This is an article by longtime Grapplearts contributor and BJJ Black Belt Mark Mullen.
A question I always ask when I discuss jiu-jitsu with senior black belts is, “In developing your game is it better to develop your strengths, or to focus on weaknesses in order to correct them?”
The simplest form of this question is about developing your top game vs your bottom game in BJJ.
Whether you should spend most of your energy developing your strength (i.e. continuing to train from the top if you’re already a top player), or working on your weaknesses (i.e. trying to bring your bottom game up to snuff if you’re already more comfortable on top).
Let’s look at both sides of thinking, using top and bottom games as an example (although it applies to other areas of BJJ as well)…
Strategy 1: Develop Equal Top and Bottom Games
Developing a BJJ game that is equal in all positions is the ideal of the art.
Due to the unpredictable nature of a fight, you do not always have a choice in where you find yourself! And you do not want to feel significantly disadvantaged when you end up in a less familiar position, either passing or the defending the guard.
You may be traditionally a top player but if you encounter a high level wrestler or much larger, heavier opponent you will be forced to fight from your back. And you had better be ready to deal with that situation!
Several years back I trained at the Carlson Gracie Academy in Rio de Janeiro and was having Brazilian BBQ at a churracscurria and talking jiu-jitsu with instructor Ari Galo. I asked him this question and he emphatically stated, “Equal top and bottom!”
He then related the story of one of the Carlson Gracie Team’s most fearsome competitors, Wallid Ismail, who was known for his relentless pressure and crushing top game.
At UFC 12, he was matched against Japanese fighter “Yoshiki” Takahashi.
Wallid came out hard from the opening bell trying to take the fight to his area of strength – the ground – but Takahashi was able to defend Ismail’s takedown with strong counter wrestling and took Ismail down instead.
Wallid found himself in unfamiliar territory on his back, and was markedly less effective from his guard than he would have been on top. He fatigued and eventually lost the decision.
Upon his return to Brazil, Galo related that Wallid rushed up to him in the academy and implored him “Ari, please teach me the guard!“. He had been so strong from the top that he had had spent very little time on his back and had never developed his guard.
We see wrestlers in MMA so accustomed to fighting from the top, near helpless and immobile when they find themselves controlled on their backs.
Jiu-jitsu black belt Josh Russell subscribes to the philosophy of being equally comfortable and dangerous top or bottom.
But he points out that achieve this level of balance in your jiu-jitsu, you must be willing to spend time on the bottom position, even if you know that you could go to your strength and put your opponent on his back instead. Now when you encounter an opponent who forces you to fight from your back, you are ready!
I have had matches with superior wrestlers who forced me to fight from my guard. Their balance and base on top was so strong that sweeping my way to the top was a very difficult option.
During my period of training at brown belt, I spent several months working on weak areas of my game specifically in order to cover some of those holes.
But the downside of this is that you will be allocating much of your precious training time and energy to areas that frankly, you may never be great at. Which takes us to the next strategy…
Strategy 2: Play To Your Strengths
Early in your jiu-jitsu training you will find yourself gravitating towards certain positions more than others.
Certain moves seem more natural and will provide your earliest successful submissions against fully resisting opponents. This ends up being a self-reinforcing situation.
Many advanced belts will admit that their favourite techniques have been strong for them throughout their entire BJJ career. That same knee on belly choke they won tournaments with at blue belt is still one of their go to weapons now at black belt.
Physical attributes are important here. Factors like the amount of fast twitch muscles fibres or limb length – if you are blessed with short, thick limbs, then maybe being a triangle and Darce choke specialist may not be your BJJ destiny. But eventually you will find other positions that work just as well for you.
A practitioner who is stockier, heavier and decent at scrambling will often develop a definite preference for top game, and conversely will not likely develop the same proficiency on the bottom.
Similarly, Marcelo Garcia has stated that he perfects only one half of his techniques: he doesn’t try to spend equal time training his techniques on the left and right sides. His view is that it is better to develop one side deeply and not worry about the other. He believes that training both sides will result in 2 mediocre sides instead of a single deadly side.
Stephan Kesting related to me that during his private lessons with various black belts he learned that not that all black belts are equal in all positions. To get the most from a private one must know what areas of the game that black belt has the knowledge in. Many high level BJJ competitors will admit to not using certain positions on the ground.
Is a practitioner’s training time best used on positions or techniques that they will never get beyond a minimal degree of competency? Equal in all positions is an attractive ideal, but not realistic for many.
Author and life hacker Tim Ferriss has often discussed the Pareto Principle – paraphrased means that you derive 80% of your results from a mere 20% of your most effective efforts – and that for many, it is a waste of their limited time to try to strengthen weak areas that will simply never be more than average.
Business efficiency experts may advocate identifying your greatest strengths and outsourcing all the rest (as opposed to striving to be mediocre at everything) but what does this mean for the BJJ practitioner? After all you can’t outsource your guard to an overseas call center!
But what you can do is find a strategic way to avoid going to that position / area of weakness; to hide it.
You don’t need a lot of variations in your weaker positions, but maybe a single strong solution for that position will do the trick.
For example: If you are predominantly a top player you still need to have some kind of plan for when you are on the bottom. Maybe developing multiple guard variations is likely not your most realistic long-term plan. Instead you might want to develop a basic guard that you are comfortable with. An ability to defend yourself when you find yourself on bottom, to threaten a couple of credible submissions, and few high percentage sweeps.
In addition you may want to get really good at getting up from the bottom back to the standing position.
So for a fighter most focused on MMA what is the best use of his precious training time and energy? For example spending hours developing guard submissions might not make sense, as a very low percentage of MMA fights are finished from the guard. Instead a fighter might want to maximise his training time by perfecting standups from the guard.
In fact MMA coach Adam Singer says that getting up from the bottom is the most important BJJ for MMA skill from your guard!
Most practitioners will identify their strengths early on in their training and build an A Game around those natural areas.
Of course the exception to all this is that a BJJ instructor must have a solid understanding of all of the positions in jiu-jitsu in order to provide the students with a complete game. His students will probably not have the inclination or attributes to make their games identical to his!
What is your training philosophy?
We’ve looked at both sides of the argument here. Equal top and bottom, versus a game well rounded in all positions.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
The author, Mark Mullen, is a BJJ Black belt from GB Calgary, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @MarkMullenBJJ or read more of his articles on Grapplearts by clicking here.