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.

Losing

This is a topic that’s hard for many athletes to talk about it.

We put so much hard work into achieving our goals but sometimes we end up falling short.

I’ve seen people handle losing in different ways. The humble ones are able to acknowledge their loss(es) and learn from their mistakes which I think is the best possible action. While others might not handle losing so well.

Rio 2016

If you were watching the 2016 Olympics in Rio, there was a lot of controversy over an Egyptian judo athlete refusing the shake the hand of an Israeli athlete after losing in their match. While there are obvious political and religious factors at play. Which I will not touch on. I’ve seen this behavior a few times even absent those factors.

I don’t know what causes athletes to act so unsportsmanlike or maybe sportsmanship is more dependent upon the individual athlete and their values and attitudes. But I think we can all recognize bad sportsmanship when we see it such as in the case above.

I’m not going to talk about the numerous reasons why losing occurs but instead I’m going to focus on how we all can better handle dealing with losing.

Losing is something that I have personally experienced during my career in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

It kind of sucks writing about it but it’s true.
I will say that there are times when losing and having the right mindset can drive you to achieve more. But without the proper mindset, it can become a pit of despair and really hinder your growth and potential.

I’m going to draw from my own personal experience for a bit.

My Past

I received my purple belt during my first year of college. This also coincided with a well know World Champion moving to my academy. I had everything that I needed to succeed. I had great training partners that were a lot better than me, I had the best instructors in the world, and I had all the time in the world to train in between attending my college classes. You would think that I would start tearing up the competition circuit.

But I didn’t. In fact, I lost my first campaign at purple belt, losing my first match at the World Championship that year. I don’t remember if I was down or not, but I do remember being really frustrated. So, I went back home and decided to train harder.

The next year I had a little bit more success than the previous year. I even made it to the finals of the world championship this time. But again, I didn’t come out on top.

It took me three long years at purple belt before I was able to win at the major tournaments like pans and worlds. During that time I trained my ass off and competed as much as I could.

But if I never lost during those earlier years I’m not sure if I would have stuck with Jiu Jitsu and be where I am now. My losses forced me to focus even more on my technique, train harder and smarter, and to continue competing. Losing really is a learning experience but it’s up to the individual in how they handle their losses and move forward from there.

Current favorite athlete to follow

One of my favorite athletes to follow right now is Tammi Musumeci because she writes a lot about her experiences on and off the mats and she doesn’t sugarcoat her life. It’s really refreshing to get that level of insight into the inner workings of a high level competitor and how she deals with the same emotions that we’ve all experienced.

Namely, dealing with setbacks, the expectations, and the obstacles that athletes face in trying to make it to the top. I think we often put our favorite athletes and competitors on a pedestal. We admire their victories and personalities but we often don’t understand the time and the amount effort that it took to get them to that point.

But what about those people that don’t handle losing well?

I believe the people that have the hardest time dealing with loss are those whose entire identities are completely tied to Jiu Jitsu and how well they do in competitions, rolling in the academy, etc.

When they’re winning they feel great. As anyone would. But when they are faced with a setback, or loss, then a lot of times they don’t know how to handle it.

I’ve seen this a lot with students that were considered really talented. Jiu Jitsu came easy to them and they didn’t have to work hard to improve initially. But when it was no longer easy or when they lost to someone with the same amount of experience or less, but considered less talented or gifted. Their first action was often to just quit. That’s why it’s important to have instructors and higher belts to help encourage students through these rough periods.

Higher belt duties

It’s easy to let these students fall off and quit than to actually help them. But from the standpoint of a martial arts business owner, an instructor, and a student. You are losing out on an important part of your academy.

Jiu Jitsu is a people business. Not only are you training their body but you are also developing them. Molding them into something more than what they were when they first began their journey. But if you just let them walk out, not only are you missing out on a client that sustains your business, but also a precious student to pass your knowledge on to, and a valuable training partner.

I remember when I was a brown belt and being one of the best prospects to do well in the 2011 world championship. I felt great going into this tournament and was tearing up the competitions leading up to the event. But I didn’t win. In fact, I didn’t even place.

When I got back home I was so angry and down on myself. I was even bringing my emotions into my training and being an asshole to many of my training partners. I feel like I could have easily continued down this path until something bad would have happened. If it wasn’t for my friend Chris reaching out to me, I might have quit doing Jiu Jitsu.

Chris is someone that I’ve always looked up to and was the top guy in our academy but I’m sure he had been in the same position as me at some point during his competition career. Everyone that competes a lot, or wishes to compete is going to experience loss. We are pretty much courting defeat.

