Developing your guard to the next level

Playing guard for a beginning student isn’t easy.

In fact, starting a new activity or study comes with a lot of trial and error. In Jiu Jitsu, that means a lot of tapping.

From Giving feedback:

Getting feedback from training partners and instructors is an important aspect in the life of a martial artist. Feedback is how we correct holes in our games. Feedback is how we help our training partners get better. Feedback keeps us honest and humble.

I think that’s why it’s important to study instructors and competitors at high levels of mastery.

Study how it seems like they know all the possible outcomes that can occur from their guard(s).

All of the defenses.

All of the attacks.

Developing a good guard yourself is a challenging task.
Throughout your entire life, whether that included other sporting activities or just sitting at a desk studying. The movements of Jiu Jitsu on the ground are strange and foreign.

Getting down the basic movements like shrimping, rolling, and bridging will keep you preoccupied for a few months (or years).

In the beginning, you will get passed a lot. There’s just no other way. You don’t have the coordination or the experience yet.

So many beginners and intermediate students become afraid of playing on bottom.

They become afraid of having their guard passed and being crushed or being put into an even worse position.

Guard Development

Guard development usually begins in earnest at the blue belt level but I’m starting to witness more and more people putting off developing their guards until higher belt levels. Much to their own disservice. And it’s this observation that I want to focus on in this post.

I’ve been there before as well.

When I was a blue belt I didn’t have a guard. I was okay on top. Tough and athletic.

But if I was on bottom. It was only a matter of time before a decent passer would slide through my guard like a hot knife through butter.

My solution at the time?

I couldn’t get my guard passed if I turtled.

And this strategy worked for a while. At least until I went up against someone with really good back control or someone bigger that could stop me from rolling to turtle.

So I didn’t really solve my problem of not having a guard. I just kept putting it off.

Listen.

No matter how good you are on top. If you don’t have a comparatively good bottom guard. You will never be able to tap into your true potential.

It’s not a coincidence that the best guard passers in the world also have great guards.

Leandro Lo

Rafa Mendes

Lucas Lepri

Having confidence in your guard makes your passing that much better. You can commit 100% of your focus on passing and if your opponent manages to sweep you. It’s okay.

But if you don’t have that duality.

Being good on top and bottom. Then the fear of being swept or just the fear of playing on bottom will always be in that back of your head and it will cause you to hesitate. Especially when you go up against a tough guard player.

There is no right or wrong here, but I believe that if you want to be good at Jiu Jitsu. Whether or not that includes competing. You will need to develop a workable guard and the earlier you start to build that foundation up, the better off you will be in the long run.

It’s better to put in the ground work now (at lower belts) than to have to address your guard game at a higher belt. Because at that point you will be far behind your peers.

Body type

Your body type will play a major role in your guard development.

Your body type won’t limit the guard(s) you will play but it will determine which guards you will be able to do easily.

Much like an IQ test.

Your body type represents your potential to play certain guards and not your actual success in playing those guards.

EX. Short guys that play spider guards or tall guys that play butterfly.

A useful guide is to find a competitor, higher belt, or an instructor with the same or similar body type as you and study their game. Then try to add elements of their style to your own game.

Flexibility

Flexibility is an often overlooked factor in the development of a guard. A common misconception is that you have to be flexible to play guard.

While this is not the case. Being flexible does make playing guard easier.

With flexibility, you will be able to get into the right positions faster and have more strength in those positions.

Even if you’re not naturally flexible you can work on it and after a few sessions it will payoff.

Constant Study

This is more for advanced guard players.

Jiu Jitsu is constantly evolving so you will need to keep updating your toolset/guard game.

If you get to the point where the majority of your training partners cannot pass your guard. Then that is a sign that you need to start developing the other aspects of your guard.

If you have a great half guard. Maybe try working on closed guard or an open guard.

But if you find that everyone you roll with gives you a hard time when you play on bottom or everyone passes your guard. Then you will need to invest more time and effort in studying the bottom game.

Studying can mean watching competition footage of really good guard players.

Studying could be taking a private lesson.

Studying could be meeting a few times a week with a partner to positional spar.

Whatever the case, Jiu Jitsu is very democratic. You get back what you put into it.

Mindful Practice

If you want to develop an effective guard you’re going to have to put in the work.

Even if you have the best instructors and training partners in the world, and access to private lessons and online tools.

That can only take you so far.

Eventually, there will come a time when your instructor will no longer have to hold your hands through techniques and instead become more of a motivator and mentor.

