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.

Training at a high level competition academy

I’ve been fortunate enough to train at many different types of academies throughout my career.

Different in their atmosphere.

Different in their focus.

Different in training philosophies and techniques.

I just want to start off by saying that there is no one best school or academy. It all comes down to whether or not it’s a good fit for you.

You could have access to the best training partners and instructors in the world. But if the training environment is toxic, it’s no good.

In this post we’re going to look at the benefits (or upsides) of training at a well known, competition oriented Jiu Jitsu academy and in the following weeks I hope to examine some of the downsides as well.

High Level Academy

Most regular people aren’t looking for the most competitive academy.

Gold medals and championship wins have no meaning to them.

That’s something that I try to drive home to any martial arts business owners or future academy owners.

Your average student is looking for a fun, safe, and decently located place to workout.

Being a world class facility only has sway over students who are: (1) into competitive Jiu Jitsu, (2) understand your accolades, (3) want to train hard.

There are lots of reasons for training at a competitive Jiu Jitsu academy but they all boil down to pushing your comfort zone.

Of course, not every student is going to compete. But there will be this culture of doing tournaments or atleast training hard that will permeat through all the programs within that academy.

During the late 2000’s early 2010’s, the academy that I trained at was one of the best academies in America and arguably one of the best in the world.

In addition to myself, we had numerous pans champions, world champions at the lower belts, and ADCC vets.

We were the quintessential competition academy. Of course, we still had a strong foundation in self defense and the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu. But we were mostly known through our success in tournaments.

And because of this we were able to attract many like minded students from all over the U.S.A. in addition to developing our own home grown students.

1 High level training partners

The biggest reason for training at a high level academy is because you’ll have access to high level training partners.

No matter how naturally talented you are. You can only go so far watching competition video, drilling, and visualizing. Eventually, you get to a point where you will need the help of good training partners to help push you past your limits.

It wasn’t uncommon to have athletes decide to completely uproot their lives, quit their jobs, and move down to train at my academy. Some guys wanted to be world champions. While others wanted to dedicate themselves more to their practice by surrounding themselves with those who wanted to become world champions.

Everyone had their reasons.

Having access to a large stable of tough training partners. All with different body types and skill sets. Is the fastest way to improve your Jiu Jitsu.

A popular saying in Jiu Jitsu is that, “iron sharpens iron”.

And this is very true for the best academies in the world like Atos/Art of Jiu Jitsu, Alliance, and all of the other top academies. They attract the best talent which in turn helps them to do bettter in competitions.

Outside of the training aspects. High level training partners allow you to immerse yourself completely into the Jiu Jitsu lifestyle.

Not only are you be able to train hard, but you’re also able to have in depth discussion about techniques, mindset, and training.

You’re surrounded by like minded individuals that have similar goals and can help motivate you.

You also become more accountable in your training. So if you’re slacking off or taking too much time off. You have someone that can and will call you out on it.

I won’t lie and say that this is always the most fun or inviting environment.

It’s not.

But if you have dreams of reaching a new level in your Jiu Jitsu and doing well nationally or internationally. It makes a big difference training at a high level academy versus a lesser skilled academy.

2 Knowledgeable instructors

High level academies tend to have very knowledgeable instructors.

As important as it is to have good training partners. Having the right instructor(s) is the cornerstone of a great competitor and on the larger scale, a competitive academy.

Examples such as Fernando Terere and the offshoots of the old TT academy such as cobrinha, Andre Galvao, Lucas Lepri, and Michael Langhi.

We see this even more recently with Romulo Barral and his students Edwin Najimi and Gabriel Arges.

Great instructors make great students.

It’s no wonder that the top academies tend to stay on top for years. They are able to take students with potential and mold them in to champions.

Your instructor influences everything from developing your foundational knowledge as an athlete to helping you overcome the highs and lows of our sport.

High level academies are able to develop inhouse or attract many of the best instructors because of their great training environment.

I’ve written about this before, but if you’re a lower belt and you are beating the majority of your training partners (and even the instructor) then there is a good chance that academy might not be the best place for you to pursue a competive career.

I know this advice sounds harsh and it is.

3 Competitive environment

Combine high level training partners with really great instructors and you get the perfect competitive environment.

It’s hard to explain if you haven’t had the chance to experience it yet. The feeling of training hard everyday and knowing that your training is often harder than the actual competition.

The feeling of having close teammates doing well in big tournaments and having the confidence that you will do well too.

Or being able to get an invite to an exclusive tournament, or increased exposure on social media and Jiu Jitsu news sites because you train with so and so.

There are so many benefits to training at a high level academy that it’s not possible for me to list them all.

If you have plans of competing in Jiu Jitsu and want to do well at the bigest tournaments. Then training at a high level academy or moving to one could be the deciding factor.

Over the years I have met many talented grapplers. They had all the attributes of a great competitor but without the proper training environment to help you develop and grow. That potential can easily be wasted or not fully tapped into.

Transitioning from no gi to gi

I’ve been training a lot of no gi and wrestling lately.

It could be for a few days or even weeks but there is still a little adjustment period in which I feel off transitioning from my no gi game back to my gi Jiu Jitsu game.

Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped in the gi. Unable to move as freely as I would like.

Other times I forget that my opponent can use my own gi to attack me.

Needless to say I’m very careful when I put my gi back on. Unless I want a sneaky lower belt to take my lunch.

I think that this stops a lot of no gi guys from trying out the gi. It is harder to move in.

This and they figure that they might not be as good at Jiu Jitsu with the gi on.

I understand that everyone has a preference. But to limit yourself to one or the other is a doing a disservice to yourself and your development.

If you’re worried about losing if you put the gi on then you have the wrong mindset.

You should put the gi on to further develop your skills.

Key differences

The main differences between no gi and gi is the level of friction and the gripping system.

While wearing a gi I am able to grab a hold of my opponent’s gi and belt while taking care not to grab within their sleeves or pant legs.

Pretty simple right?

By its design the gi allows for a lot of friction. Slowing your opponent down and allowing you to exert more control.

This means that it is easier to control most positions such as side mount, mount, and guard while being able to set up and finish more submissions since the level of sweat is no longer a major determining factor.

You also have more grips with the gi on too.

You can apply all the same no gi grips and controls with the added bonus of using your opponent’s gi and your own gi.

The options are limitless!

Modern Jiu Jitsu players have taken this to the next level. Using the gi to entangle their opponents within their own gi with the introduction of the worm guard and other lapel guards.

I think that the friction and the continuously developing gripping system allow for a lot more creativity with the gi on.

The more options you have the more likely a submission will occur.

I would really like to see the stats on a lot of the no gi submission only events. Not only are most of the athletes at a high skill level but also the less friction offered by no gi makes it harder to get submissions and to finish them. Which might explain why a lot of those matches end in a draw.

Upsides

There at are a lot of upsides to adding the gi to your no gi Jiu Jitsu game.

The two I really want to focus on is having an established system of ranking and the level of technical ability that you develop with the gi on.

Ranking

The fact that there is a standardized ranking system in gi Jiu Jitsu is really important for any students looking to own their own academy one day or to have a career within the martial arts industry.

Unlike other combat sports, Jiu Jitsu relies heavily on the idea of lineage and having a clear traceable line from you to your instructors and their instructors.

The most far reaching and well know organization in all of Jiu Jitsu is the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation or IBJJF.

Most people know them for running tournaments.

But did you know that they also serve as a database for all the athletes that compete within their tournaments.

If an athlete wishes to compete in an IBJJF tournament. They must register under their team. Which means that their instructor and academy must also be registered with the IBJJF.

Federations also serve as an official source of black belt certification and rank.

This is especially important if you decide to have your own academy and wish to promote students to black belt and above.

Not only do you receive proof of your rank but you also join an internationally recognized organization.

Being a part of a governing body is also important for your students as well. Through this, students can guarantee that their instructor is in fact a legitimate instructor. Not just some guy who decided to put on a black belt and teach.

Again, Jiu Jitsu is very big on lineage. Systems like these paint a clear picture of who graduated from who.

Often times in no gi this gets a lot harder. Unless you come from one of the few no gi centric academies or teachers like a Danaher or a Bravo.

There is always controversy when an mma fighter is awarded a black belt when they have never worn a gi.

I’m definitely going to write a post about this in the future.

But it’s not just mma fighters being promoted with no actual gi experience. We are reaching a point where even a few academies are completely forgoing the gi entirely. Yet still awarding the black belt.

It’s not my place to say whether this is right or wrong. However it does bring up a lot of questions.

Technical Ability

The major downside of transitioning from no gi to gi is again the use of grips to slow you down and the learning curve of getting used to wearing and using the gi.

Even after a few sessions of doing no gi only, it takes time for me to readjust to wearing the gi.

Your timing and movement skill from doing no gi will be great. As will your conditioning.

But the gi will slow you down.

What you could do with speed and power, you will now have to do with technique

There are a lot of technical no gi practitioners. But the addition of the grips makes it more difficult.

You won’t know true frustration until you’ve almost passed someone’s guard but their big toe gets stuck in your gi. Keeping you from moving forward.

The learning curve will suck. You might get in caught in many submissions that simply do not exist in no gi. You also might forget the leverage that the gi gives too.

Escaping an armbar in no gi is a lot different than escaping an armbar with the gi on. Where your opponent has a number of options in keeping you from escaping your arm.

But once you get used to the gi. You realize that there is so much that you can do. There are so many grips and different ways to use the gi that it is really exciting.

Closing

Transitioning from no gi to gi is not easy. There will be a learning curve.

The gi will feel hot, heavy and slow you down at first.

But if you stick with it you will get better.

There is a reason that the top guys do both regularly.

In fact they complement each other really well.

With your no gi game you will have a good base of conditioning and movement skills honed without the use of friction or grips. That will immediately carry over.

In fact, many gi focused academies are adding more no gi to their programs.

With all the wrestling and mixed martial arts with in the U.S. I think it will only become more common for people with no gi experience to make the leap to wearing the gi.

So I say to you. Don’t be afraid of the gi.

Give it a try!

 

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