Can a Narrow Game Be Complete

If you think of your jiu jitsu game as a building, and every new technique you learn as a brick, how many bricks do you need to build a house to live in for the rest of your life?

Before I write any more let me say that there are two approaches to learning in jiu jitsu: (1) learning for the sake of learning, and (2) learning for the sake of winning in competition. Many athletes do both, focusing on one or the other at various periods of their jiu jitsu life. This post is about the second one: designing a game for winning in competition. The other approach has a less well-defined goal of exploring the infinite universe of human chess.

Learning Jiu Jitsu

Most people learn jiu jitsu one technique at a time, without a vision of what their final game will look like. The “vision” often comes from the instructor, but it is usually based on their idea of what “works for most students”. That’s natural, of course, but it still makes me wonder whether a “complete” individual game can be built from the top down, and how narrow can that game be while still being successful in competition? The following is how most people (including myself) learn jiu jitsu:

  1. You show up to your first basics class.
  2. You learn your first technique, maybe something like a close guard split from the knees.
  3. Your knees might hurt, you feel off-balance, and maybe the technique feels like it will never work. “Splitting the closed guard is hard and useless”, you think.
  4. Next day, you show up and there’s another technique being taught. It’s your second one: armbar from closed guard.
  5. You drill the armbar a few times, and it seems to work perfectly. “Armbars are amazing!” you think.
  6. On your way home that night you decide that you will become the next black belt World Champion, submitting everyone with armbar from closed guard

Find the Flaws, Fix the Flaws

The above process continues as you pick up techniques that “click” with you and try to improve the ones that don’t. As you move through the ranks, and possibly compete, you identify “holes” (aka flaws, mistakes, etc) in your game. Your training is then defined by those holes. And then you spend a lifetime learning how to patch the smallest flaws with the tiniest details that you pick up through thousands of hours of training or watching countless hours of video or spending hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on seminars, class fees, privates, tournaments, etc. I love that part of jiu jitsu, but what if my only goal was to win in competition? It’s not for me, but still that’s a very important question to consider. All of us like winning tournaments. It doesn’t have to be the #1 goal or even in the top 5, but it’s up there, and for most of us it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

A Complete Game with Very Few Techniques

As an example, the question is: can I win at the highest levels with the following game:

  1. Double leg take down.
  2. Guard passing from what Rafael Lovato Jr calls the “headquarters” position.
  3. Kimura from side control.
  4. Rear naked choke from back.
  5. When put on your back, constantly work to get back up and go to step #1.
  6. In any dominated position: escape until you can get up.

KarelinNever work on your butterfly guard, half guard, inverted guard, closed guard, except to learn how to get back up to your feet from that position. This game is not as simple as 6 steps. There’s still hundreds of details than need to be learned, tuned, and drilled ad infinitum. When someone shows you a cool foot lock, rolling back take, berimbolo sweep, etc, you ignore it. Never drill anything on the weak side. Drill bringing the game back to your dominant side (your “A game”) if it ever strays from there.

It’s just an example. Can a well-defined narrower game of this kind work? The assumption in the jiu jitsu community is it can’t. I tend to agree, but then again I see athletes at the highest levels in other grappling sports like wrestling and judo that operate with a mastery of just a couple techniques to defeat everyone the same exact way.

I understand all the complexities I’m washing over when I write stuff like this. But it is something I constantly struggle with in the context of competition. Given limited time to train, we are forced to choose. We all choose. And all of our games are narrow relative to the field of the possible. The question is: do we make that choice on a week-by-week basis or is a longer term top-down approach more effective? Is it even possible? Is it enjoyable?

0 thoughts on “Can a Narrow Game Be Complete

  1. Jim Caruso


    Good post, and not just an issue for competition but also for general learning and self defense. Given limited time and the infinite possibilities in BJJ, we each have to focus on certain things and make peace with the fact that we may have to let other techniques go. Of course, this can change over time; as certain techniques are mastered (relatively speaking), it becomes easier to experiment with other things.

    I do believe that even the “fancier” techniques that may not be as practical in tournaments or the street still provide overall benefits (understanding of motion/mechanics, sensitivity, athleticism, etc.) that transfer to, and help improve, your “narrower” game as well.

    Like Bruce Lee said, “absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”

    BTW, I see that you are in the Philadelphia area, as am I. Where do you train?

    I enjo your blog!

    Best Regards,

    1. Lex Post author

      Hey Jim, thanks! These days I train at Balance. I live and work a half mile from there, so it makes life very easy. What about you?


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