When that time comes, it will be up to you to take charge of your training.

You will have to take the initiative in learning new positions.

You will have to decide what techniques you will need to improve upon.

You will have to push yourself in creating a game unique to yourself.

Very much like a role playing game (rpg), the more time and energy that you invest in your Jiu Jitsu the quicker you will be able to level up and learn other skills.

Developing your own guard game

The ultimate expression of Jiu Jitsu is the creation of your own style.

Only you will be able to master your unique body type.

From my own personal experience. I was only able start developing my own guard game when I acknowledge that my guard was a weakness of mine. Then I had to make the conscious decision to actively work on it.

Even if it meant starting on bottom or pulling guard.

Of course, I got my guard passed a lot.

But I was able to work my side mount escapes and my guard recomposing. Eventually being able to hold better guard positions and advance from there.

Build better relationships with your students

You work really hard to build your martial arts academy.

Finding the right location.

Training staff.

Teaching classes.

Marketing your programs.

It’s a lot of work. Especially in the beginning when you might have to fill in for a lot of roles.

From my own personal experience I’ve had the opportunity to be the janitor, the instructor, lead salesperson, staff manager, social media specialist, and much more.

Especially, in the beginning when you might be a one man show. Hopefully, adding more and more students to your program(s).

However, many academy owners put so much time and effort in trying to grow their academies by adding more students that they often forget about maintaining one of their biggest resources and best assets.

Their current, and loyal membership base.

Student retention

Many instructors think that by adding more students. All their financial worries will be met. To a degree, they are correct.

Your business does need students to survive. And a steady number of new prospects is a sign of a healthy academy.

But it costs a lot of time, energy, and money to find those new prospects and convert them into paying members. This is where I see a lot of academies fall short. When you need a constant influx of new students in order to replace the members that you lose each month or year. Then there is problem somewhere within your business model.

Much like an unseen hole on a boat at sea. If the problem persist then the boat might take on too much water and sink.

If your business is at risk. Don’t be a bystander or a victim. Look for solutions that will help keep your boat afloat and eventually sailing the high seas.

There’s no quick fix or hack that will increase your retention overnight. Each academy is a unique business with it’s own set of challenges.

But there are a few commonalities that I’ve found with academies that have great student retention from the rest.
Retention building factors

1 Setting Boundaries

There is a time and place for you to communicate with your students or the staff.

I was originally going to start off with communication, but in retrospect, setting healthy boundaries between yourself as an instructor and your students is what will support all the other factors in determining your student retention.

How can setting boundaries possibly help you retain more students you’re wondering?

Well, setting boundaries is the foundation of every relationship. Even the relationship between students and instructors.

By having clearly defined boundaries it will allow you to be more effective in communicating with your students, and both parties will feel more positive about the experience.

Boundaries like not dating students.

This one should be self explanatory. Don’t date your students. It almost always leads to drama and is not good for business.

Boundaries like not taking part in vices (in the presence of your students at least).

This should be self explanatory too but your interactions with students should lean more towards appropriate and safe and less toward inappropriate and dangerous.

Boundaries like having specific times and days in which your students have you full and undivided attention.

It’s easy to believe that you will have unlimited time and energy with which to teach multiple classes per day, coach, lesson plan, teach private lessons, train, and mentor.

But the reality of it is far different.

I know outside looking in it seems like an easy profession being able to train and roll all day.

But when you teach for a living, especially in the beginning when you’re always at your academy. It’s not productive for you to always be at the beck and call of your students. No matter how much you want to be.

I’m not saying that you should ignore your students but you should have a system in place for yourself and your students.

I’m really big on email and messenger whenever students have questions. Since it’s easier for me to communicate that way and I have time to think before saying something stupid.

While other instructors might set aside time either before or after class specifically to interact with students.

From Impressionable students

Having the title of instructor or even being a senior student will indubitably have an effect on the character, development, and behavior of lower belt students. While having this influence can be alluring, it also comes with shouldering a lot of responsibility. Students will constantly be looking at you to set a good example both on and off of the mats. When my school first brought a well-known competitor to teach at our academy, most students only trained 3-4 times a week, even during tournament season. Our world champion instructor started training with us 5-6 times a week, often twice a day. As students, we learned very quickly that if we wanted to reach the next level and win at major tournaments like our instructor, we would also need to dedicate more time and effort to our training.

As an instructor, your views and actions have a lot of influence over your students. So in order for your students to respect your boundaries it’s important that you are worthy of that respect.

