Are you tired of feeling like you’re not making progress in your jiu jitsu training? Maybe you’ve found yourself at a place where you can no longer pull off moves and techniques that worked for you in the past, and need to adjust elements of your game. Or maybe you’re just always on the lookout for new ways to think about BJJ!

We believe that jiu jitsu is not just about repeating and drilling different techniques – it’s also about understanding the concepts and principles that make up the art. BJJ is extremely dynamic, so those who are best able to adapt to different rolling styles and body types will have a distinct edge over their training partners or opponents.

The Power of Concepts

When we learn jiu jitsu techniques, we often focus on memorizing a series of steps or movements. While this approach can be effective for some, it can be frustrating and overwhelming for others. By focusing on the underlying concepts behind the techniques, we can better understand why they work and when to apply them in different situations. This will allow you to create your own solutions and techniques, develop a personalized game and true understanding of why to choose one technique over another in any situation.

For example, instead of just learning the steps to a specific armbar from guard, we can focus on the concept of breaking our opponent’s posture and isolating their arm. This allows us to see the armbar as one possible application of that concept, rather than just a standalone technique. From a mounted position, we can point our focus to trapping an elbow across the center-line of their body with our chest or sternum to begin working towards the armbar. In side control, we can force, or take advantage of side-to-side movement to trap their shoulder with your knees and side-body, creating a wedge to isolate either the near or far-side arm.

By learning these concepts to begin attacking the armbar, not only will you be better in those 3 positions, but you will also see how those concepts apply in more unique situations. This means a much more dangerous armbar because you will be see elbows across the center-line, shoulders that can be isolated with wedges, or broken posture and out of position elbows in any given scenario. When you understand the fundamental concepts and why behind what you’re doing, you will naturally remember it better too.

Catering to Different Learning Styles

Not everyone learns the same way, and that’s okay. A conceptual approach to learning jiu jitsu allows us to cater to different learning styles and abilities. Some may struggle with physically executing a techniques like triangles, or berimbolos . Others may be able to perform the technique flawlessly, but struggle to apply it in different situations, or only in specific scenarios. Oftentimes, you’ll drill a move to perfection, and you can get it to work on nearly everyone, but within a week or two, everyone is wise to it and you have to rework your approach.

By focusing on concepts, we can adapt our teaching and learning to fit each individual student. We can also encourage problem solving and creativity, as students learn to apply concepts in new and unexpected ways. Understanding the concepts behind why techniques work will also help you troubleshoot why they stop working much faster. You will eventually begin to adjust to your opponents counters mid-roll, and this is when you’ll really see your progress grow exponentially.

What About Building Muscle Memory?

While we do think drilling techniques has its place, sometimes too much repetition can lead to predicable behaviors… And as Sun Tzu famously said, “all warfare is based on deception”. We want to be as fluid as possible in our movements, and some drilling might be required for that. However, we don’t want to do everything the exact same way every time. Jiu-jitsu is often compared to chess, and rightly so. In chess, we must move in response to what our opponent does. We can’t use the same set of moves to win every game because our opponent can react differently – the same applies to BJJ. Unless you’re using muscle memory in the correct situations, you won’t get the desired results. And oftentimes, a more experienced practitioner will learn how you instinctively move and take advantage of those reactions.

So what are some areas where drilling is useful?

  1. Learning how to shoot single or double legs (provided you have some set-up)
  2. Learning flying techniques or things that are too dangerous to attempt at full speed (like the flying scissor heel hook)
  3. Learning any techniques where you struggle to apply the mechanics

This still leaves a lot of room for drilling, and it’s not like you have to pick one or the other. We still suggest finding a BJJ instructor that you trust to learn from, and who is open to different styles. But one of the reasons we created this blog is because we think you can do a lot of learning off the mats just by thinking about BJJ concepts while drilling or rolling. You should also be asking yourself why the technique being shown works, what dilemmas and follow-ups you can create off of your opponent’s reactions, and how the opponent can nullify or shut down that technique.

