The ten commandments of BJJ

Elina Moestam, Mark Lindblad, Marius Zaromskis and myself
Elina Moestam, Mark Lindblad, Marius Zaromskis and myself

I posted my personal "BJJ commandments" in a special interest group on LinkedIn and asked members to add their own advice. The reaction was amazing. I actually wanted to focus the advice on rolling. However, there were also quite a few reactions that referred to other aspects. In this article I will try to give all these contributions some shape.

First published: 26/01/2021 | Last update: 04/02/2021

Most of the tips, rules and advices fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Technique
  • Strategy
  • Behaviour on and off the mats
  • Learning/training

Nathan Alva pointed me to the Four Golden Rules of BJJ by Chris Haueter. I love this guy and the way he teaches, or rather prays jiu-jitsu. I had come across these rules before in one of Chris' videos on youtube but wasn't aware that they were so wide-spread and generally accepted. Here they are:

  1. Be the person on top
  2. When on top, stay on top
  3. When on bottom, have an unpassable guard
  4. Never forget rule one. (Avoid the seduction of bottom guard)

Especially at the beginning and as an answer to a lack of decent takedowns white belts are very abusive when it comes to pulling guard. It is ok to start directly from the bottom if you want to practice a specific position during rolling. But if you start in a standing position you should go for a takedown. Or I should rather say your takedown. Takedowns require a lot of practice and dedication, so you should pick the takedown you feel most comfortable with and practice it until you get good at it. Later you will have to take care of having some alternatives grouped around this "favourite move". BTW, some takedowns, when they go wrong can still be turned into a guard-pull on the fly as a last resort. This is a far better option than just pulling guard. The rest is pretty self-explaining

Patrik W. Deile made a couple of good points:

  • Survive
  • Be comfortable in the uncomfortable

Many martial arts and self defense programs tell you "how to end a fight in three seconds", "how to win any fight" or similar stuff. The focus is on defeating the opponent. However, HOWEVER, in order to win you will need to survive. Sounds logic? obviously not. Countless whitebelts that run into a baseball choke while they go to mount, give their back trying to apply a kimura or americana while they are mounted or tap just because they panic while in an uncomfortable situation tell a different story. Learning how to breathe while somebody else puts a ton of pressure on your upper body is more important than any submission. Learning how to protect your arms and neck is vital - literally. But apart from all the technical aspects there is the mental part. You need to learn to resist. It is good to tap if you get caught in a submission. But you must learn to withstand the temptation to tap because you are uncomfortable.

"Space is the friend of the guy who defends." This one came from Anthony Davis and is worth a special mention. Most beginners struggle to understand concepts which is normal because in order to make sense out of them you first need to have a bit of rolling experience. And this one is a good example. Let's see if I can give a comprehensive explanation:

Being in a defensive position means that your opponent controls what you can do. If your opponent is on top, you will need to move to get out of there. In order to move, you need space. If there is no space, there is nothing you can move to. The attacker will try to shut down your escapes by preventing you from moving. The only way to do this is to remove the space you can move to. Imagine you are flat on bottom, maybe in half guard and your left arm is somewhere outside. In order to apply some force on your opponent, may be to push him upwards to get under his center of gravity, you will need to get your left arm inwards, right between you and his chest. However, you need space, i.e. a hole somewhere, through which you can move your left arm from the outside to the inside. In BJJ or any other modern form of grappling the attacker will try not to leave any space so you must learn to create space - gaps between you and your opponent which you can use to make your moves. Got it?

Indira Salcede pointed out the importance of frames and posture. These are two basic concepts every whitebelt should understand before he/she gets his/her second stripe. Frames are basically structures made of elbows, knees with the corresponding lower leg and lower arm. They take up all the pressure that otherwise would got straight into your body. They also help keeping space open. Posture basically means keeping your spine lined up in a good anatomic position. With a good posture you can apply and resist a lot mor force than with a "broken" posture.

Another brillant advice came from Christopher M Erion

Though shall keep thy hips low and weight on the toes

There are some good reasons why you should do this:

  • Sticking your bum high up in the air does not look sexy,
  • Your center of gravity is lower when your hips are low,
  • You can put a lot more pressure when your body is straightened up and you stand on your toes, especially when you are having side control.
  • You usually leave much less space.

Amongst the commandments posted by Simon Morton a special mention deserves

"Do Escape before the sub is locked in"

Yet another obvious one it seems, but in fact this is one of the things many jiu-jitseiros (including myself) struggle with. Ok, let's start with the easiest part: One of the first thing that you are taught as a whitebelt is not to attack when you are in somebody's guard. You are told to get out of there. And because this can be especially difficult you drill it (hopefully). So every whitebelt with the first stripe on his belt will do everything to disengage. However, we all tend to forget, that you always have this option, no matter in which position you are, unless it's too late, your sparring partner has full control and the sub is locked in. You are in bottom half guard and you are not comfortable in that position - just get up. The technical stand-up is one of the first thing you learn for a reason.

And here is the one I most liked:

"If you don’t know what you’re doing, then doing it harder is not the answer."

by Matt Peters. Well there is little more to add.

The advice given by Patrick Gray "Angles makes strangles" makes a nice match with the previous one. And the angle is not only important for chokes. Instead of throwing all your weight and momentum into a sweep just to find out it still does not work, make sure you understand what you are doing and get to the right angle.

Before I get to the reworked and updated commandments here are some advices that I did not include for some reason but that are still worth mentioning

Mat rules

These refer to behaviour on the mat and should be tought at latest when people start rolling, which, in some schools, is the very first day:

  • Tap early
  • Be humble
  • Take care of your partner

Rules that depend on circumstances

Some important advices will depend on the circumstances

  • Do not be flat on the ground: In almost all positions this almost always applies. In fact, passing half guard usually implies getting your partner flattened out on the ground. Even in positions where the average Joe will play from his back flat like spider guard, those people who get good at it will spend most of their time tilt towards one side. However, there are specific situations, where you want to be flat. May be not permanently, maybe only to momentarily increase friction to prevent a toreando pass or when you get a lockdown on your opponents leg and you want to whip him forward to get deep under his center of gravity.

  • Keep your grips. Most beginners tend to release their grips way too early and way too often. However, if you tell them to keep their grips they will keep them even when they have become useless. In my opinion one of the most difficult things in the beginning is to know when to keep them and when to release them. So, telling beginners just to keep their grips can be really counterproductive.

Here goes the re-worked and updated list of commandments:

  • Keep your elbows tight to your body.
  • Do not give your back.
  • Protect your neck.
  • Do not waste energy.
  • Relax and breathe.
  • My (good) grips or no grips.
  • Move your hips.
  • Position before submission.
  • Use your weight.
  • Either both hands in or both hands out.