The Beginner’s Guide To Building Your Jiu Jitsu A-Game

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Build your jiu jitsu A-game in 4 easy steps!

Lost at what to do on the mats and tired of throwing out random moves only to get pulverized by higher belts for your efforts?

Don’t you wish there was a little someone on your shoulder telling you what you needed to do in each situation?

Don’t you wish you had…

… a plan?

In this article, you’re going to get just that. Well, not the little person on your shoulder – I don’t even know how that would work to be honest, the logistics would be physically impossible and HR would get involved. No, the whole thing would be a nightmare – but hooking you up with a plan for success in your training is something we can do! 

A plan that will both set you up to learn AND add new moves to your game. 

A plan that will provide you with a paint by numbers A-game for jiu jitsu you can adjust and fallback on when you need it the most. 

But before we start, I want to share something with you…

Yep, that’s me. (Pssst it’s actually not. I just photoshopped my face and eye patch there. You can hardly tell, right? 😉)

I bet you’re wondering how I wound up in such a predicament. 

Well, I’ll tell ya, Bub. All the time I spent on the mat, studying and practicing jiu jitsu did nothing to help my social life. 

I had a girlfriend once, but she left me soon after taking this photo. 

Recently, I decided it was time to get back in the game, but I was confronted with a problem… 

My hours and hours of practice, trying to kill other humans on the mat, had completely destroyed my conversation skills. 

So, to do something about it, I traded in my sweet yellow suit for a book on conversation tactics called…

Conversation Tactics.

Inside, the author Patrick King wrote about the importance of having current event topics, personal topics, and various small talking points on hand to keep the conversation going; plus a nifty fallback story ready at helm in case the conversation gets stale. 

The way he presented these points separately, with examples, in what he called the conversation resume got me thinking. 

This model of preparation could be the perfect thing to help white belts – and any non-white belts who still feel lost on the mats – get back on track. 

In this article, I’m going to cover three important points when it comes to your training. 

Namely:

  • How to create your own contingency plan to help you get back on track when things go wrong.
  • How to use your contingency plan to help you add new techniques to your game.
  • How to choose the RIGHT techniques to add to your game to ensure you never waste your time on the mats.

The Beginners Crash Course In Building An A-Game In Jiu Jitsu

a-game-in-jiu-jitsu-4-step-plan

Your Contingency Game AKA Your A-Game

I know, the title of this subsection may be a little confusing. I mean, why would your fallback game – your contingency plan – also be your A-game. 

Well, let’s think about your A-game for a second and look at three common situations where you would absolutely want to execute it.

  • Competition – yep, no point trying out new things here. When everything is on the line and you simply have to win, you gotta stick to what it is you do best. 

  • Sparring with someone who’s liable to hurt you – The longer you do jiu jitsu, the better you get at spotting training partners who are likely to spaz out, throw stray elbows, knees and Jon Jones styled eye pokes. You also learn to spot the training partners who are running on pure ego and will settle for nothing less a than a balls-to-the wall pace, oblivious to any apparent size and/or weight differences. In these situations, it’s best not to roll the dice, because any inch you give these people, can – and often will – lead to injury.

  • When the new moves you’re experimenting with don’t work — when adding new moves to your resume, you have to accept the fact that they probably won’t work as well as you hoped the first few times you try them. This is the process of learning: you’re learning timing, you’re learning via kinesthetics, you’re learning how to attack without sacrificing control and you’re learning the common reactions to your moves. And while a certain amount of failure is expected, you don’t have to give up in defeat. You missed that new armbar you’re trying out? No problem, just don’t let your opponent get the upper hand on you. Get back to your A-game and navigate to a position where you can try again. 

Your contingency plan will not only help you get out of tough situations and be in control of the game physically, it will also help you mentally. 

Being 100% clear about what you’re good at – the sequences and path you plan to lead your opponent down to your end game – and all of the reactions your opponent may have, along with your counters to them, will give you the confidence on the mat you need to not only hold your own when to going gets tough, but also get the tap. 

