One of my favorite expressions is that “jiu-jitsu is a game of inches”. Sometimes a whole match can be decided by the battle to move your hand one inch forward.
The single best example I can think of to illustrate this concept is the Ten Finger Guillotine as taught by Chris Brennan. Take a look at this picture, paying special attention to the position of the thumbs.
Notice how the first knuckle of the right thumb is lined up with the second knuckle of the left thumb, while the first knuckle of the left thumb is aligned with the second knuckle of the right thumb. Is this splitting hairs? Not really! When someone can’t get this choke to work, the most common mistake BY FAR is not lining up the thumbs properly. Having your thumbs lined up incorrectly by half an inch makes the technique about half as effective!
You can read my article about the Ten Finger Guillotine to find out what else makes this technique so effective.
Another example where inches make a difference is the basic achilles lock. Many people place their forearm several inches too high on the leg. The achilles lock can still work in this position, but it takes a LOT more strength to finish the move. The most effective spot to place your forearm is at the base of the achilles tendon, right where the wrinkles form when you flex your foot. With your forearm snug in the right place it takes much less strength to finish the submission. Your forearm should be right where my fingers are pointing.
If you want to learn more about the critical details that make ankle locks work, check out this Youtube video on the four most common footlock errors, and/or my article on breaking down the ankle lock, and/or the highly acclaimed High Percentage Leglocks DVD.
The two submissions discussed aren’t the only examples of majorly important minutiae in BJJ. Grip placement on the lapel can make the difference between a successful guard pass and getting choked out during the guard pass attempt. Flexing your foot just the right way can allow you to counter a leglock, or, in a different context, enable you to successfully apply a triangle choke submission. The position of your opponent’s thumb can prevent, or enable, your opponent escaping your armbar.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the plethora of details you need to know in order to get good at this sport, get motivated and also tell yourself how lucky you are. We’ve chosen a great sport that you can continue to grow in for decades. I’ve said before that the necessity of paying attention to detail is one (and perhaps the only) similarity between Golf and BJJ.
I am a black belt with many years of BJJ and submission wrestling experience. Do I know all the minute adjustments for every technique I try? Not by a long shot! I’m pretty good with my favorite moves, but I have a long list of techniques that are still ‘under development’. So when you’re out there on the mats trying to figure out if a certain technique will work better if you slide your wrist half an inch to the left, take some comfort in the fact that I’m probably trying to figure out the same thing.