A few years back, I had a bit of a crisis in jiu jitsu. I had recently earned my purple belt, and was immersed in learning as much as I possibly could. At the time, that meant learning as many techniques, variations of techniques, and chains of techniques I possibly could. Unfortunately, my brain simply couldn't handle the information overload. My coaches, who were far more experienced than me, could provide what seemed like an infinite level of knowledge, but I could only retain a tiny portion.
I was feeling pretty good about my game, but I realized I was nearing a big 'ole wall in my development. And not just one of those so-called "walls" marathoners talk about (which isn't a wall so much as the first in a repeating cycle of highs and lows.) This was an actual semi-hard (heh.) limit on my ability to learn, which would invariably limit my ability to progress. I was still learning jiu jitsu like a white or low-level, and it was becoming more and more obvious in how I rolled.
I needed a different way to think about jiu jitsu.
In psychology terms, I needed a new schema, or way to organize the information was learning. So I "forgot" everything I knew about jiu jitsu and pondered the very nature of the art. It's basically two bodies moving in space with the goal of either breaking a joint or strangulating your opponent. Nothing more. Nothing less. That's when I had my "AH-HA" moment - while there's near-infinite variations and nuances, all legal submissions are really just attacks on eight different points on the human body. Well, a set of arteries in our necks, one big joint (the spine), and six pairs of smaller joints. The eight points, then, are:
- Two carotid arteries in our neck
- Shoulder joints
- Elbow joints
- Wrist joints
- Hip joints
- Knee joints
- Ankle joints
- The spine
The carotids are simple enough; they carry blood to the brain. Constrict both enough and your opponent loses consciousness. All the other joints fall into a few simplified categories:
- Ball and socket joints (hips and shoulders)
- Hinge joints (elbows, knees, and ankles)
- Condyloid joints (wrists)
- Pivot joints (where our head attaches to our spine)
- Facet joints (the spine itself)
Yeah, yeah, anatomy and physiology folks will note this is *really* simplified, but we don't need "study for the MCATs" level of specificity here. We're only interested in what it takes to *break* these joints.
Every submission we learn in jiu jitsu (and almost all possible submissions) act on these eight areas. Slicers, asphyxiation (smothering), and pressure point-based submissions are most of the exceptions, and most are rare.
So I started playing around with this concept. Instead of going for a traditional straight arm bar, I would experiment with attacking the elbow joint (a hinge) from different positions and angles. After playing around with this idea for about a year, my previous schema of jiu jitsu being a giant collection of techniques faded. This old schema was replaced by a much broader-but-simpler schema based on understanding the planes and ranges of motion of these seven joints, along with an understanding of how the carotid arteries work.
Prior to doing this, my thought process was sort of like a "choose your own adventure" story based on cause and effect. I would initiate a movement, the opponent would respond, then I would access my mental cache of collected techniques, choose the appropriate response, they would respond, and so on. This method was very effective against people who weren't very good OR people who I had trained with a lot (because their game was adequately predictable so I could anticipate their responses.)
The problem? This is a very slow mental process. With enough repetitions, I would marginally increase the speed of the responses as muscle memory develops, but it still felt like I was a train confined to the rails of the techniques I had previously learned. It was extremely difficult to improvise, create, or even respond to novel situations. I could have continued to advance in the sport, but my development had already slowed to a rather pathetic crawl. And it was getting even slower with time.
The new "eight points of attack" caused me to regress for a few months mostly because I stopped going to regular classes and learning new techniques. Instead, I just did open mats and rolled. And rolled. And rolled some more. The strategy was pretty basic - get to an advantageous position, secure said position, then attack whatever joint (or carotids) I could from that position using basic physiological principles.
The results have been rather dramatic. While I'm not going to be winning any world championships, my jiu jitsu is objectively better. More importantly (to me, anyway) - this changed how I learn jiu jitsu. Previously, I would memorize techniques in ever-greater detail. And I remembered all the details as discrete points. For example, I had somewhere around thirty details related to a basic triangle. Whenever I would hit one in training, some parts of the triangle were automatic (built through repetition and subsequent muscle memory.) Otherwise, I would run down the list of the points I could remember in order to more effectively execute the submission.
Now I would simply start with an understanding that I needed to compress both carotid arteries, and I could dynamically make adjustments with little conscious thought. This simplified system was faster and more effective.
The HUGE benefit, though, came when I started going back to regular classes and learning technique. Instead of memorizing anything and everything my coaches explained, I could focus on the underlying concepts and how it applied to the eight points of attack. Instead of learning a new arm bar to be added to the heap of techniques already in my head, I was learning new, creative ways to exploit that hinge joint of the elbow. It's a subtle but important difference.
In future posts, I'll discuss these eight points of attack and the mechanisms that make each of the attacks "effective." In other words, HOW do we attack each of these points? I'll also talk about how I started to apply this simplified schema to every aspect of my game, including takedowns, sweeps, escapes, defense, pacing, etc.