Grappling Breakthroughs

Stephan Teaching a Group

In January, 2006, I sent out a Grappling Tip of the Week discussing a breakthrough I had had in making the transition from gi to no-gi training, specifically with regard to controlling the head in the open guard (read the whole tip here).

I then asked the readers of the newsletter to contribute stories of their own grappling breakthrough experiences, and was immediately inundated by emails telling me of personal victories on mats all over the world.

Below is a selection of these grappling breakthrough stories. As you will see, some of these grapplers are beginners, others are advanced players. Some study with famous jiu-jitsu instructors, others train with friends in a garage. All of them have had breakthroughs on the mat, however, and are trying to help out other grapplers by sharing their stories. I’d like to sincerely thank these contributors for helping make a better, richer place!

Stephan Kesting

Breakthroughs …I had to think about this because my game has so many holes in it. I would have to say it was the first time I found that zen-spot, that eye-of-the-storm feeling, where your body (and your opponent’s body) may be going 90 mph but your mind is calm.

I was grappling with my friend Ben one time, and I noticed that he had his eyes closed, and he had this expression of total calmness. I realized he was trying get a feel for the technique. So I started emulating that, right then and there. He remarked about it later on, “Phil, you’re much calmer now, that’s cool”. I just thanked him, I didn’t tell him it was because of him.

So now, when I can, just close my eyes, and find that calm place. I don’t think about winning, I just let my body take over. I figure it knows the moves, and if one thing doesn’t work, there’s always plan B, plan C, plan D…I don’t know if it’s that “floating in totality” thing Bruce Lee was talking about, but the moves are there.

It doesn’t always work for me. Sometime I have to force a technique, or I’m in a part of my game that’s weak, or I’m dealing with someone who’s so focused on overpowering me that I can’t find it. Like I said, my game has lots of holes (but that’s why we train).

Anyhow, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Phil J.

I was having problems setting up submissions from my guard when no-gi grappling. Triangles and armlocks were not happening for me. Then I taught a technique in class that I hadn’t practiced or thought of in a long time: when my opponent postures in my guard and and brings one hand back to push my leg down, I immediately jump my hips and legs up and lock my legs around my opponents head and arm to set up the triangle.

This is not a difficult or advanced technique, but like many moves its all about timing and explosive movements. I probably practiced the move 50 times. When I started nailing everybody with it during training, I told everyone “all I’m going for is triangles, so make sure you defend against it”. This forced me to a higher level of proficiency with the technique.

The bonus was, because everyone is wary of the triangle, they tend to forget about armlocks and sweeps.

Rowan C.

When I am grappling on the mats I am always defending a submission or submitting. After awhile I got the opportunity to start teaching some guys. With my submission skills much higher than theirs I started noticing some things. I kept them thinking defensively, by constantly be going for submissions. This helped me realize that there is more than one submission at a time; there could be two or even three. My goal was to always have submission in my head and stay in offensive mode. This is when I realized my game was going to the next level. Now I am baiting them with one submission and submitting them with another.

Chris G.

I have been grappling for about two and a half years and am 17 years old. I weigh about 115 lbs and I am 5’1” tall. Grappling has always come very naturally to me.

I have to say that my biggest grappling breakthrough happened a couple of months after I first started grappling When I first started my problem was that I was constantly trying to out-muscle my opponents, and because of this I could never win against anyone who was stronger or bigger than me. I finally realized my size was actually an advantage over them. Because I am significantly smaller than they are I am extremely flexible and I have a lot more speed than they can ever have. Instead of trying to hold them back I began to use their size and strength against them. I accomplished this by using my flexibility and size to bypass their moves instead of trying to stop them. I started to win fights against guys who were twice my size, and who had been grappling longer than me. One of the reason why I love grappling so much is that size doesn’t matter on the ground.


My latest breakthrough in grappling has come about not from a physical change in my game but a mental one.

Since I have been training at my jiu jitsu club I have come a long way but I found my game would be very different depending on who I was sparring. When fighting beginner students, or students that had been training as long as myself, I felt fine, cool, calm, and collected: the way I like to fight.

