Many practitioners, especially beginners but even advanced players, often face the issue of “blackout” during BJJ sparring. After a roll they struggle to recall the details, only remembering that they were submitted or got pinned in some way. While this is common in the early stages, learning how to be intentional in BJJ will help you overcome this challenge. Developing the ability to stay focused and make clear-headed decisions amidst the chaos of a roll leads to tremendous growth and progress. This article explores the benefits of intentional BJJ training, outlines prerequisites for such training, and offers ideas to cultivate intentionality in your practice.

Benefits of Training BJJ with Intention

It is usually upon reaching purple belt when coaches advise their students to train with intention in every roll. This advice is well-founded but training with intention isn’t limited to advanced practitioners; it holds significant value for beginners as well. Embracing intentionality in your approach to BJJ enhances your learning curve, sharpens problem-solving abilities, and fosters a strategic mindset.

Read on to learn more about how to be intentional in your BJJ practice…

Prerequisites to Being Intentional in BJJ

To embark on intentional training, establishing well-defined sparring goals is essential. In the initial months of training, being intentional may prove challenging as you’re still unfamiliar with the intricacies of jiu-jitsu. Questions like what a guard pass leads to or how to initiate control for a guard pass may arise, requiring answers. So if that’s you, here’s a quick overview to get you started:

Guard position

In the guard position, your primary goal is to off-balance your opponent either by knocking them to the side, back, or pulling them forward. Actions such as a shin-to-shin off balance or a butterfly sweep attempt can lightens your opponents legs or compels them to post their arms and the mats, enabling you to trap or isolate their limbs effectively. Capitalizing on these off-balances allows you to threaten submissions or generate enough leverage to execute a sweep and come out on top. Just remember to try and chain moves so that you have a strong follow-up to your off balances.

Pinned (underneath mount or side control)

When you’re underneath side control or mount your goal is to create space and insert frames strategically to create more distance between you and your opponent. Use your hips to execute subtle bumps or off-balances to help you create room for the proper frames. While sweeping your opponent into a bottom position from side control or mount is occasionally feasible, avoid expending excessive energy during bumping attempts from pinned positions. When you’re new it’s easier to get caught in arm bars and triangles when attempting to sweep from bottom of mount/side. Instead, focus on using precise force to achieve your goal and direct your attention to the opportunities that arise after the bump, rather than solely on the bump itself. For example, if your bump from the bottom of side makes your partner shift significantly, you can use the space to get ride of their cross face, get to your hip and recover your guard by placing your partner in your closed guard.

Top position (stuck in guard)

When you find yourself on top and trapped in a guard position where you’re under attack (e.g., closed guard, rubber guard, half guard), your primary objective is to regain posture and alignment. To achieve this, focus on disconnecting your opponent’s grips and connections to you while maintaining pressure to keep them pinned down. Gradually work your way around their legs to open up new passing opportunities, or if needed, disengage completely and start a fresh pass attempt. Do not get stuck hugging someone when you’re stuck in the closed guard–you are helping your opponent out by breaking your own posture. Try pinning and arm to their own belly so that you can start standing up without them hooking your leg right away.

Pinning (on top of mount, side control)

This position offers a straightforward approach. Maintain the pinning pressure while being vigilant for potential transitions to the back if your opponent attempts to turn into or away from you forcefully. Additionally, keep an eye out for opportunities to isolate their limbs, allowing you to capitalize on submissions such as kimuras and armbars. Developing your ability to take the back will also prove beneficial in these situations. As a beginner, reaching these positions is a positive sign that you’re progressing in the right direction! Don’t get tunnel vision and lose the position by diving for an arm bar without taking your time to first set it up and making sure your opponent stays pinned.

Cultivating Intentional BJJ – Letting Go of Your Ego

A crucial step to becoming more intentional is to detach from caring about the immediate outcomes of your rolls. It’s common that when training with the intention of improvement, there might be a temporary dip in overall effectiveness. This means you might get passed, submitted, and fail more. This phase is entirely normal and to be expected so don’t be discouraged. Plus, at the end of the day who cares if you got tapped out x amount of times? Unless you are at a tournament or in a real life scenario you shouldn’t dwell on the taps.

As a black belt, it’s often easier to control and submit athletic white belts with 6+ months of experience, or even new blue belts, than it is to control and submit those with 1-3 months of experience. The reason lies in the difference in their approach to the art. Those with some BJJ experience might be using techniques that are familiar and more predictable whereas fresh white belts may rely solely on their survival instincts and strength.

As a practitioner gains more experience and embraces intentionality, they begin relying less on sheer power and more on refined jiu-jitsu techniques. This makes it increasingly challenging for others to overcome them, resulting in faster progress over weeks or months. Conversely, if someone approaches training with a competitive mindset every time, their progress might take much longer to reach a similar level of advancement due to their reliance on cardio and strength.

Strategies for Becoming Intentional in BJJ

This section presents practical ideas to help you be intentional in BJJ, such as engaging in positional sparring “games” that emphasize task focus and constraints. Additionally, we explore the concept of adding handicaps to your training, which can force you to problem-solve, relax, and approach the sport with greater intention.