I think this is one reason why many instructors are very disciplined. Eat healthy, train hard, and are respectful on and off the mats.
It’s very much a do as I do type of philosophy.

2 Communication

Experts always talk about communication being the key to successful relationships and at the risk of sounding cliche. I believe this is true.

How do you communicate with your students?

I don’t believe that a lot of instructors/academy owners really think about the ways in which they communicate with their students and whether or not it’s constructive communication.

It’s easy as an instructor to get so used to the hierarchy that is built in to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

You bow to your instructors.

You line up behind the more senior students.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I believe that it does instill a sense of discipline and accountability that is missing in a lot of social interactions.

But it can be taken too far, especially when off of the mats and outside of the academy.

I’ve seen many instructors abuse the authority that they had by taking advantage of their students in asking for one sided favors, getting free or below cost labor, not treating students with respect, and talking down to students because they weren’t as good at Jiu Jitsu.

This isn’t conducive to creating an environment of open communication and instead breeds more blind compliance and yes man(ing) that is more characteristic of a cult than a martial arts academy.

Equal Ground

Constructive, open communication comes from a level playing field.

In hierarchies, it’s really hard to voice one’s opinion when you’ve only been taught to defer to the more experienced, higher ranking party.

As an instructor you have to create an environment in which your students have a proper outlet in order to communicate with you. One where you are not your rank but a fellow person taking part in a fun and interactive activity.

Prescriptive

One thing that I like to do whenever I teach is to set aside time right before the end of my classes. Where I invite all of the students to ask me any questions they may have. Whether it concerns any of the moves that I covered or any general Jiu Jitsu questions.

It doesn’t take much time but you will be surprised by how many questions that arise during a class or even after a hard training session.

Instructors get so caught up in their classes and trying to stay within the allotted time slot or covering a certain amount of techniques that they often hurry from one thing to the next. Until, the class is over and they have to move on to another class or they become too exhausted or busy to give the student(s) their full attention.

I know that I’ve been guilty of this. That’s why if I’m really busy or short on energy. I will suggest that a student hit me up through other means of communication when I can devote more time to them.

Being the instructor, you have to lead the way by creating (multiple) opportunities for your students to interact with you. Show your students that they can come to you, and that you’re willing to hear them out and help them out.

3 Keep bringing value

Complacency in relationships is a big problem.

When you become complacent in running your academy the same way that you’ve always ran it. You open yourself up to stagnation.

Bring value to your programs by continually updating techniques and movements.

You would be surprised by the number of academies that still show how to pass on the knees and other outdated movements that have been improved upon by modern Jiu Jitsu.

Bring value by adding classes and programs that your students want.

If your students have been pushing for a conditioning class or more no gi classes. Instead of sticking to your current schedule. Try to fit in the new class(es) even on a trial basis and see how it does. Worst case scenario, the class doesn’t do well so you move back to the regular schedule.

Revamping your curriculum is an easy, low investment way to bring new energy into your academy. Making students want to attend. Happy to attend in fact. That’s what retention is all about.

Bring value to your academy by adding small touches and amenities like changing the color scheme, adding new furniture to your reception area, free wifi, or newer mats. Even small changes will be well received.

There is no limit to what you can do. Just by showing that you are willing to continue improving your academy you demonstrate to your students that you value their support and they will reward you in turn with their loyalty.

4 Motivate

Motivate your students.

It’s as simple as that. When they’re doing well and making progress help them to reach new levels in their techniques, conditioning, etc.

When they are feeling burned out and don’t think that they’re improving. Motivate them to continue training and help them get through those tough times.

Some of the most successful academies aren’t successful just because of the techniques that they show, or because they have a really good instructor or even top notch facilities. They’re successful because the environment of the school helped pushed the students, no matter their level or ability, to reach their goals.

5 Keep it fun

Don’t take yourself nor your position too seriously.

At the end of the day, Jiu Jitsu should be fun and students should look forward to attending classes and training with their friends.

An easy way to build fun is by doing activities outside of the academy with your students. Going out to eat, movies, and other types of events.

6 Positive environment

Having a fun and positive environment is what keeps students training.

Many people see Jiu Jitsu and academies as an oasis from the burden of everyday life. One that often involves long hours at work and busy family lives.

Make the environment at your academy one that students will look forward to throughout their day. A safe space.

If your environment is off you could be unintentionally letting students fall through the cracks. The complete opposite of retention.