If you’re a white belt or maybe a fresh blue belt and you’re thinking, “That’s all well and good, but I don’t have a contingency game yet.”

Don’t worry, because we’re going to run through a few little steps to help you put one together as a placeholder until you build up enough hours on the mat to refine and forge a jiu jitsu A-game of your own. 

 
4-Steps To Building Your Contingency Plan On The Mats

Going back to Conversation Tactics, King suggests ensuring you create a fallback story to keep up your sleeve just in case the conversation gets boring or in case initial attempts to capture your partner’s attention didn’t quite hit the mark. (see the resemblance to what I alluded to with the need for a contingency plan for jiu jitsu in the paragraphs above?)

King states that a good fallback story should comprise four key elements:

  1. The bridging sentence
  2. The story itself
  3. Your opinion of the story 
  4. Asking for people’s opinion in different ways

Looking at these elements, we can see they have nothing to do with what we want to achieve on the mat… 

Lol

… However, we CAN use the basic premise behind this structure to help us build our jiu jitsu A-game.

First, I want you to have a good think about the positions you have the most success with. 

For example, let’s say your open guard is garbage and your training partners are easily able to cut right through it. But, your not too bad at locking on the half guard and can often hold a determined guard passer there much longer and with more success than any other guard

Again if you’re a white belt, you may be throwing your hands up saying, “I have no success from anywhere!” 

That’s ok. Instead I want you to think about the positions you’ve been able to use to transition to more advantageous alternatives. Think about positions where you were able to defend yourself for a longer period of time or with less effort compared to other positions. 

Continuing with the half guard as our example, let’s add it to our four step process:

  1. Get half guard

Notice that I’ve placed the half guard, our example fallback position, in step two of the process. 

This is taking the place of “the story itself” in King’s list presented earlier. In our process, it is important that we first get clear on the position of “greater likelihood of success” before considering other steps.

Next, let’s consider your goal from your fallback position. 

In any position, you have a variety of options available to you, however, you may not be good at all of them, and while you may be good at some of them; only a smaller percentage will lead to the most beneficial situations possible.

Remember, your contingency game should also be your A-game, and that means every step, every action and every position must be the most effective FOR YOU

You might have a killer coyote roll over sweep. And you might also have an above average knee tap from the dog fight. But if you somehow keep landing in your opponent’s guard after the roll over sweep, while the knee tap lands you on top in the side smash, where you are most likely to advance to a dominant position, like the mount or side control, then the latter will be the best option for you in your contingency/A-game. 

There is a common misconception that you need to address: Just because you’re an absolute killer with one type of sweep, doesn’t guarantee it’s always the best option for you. 

Yes, there will be times in competition when the clock is running down, where you only need two points to win and the next position isn’t so important. 

However, in all other situations, the proficiency of the sweep will be worth nothing if the next position doesn’t at least provide you with likely opportunities to advance position or submit your opponent. 

After considering the sweeping options and their subsequent positions in our example above, we’re going to choose coming out on top, in the side smash, as our goal. 

  1. Get half guard
  2. Move to dog fight, knee tap, get to side smash 

Alright, now that we’re on a roll and starting to feel more confident in our contingency plan, let’s look at step four and think about the options you have after getting to the side smash… (after a quick word from our sponsor)

  • You can look to advance straight to the mount.
  • You can leverage your opponent’s defenses and frames to help you set up a path to side control. 
  • If your opponent would rather scramble and give up the turtle position than let you get to the mount or the side, then you can opt for taking the back.
  • If you’re in nogi, f*#k, why not go for a leglock?

The choice is up to you and will depend on your goals in the next position in combination with your opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and defensive reactions. 

Whatever options you arrive at in your own contingency plan, I always suggest selecting two to three options for advancement. 

