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I always find it interesting the way people find their submissions in jiu-jitsu. Some people just have a physical makeup that makes it easy. For example, if you are a person who has long legs than chances are that from day 1 people have told you that you should be going for triangles.

I do not have a physique that made it obvious for me to find a submission. I have short arms and legs, I am shorter than most of the guys I train with and I cannot rely on my strength for much. I spent a long time trying to find my submission (to be honest I spent at least the first year of my training being smashed from bottom and it never occurred to me to think of doing any type of offense). Eventually I found that I was good enough at shoulder pressure to make it my “thing” and I learned how to build submissions off of that.

For me that is largely how jiu-jitsu training has gone. Many times I have gotten it in my head that I was going to be good at something and tried to force it when I trained. I have been largely unsuccessful at this. However there are things I never set out to be good at but I found while I was training and learned how to use to my advantage. I find myself in positions over and over again and then it forces me to learn how to deal with them. I play half guard a lot but that is not something I set out to do. I just kept finding myself there (I think that I am just incapable of passing guard or escaping guard all at once, I have to do it little by little). I very often have told people “I didn’t choose half guard, half guard chose me”.

So a few months ago, I discovered that I was catching people’s arms a lot when they posted on the ground or after a sweep and I realized that there were straight armbars to be had from there. I continually went after them for a while. I think that I only ever finished one and that was on a fairly new white belt (still counts!) but it was fun to catch arms and at least threaten them. Around December-ish I was stuck in traffic and thinking about jiu-jitsu (as I do) and it occurred to me that even though I wasn’t having much luck finishing the straight armbars, I could transition to a belly down armbar from that position.

Ever since then I have been consumed by this transition. It haunts me. I think about it when I wake up, while I am at work and before I go to bed. I asked Santa for this transition for Christmas but the fat bastard did not deliver. A few times during rolling I have gotten so far as to get into position for the belly down armbar but I have not been able to finish.

That belly down armbar has eluded me for months which has only made me more obsessed with it. I can’t explain why but in my heart I know that someday that finish will be mine.

Pulling the trigger

When rolling last week I noticed something that I was not overly happy about. I find that I am very rarely going for submissions anymore (the exception being of course the arm triangle, my favoritest submission ever).

Since I like to over analyze everything I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that I am not going for submissions more. If you’ve been training for any length of time, chances are that you’ve heard the saying “position before submission”. I understand this sentiment and could not agree with it more but I think that I am in more of a “position before position” frame of mind.

Some time ago I discovered that a good way to cope when I feel like I am being out-muscled is to concentrate more on position and transitions rather than on submissions (rhyming unintentional but thoroughly enjoyed). I found that I had much more success this way. Instead of going for a submission, having the person get out and then being in a bad position myself I was focusing on getting to top positions and just maintaining that position.

I found that I really enjoyed rolling this way and I was getting better at maintaining positions and controlling stronger opponents. I highly recommend this approach if you are someone who feels like you are at a strength disadvantage. However I think I’ve gotten to a point where I am just content to get a position and hold onto it rather than go for the finish.

I don’t necessarily think that is a bad approach to jiu-jitsu but since I am looking to compete again soon I feel like I need to go for the kill more. I also feel like I’m getting a bit stagnant so I am hoping to shake things up. But I know this is going to be a hard goal for me.

Probably most of you have had the experience of setting up a submission on someone who is bigger and stronger than yourself and having them use that strength to get out of it. This is something that I have experienced a lot. For example, I feel like every time I go for an armbar from guard that my partner ends up getting their arm out and then passing my guard. Some of this is because they are stronger than me. Some of this is probably because my technique is off (just the tiniest bit of course). By deciding to go for submissions I have to accept that I will most likely end up in bad positions more often. This is not something I will enjoy but I know it’s the only way to get the technique right.

I also know that if I want to start hunting for submissions more that I have to take my aggression up a notch. This is something I continually have trouble with for many reason. It’s difficult for me to do something that I think is “mean”. I know this is ridiculous because we are all involved in a combat sport but I still struggle with it. I find this is a particular concern of mine when rolling with women, particularly the new ones. Having been smashed so many times when I was new, I really don’t want to be the smasher who discourages another woman from training.

I think too that there is some fear about being overly aggressive when I am training with the guys because my aggression will lead to their aggression and I am always worried about the ability for me to physically handle that aggression. I don’t think this is ever a concern that I could (or really should) get rid of entirely but I do have enough training partners that I trust that I should be able to take it up a notch at least some rolls.

So I’ve decided to focus a little bit more on submissions when I’m rolling, even if that means I lose a good position or I have to take my aggression to a higher level. I’m thinking of setting a quota for submission attempts for myself at the beginning of the night and not getting off the mat until I’ve met it. If I get to a point I feel comfortable doing that, I might start setting quotas for finishing submissions (starting with 1 a week, ha!). It’s going to be challenging but I feel like I am at the point I can get the position, now it’s time for the submission!

For our own good?

Toe holds. Knee bars. Calf slicers. These are some of the mythical submissions that I know exist in theory but that I have very little experience with. I have always been of the opinion that it would be nice to learn submissions early even if they are not legal in competition for me. For one thing if you learn them early, you have a leg up (bad pun intended) on the competition when you do get to the level that they are legal. Also the point can be made that not everyone trains jiu-jitsu for competition purposes so why not teach everyone all the technique? However last week I started to think about this from a different point of view.

During open mat one night last week, a guy who is relatively new to the advanced class asked me if I wanted to roll. I felt slightly worried because he is probably at least 8 inches taller than me and maybe 70 pounds or so heavier than me but I like to roll so I said yes. He was generally very good to train with and I enjoyed the roll but he clearly has either trained somewhere else or is very good at picking up technique off of YouTube because he had a very good leg lock game.

