3 Tips for Smoother Sailing on Your Way to Black Belt

by Tyson LaRone October 27, 2016

3 Tips for Smoother Sailing on Your Way to Black Belt

Jiu-Jitsu is a long, hard journey – lifelong for some. No one involved in jiu-jitsu will (or should) promise you a quick and easy road to black belt. It will be amazing and fulfilling but at times infuriating, and progress is often non-linear with plateaus along the way where you were feeling like a world champion for months and then one night got tapped by everyone that bothered to show up. The key, as with all things in life I believe, is consistency to get the results you want in the long term. Below are three simple things that I have learned in my fourteen year journey so far that should help take the edge off when things are hard, and help you enjoy the highs more.

1. Learn takedowns, and put some time into practicing them.

Part of the process of receiving a black belt in BJJ under our banner is to stand before a panel of black belts and respond to a question or request from each. It has become a running joke that every single time when it comes around to my turn, I ask to see five takedowns. The reason I do this is simple – takedowns are part of fighting, and getting good at them will make you much more successful both in self-defense and sport. Quite often takedowns aren’t emphasized as much as I feel they should be for a few reasons. A big one is that a lot of people in BJJ are more excited about what happens on the ground, and you practice what you’re excited about. Another big one is space constraints – especially with beginners it’s a lot easier to have them start in positions on the ground when it’s a big class than to risk them falling on one another. The problem is that the longer you go without putting time into takedowns, the harder it’s going to be to go back and start later. Even if you like to pull guard, it makes a big difference when you're doing it because you choose to and that's your game, not because you’re afraid to stand. If takedowns aren’t getting covered in class, ask your instructor or grab somebody to work with for a few minutes after class. You’ll be glad you did when you’re getting a 2-point head start in every match at purple belt.

2. Guard Passing – Drill both sides of it and drill it a lot.

As a white belt, you see a lot of ‘positions’ happening in rolling. You can point to matches going on at a tournament between white belts and see one guy in closed guard, one guy in mount, one guy on the back etc. Now, watch some black belt matches. You don’t see those clear positions nearly as much, and when one does happen it’s often where the fight is going to end. This is because white belts wait until they’re mounted to start escaping, and black belts don’t. They recognize that the position is about to happen and they’re already putting the pieces in place for the escape before the opponent settles in. The higher the level you get to, the more of jiu-jitsu is fought in between those positions – basically in a guard passing situation. Attacks from both the top and bottom are usually set up and executed in that interstices as well.

Incidentally, this I believe is also where some of the biggest plateaus comes from. From white through blue and even purple you develop a good game that works well more often than not against people around your level. It’s primarily based around getting to a certain position – say mount. You get to mount and then you’ve got an armbar, a cross choke, an Americana and a wristlock from there that’re all good finishers. Now you get to brown belt and the guys you’re rolling with aren’t getting letting you get all the way to mount as often anymore because their defense has made the jump from reactionary to preemptive. You’re not used to having to catch things in transition, so you pretty much stop submitting people. It’s frustrating as hell, but if you get through that you’ll realize that those submissions are there, you just have to get better at passing. The better you get at passing, the more you’ll be able to create, recognize and capitalize on opportunities for submissions. As a bonus, people will start to get tired trying to fight your pass and you’ll start punching through their defenses to actual full positions again. It’s the same thing from the other side. You spent white, blue and purple with people in your closed guard catching cross chokes, armbars and triangles and then all of a sudden you get your brown belt and they simply aren’t staying there anymore. If you start doing lots of passing drilling early and get comfortable there, you’ll be way ahead of the curve.

3. Set short-term, simple goals.

BJJ is way too big to swallow whole, you have to take little bites of it. That’s why it’s tough to set a goal like “Get more submissions” or “Be better at triangle chokes” and have a sense of whether you’re moving forward on that goal or not. There are too many moving parts, so you don’t know what to change if things aren’t working. I find many of these larger overarching goals can actually be boiled down to simpler, more tangible things to work on.

Let’s use the triangle chokes as an example since that was a real one from one of my students. Instead of focusing on triangle chokes themselves, I gave him a very simple task – get people to put their hands on the mat. That’s it. Play your guard, and see how many times in a roll you can get people to put one or both hands on the mat. By focusing on that, he started paying more attention to where the opponent’s weight was. When he knew where the weight was, he started doing a better job of using his hips to get the opponent moving so they had to catch themselves. Once he could consistently get them to put their hands on the mat, we worked on another simple task – control the head. Pull it down, push it to the side, get it moving where you want it. Once he got good at that and combined the skills of getting them to catch their weight and controlling their heads, triangle opportunities starting popping up everywhere. Once he could create opportunities, he got good at finishing them. We were able to achieve the overarching general goal because we worked backwards to identify the smaller steps that in themselves took work but paid off and were easy to measure progress in. If you aren’t sure how to do this, ask your instructor and work with them to give yourself one or more things to work with so you have some direction when you roll. You’ll get more out of your rolling time that way as well.

Hopefully you find these tips helpful, happy rolling!

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Tyson LaRone
Tyson LaRone


Tyson LaRone is a Senior Agatsu Kettlebell Instructor, BJJ Black Belt, Registered Massage Therapist, IYCA Speed and Agility Specialist.

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