This will ensure you have alternatives based on your opponent’s reactions and whether they are better at defending one subsequent position over another, while at the same time keeping the overall options minimal to avoid creating a state of analysis paralysis: hindering in your in-the-moment decision making.

  1. Get half guard
  2. Move to dog fight, knee tap, get to side smash
  3. Go to mount if X. Go to side control if Y. Go to back if Z. Go for leglock if YEET. (I know I said two to three options, but I couldn’t resist the legs – I’m Australian, what did you expect?)

Ok, that’s looking better. Now, let’s rewind everything and take it from the top by adding the bridge. 

In his book, King’s first step for creating a fallback story is to come up with a bridging sentence to use as a segue into the story itself. 

“Hey, you know what I heard recently?”

Thinking about King’s concept of the bridging sentence, I came to the conclusion that the sentence below would be the most useful than the example he presented above. 

“Speaking of XYZ, did I ever tell you about…”

In my opinion, this bridging sentence is much better as it allows you to use an element from the current conversation to seamlessly set up your fallback story, rather than jamming it in out of nowhere without context. 

Essentially, we use:

Element of drowning conversation X → Introducing fallback story  

And it’s this formula, I feel, that will make the introduction of your contingency game that much more effective. 

Too often, we see individuals at the earlier belt levels with killer sweeps and submissions, yet they struggle to get into a position where they can actually get them started. 

And this is a major problem with how many people learn jiu jitsu in general: they focus too heavily on the glory of the sweep or the submission, and little on getting there. 

For example, while you may have the opinion that pulling guard is weak and not real jiu jitsu, there is an argument that guard pullers know their A-game and are simply engaging the most efficient entry to that A-game possible.  

From an engineering perspective: I can’t fault the logic. 

jiu-jitsu-a-game-Winston-Churchill-Quote

Ok, so back to our example, how do we leverage the formula above to devise an effective entry to the contingency plan?

We don’t.

You read that right, we don’t make an effective entry, we make multiple effective entries. 

Remember, this is our contingency plan, so we can’t rely on just one entry, because we will need to execute this plan from a variety of situations. 

I suggest starting broad with your entries from each position. Don’t consider all the different grips and types of alignments your opponent may take in any given situation, as things will get confusing and convoluted. 

Instead, think only about the position archetype itself as the entry point. 

  • My opponent has side control – this is how I will get to half guard. 

  • My opponent has mount – this is how I will get to half guard. 

  • My opponent and I are in a scramble – this is how I will get to half guard. 

That’s it, choose one method for entering your fallback position from a variety of archetypical scenarios and stick to it. 

As you progress in jiu jitsu, you will gain more experience and see more reactions to your entry methods and can then adjust and tweak as necessary.

But for now, in the early stage, keep it simple and only add when there is a necessity. Don’t add something to your entry because you saw it on YouTube or in class. Only add it because you’ve experienced a reaction or attack by your opponent that warrants its use.

– Cristiano (that’s a me)

Keep your game trim, and keep it sharp. 

  1. Opponent has mount, trap foot in quarter guard.
  2. Get half guard
  3. Move to dog fight, knee tap, get to side smash
  4. Go to mount if X. Go to side control if Y. Go to back if Z. Go for leglock if YEET. 

(Copy and paste and edit Step 1 to suit each positional archetype)

Ok, that’s your contingency plan set up. Let’s now turn our attention to the future…

evolving-your-jiu-jitsu-a-game

Keeping Up With The Times: Evolutions To Your Game

One of the things that sets jiu jitsu apart from other combat sports is the variety and evolution of both techniques and positions. 

This is just one of the spices that keeps our taste buds interested, as there are always new things to discover and the path to mastery for all often splits into multiple distinct journeys. 

And as the game evolves, so to do the practitioners within, so it is important that as part of your jiu jitsu resume, you continually seek to add to your game and keep up with the times. 

This is why having a contingency/A-game is so important: it provides you with something to fallback on when your experiments with new additions fail and will provide you the confidence you need to explore new avenues. 

