to complex problems. If defending yourself against an untrained attacker is the same as cutting the burning string on a Wild West stick of dynamite, defeating a jiu-jiteiro is like getting to the core of the Death Star. The simple stuff is still useful, but you are navigating much more dangerous terrain and overcoming elaborate challenges. Nuanced problems require nuanced solutions.

So if all we need in self-defense situations are simple attacks, why do we train more complicated positions? Why do we train to beat other grapplers if we don't expect to encounter them in the wild?

First of all, it's fun, but if that's not a good enough answer for you (why do you hate fun?), consider this: why do we lift weights? How often do you encounter something in real life that you can't pick up with the strength that you have now? Not often, but if you want to be stronger, you will need those weights to give you the targeted resistance required to improve. To keep getting stronger, you have to keep challenging your muscles to perform better than they did before.

This analogy applies to jiu-jitsu. Training with talented grapplers forces you to perfect you balance, your timing, your awareness, your problem solving skills, and your confidence. All of those attributes are immensely important in self-defense. To return to the weight training analogy, how hard is it to move 5 pounds when you are benching 200? Not hard it all. Forcing ourselves to solve these difficult problems every day in training makes the less complex problems incredibly easy. It's like going from calculus back to arithmetic. You can handle the simple operations without thinking and be on your way.

Glad that's settled. Let's train.

Note: Just as you refresh basic attacks like armbars and triangles, so should you periodically revisit basic self-defense tactics to stay well-rounded and prepared.


  1. Do you weight-lift, run, etc to complement your jiu jitsu? I try to, but i sometimes injure my-self while doing it. For example running puts a lot of pressure on your knees. I wonder how much weightlifting exercises really benefit your jiu jitsu ability. What are your thoughts on the matter? Thanks for all you do for bjj!

    1. Hi Joao. Thank you for the comment, and I'm glad that you're enjoying the blog.

      A long time ago I heard an interesting piece of wisdom: the best way to get good at jiu-jitsu is to do jiu-jitsu. If lifting weights or running hurts you, that keeps you off the mat. Are those things helpful? Sure they are. Physical fitness is a great attribute on the mat, but if they cut into your training time, how much good can they actually do?

  2. I like this article a lot, but I like the bottom comment even more:

    Note: Just as you refresh basic attacks like armbars and triangles, so should you periodically revisit basic self-defense tactics to stay well-rounded and prepared.

    The thing is, the brain remembers best what you practice the most so I wouldn't be surprised if, when pressure-tested, we start doing what we usually do. I don't think "periodically revisit" will cut it.

    If taken down against our will or by surprise and we are forced to use the guard, I think those who usually spin under for a half guard will spin under for a half guard. It might be a tight somewhat punch-safe half guard, but I don't think they'd protect the face, get the feet on the hips and push the attacker off, do a technical stand-up and get the hell out. I really think people resort to what they usually do rather than the best solution to the problem at hand.

    1. I see the point your making, and I think that there's some merit to it, but having bounced back and forth between working with sport grapplers and MMA fighters, I feel like I've been able to flip the right switches and make the right decisions in each situation without too much trouble. It was a little rough at first, but now, with periodic practice, it's pretty natural.

      I will admit, that perhaps my game has evolved to suit both scenarios, so maybe someone that uses some of the heavily sport influenced positions would have a harder time making that transition. For me, my jiu-jitsu is pretty simple. I do the same thing in gi that I do in no gi, and with the exception of butt scooting (I stand in base instead), I do the same thing in MMA.

    2. that right there IS the secret:

      " For me, my jiu-jitsu is pretty simple. I do the same thing in gi that I do in no gi"

      People think the solution is to do lots of MMA specific training but the solution is to do lots of training! While training, try to keep the game the same and suitable for every scenario but that mean taking responsibility for you own training because if you're training gi and you keep this big distance between your head and your partner's chest in half guard bottom (example) which means you could get punched if this was MMA then your partner is NOT going to point that out to you. As far as they are concerned, your doing BJJ so they see nothing weird.

      Smart move hombre!

  3. Marshal
    I just happened to come across this article and its seems the timing is right. I just got a groupon to start training in BJJ more seriously but on the fence of its usefulness in the street coming from a boxing background. But your statement-use simple answer for simple problems hammered the point home. An untrained attacker will make the mistakes that basic techniques will handle rapidly. I can now enthusiastically have fun with my training (because fun is fun) and also know I will be able to handle myself better.
    Happy Holidays