Certain BJJ techniques are ‘white belt’ moves. Which means they might be effective against white belts (and sometimes blue belts) but then stop working once you move up to opponents of a higher skill level.
Basically you can pull off just about anything on a newbie. They make rookie mistakes because they’re, well, rookies. Whitebelts don’t instinctively know how to move to prevent, defend or submissions, so you can catch them in the cheesiest techniques. But that soon stops working once they get a little bit more mat time.
There are lots of examples of these white belt techniques that I’ll get to in a second, but the first unrealistic technique comes from way back in my Kung Fu days…
In the eighties I spent years training in a few different classical Kung Fu systems. 90% of the training was solo forms (katas): hopping around fighting imaginary opponents while pretending to be a zoo-ful of different animals: I practised tiger claws, leopard paws, monkey fists, and crane’s beaks thousands of times with sincerity and conviction. And the rest of the training wasn’t much more realistic.
It’s true that the students at the Kung Fu school were serious and trained hard. We sweated, strained and got in shape. We practised techniques over and over and over.
This exertion was probably good for fitness and character-building, but when it came to actual fighting that Kung Fu training was giant pile of steaming horses**t.
For example, one technique was the double punch. This is where you simultaneously punch your opponent high and low at the same time.
The received wisdom was that since blocking a single punch was hard, then stopping two simultaneous punches was downright impossible.
But of course the sad truth is that the biomechanics of the double punch are terrible.
To throw a powerful punch you need to twist your body, either to the left or to the right. That’s why boxers have figured out it’s MUCH more powerful to throw two punches in quick succession (a jab and a cross, a cross and a hook) than two punches at the same time.
Now it’s true that maybe the double punch might have work if I walked up to my unsuspecting 12 year old son while he was drinking a glass of milk by the fridge and – BOOM – blindsided him with it.
If I did that then I would probably hurt him and maybe even knock him over. But only because I outweigh him by 100 lbs.
However we aren’t looking for striking techniques that’ll only work when you sucker punch smaller, weaker opponents opponents…
Or self defense moves that work only on drunks…
Or – to bring this back to a BJJ context – sweeps and submissions that work only on completely untrained white belt newbies…
What we want are solid techniques that are a serious threat to any opponent, no matter how skilled he is.
So what are some examples of techniques that mostly work only at low levels of BJJ?
This could be controversial, but one example is the Americana armlock. You need to know this technique to be a complete grappler of course… And it’s true that every day a lot of white belts get tapped out by the Americana from sidemount…
But how often do you see the Americana from sidemount work in the black belt division of the Mundials? Or in ADCC? Or EBI? The sad fact is that unless there’s a large weight difference it hardly ever works at the high level.
Another submission that works in class but hardly ever in competition is the calf slicer leglock. In competition, with adrenaline flowing and bragging rights on the line, most intermediate and advanced competitors caught in this lock just suck it up, eat the pain, and simply refuse to tap.
The corollary is that you might not want to build your entire game around the Americana or the calf slicer, even if it served you well when you were first starting out.
Does that mean you shouldn’t learn these two submissions? Of course not! You’ve got to learn these techniques because someone may try to use it on you. But to make it your bread and butter attacks and your go-to submissions is limiting because one day it will stop working!
So what’s the answer?
It’s smart to base the bulk of your game around the stuff that’s working at the highest level. Take a look at what the world champions are doing, deconstruct their games, figure out if their techniques will work for your body type, and make that the main focus of your training.
What submissions do the black belts use in the Mundials and the other most tournaments? The heavy hitters are the armbar, triangle choke, Kimura, RNC, bow and arrow choke, kneebar, and the heel hook (in no gi). (Click here to see one analysis of the top submissions of 2015).
Sure, you might initially have some success with the Americana, especially if you’re mostly fighting smaller white belts and blue belts. But you’re going to get better, and as that happens your training partners are also going to get better (not to mention your tournament opponents if you compete). And when you to face tougher and tougher opponents that Americana will stop working for you.
At that point you’ll have no choice but to rejigger your submission strategies and develop new attacks.
Instead you should future proof your game. How much better will you be if you concentrated on the high-percentage stuff right from the beginning?
I’ve seen a lot of experienced grapplers come to the conclusion that their game mostly consists of sneaky moves that only work against white and blue belts. They’ve gone down a rabbit hole: unlearning their current game and developing new techniques is hard and takes a long time. What a waste of time and energy.
Try to split your training 80-20. Spend 80% of your time training the high-percentage techniques that are working right now at the high levels – this will ensure that you’re building a solid, effective game that’ll serve you well when the chips are down.
And then spend 20% of your time and effort on the stuff from outer space: techniques you think might be the next big thing, cool moves you saw on Youtube, and so on. Who knows, you might just discover a new way to apply that previously ineffective Americana against world champions, and then armlock your way to a gold medal at the Mundials!!
To see other examples of techniques that’ll work only when there’s a big skill or size discrepancy check out my blog post called Defending Stupid Big Guy Attacks (and the Honor of Jiu-Jitsu).
It’ll show you how to shut down and escape those stupid techniques in case some big white belt tries them on you!
The video breakdown of the techniques and the defences are by mostly by BJJ world champion Brandon ‘Wolverine’ Mullins who is an entertaining and effective teacher, so I’m sure you’ll like it. Click here to read that post.