However, while I am stating the need to add to your game, I don’t mean for you to go about it in a haphazard way, randomly adding new techniques just because you like the look of them or because everyone else is doing them. 

Instead, you need to approach adding new areas to your game as a way of answering questions. 

Why spend all night, studying an instructional and hours on the mat drilling a new way to escape a particular position, if you only ever experience being in that position less than 3 times in a year?

You wouldn’t. 

It would be pointless and it would ensure that you get stuck and remain stuck in the most common positions you find yourself on the mats. 

You’ll become that person who everyone knows has a garbage back defense, single leg takedown defense or [add position you suck at here] defense. 

So, how do you avoid this?

Like I said before, you need to approach new additions as if you’re answering questions. 

Questions like:

  • Why do my opponent’s easily break my grips?

  • I keep gassing out trying to keep up with my opponent. How can I slow them down?

  • My coach has a crazy spider guard and no one in class can pass it. How can I be different?

You will no doubt be able to come up with many more, but the most important thing is to keep the questions you ask relevant to you and to your biggest problems on the mat. 

Ok, so now you’ve asked your questions, let’s look at answering them…

  1. Why do my opponent’s easily break my grips?

Sometimes grip strength comes down to just that: strength, however, most times your opponent’s ability to break your grips easily can be related to the type of grip you’re using in a specific situation. 

I know one thing I learned from Keenan Cornelius, visiting him and the team at Legion American Jiu Jitsu in San Diego in 2019, was how a specific ‘palm up grip’ when attacking the lasso can 10x the strength of the position.

jiu-jitsu-a-game-Keenan-Cornelius-Andris-Brunovskis-Lasso

2. I keep gassing out trying to keep up with my opponent. How can I slow them down?

This is an age old question with many answers, some new, some not so new. 

Without diving into a whole new article (Hmm there’s an idea in that) you’d want to start thinking about what you can do to limit your need for excess movement while allowing your opponent to gas themselves out. 

This can include:

  • Spending the first half of a round or match “cooking the beans”: a tactic where you look to achieve top positions and apply as much pressure to your opponent’s chest and face for as long as possible to tire them out for the remainder of the round.

  • Utilizing lapel guards in the gi or leg entanglements in nogi. These tactics are great for neutralizing your opponent’s movements and sapping their energy as they struggle to free themselves.

3. My coach has a crazy spider guard and no one in class can pass it. How can I be different?

In this situation, it can be easy to fall into a trap of thinking you need to master passing the spider guard to be successful in this situation.  

However, sometimes it pays to think laterally. 

What’s the best way to pass a spider guard master?

Easy, don’t pass spider guard, pass something else.

A good friend of mine has one of the best spider guards I’ve ever seen and I spent years in hell trying to find my way through that son of a b*tch. 

Until one day I realised. In all the matches I’d seen him in, in all the sparring rounds I’d had with him, and seen him have with others, I’d never seen him play half guard…

… ever.

That was it. That had to be his kryptonite. And to test this I vowed that the next time we rolled I wouldn’t seek to pass his spider guard. Instead, I would force him to play half guard and look to pass from there. 

And I tell you what, I never believed it was possible to feel joy like the joy I felt crushing his stupid chin with my deep cross face as I took my time to pass his guard. 

Alrighty, now you’ve got the plan, it’s time to put everything into action. 

However, sometimes, finding the moves to solve those problems can be difficult; in both the new moves you want to add to your game and the moves that make up your contingency plan. 

I mean, if you had all the answers, you wouldn’t have read all the way through this article, am I right?

Luckily for you, all you need to do is find the problems and ask the questions. And let Jiu Jitsu X do the rest. 

Click here and check out our full database of courses from some of the greatest instructors on the planet. 

Copy and paste their games to your own, and get the answers to your biggest problems on the mat now.

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Cristiano Del Giacco

Cristiano Del Giacco

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