However, when I fought the students that had been training longer, or who outsized me considerably, it was a different matter. I would constantly flee from any advance and soon find my self out-positioned on a downward spiral. I couldn’t get past the change in my psyche. I talked about the problems with my instructor after watching me spar with the beginner students and then the more advanced students: he said that I was at my best when I was going for something and trying to impose my game by going for something.

Then it clicked that the difference between me sparring with my fellow grades and the people above me was my commitment to my attack pattern and technique. Since then I have changed my attitude whether sparing with beginners or peers or more advanced students. I am always going for a move: the move I want to do, not the move my opponent wants. This has really transformed my game. I’m not necessarily more offensive, but I am more committed and more confident to open up on the mats.

James G.

Its pretty obvious, but once I became aware of the correct hip action required for elbow escapes (shrimping) all sorts of techniques and movement opened up for me.

This is probably something that all beginners go through when learning the game. It was apparent to even me at the time that it was a major breakthrough. Something this movement is so natural to an advanced player, but I have seen other beginners have difficulty isolating their hips. The importance of this move is something I would always try to explain/demonstrate to new guys.

Darren M.

With regard to grappling breakthroughs, my level change came about when I decided to relax, flow and let things happen. I found that being fairly isolated (I live in South Africa) I would pick up on what other people were doing without seeing what was the natural progression of my own game. I have passed this little snippet of information on to my students and I see progress there as well.

Steve B.

First off, I would like to say that I haven’t been training for very long and have a background in some police work. The thing is that I haven’t had a good time trying to tap the little guys. Yes I am stronger and have the weight advantage, but I couldn’t tap the small guys from any position.

Finally while sparring a little guy I thought to myself: “why don’t I just use some of the arm locks and other rest locks that I learned in the academy?”. Well next thing I know the little guy starts tapping his ass off. It came to me that most of the time I should center my thoughts on just one limb and one type of submission.


For me, I had numerous breakthroughs that continued to take my game to the next level. But I would say the most important one was just starting to see how each move transitioned to another. I used to be going after for one move at a time, and if they escaped it, would wait until they get into the right position to try to do the same move again. For example, I would go for an armbar, they would escape it, I would hold onto it, and they would stack me.

But when I started to watch fights more closely, I noticed how the good fighters always did one move after another. I think it was Sakuraba or Genki Sudo that made me realize it when I watched their fights. I started to see how to use one move to set up the next, such as from the Kimura on the side mount to doing a spinning armbar when they try to escape, or from the triangle to the armbar, etc. I started to do armbars and if they escaped it, a kimura or a triangle would be right there waiting for them already. After really getting down on transition, my body would just start finding openings in other positions, until it gets to the point where I don’t have to really think about it anymore and it just happens by itself.

The importance of chaining the moves improved my performance in the sport more than anything else, at least anything else technically.

Andrew C.

I had a breakthrough about controlling the head in no-gi grappling. When I fought in the gi-game I would grab the collar. In the no-gi game once I started manipulating the head in place of the collar I could keep control. Now even when I’m wearing a gi and training, sometimes I will grab the head instead of the collar and get different reactions from different players. Wrestlers, for example, are semi comfortable when one has their collar. When their neck is being  grabbed is is a different story, you get their attention better (which isn’t usually a good thing though when you’re trying to be sly).

Anyway, my breakthrough came today actually. My learning has accelerated. The method I used is nothing new to the grappling world. I took a technique I really liked and grabbed a partner. I would do the technique then he would do the technique to me. I would try to counter it, then he would try to counter it. Then we would make small adjustments. Once we felt confident we would do live goes together and really get confident with the refined technique. It got to the point where we knew the counters and what move was coming but we just couldn’t stop it.  Then we would split up and do goes with a few other people but not tell them the moves we we going for. If one of us rolled with a person who countered our practiced technique then we would get back together and find out how to beat that counter.