When the roll started he went for a straight leg lock and I started to defend it so he turned into my body and rolled. I assume this would be a reap in a tournament but I don’t know for sure.  All I know is that it hurt so I tapped. Unfortunately because he was rolling and couldn’t stop the momentum he kept going so I very loudly let everyone in the gym know I was tapping by yelling “TAP TAP TAP” (I do this when I  panic, it’s so embarrassing).

After I gingerly made sure my ankle and knee were ok we kept rolling and later in the roll he trapped my leg and then got a toe hold which I quickly tapped to because 1) I didn’t want a repeat of earlier and 2) I don’t really know how to escape a toe hold as I had never really trained them. I actually thought that I might be wrong about his level (it was no gi last week so we didn’t have belts on) so I asked him if he was a white belt and he said yes. I gently pointed out that toe holds were not legal for white belts and he said that he knew but he liked to go for whatever he could while rolling at the gym.

As I was walking around the grocery store afterwards my calf and ankle were feeling a little sore and I started to worry that I had tweaked them worse than I thought. It ended up being fine but it made me think about the danger of training riskier techniques. My training partner’s technique was not bad and he didn’t go for the submissions overly aggressive but my own lack of training the technique plus the inherent nastiness of the sub made it a potentially very dangerous situation.

So my brush with an injured leg last week has got me wondering about what is the right path to take with the more perilous submissions. I have always known that these submissions were not allowed in tournaments for lower belts because of the risk. I figured we didn’t spend a lot of time training them at the gym for that reason. I always felt it was somewhat silly to keep submissions from anyone but I am starting to think that my instructors and organizations like the IBJJF are actually protecting us from ourselves.

I am still not sure what the right answer is. On one hand if I had known how to defend better maybe it wouldn’t have been as hazardous. On the other, I’m not sure I want my ability to train (or walk!) for the next couple of months to be in the hands of spazzy white belts who are typically bigger and stronger than me. One thing is certain though, next time I roll with that guy, I will be very careful about where I am putting my feet.

Mission accepted

A couple of months ago I went on a mission to find a submission (read all about it here). This was fueled by the fact that I realized I did not have a go-to submission but more than that by a desire to change the style of my game. My BJJ is largely reactive. I tend to wait for my opponent to do something and then play defense. This is something that is not uncommon for someone who is smaller and weaker and is not necessarily a bad way to practice BJJ. However if you want to compete, this is not a style that is going to get you the win a whole lot.

My coach suggested that I pick a submission from the top and one from the bottom. So because I am fond of getting on top and mashing my shoulder into people’s faces, I decided to try to work on the arm triangle (or head and arm choke if you prefer) from top and wrist locks from bottom (well from everywhere really). I will admit that my wrist lock quest has more or less ended. I just never got used to looking for them. But I really liked working the arm triangle. So I did.

But of course you are rarely going to get to start in mount with your shoulder in someone’s face so I couldn’t just work the arm triangle. I had to first learn to get to a controlling top position. For me this usually means getting to top half guard (I don’t know why but I seem to end up in this position all the time), starting to work the shoulder pressure and control, transitioning to side control and then finally to mount.

So finally I learned to get to mount with my arm in position under my opponent’s head. So naturally I became an arm triangle machine right? Well not exactly. I found that I was getting rolled over a lot when I got to mount. This is somewhat expected since you are giving them an arm and making the bump and roll super easy. But I knew I could stop it if I learned to control the top position better. So I did. I learned how to better distribute my weight (the bump and roll is even easier if I leave all my weight on that side) and utilize hooks to block the bump and roll. Sometimes I would not go for the finish and just let me partner try to roll me over and over again so I could practice keeping the mount.

OK so now that I learned how to get to mount and how to hold it, it was nothing but arm triangles right? Yeah, not quite. I was getting successful with them but the thing about training with the same people and going for a submission over and over again is that eventually they catch on. So while my arm triangles were getting better, so too were their escapes.

But because I was constantly going for the same thing and because there are only so many ways to defend it, I found myself in the same positions over and over again. Because I was there so much I started to figure out what I could work from these other positions. If they bring their arm up to block the choke (the “answer the phone” defense), I can trap the arm and go for an Americana. If they roll away from me I can transition to technical mount and go for a collar choke or bow and arrow. If I can’t get their arm up, why not go for an Ezekiel?

When I decided to find my submission my only goal was to get good at arm triangles. I didn’t intend to build a whole series around it but that’s what happened. First I had to learn to get on top, then I had to improve my top game to even have a shot at the submission and then I had to work with the reactions of my opponents when I didn’t get the finish.

So what did I really get by going on my submission mission? Have I turned into an arm triangle machine? Not really. I go for them a lot, sometimes I can finish them, sometimes I cannot. If I get to top half guard though I know there is a better chance than not that I am going to get to side control. If I get to side control, it is very likely I will get to mount. If I get to mount, you better believe I’m going to try to isolate your arm, slide off and work that arm triangle. You know how to successfully defend it? Well I am waiting with some other stuff to try too.

So, no, I don’t always get the finish when working my arm triangle but I keep my opponent defending the entire time. That’s a lot more than I was doing a few months ago. And by stubbornly going after one submission all the time, I was forced to tighten up a lot of aspects of my game. This has been useful in many ways, not just when going for an arm triangle.

So if you haven’t found your go-to move yet, I encourage you to pick a submission you like or one that plays well to something you are already doing and go for it all the time. You will be surprised how much your offensive game improves. If you do have a go-to move, keep training it! Better yet, start training another! I am almost to the point that I want to pick a new go-to move (maybe start thinking about those wrist locks again). Although I will never abandon the arm triangle, I am excited to see what other types of series I can build.

The Gentle Artist

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