Is Learning BJJ Conceptually Possible For Beginners?

Absolutely! Oftentimes, beginners feel overwhelmed. When you’re being told to put your shin here, and point your knee a certain way while holding these grips, and falling back at a certain angle, it can be a lot of information for someone to take in. Beginners are often told to keep their expectations low as the learning curve in BJJ is not forgiving, and it is true that the first months of any difficult sport will be the hardest. However, we don’t believe you have to be swimming in a sea of confusion with all this new terminology and trying to remember dozens of steps to execute a technique while sparring.

In BJJ, with infinite possibilities of what you can do and how your opponent can react, we believe it can dramatically help beginners to limit all those possibilities by creating contrived scenarios, where each player is given just a few simple tasks to focus on. Obviously, these “games” have to be well designed and appropriate to the level of the students in order for them to learn the intended lesson. One simple example that is great for beginners or first timers is this simple game from on open supine guard with a standing opponent:

  • The person in supine guard begins with their feet on the hips of their opponent. Their goal is to make connections to their opponent with their hands and feet (grabbing ankles, or creating hooks or posts with their feet). If they achieve this position, their goal is to just hold them there and not sweep.
  • The standing person’s goal is to disallow posts, hooks, or grips on their ankles, to stay balanced, and pass to the knee-line, but not farther than that. If they achieve the position, their goal is to hold them there as long as possible, and they must engage and cannot run away from the guard player.

This game is continuous, and it’s a really fun and low-risk way to learn about making connections with the hands and feet from guard, and how to strip those connections and begin passing from the top. It’s great as even a day-one white belt will immediately be forced to problem solve in a live resistance scenario, but much safer than live rolling. It’s also more fun and memorable than drilling, and you will retain the lessons from these games in a much deeper way because you are actually working out the solutions rather than being fed step that you don’t fully understand.

How Can I Apply BJJ Concepts in Training?

You might be wondering how to incorporate this into your training since most classes just consist of drilling techniques, some positional sparring, and the open mat afterwards. What’s great about the conceptual approach is that all it requires is a shift in your focus to begin seeing the benefits. One of the first things it will force you to learn is how to be intentional in your training. Oftentimes, our focus during rolling is too broad. We’re thinking about passing the guard, or getting the sweep, or finding a submission. Once you’ve acquired enough experience, this can be enough to accomplish your goal, but when we’re newer, or facing opponents with much more experience, you’ll find diminishing returns with this mindset.

For example, when facing a much more advanced opponent, I wouldn’t just try to pass their guard loosely and give them access to my legs, or give them my weight without cautiously fighting for grips and position first. In order to have any chance of success, I should narrow my focus to certain tasks depending on the position. For example, if they’re in a supine guard, I would try to just pin one of their feet to the floor and then gauge their response, and try to create some dilemmas:

  1. If they stay flat, then I can continue passing in that direction and smash their frames
  2. If they turn into me, maybe I can cut to the other side with a leg drag or threaten some leg locks if they over-extend their other leg. Then I could switch back to pass #1 if they defend by flattening back out

There are many ways I can approach this situation, and chances are that I will fail many times if I’m less experienced than my opponent, so it’s important to not get emotional upon failure and go back into autopilot mode. Instead, do your best to assess what went wrong with the first approach, and try to adjust it the next time you’re in that position. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but with enough practice you will learn to let go of your instincts and emotions, and this is when you’ll see your jiu-jitsu begin to dramatically improve!

The Journey of Learning

Learning jiu jitsu is a journey, not a destination. By embracing a conceptual approach, we can make that journey more fulfilling and rewarding. We can also help students to see the bigger picture, beyond just individual techniques and moves.

At BJJ for Nerds, we offer free advice and resources for those looking to learn BJJ through a more conceptual approach. We believe that anyone can improve their jiu jitsu game by focusing on the underlying principles and concepts of the art. If you have any concepts you’d like us to review, questions about this learning strategy, or questions you’d like cleared up, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send us a message!

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