I was lucky enough to have Chris to help me get through this at an important part of my development and it shows the power that a higher belt can have in helping junior students struggling.

That’s why I now make it a point to help lower belts whenever I can, either in person or through my writing and videos. You never truly know what impact your words and actions will have on others. So, let it be for the better.

Asian Influence

This is something that I gleaned from Asian (Japanese) culture that seems lost to us in the U.S. Of course we have respect for elders and those more experienced than ourselves. We have that part down, but the part that we seem to lack is the emphasis of senior students and instructors looking after the well being of the junior students.

In Japan, this is considered the sensei-sempai-kohai relationship. The sensi being the instructor or teacher. The sempai being the older, more experienced student and the Kohai the younger, less experienced student.

Don’t get me wrong. Some academies have a similar setup but it’s not built into the framework of Jiu Jitsu like how we show respect for our training partners before sparring with the fist bump and slap.

I would like to see a greater emphasis from Jiu Jitsu and martial arts instructors in promoting their students in going out of their way to help the lesser experienced students. Of course make sure that they get their technique down and train hard, but to also to take an interest in them personally and their wellbeing as well. As I said above, Jiu Jitsu is a people business.

Development

I remember when I was just the Jiu Jitsu guy. I knew a lot techniques and I did well at tournaments but outside that I really didn’t have any other life experiences or knowledge outside the mats. No one was going to ask me for relationship advice, or my opinion on business matters or anything for that matter.

Now, imagine all you’re good at is one thing and you lose or fail in that one thing.

I hated that feeling.

When you limit yourself to only being good at Jiu Jitsu. Then, what are you left with when you’re not good at Jiu Jitsu either due to circumstance or injury?

I’ve known so many great Jiu Jitsu instructors and competitors over the years that simply got by because they were good at Jiu Jitsu and surrounded themselves with people that looked up to them and only told them what they wanted to hear because they were a black belt world champions.

But there’s no balance in that.

Develop yourself outside Jiu Jitsu

because it’s so important to develop yourself outside of Jiu Jitsu, outside of your career, or your family. Because you need to be more than that, because you are more than that.

Develop other interest, have some skills that you can hone that doesn’t involve Jiu Jitsu or that utilizes your Jiu Jitsu in an entrepreneurial way. Jiu Jitsu is a great martial art. But it’s also a great tool that you can use to better and improve yourself.

For me going to college, traveling, and working in business helped give me a sense of purpose that didn’t revolve around me being good at Jiu Jitsu. There will come a time when we will no longer be able to compete at the highest levels or when other obligations will side track us. That’s when you will be happy that you have other skill sets.

Let go

Learn to let go of your losses. There’s so many things that can cause you to not perform to your best such as:

  • Not feeling well
  • Bad weight cut
  • Opponent had a better day
  • Bad refereeing
  • Wrong gi

There will always be factors that get in your way and sometimes it does temporarily block your progress. At that point it’s up to you to learn from your losses and try to fix whatever might have caused you to not perform at your best.

Even after all of that, sometimes you still won’t be where you want to be and that’s okay. It’s okay to not win every match, it’s okay to be nervous, it’s okay to be the underdog. As long as you’re able to get back on your feet and try again with even more focus and effort, I know you will be alright.

Surviving in Jiu Jitsu

Listen, there is no way to survive in Jiu Jitsu without experiencing loss. Starting out you will be losing to everyone in your academy. That’s just the way that it is, but if you stick it out you will improve and get better.

I think at the colored belt level is when thoughts of losing, or overcoming loss becomes harder. We let our egos get in the way of our development.

I’ve talked about this before in the white belt mindset that white belts are more free in this regard because there really are no expectations for them. Any small victory is a step in the right direction. Every set back a lesson.

But like any skill. The white belt mindset can be developed and honed for any imaginable task.

Martial arts is about being more and gives you the tools to be more. I promise you that after a few weeks, months, and years from now you won’t remember the majority of your losses and setbacks.

In fact, those that you do remember you might begin to think of fondly as the point in time that you decided to rededicate yourself to your training, or as the event that you needed to overcome in order to improve.

Every loss is a lesson

When dealing with losing it’s best to learn whatever you can from the experience and then move on. Keep developing yourself outside of Jiu Jitsu and help others whenever you can. Even a few words could keep someone from completely quitting Jiu Jitsu.

Every loss is a lesson but it’s up to you to figure out what you need to learn from the experience.