Competition and Background


Teaching grappling techniques is a lot like passing on genetic material. When you show someone a technique, they copy it, but there’s always the risk for some mutations. A lot of the time, those mutations are inconsequential. Sometimes they’re advantageous. Still other times, they’re detrimental.

Mark had this story that stood out to me about this topic. Evan performed this technique that worked pretty well. Mark asked him where he learned it. Evan noted “from you”. Mark laughed because he’d never even seen that variation. Somehow, Evan had changed some of the details Mark had shown and the result was a submission that didn’t even look like the original, but was nevertheless effective. He’d comment on that a lot of times – how he’ll show us his way, but we’re ultimately going to have our own way anyway. I think that’s mostly true, though given enough time training with someone you’ll eventually be able to mimic all of their personal technical details.

Because techniques behave a lot like genetics, I think we can benefit from diversity. Learning a different kimura variation from each of Mark, Justin, Wade, Anders, Thales, Lesley, and Mike, there are different details I’ve acquired from each. My kimura isn’t the result of a single lineage and learning a single way, it’s seven instructors and countless training partners. Just because you know how to defend the setup for Justin’s kimura doesn’t mean you know how to defend mine. Having a diverse background as a grappler can make for a stronger and/or more well-rounded game because you’ve likely been exposed to a lot. It can also be problematic because you may end up learning a lot of variations without mastering any given one of them. Though, in general, I’d say you tend to first pick up the aspects of your instructor’s game that are the strongest simply by virtue of them being able to teach that aspect the best.

For those who learn to mimic only one instructor over the course of their entire grappling career, I feel that competition is important. Competition is a chance to metaphorically cross-pollinate. You get exposure to those other variations and it might even change how you train something. You also get to test what aspects of your game work, and what need help. If your gym has never taught you leg locks, grappling against a leg lock specialist will be an eye-opening experience. If your gym neglects stand-up, the first time a high-level judoka effortlessly throws you can make you question everything you know about how to start a match. Competition can, of course, only test how well your personal style works within the confines of the sporting rules, but it can often be a pretty good test of how well-rounded your game is, and how adaptable you are to different situations.

None of this is to say that if your gym is already pretty diverse competition can’t also be beneficial, but rather that if your gym lacks a diversity of backgrounds – if every student at your gym started under your instructor – competition is one of the only ways to find out if what you’re being taught works in other contexts. Diverse gyms already have the advantage of being able to test a lot of situations.

The Role of Tradition

We were lined up by rank. The person to your left was the same rank or lower. Alex, as the student furthest to the right, would call out in Japanese. We’d come to attention, kneel (always on the left knee first), meditate, bow to the black belts, and then return to standing (always with the right leg first). Mark explained that we should learn the ceremony because if we went to other schools it would be reasonable for them to expect we know it.

When I went to train with the Bujinkan group I learned that what I had learned was a sort of abbreviated form. When I went to study the Kendo Club for an anthropology class I noticed that the abbreviated form was the common core, and that different clubs  and Japanese martial arts had their own traditions based around that ceremony Mark had taught us. Even today in judo, a form of the ceremony is done. We skip the kneeling. We skip the meditation. We still line up by rank and bow to start and end each class though. Even in BJJ, an art which is decidedly less formal than any Japanese martial art I’ve done, the ceremony exists in its own form. Usually just at the end of class, sometimes at the beginning. Often it’s accompanied by a small handful of people belting out an “OSS” as they bow, unaware of what the cry even means or where it came from.


Imposter syndrome is a hot buzzword in software development. More and more people are coming out with articles and conference talks describing that the very best people still feel like they’re hiding that they don’t feel like they know what they’re doing. You probably felt it with your last belt promotion. The way people typically deal with it is by putting up a facade. To hide that they feel insecure about their position they act as they think someone in their position is supposed to act. Tradition is very powerful for that. When you have to lead a class, but you’re not really sure how you want to do it yet, traditions lend to you a format to use that you need not even think about and that no one will question. Line them up, bow them in, do a light warm-up, show a couple techniques, have them drill it, partner them up to roll, line them up again and call it a night. Without even knowing what the bows are there for or what their origin might be they bookend the class and give you a moment to see formal and respected, like you might actually have some fucking clue what you’re doing. Almost all traditions at least start out as facades. We follow along by very virtue of them being traditions, and hopefully at some point along the way we find out why they exist.

The other use I see for tradition is in maintaining culture. I’m not always sure if that’s a good or bad thing. Still, if you want a class to take things a bit more seriously you can have the formal bow in. If you want to have a more sport-oriented class you can establish a tradition of harder, competition style randori. How you teach your students is probably how they’ll teach their students. Getting everyone into the same type of practice establishes and maintains a culture.

If you’re a student looking for a school and they participate in some traditions you don’t like – ask to not participate in them or find a different school. If you’re running a school, participate in the traditions you want. If you’re unsure if a tradition is adding something, try to figure out what it was for – if you’re still not sure, you can usually tell by taking it away and seeing what’s missing.

Modern Day Leglocks

There are a few major systems in the leg lock game these days. Dean Lister’s KATCH system, the Sambo stylings of Steve and Reilly, Roli Delgado’s Legal Leg Locks, and the system being used by the Danaher Death Squad all come to mind. Recently Island Top Team put up some information on Danaher’s system based on a private the instructor did. It’s controversial as the videos have been asked to be taken down (and have gone up and been taken down a couple times now).