Positional Sparring Games

  1. Starting with an Extended Armbar: This is a really fun game (albeit a little scary sounding) that teaches you how to maintain positional control from the armbar position. The idea is that you start with a fully extended armbar, but the catch is that you aren’t allowed to submit your opponent with an armbar. Your primary goal is to maintain control with your legs and hands and allow your partner to attempt to escape. Once your opponent begins escaping the goal transitions to finding ways to follow-up with new submissions and/or other dominant positions in order to stay on the offense with strong control. I believe it is called the “no break arm bar” game at B Team.
  2. Supine Guard Passing Game: This game is a very effective way to teach beginners how to grip fight and how to start thinking about passing. The bottom player starts out in a supine guard (laying on their back) with their feet on the hips of their standing opponent. In this game, neither player are allowed to pass or sweep, they simply need to maintain positional control. The bottom player must stay in a supine guard, and can only use their feet to hook behind the opponent’s legs, or post on their hips/thighs, and they can only use their hands to grab their opponent’s legs/ankles. The goal for the bottom player is to get both hooks or foot-posts and both hands gripping the ankles. The top player’s goal is to disallow any hooks or posts, and pass the line of the knee (not fully passing the hips). This game is continuous and creates a scenario where neither player can truly become stuck. It teaches grip-fighting and what to focus on in order to recover guard or disentangling oneself from a guard while simultaneously showing the top player how to undo grips and disingage in a way where they still have grips in order to segue into a pass. Thanks to Standard Jiu Jitsu for the idea for this game.
  3. Pinned Half-Guard Game: In this game, we can learn how to begin creating dilemmas from the bottom in order to escape from a pinned half-guard position. We start in half-guard with a tight head and arm control (or any other variation of a pinned half-guard). The top player’s goal is to continue pinning and the bottom player’s goal is to off-balance, insert frames, and recover into a closed guard (or sweep). If you are more advanced, you can add passing to the list of goals for the top player. This game shows beginners the importance of creating space in order to create follow up frames while also showing the top person the importance of molding with the bottom player instead of stubbornly trying to hold the exact same pin.

You can (and should) create your own games that are tailored to your weaknesses. Always find your back getting taken? Create a game where you must escape side control or mount by exposing your back, or start your rounds in the turtle position. Force yourself to work from positions where you often fail and analyze what you’re doing or what they’re doing in order to reverse engineer a solution and continue sharpening your game. Laura actually just created a really fun BJJ version of “Ninja” where both players start in 50/50 with the goal of a leg lock submission (she is trying to sharpen her leg lock game). We’re still working out the details in order to post better instructions but so far it’s been fun!

Handicaps and Injuries

Handicaps can be immensely valuable in developing a purposeful and intentional BJJ game. Often, these challenges arise from injuries or the natural process of aging, and sometimes they compel us to adapt our strategies and preferred techniques. Although facing injuries or aging can be far from enjoyable, the period of returning to “normal” rolling while still nursing the injury can significantly advance your jiu-jitsu progression— when done right. You see, unfortunately, a common pitfall is reverting to our regular game too quickly after an injury, which often exacerbates the issue. So to ensure safety and progress, maintaining a task-focused mindset becomes crucial during this phase; enhancing your ability to concentrate on the intricacies of your jiu-jitsu practice is a requirement if you’re going to still roll with an injury, otherwise you risk worsening it.

A favorite method for both myself and Laura involves rolling while holding a ball (or a rolled-up pair of socks in her case), effectively preventing us from using the occupied hand for gripping. Besides aiding finger/hand injuries, this approach cultivates essential skills, such as mastering frames, hooks, distance control, heightened awareness, and honing creative problem-solving abilities. Embracing handicaps can also include avoiding your best techniques when rolling with lower belts or smaller partners and purposefully matching the physical attributes of who you’re training with. We have also trained with our arm tucked into our bjj belt (this helps you get good at focusing on not getting swept where you cannot post), and by being disciplined with body parts that are “off limits.” For example, if Laura has a bad left knee, I will not do any leg locks on that leg and find creative ways to pass and pin without touching her left leg entirely. This forces me to find new routes that do not involve my partner’s injury. The individual does not have to be injured by the way. You can always handicap yourself by staying away from a certain body part or section if you are trying to form new roues that don’t rely on the same paths you always take!

By proactively embracing handicaps in your BJJ journey, whether through injury-inspired adaptations or voluntary exercises, you can unlock new dimensions of growth and refine your techniques with a renewed sense of focus and purpose. Ultimately, handicaps serve as valuable tools, propelling your development as a well-rounded and adaptable jiu-jitsu practitioner.


Becoming intentional in your BJJ journey transforms your growth and mastery. Stay focused, make deliberate decisions, and train with purpose to unlock new proficiency levels. The ultimate goal is refining your ability to focus on any given task in jiu-jitsu. Intentionality benefits practitioners of all levels, not just advanced ones. Step onto the mats with clarity, purpose, and intention and stop caring about the damn taps!

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