What it all leads down to is dissecting a technique. I left the gym today feeling very confident about two techniques. I can’t wait to get back in the gym a couple more times and dissect at least 1-3 techniques from each position. Then I will have a VERY tight game. The question arises why I didn’t start training like this a year ago? My answer has to do with the selection of a training partner. Some guys just want to go balls to the wall, flying around, and wrenching submissions attempts. I am like that too, on occasion, usually if I haven’t been in the gym for a while. But finding a willing training partner with the same mind set as you is key.

Joshua F.

My most drastic breakthrough in my short grappling career would have to be my personal discovery of hip placement when applying judo throws and takedowns. That might seem a little fundamental but that was my biggest and most sudden breakthrough. From then on, my judo skills have begun now to take form from more of my personality rather than basic techniques. I find it much easier to apply grappling arts when u are relaxed mind, body, and spirit. Me being taller than most judoka in my area, hip placement was a little awkward at first. But once I got it down for most throws, I was able to relax and clear my mind.

Thomas B.

My problem was shoulder throws. I’m a rather small woman (5′ 1″) and throwing anyone over my shoulder who was taller than me just didn’t work. (and everyone is taller than me!) After 8 years training various types of grappling, I’d come to the conclusion that this was just not the skill set for me. The funny thing is, it took a rather big kung fu blackbelt, who’s never done much grappling, to help me find this path. It was the last movement I’d never noticed: rather than stepping back with the rear leg, I’d been trying to step forward with the leg that was supporting me as well as someone else. As you know, this meant I could not torque my hips, which meant that if I actually managed to flip him/her, it was so awkward they could escape with no effort. But stepping back with the unweighted leg actually helped torque my hips the right way as well as got his/her body mass moving in the direction I needed it to be going. Needless to say, I decided that maybe learning a little kung fu would not be such a bad thing, and have been studying under my sifu for 4 years now.

Rebecca M.

I’ve had several breakthroughs in my grappling career, but my most memorable revelation involved finishing submissions from guard. I’m a rather small grappler at 5’6″ and 145 lbs, as a result, I was never able to finish submissions from bottom because my legs were too short and larger grapplers simply sat up in my guard. Eventually I learned to control the back of my opponents head using a gable grip and climb with my legs until I reached their armpits, then I was able to sink triangles, armbars, and omoplatas! I honestly felt like my game tripled overnight!! Now 90% of my offense from bottom comes from the pit-stop, high guard, and rubber guard.

D. Kohn

I am a Gracie Jiu Jitsu purple belt. I hope this can be of help to someone. My biggest challenge with progressing with BJJ was in the fact that I simply could not apply the moves that I knew “on time” in grappling situations. Because of the number of moves a grappler must know, in class, you are likely to only drill a particular move maybe once or twice a year. You just can’t cover it all. Most instructors show 3-4 moves during the instruction period of a typical class. I needed to “remind myself ” of the moves I already know on a much more frequent basis to produce them under the stress of a fluid situation.

Therefore, I bought a grappling dummy to drill the moves I know. I take a quality book, Machado BJJ encyclopedia, and start with move #1. I drill the move with the dummy five minutes. I then move to the next technique. I do five moves a day, every day. That is over 100 moves a month. As a result, in my sparring, moves “just happen” that I have drilled with the grappling dummy. The dummy is not perfect. It does not provide resistance. And, some moves are harder to realistically drill than others. But, it does reinforce things your already know and make you more likely to produce them on demand. I hope this helps someone else,

P. S. I am not the next great UFC champion. I am 43 years old and just happy to be training and getting better on a month by month basis

Dave H.

My name is Brian Murphy. I am a member of KBJJ in Knoxville Tennessee (from the Pedro Sauer team). I am a white belt and BJJ is new to me. I have trained in other arts that simply do not compare.

This brings me to my breakthrough. During sparring I found myself breathing too hard, trying too hard, and struggling too hard! I felt great for the first 2 minutes rolling. After that, I was a big practice dummy. A purple belt suggested that I “relax”. The very next class I rolled 10 sets AND submitted some blue belts!!! A rare and wonderful thing for me.

