Updated: Oct 14, 2020
This art is vast, but simply codified: there are only four major positions in Jiu Jitsu. The variations of these and the techniques therein, however, are endless. This world will reveal itself to you in time, but for now, we just need to start your initiation process—because your humanity depends on it.
Live training is when you will learn the most about Jiu Jitsu, and when Jiu Jitsu will have the greatest effect on your personal development. My goal for our white belts, and I believe this should be your goal as well, is simply to learn to do a few things well in each position so that you can effectively take part in live training, the environment which offers the resistance your growth requires.
I believe Jiu Jitsu is an unrivaled vehicle for personal development, but this metaphor implies that you know how to drive.
Your white belt is a learner’s permit with which we get behind the wheel and drive for the first time. Do not try to be Jeff Gordon. That comes later.
To be successful from white to blue belt, and to put you in a position to begin learning the intricacies of Jiu Jitsu, your goal should be to acquire a fundamental understanding of what Jiu Jitsu is, and what your goal is in any given moment.
You need only to learn to do a few things well.
The Positional Hierarchy
There are four positions in Jiu Jitsu: guard, side control, mount, and back. These positions lie on a hierarchy of dominance, a continuum of varying control (safety) over one’s partner.
Consider them a ladder upon which we ascend:
(Top of the ladder) You have your partner’s back. You are on top in the mount. You are on top in side control. You are on top in the guard. You are on bottom in the guard. Your partner has side control. Your partner has the mount. Your partner has your back. (Bottom of the ladder)
Your goal is to continually ascend this ladder, as position by position you increase your control over your partner. With this as the sole focus of their training, students have a clear objective for their actions.
And this offers a good conceptual framework with which to view techniques. Techniques are not ends, they are means. Techniques are the tools with which we ascend the hierarchy of positions. Rather than viewing techniques as entities separate to themselves, learn to see them as the bridges between positions.
Techniques are the tools with which we ascend the positional hierarchy. This may seem overly simplistic or a point of semantics, but I think it is important for the beginning student to deeply engrain this understanding into one’s practice.
Too often the beginning student is paralyzed by the seemingly limitless variables in Jiu Jitsu. From my experience, over-communicating this concept to white belts has proved well worth the effort.
And this brings me to our next point.
Forget Submissions While on Bottom (For Now)
Your time spent at white belt is to prepare you for the long journey ahead. As Professor Ricardo Almeida told me the day I earned my blue belt,
“A blue belt signifies that you are ready to learn Jiu Jitsu.”
Our goal is to get you to that point in the most efficient way.
At white belt, we are building the foundation upon which the rest of your training will occur. The wider the base of this foundation, the higher the potential peak of its summit, and its width is determined by your understanding of the positional hierarchy and your ability to advance within it.
Therefore, I do not encourage our beginning white belts to focus on submissions, for a very specific reason:
Beyond navigating the positions, we first must learn to control our partner’s center of mass using ours (either by being hip-to-hip, chest-to-chest, or both). Later, as we progress in our fine motor skills and technical development, we learn to extend that control to individual limbs (the neck included) to elicit a compromising control leading to submission.
Submissions while on top are one thing. Sometimes we find ourselves in dominant positions and it would seem counter-productive to not capitalize. But as a rule, I do not believe beginning students should focus on submitting off their back. Their task is to learn how to defend from off their back and sweep to obtain an advantageous position. This is far more pragmatic and beneficial to the average beginning student.
To clarify: This is my personal philosophy and one I have come to believe as a result of my experiences teaching.
To clarify further: I am not trying to create world champions. My objective is to help the common man or woman cultivate great skill in Jiu Jitsu, and to use the art as a tool for personal development to lead more productive and meaningful lives.
With this aim, I have found that the white belt portion of our journeys (at least the beginning, initiation phase) is best used to get a broad understanding of the hierarchy of positions and the relationships between them. This leads to a better understanding of positional Jiu Jitsu which, in time, produces many opportunities for submission.
Techniques are the tools with which we move along the positional hierarchy. Your goal is to use techniques to ascend this ladder without ever descending.
The bottom portion of the ladder is one of defense, on which we learn to survive compromised positions and advance to safety. Once we reach the middle of the ladder, we are in the realm of the guard. Using the guard on bottom, we learn how to defend ourselves while on our back. It is highly advantageous to learn how to keep someone in your guard, before you begin to learn to advance from this position. Once we can defend, we use sweeps to obtain top position. When we are on top in the guard, our sole focus is to get to a place of more control by passing the guard. And now at the upper end of the ladder, we continually seek to advance position without allowing our partner to do the same.
There are always two people on this ladder. Your ascension means your partner’s descent, as your positions are inversely proportional. Every time you ascend a rung, he falls down a rung. The more rungs between you two, the better off you are.
The techniques the white belt should understand are all positional advancements, and can be codified simply as:
• Reversals- Being on bottom in side control or mount and using a technique to get on top. • Guard recoveries- Being in a disadvantageous position, regaining control by locking your legs around your partner. • Sweeps-Using your guard to attain top position. • Guard Passes- While on top, freeing yourself from the entanglement of your partner’s legs. • Advancements to more dominant positions- Going from side control to mount, and then from mount to back.
In keeping with our ladder metaphor, and understanding that techniques are what you use to ascend the ladder, your goal is simply to have a couple of techniques from each position that will allow you to do so.
Especially in the beginning, you do not need a wide array to do this.
Take the guard for example. There are many guard variations, each with seemingly countless techniques. As you get more experienced, you will explore these deeply. For now, you would do well to learn just a few sweeps and really try to understand them as you utilize them in training. Rather than be paralyzed by choice, find a minimum viable product with which you can consistently advance position.
Because for our purposes, your ability to perform certain kinds of sweeps does not matter. Your ability to sweep matters. And that is a very real and necessary distinction.
So long as you are learning to ascend the ladder, I personally do not care too much with what specific techniques you are doing so. The importance of these comes later.
The white belt should seek to acquire a handful of competent techniques in each position. This will give one the requisite tools necessary to live train effectively, and thus begin to truly learn the subtleties and principles of the art.
Summary of Rule #2
The positions in Jiu Jitsu follow a hierarchy. Our goal at white belt is to understand this hierarchy, described in this chapter as a ladder, and to learn a few techniques which will help us ascend to positions of more control. Give positions priority in your education over submissions.
You’ll have plenty of time for those later.
If you want to read Chris’s latest book on personal development, check it out here.
If you would like to be coached by Chris personally, click here.