At the beginning of your BJJ journey, you need guidance from your coach, but as you progress, you will need to learn how to learn and practice new techniques on your own. And, frankly, it’s more fun to let your curiosity guide you and to explore what works for you on your own.
In this post, I’ll talk about my learning approach. Keep in mind that everyone has a different learning style, and what works for me may not necessarily work for you. So, don’t be discouraged if you have or prefer a different learning style.
How I decide what to learn
First thing first, let me mention how I decide what to learn next. It’s usually based on one of the three reasons below:
1) I notice a hole in my game that needs to be addressed in priority to other holes.
For example, when I started working on my overall guard passing game, this was my primary reason for doing so. I simply lacked guard passing skills, and it was a big hole in my game. I’ve been working on my takedown game for the last couple of years for the same reason.
What’s your biggest weakness in your game at the moment? You know the answer. If you haven’t started working on it, perhaps it’s time to address this weakness.
2) I notice an opportunity to expand my game because it fits with what I already do.
For example, I’ve been working on Choi bar and the false reap position recently. Choi bar allows you to set up an armbar from an open guard, and it fits with my guard game. Similarly, since I already use the reverse de la riva quite a lot, adding the false reap to my game seems like a natural expansion.
What are your favorite positions? There are usually moves and positions that connect very well with your favorite positions. For example, if you like using the arm-in guillotine choke, you could connect it with a sweep as a follow-up to a failed guillotine attempt. If you like the body lock pass, you could work on your double leg takedown so you can get into the body lock pass position as a follow-up to a double leg attempt.
3) I’m simply curious about this particular move.
I hardly work on techniques that are completely unrelated to what I already do. So, this reason is actually often connected with one of the two reasons above. For example, I’ve been dabbling in Z-lock, and my motivation for trying it is more because of curiosity, though it is somewhat related to what I already do.
Perhaps you notice certain techniques and get drawn to them while watching BJJ/grappling matches. If that happens to you, that’s probably a good sign you should try these techniques.
My general approach to learning new BJJ techniques
Once I’ve decided what to work on, I will probably do what most people practicing BJJ in 2022 would do — I will look for video resources online. It could be some videos on YouTube. It could be paid instructional resources available from BJJ Fanatics. I also try to find videos where the moves I want to learn are used in action.
I buy & watch BJJ (and wrestling!) instructionals often, but you could definitely do well with free resources. So, don’t worry. Unless it’s a real cutting-edge technique that somebody came up with a month ago, there are usually people who offer great, free videos that explain the basics of what you want to learn.
When I watch those videos, my primary goal is to understand the basic mechanics of the move I’m trying to learn, including how the move works and why it works.
Why? Because these two pieces of information — the how and the why — will help me understand the move deep enough so I know what to look for when I practice it.
On that note, perhaps a good way to distinguish great instructions from mediocre instructions is to see whether the videos you watch explain why and how a certain move works. If the explanation sounds like a recipe for a pot of stew whose leftover nobody would dare to touch, it’s time to move on.
How I practice new moves
Once I grasped the basics of the move I want to learn, I put it into action. It depends on the specific technique, but I usually don’t drill it. If I do drill it because, let’s say, it’s more complicated, I probably don’t do many repetitions. If I had training partners who have time and energy to drill new techniques with after each training session, I probably would drill more (not statically, though), but since that’s not the case for me at the moment, I tend to just start using new techniques right away in sparring.
Does this work? Well, it depends on what you mean by “working.”
When I try new moves, I typically focus on the entry and control portions of a move first and build things up from there. I mentioned Choi bar above. So, let’s use Choi bar as an example. I would focus on things like getting the shoulder crunch control, isolating my opponent’s arm, bringing my leg over my opponent’s shoulder, and making my leg heavy.
Another thing is that I usually try new moves on beginners first, and try to level up each session — meaning, once I catch white belts with a new move, I aim at catching blue belts with it next. This is really a rough gauge, but it works pretty well.
Of course, when you learn something new, you will likely fail many times. What’s important here is to pay attention to what’s not working and figure out why it’s not working. Figuring this out may not be easy, and you might need further help from the instructional/s you initially referred to and your coach/senior training partners. Generally speaking, though, thinking backward from your desired goal will help solve BJJ problems.
With regard to observing what’s not working, you can do it no matter what your current skill level is. After all, a great thing about BJJ is that you get immediate feedback on what doesn’t work unless you force things and falsely believe they do work when they don’t.
Once I know what’s not working and why it’s not working, I fix my mistakes. The easiest way to do so is often just paying more attention to how I control my opponent while applying the technique. Or I might simply need to get used to using the technique more. Even if you have a good understanding of the technique (as you should by now), knowing what to do and being able to do it are two different things. And the latter requires you to apply your technique in practice.
You could keep trying in sparring, or you could drill just specific portions of the technique — surprise, you don’t have to drill the whole sequence of a move in order to get better at it. If you know which portion of a move you are bad at executing, you can just practice that particular portion.
You might feel like you are not making much progress, but trust me, if you keep working on expanding your game by learning new techniques, as I explained above, you will become better in the long run. Though, of course, my approach is not the only way, and you should find what works for you. But if you are not sure about how to approach learning new techniques on your own, I hope this email has given you an initial clue.