After this I began to notice, there are blue and purple belts that could take this advice and run with it. I was watching a brown belt and a purple belt roll. It was very evident that the brown belt was SO relaxed! Very meticulous with all the technique. He used as little energy and power as needed although the purple belt had him by 50 pounds. It was a beautiful sight to see one man TRY so hard and not get anywhere. The brown belt looked like he was sipping morning coffee the whole time.

“RELAX”: there is a breakthrough for all levels. Relaxing will “make” you rely on technique. And the person who has the best technique, has the advantage, ’nuff said.

Brian Murphy

My breakthrough came when I became a blue belt in Jiu-jitsu. I was still getting a lot of grief from the other people in my class, and my sensei took me aside and said that since I’m the highest belt rank in the class, I should be tapping everyone else out. So I developed a pride that was almost selfish and wrong, but coming to realize, it wasn’t selfish at all, it was sending a message that I earned my belt rank. But it doesn’t stop there, because I was still getting grief from peers in the class.

It wasn’t until I started getting extremely dynamic with my movement that I started defeating opponents. By dynamic I mean wild, unorthodox movement that would ultimately leave my opponents making mistakes and leaving a limb for me to pick on. This process took 1 day to realize and 5 minutes to instill during sparring sessions. My result now is that except for one person that is my equal (i.e. a stalemate) I have become a dominant arm-barring force in the advanced jiu-jitsu class. Now all I have to worry about is getting my brown belt, and getting out of half-guard.

David F.

At first when I started training I was horrible LOL. I knew the techniques but just did not know the whole game: I was throwing techniques up in the air but I did not know the basics, so one day I was at a Barnes and Noble and found Royler Gracie’s book. It was full of techniques, and I studied them and actually trained them. Later I started buying other books and rapidly found out how it all worked and that every move was a result of another. Then I started to train with my cousin who was stronger (way stronger) and heavier for 2 months, and when I started training with the guys that used to kick my ass, I swear I was in control the whole time!! No one could believe that I could take on stronger, more experienced people with basic techniques. I destroyed about 5 guys in a row. Grappling has changed my life for the good way, because now all I want to do is train and get better and not mess around with drugs and alcohol. So moral of my breakthrough is to always go back to the basics.

Hector S.

I’ve been practicing jiu-jitsu for 2 years, judo for 1 year, and I have experienced breakthroughs in both those martial arts. My first was in my judo: when I started learning throws I could only throw people during drills but never in sparring. I could never get the right timing for anything.

I was doing extensive practices and sparring with my cousin on days when there were no judo classes. We would spar continuously for 1 hour with only a few rest breaks. We tried to follow a periodization program for competition, so we did high volume low intensity practices at that time. I still couldn’t throw him and I was easily thrown myself. Then I decided to just to keep on doing “do-or-die” with my major throws. It sucked at first, but after some time it was like I suddenly just got the feel for them. It’s just like waking up one day and realizing that you know how to throw. When I went back to regular judo classes I had more endurance,more strength, more experience, and I started throwing everyone I faced on randori that night. It was a very rewarding experience for me.

My second breakthrough was in jiu-jitsu. My guard was weak and could be passed easily. People were always criticizing me for having a weak guard. This bothered me a lot because the guard game is very important in jiu-jitsu, and it put a lot of pressure on me because I had to be on top or my opponent would just kill me. I don’t know what happened: I just tried my best every-time not let my opponent pass, at first to no avail. But then one day, just like in Judo, I go the feel for how to do it. I started moving my hips more, I kept him busy, etc. Even if my opponent tried to break my guard multiple times they’d fail. I realized that my guard was getting stronger because my opponents cant pass it easily anymore, and this boosted my confidence and even made my guard stronger because I’m no longer conscious about it.

William B.

My biggest breakthrough came when I realized I couldn’t lay flat on my back when my guard got opened. When it got opened I would literally try to climb up the guy’s arm or pull him back down, even in spider guard I would lay flat on my back.

I don’t know why but I started sitting up or at least coming up on an elbow when my guard got opened, and I noticed it was really hard for people to pass my guard. Similarly when someone got off of their back when I opened their guard it was harder for me to pass. So this was my big breakthrough, simple huh?

Shannon S.

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