Signs of a bad environment
*Lots of drama
*Lots of injuries
*Fighting
*Arguments
*Exodus of students

The list goes on and on but the old saying, “where there is smoke, there is fire”, rings true. If left uncontrolled, could lead to much bigger problems.

As the instructor it is your responsibility to ensure that there is a positive environment for your students since you ultimately set the standard for your academy.

Retention, Retention, Retention

Building positive relationships and retaining students goes hand and hand.

As instructors, we like to focus on how hard we have it and all of the sacrifices that we’ve made to get to the point where we could run an entire academy, but in what way does that help your students?

When you decided to open your own academy, you made a conscious decision to put the training and progression of your students above your own.

It’s hard for many instructors to understand this, but it’s the truth.

You have to develop clear boundaries and systems so that you and your students are able to communicate effectively.

You have to make it easy and convenient for your students to interact with you. Especially, when they’re having a tough time.

You have to make the environment of the academy fun and positive. And keep bringing value.

Being an instructor isn’t easy. No one said it would be. But it is fulfilling and never boring.

Longevity in Jiu Jitsu

Longevity in Jiu Jitsu is something that I think a lot about.

I know I’ll be doing Jiu Jitsu for a long time but I also recognize that many of the moves that younger practitioners take for granted like rolling inverted or speed passing might not carry over well into the masters division.

Not only does your technical ability and focus change the longer you train, but also your mindset and approach changes as well.

While a younger athlete might be solely focused on winning tournaments.

An older athlete might focus more on fitness and maintaining health.

When I look at the demographic of many academies. It’s easy to see that the average student is a late 20’s or early 30’s working professional. Training for fitness and fun, not championships or titles.

Not to knock my older athletes out there. But typically at this point, Jiu Jitsu is more of an exciting hobby or a part of your daily routine that you do in addition to your career, your relationships, children, etc.

Depending on where you are in life. Your priorities will be different.

I’m going to cover a few topics that have allowed me to keep training at a high level despite injuries and other setbacks for many years.

When you’re doing Jiu Jitsu it helps to think long term. Because everything takes so long. It takes time to develop the proper movement skills, fundamental techniques, and conditioning that you will even need before you can fully dive into your practice.

I love the saying, “Jiu Jitsu is a marathon and not a sprint”.

If you really want to get better at Jiu Jitsu then it will help to…

Diet

The more I train, the more I realize how important diet is to your performance on and off of the mat.

It doesn’t take a scientist to know that eating the wrong foods before training, or not allowing yourself enough time after eating to digest can negatively effect your rolling.

Rather than focusing on the word “diet”.
Instead, focus on nutrition–eating high quality proteins, carbs, and fats and most importantly, not starving yourself. The major difference between dieting and nutrition is the sustainability. You can maintain a diet for a few weeks, but nutrition is a lifestyle.

For my non-diet experts out there, you want to avoid most sugary drinks and foods including: soda, fruit drinks, fancy starbucks lattes, and all things processed (if it doesn’t have an expiration date, leave it alone).

Here is a general list of foods to avoid:
Dairy (grassfed is an exception)
Refined sugars
Modern vegetable oils
Processed foods

Knowing what not to eat is the first step in nutrition and it will take time to implement. Nothing is harder than not being able to eat a familiar comfort food (ex. pizza) or not being able to grab a meal with your teammates after a grueling practice.

You just have to find the right balance.

Quitting cold turkey works if you’re experienced in following diet plans or have a lot of self restraint, but for most people, it’s best to wean yourself off all processed stuff slowly.

Quality

Of course, the quality of the meats and vegetables that you get matter. If you have access to grass fed, locally grown items then go for it.

You can find quality ingredients from any grocery store nowadays, but the ones that I personally use include:

Whole Foods
Costco
Trader Joe’s
Fresh Market
Local Farmers Market

For the cash-strapped up-and-comers, get the best quality that you can afford, even if that means looking for deals using coupons, sales, or buying in bulk. A great way to save money is by shopping online through sites like Amazon, US Wellness Meats, and Tropical Traditions.

Sleep

It doesn’t matter how good you are. If you don’t get a proper amount of sleep. You’re going to be off.

Sleep is the single most important part of your overall health. During sleep, your body goes through a lot of integral processes including tissue repair and growth, as well as memory consolidation.

So if you’re training a lot, more than anything else you do, sleep could make the difference in your performance. .

Aim for 7-9 hours nightly if you can. There are apps out there (such as Sleep Cycle) that can help you monitor how much time you sleep and measure the quality of your sleep as well.