Many will note that what’s being shown in the videos is inexact. He’s lacking fine details and some of the information’s not quite right. I found myself wanting to yell at my computer screen “Control the free leg dummy! You have a free hand!”

Everyone seems to have different terms for different positions. What’s being referred to as “ashi garami” in the ITT video looks a lot like “position 1” from Reilly Bodycomb’s stuff. Though, to be fair, position 1 is on your side. The outside ashi garami is something I’ve seen/done, but I don’t like it as much personally. It’s a nice “oh shit” position for when you’ve failed to advance from ashi garami to the Saddle (modified position 2 or position 3).

As I play with more and more leg control positions, I’m finding some are just more secure, less equal, and just plain work better for me. For me:

Truck < 50/50 guard < outside ashi garami < seated knee-bar position < ashi garami (position 1) < position 2 < Saddle (modified position 3) < position 3 < leg knot (position 4)

I’d much rather get a saddle or a leg knot than try to play from the truck or 50/50 guard where everything’s more or less even. With my legs hidden, controlling both of his legs I can attack one handed. A couple of notes with this: I don’t heel hook. I’ll set the position, and if need be I’ll hold the heel to keep my partner aware that they’re trapped and in a bad position, but I’d much rather fish for a straight ankle lock or toe hold than heel hook. I am able to heel hook, but I don’t like to. These positions are in the order they are in because of my preferences of submissions:

Straight-ankle lock > toe hold > knee bar > calf crush > hip lock > heel hook

That’s just about the order that I feel most comfortable finishing with control which is why it’s my preference. Stuff like the Vaporizer and some of the quick and dirty leg locks from side control or top of guard aren’t even listed here as positions because they’re significantly different from the normal stuff and aren’t in my regular rotation without being a setup for a position or transition.

Last night was too much Saddle and leg locks in general. I need to double down on developing a bottom game for no gi. I want to have a good butterfly guard and half-guard without the jacket so I have somewhere to go that’s not just my safety net leg positions.

West Bend 2016

The West Bend Judo Tournament has been running for 44 years now. I’m  pretty sure that it’s the oldest tournament in Wisconsin. We rushed a bit setting up and getting through the referee meeting because there was another event to attend as well – Lynn Roethke was recently promoted to hachidan (8th degree black belt), and there was a ceremony to celebrate that.

Lynn is a two time Olympian (1988, 1992), having won the silver medal in the 1988 game, plus a list of other impressive accomplishments. She is now the highest ranking female in the United States, and only the second US female to obtain the rank. Members of her club are always exciting matches to watch in the Wisconsin tournaments. Just about every black belt in Wisconsin was lined up at the ceremony. It was noted that the sum of their experience is over 1500 years. It caught me off guard how many coral belts (rokudan, 6th degree) and red/white belts (sichidan or hachidan, 7th degree & 8th degree) there were. I’ll admit, I don’t get out of my own backyard much except to referee, and the coaches are never wearing their belts when they’re on the sidelines.

After the ceremony the tournament commenced. With five people testing for an increase in referee rank, I think it was one of the best tournaments yet for us newer referees. It’s really exciting to get to learn so much by watching and participating in the judging of matches from this side of the table. It m akes me miss competition sometimes as I watch the throws. I did pass, and am now a Regional referee. I’ll need to keep working hard. I still have a lot to improve on so I can referee like an A.

Judo & BJJ


I could pontificate without an end in sight about how BJJ and judo are the same thing. The sports are different, but the martial arts are one and the same. However, as more schools of each teach solely to a specific set of sport rules, huge holes are left in the grappling style of each. For this reason, I’d say the modern incarnations of each really need each other.

In judo we see a loss of the ground game. As soon as you hit the ground people turtle. Of course, there are those individuals who have phenomenal ground games. But typically we’d point to Travis Stevens and Flavio Canto – both of whom also have BJJ black belts. I’ve had discussions with other local and regional referees, all of them black belts, who didn’t understand that the omo plata (sankaku garami) was the same structure as a kimura (gyaku ude garami) and therefor attacks the same joint(s). They felt the omo plata was a shoulder lock but the kimura was an elbow lock. The reality is both are allowed if the arm is kept at a more or less 90 degree angle since this can be used to dislocate the elbow (as the hand goes behind the back in either it should be stopped by a referee as a shoulder lock though).

In BJJ we see a loss of certain fundamentals. Not only in standing, but in grips and ukemi. If you go on r/bjj it’s easy to find discussions where purple belts were surprised to find out that the predominant fingers in a gi grip should be the pinky and ring finger. To me, that would be as bad as a judo ikkyu/shodan not knowing how to do an armbar. Proper grips and falls aren’t concepts only important for standing fighting, they’re safety issues because you can still be thrown and will likely still take gi grips on the ground – grips which people may strip and an improper grip not only makes stripping them easier, it puts your fingers at a higher risk of injury. Of course, there’s also the notion that judoka are somehow magic at applying pressure in pins. It’s not magic, it’s a concept BJJ should be teaching and most advanced BJJ practitioners pick up, it’s just that judo explicitly teaches it.

You don’t need to stop and get an advanced rank in whichever isn’t your primary sport, but I will say that cross-training should be strongly encouraged. And unless you’re training in an old-school version of either, you’re likely creating holes that should be patched, not just for completeness, but for safety.