Beyond Moves

As I posted recently, I’ve been trying to focus on getting better at one thing, arm bars in my case. After doing this for two months I noticed something, I have only pulled off one arm bar from guard. I’m getting better at attacking arms from side control and mount, but whenever I seemed to try one from closed guard the other guy always seemed to escape.  Last week I worked with someone and they pointed out that I rarely get caught in an arm bar from guard, and I’m just a white belt.  He helped me see I needed to be trickier in setting them up. Nobody was going to just walk into my arm bar unless maybe it was their first time sparring. That gave me something to think about and try to work on.

Still, I was a little disappointed, I believe that the arm bar from guard is the first attack that I learned. It’s a basic attack, by that, I mean it’s foundational. My mindset is that I’d prefer to be awesome at arm bars and lapel chokes even if it means I never get awesome at a brataplata. To me, there is power and elegance in simplicity.

Then last night, I was at open mat. There’s usually a lot of rolling, although over the past 2 weeks I’ve tried to dedicate some time to work on something that I need to get better at and not just spend 2 hours of rolling.  Thankfully, one of our instructors, AC, was there with a few minutes to kill between his private lessons. He came over and asked me what I wanted to work on, so I told him that I’m having a terrible time with arm bars from guard. He got in my guard and had me do an arm bar.  Then in about 5-10 seconds, he diagnosed a major problem with my arm bar. It basically boiled down to me giving way to much space to my partner or opponent.  He showed me how to make some changes to my set up and execution. For example, he had me change my grips, and how I brought my feet around. But even more important to me, was his explanation. He could have just said “You’re doing your arm bar wrong. Here are the 7 steps you should be doing.”  That didn’t happen, though. Instead, he showed me what boiled down to 7 steps, but talked much more about the reason for each step.

The teaching session was about 1 round on the timer. But in that period, he had me get in his guard and demonstrate a better way at doing the arm bar. Then he backed up and showed me how I was doing the arm bar. He let me feel the difference between them. He talked more about principles than movements. Don’t get me wrong, he showed me specific movements such as pinch tight here, move your left foot here etc.

Up until this point I’ve really thought about BJJ in mechanical terms. My mind went through a checklist like this:

  • Get a grip on his arm
  • Move his arm across my center line
  • Put a foot on his hip to trap his shoulder
  • Kick with the other foot to off balance him
  • Swing the foot from his hip to across his face
  • Extend my hips until he taps

That has helped me, to think in those steps. But now I’ve experienced first hand the difference between learning steps and learning philosophy or the thought process of a move. Now, I’m not so bold as to say that is the only way I’ll learn from now on. I know beyond a shadow of doubt that I’ll still be learning by steps for quite a while. However, I now have a goal for how I learn, I want to get to the point where I can start diagnosing problems with my game by noticing what I’m doing wrong (e.g. leaving space) and not just going over a check list in my head.

It’s a lot like learning a language. You can sit down and learn 100’s or 1000’s of vocabulary words. But if you stop there, all you’ll be doing is speaking your native language using foreign words. For example, I could speak Spanglish, using Spanish words in an English sentence structure.  That will get you started, but if you really want to be able to speak another language, you have to understand the language and begin to think in that language.

I realize now, that the higher belts think in BJJ.