Learning the Language of Guard 1


As a smaller BJJ player, I always thought of myself as a passer.  Playing guard always felt restrictive, a completely different world from the mobile passing game I preferred. Although I knew some techniques playing guard, I looked at guard as just a way to plug a hole in my passing game.  What I finally realized as a late blue belt was that the only way I could further progress in passing and BJJ was by understanding how to play guard. So in order to understand that “world,” I used a strategy that I’d learned from language learning.


Exposure and stakes

When learning a new language, having the right level of exposure and stakes can make or break your success. In terms of both language learning and BJJ, “exposure” can be defined as time spent using a specific technique, while “stakes” can be defined as consequences incurred if you perform the technique incorrectly.  Too little exposure means you’re depriving yourself of practice time; too high stakes means you’re too stressed to access the knowledge you’ve learned during practice.  Starting out with high exposure and low stakes allows you to practice without stress and build your confidence to gradually use the new language even after low exposure or in a high stakes situation. 


Here’s how I applied this strategy to BJJ:

  •     Phase 1: Low stakes, high exposure: In language learning, immersion is seen as the ultimate exposure.  In BJJ, I see positional training as immersion’s equivalent. It also allows for deliberate constraints that keep the stakes low and game-like.  For example, I started by first having a goal of just maintaining the position while my partner would try to escape.  Resets came quickly, but rather than getting frustrated, I actually found myself feeling invigorated. With each reset came a new chance to experiment, to play, and to adapt my guard..  Having this kind of painless beginning allowed me to add new goals like hitting a certain sweep or getting a submission.
  •     Phase 2: Moderate stakes, moderate exposure: After gaining some confidence, I began incorporating the new guard into sparring by starting every roll in guard.  This allowed me to have exposure to guard at least once every roll.  Additionally, I started first with trusted partners to remove any stakes tied to ego or worry about my physical safety. This phase was even more interesting as I learned about people’s different reactions and how to find a rhythm to chain techniques together.
  •     Phase 3: High stakes, low exposure: The final phase came with a personal 3-month challenge to start every roll from bottom.  In the beginning, I chafed at this because all I wanted to do was pass. But the hidden game was to get to guard and sweep so I could pass.  To my surprise, I ended up enjoying this phase so much that I maintained this challenge for nearly a year before starting over with a new guard. 


Measuring improvement

Part of why this process felt fun was having a sense of progress.  With the small, focused goals at every phase, it was easy for me to measure my success through notetaking and filming myself.  For example, in the beginning I kept track of how long it took before my partner and I  reset and tried to improve that time. Similarly, in the second phase, I logged how long it took before my guard was passed, or, as I slowly became more competent, how long it took before I was able to sweep my partner. In the third phase, I tracked how often I was able to get to guard and link it to a pass.


Play the long game

In addition to keeping my goals simple, I also gave myself a broad timeline of a year to feel comfortable in guard.  Surprisingly, I didn’t get bored at all. I think the reason was due to the gradual approach of this strategy, starting first by building a solid core understanding and layering on new learning, like the rings of a tree.  Just like learning a new language, learning guard opened up a whole new world for me, and I hope this strategy helps you gain a new perspective too!



Author: Jess Bertubin

About the author: Jess is a light feather purple belt based in Brooklyn, NY.  More thoughts on BJJ, including her Training Without A Gym technique series, can be found on her blog Rolling With the Big Boys.



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