Napoleon Bonaparte may have been a megalomaniac who left millions dead in his wake, but if you read about his battles and military campaigns there is no doubt that he was a strategic and tactical genius.
(Well, maybe he wasn’t a genius when he invaded Russia in 1812, but before that he was damn near unstoppable…)
He fought over sixty battles in his lifetime, during which he was usually outnumbered by his foes. However Napoleon’s leadership skills on the battlefield allowed the French army to steal victory from the jaws of defeat many, many times.
Defeating larger, better armed opponents – this sounds pretty directly relevant to jiu-jitsu, doesn’t it? So it’s worth considering how he did it and whether any of it applies to us grapplers…
Part of Napoleon’s uncanny skill at winning battles came from his ability to adapt and quickly respond to the inevitable chaos found in the arena of war. Even if things didn’t go according to his initial plan he would still find a way to mass his troops at a decisive point, create a local temporary superiority in force and numbers, and then use that advantage to smash the enemy.
How could he know what his opponent was going to do? How could he respond so quickly? Was he psychic or incredibly lucky?
No, not at all.
Let’s let Napoleon tell us exactly how he had such uncanny battlefield reflexes…
“If I appear to be always ready to respond to anything, prepared to face anything, it is because before undertaking anything, I have meditated a long time – I have foreseen all that could happen.
It is not a spirit which suddenly reveals to me what I have to say or do in a circumstance unexpected by other: it is reflection, meditation.”
In this quote above he tells us that his ability to quickly respond to an unusual situation in the moment is actually all about the preparation beforehand.
Have you heard of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst? That is exactly what Napoleon was doing.
Long before the first cannonball flew across the battlefield he had already gamed out every eventuality and prepared a response for it.
(250 years later Muhammad Ali said much the same thing; see below!)
When it comes to jiu-jitsu, Napoleon’s quote applies to both the offensive and defensive aspects of the game. Basically you need to have a gameplan that covers almost every contingency!
Effective high level offence requires you to develop an ‘A’ game. You need to have a coherent set of techniques, moves and strategies that you believe in and that link together effectively.
Your ‘A’ game should be focussed; you don’t want to do a little bit of everything. After all, it’s “Jack of all trades, master of none,” right?
Examples of high level offensive ‘A’ games might include Marcelo Garcia’s X guard or turtle attack system, or Bernardo Faria’s deep half guard sweeps leading directly into his over-under guard pass.
However you need to consider how your opponent is going to react. You also then need have an answer for every response, counter or resistance you’re likely to encounter.
Consider the fundamental butterfly guard sweep; in fact, let’s say that this is your primary attack from the guard…
You may be good with the basic butterfly sweep against a passive opponent, but to become a butterfly expert you need to have answers to each of the following questions and more…
- How do you get into a good position to do the butterfly sweep against someone who is actively gripfighting to deny you the underhook?
- How do you do it on an opponent who crosses his ankles and pinches his knees together when you have him in the butterfly guard?
- Do you know how to finish the butterfly sweep if your opponent throws his weight the opposite direction of the sweep?
- How do you deal with him if he posts his hand to counter the sweep?
- What do you do if he posts a leg or jumps up to both feet during the sweep?
- Etc, etc, etc.
To develop a great butterfly guard you need to have at least one response for each of these problematic situations. Or, in Napoleonic terms, you need to meditate on it a long time.
The same idea of being able to handle all contingencies applies to your jiu-jitsu defense as well…
Does your club specialise in the butterfly guard? If so then your frequent exposure to that position probably means that you’re pretty decent at defending this particular variation of guard, which is great.
But when was the last time at your butterfly-centric club that you spent some quality time trying to break open a stubborn closed guard?
(Don’t fall behind too far in defending against the closed guard, otherwise some specialist will armbar and triangle the hell our of you!)
What about escaping from the bottom?
Are you equally skilled at escaping sidemount on your right and left sides?
Can you escape low mount, high mount, S mount and knee mount? After all, you don’t know what your opponent is going to do, so you need to prepare for all possibilities.
Let’s say that you’re confident at escaping the six fundamental positions which described in some detail in the Roadmap for BJJ download; but what about the unusual, unorthodox and crazy positions? Do you have a plan to deal with positions like reverse knee on belly, donkey guard, worm guard, reverse mount, and kesa gatame?
If you’ve never experienced these more unusual positions before then you’ll be in for a rude shock the first time you go against someone who is good at them.
Same goes for submissions… Are all your main training partners armbar and triangle choke specialists? Maybe you should go train with Kimura, omoplata and (sane) leglock specialists once in a while, else you’ll never learn to deal with all the little variations and tricks that those guys have up their sleeves.
It’s a really good idea to experience as many different situations from a defensive standpoint proactively in a controlled drilling environment; it’ll allow you to start formulating some kind of defense in advance!
Napoleon was a smooth-togued devil (just check out some of his love letters to Josephine!) so he phrases things as ‘meditating’ to ‘foresee’ the future – that sounds kind of fancy, so let’s try putting the same thought into jiu-jitsu-ese…
Train diligently to expose yourself to, and prepare for, as many different situations as you can to make yourself ready to deal with them when you run into them on the mat.
Regardless of whether you prefer the Napoleon’s eloquent wording or my own stripped down version, the message is the same: take the time to get ready for what’s out there!
“If I appear to be always ready to respond to anything, prepared to face anything, it is because before undertaking anything, I have meditated a long time – I have foreseen all that could happen. It is not a spirit which suddenly reveals to me what I have to say or do in a circumstance unexpected by other: it is reflection, meditation.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
P.S. While we’re on this topic, here’s a video of world champion BJJ black belt Brandon Mullins talking about how to develop a gameplan in BJJ. A gameplan is all about preparing for the most common contingencies, and thus this video is highly relevant to today’s discussion!