Training Partner Selectivity

There are some training partners that you have to be careful rolling with. There’s no shame in avoiding them. Especially, if they have a history of injuring others.

There is nothing worse than worrying about someone injuring you while you’re training with them. There’s a good chance that you won’t get anything out of the training anyway. So you should probably not roll with them or if you can’t get out of it. Focus on rolling conservatively. Being careful not to leave any body parts exposed or in vulnerable positions.

You have to develop a hyper awareness almost like a “spidey sense” because a lot of times your partner might do something crazy or something you don’t see coming.

Prehab and Physical Therapy

I’m a big believer in doing conditioning outside of just training Jiu Jitsu.

For some people this might mean lifting weights, doing yoga, or cross training in other sports.

I make it a habit to really focus on mobility and strengthening those injury prone joints.

You know the ones I’m talking about.

Those knees and shoulders.

Keeping these joints strong makes it harder to injure them and will decrease the time it will take to get them up and running if they do get injured.

Injuries are a part of this martial art. There’s no way to completely safe guard yourself from them. I’m sure everyone has something nagging them.

Just don’t let that keep you from training. But if it’s a serious injury that prevention function and range of motion, then you need to take a break. A lot of Jiu Jitsu practitioners are hard headed in that reguard. They get hurt but they continue training and actually make the injury worse.

This is when you need that long term training mindset.

Take time off when your injury is not serious and let it heal instead of doing more damage.

Of course, consult a physical therapist or doctor and take steps from there.

“Some good habits to develop early on in jiu-jitsu career that will help increase longevity is to work on muscle imbalances and joint restrictions, allow for adequate rest and recovery, and to train smart with no ego.

Evidence shows that the biggest predictor of future injuries (aside from a previous injury), is asymmetry in strength or flexibility. If you only learn to pass going to one side, or only play guard on one side you are over using one muscle group and neglecting another.

When preparing for a tournament we tend to focus on increasing the intensity of our training, or adding a strength and conditioning program but rarely schedule set times or days focused on recovery. To help prevent burnout, we need to make sure we’re getting adequate sleep, having a healthy, well balanced diet and, most importantly, listen to our bodies when we are exhibiting signs of overtraining. These include persistent fatigue and muscle soreness (beyond what’s expected from the workout), difficulty sleeping, irritability, depression and malaise.

Lastly, we have to train smart with no ego. This seems obvious, but in the heat of the moment during an intense roll our competitive nature can get the better of us. Training with no ego doesn’t only mean tapping when a submission is locked in, it is also about knowing when to give up on a position. Twisting your knee that extra bit to help create an angle for the knee cut pass, muscling your way out of the folders pass when your hips are pinned and your back is twisted, or exploding out of a stacked pass to create a scramble will all have a cumulative effect and something is going to give.”

Clinton Gouveia, PT, DPT

Proper Movement

Knowing how to move, and knowing how your body, and your partner’s bodies are supposed to move will keep you healthy and training hard for many years to come.

Does your knee feel weird while knee cutting? Maybe don’t knee cut on that side or try a different passing technique.

Proper movement dynamics is something that you will see in a lot of high level athletes. Having that proper alignment, not forcing techniques, and knowing when to let go or give up a position comes with experience.

I’ve seen so many people put themselves into a bad position and then try to force their way out. It’s scary.

Again, you need to develop that body awareness or grappling “sense” that will keep you from doing anything to injure yourself.

Technique over physical attributes

This is probably one of the biggest factors in determining how long you will be able to enjoy your training.

When you’re young or healthy your physical attributes can and do cover for a lot of your technical holes in your game.

We all know those students that get away with a lot in training because they are phenomenally strong.

There’re practically a superhero in a gi (or rashguard).

But their strength can become a crutch for them. Because of it, they don’t have to rely on as much technique. And this works for while. At least until, they come across someone even stronger than themselves.

There’s always going to be someone stronger, or faster, or more flexible.

We only have so much wiggle room in how far we can push ourselves physically.

But there is no limit to your technique. It can continue to get better the more time and work you put into it.

There is so much that goes into to training Jiu Jitsu. Especially, for a decade or more. But I do think that taking care of yourself, your body. Is what’s going to keep you in the game.

No matter how much you love Jiu Jitsu. If your body is ruined or you abused your body, then you’re going to limit yourself in your training.

All the older guys I train with treat their bodies like a temple. Of course, enjoy life and everything. But it’s important to find balance and to maintain yourself as well.