BJJ / Grappling tips: depth vs breadth of game. Should I focus on technical details or learning more techniques and counters?

How can you defeat your opponent's defences? Are you struggling to make your jiu jitsu submissions work? Do you find yourself attempting submissions but struggling to finish with them?

The reason I lead with these questions is because I have the privilege of teaching jiu jitsu (2 BJJ Fundamentals classes per week, weekly private sessions and 4-5 Intro-to-Grappling courses per year) and when jiu jitsu students and grapplers attempt a move for the first time against resistance, it is not unheard of that they come across an obstacle they can't figure out. It's only natural that the first time you (or I or anyone) attempt a BJJ submission against a resisting opponent that we forget a small make-it-or-break-it detail and they defend successfully. Sometimes, we do everything correctly but we do it at the wrong time and that gives our training partner the perfect opportunity to block our attack. When that happens, we can do a number of things:

1. Learn a counter to the counter: e.g. I go for an americana from mount but accidently leave enough space for their free arm to slide between us and support the arm that's under attack so I spin to S-mount for an armbar on it

2. Learn a defence to the counter: e.g. I go for a kimura from side control / head mount and they grip their belt so I use a grip break to release their hand and carry on with the original attack (the kimura)

Check out this example by none other than Mr Craig Kukuk (to my knowledge the first American to get a BJJ Black Belt)

3. Learn from my mistake and make sure I have a way to prevent it happening again: I go for a cross choke from guard but my first forearm was not flush against their chest so they managed to sneak a hand under it to defend the neck. I acknowledge that and ensure I do it properly next time (i.e. keep the forearm flush against their chest, control that wrist or at least attack with a sweep so they are forced to use that hand to post)

I'm sure I'm leaving some more options out but you get the point. Every action has a number of potential reactions.

Which answer is the correct answer? Well, let's investigate what would happen if we took each option further:

1. This means I would quickly develop a broad game. By learning many techniques that flow smoothly from each other my options will grow and, if done well, it will feel like my opponent is drowning in quicksand. A typical "from the frying pan into the fire" approach. The drawback is that this could mean losing site of the fundamentals and keep thinking about the "next move" and get sucked into the same quicksand ourselves. Jack of all subs, master of none!

2. This means we acquire a new nickname: The "Resistance is Futile" dude/dudette. It helps us develop a nice, persistent and narrow BJJ / grappling game with a bunch of cheat codes that always bring us back to wear we want to be. The drawback is people figure our game out relatively easily and start coming up with innovative counters or, much worse, ways to prevent us from stating the attack in the first place. If you, for example, become good at guard attacks and you can block all your opponents’ defensive manoeuvres from the guard then, sooner or later, people will start pulling guard on you first!

3. This makes you awesome. By definition, this route (learning from mistakes and avoiding repeating them) is the way to perfection. Surely, nothing else is needed? All I need is to learn a few techniques and then learn from my mistakes along the way and make sure I don't make these mistakes and sooner or later my jiu jitsu will be perfect. It might take time, but it should happen. No? Well, one of the most important lessons I ever learnt from Buddhism is that no matter how much you try and how many precautions you may take and no matter how you align all the stars, shit happens. No matter how good you become, you will never become perfect. In jiu jitsu, and in life, Murphy's law will be true: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

So what's the answer? My humble opinion is that we need all the above and more, but we need to apply it against a timeline of our jiu jitsu journey:

A, Techniques: When starting out in BJJ / Grappling (or any complex skill) learn and focus on learning the fundamentals well. Learn how escape and maintain positions and how control (postures and pressures) can lead to attacks opportunities (possibilities). Aim to get really REALLY good at a few essential skills and to learn how your body works and interacts with that of your opponent. In a nutshell, develop your awareness.

B, Combinations: After a few years of jiu jitsu, not only will your jiu jitsu be of a higher calibre but so will the jiu jitsu of your peers. As an advanced BJJ blue belt, there will be players at your academy whom you can dominate with your techniques which, logically, didn't happen much when you first started* but you will also find that your peers (who know a similar amount of good jiu jitsu) will start anticipating your sharp, albeit narrow, game and start defending and countering. Keeping one eye on technical refinement**, start exploring the ins and outs of the beautiful art and science of counters and counter-defences. Work slowly to widen your game and flesh it out, but do not stray too far from the solid fundamentals of grappling and do show the same dedication to detail when learning these new tactics.

C, Efficiency: Further still down the line, closer to the brown / black belt zone, bring your focus back to refinement. This is what Roy Dean talks about in his awesome volume "The Brown Belt Requirements": The goal is no longer effectiveness but rather efficiency. You have learned how to do it, so focus now on doing it even more efficiently. This near obsessive attention to finer details will mean needing those counters and counters to the counters even less. Matt Thornton once said: "If you become fantastic at mount escapes, you have to start wondering why you are ending up mounted so often!"***

And the beautiful thing? It all starts again! The learning journey is cyclical by nature**** so always enjoy the process.

*unless you were a grappler already (a good wrestler, judoka or sambo-fighter)
**this is a lifelong journey
***Sorry if this is a misquote, Matt. It's to the best of my memory :)
****I’m talking here about the “focus” for each phase so even white belts will sometimes be taught counters and even black belts will sometimes learn brand new techniques


Liam "The Part Time Grappler" Wandi

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