Teaching the Headlock

Throws from a headlock can be very powerful, especially in no gi. Here’s Vlad Koulikov using the headlock for harai goshi. I tend to actively step off the line (O soto gari style) instead of just swimming my hands in, but that’s likely because of the throw I’m doing. I try to be as aggressive with my step and headlock as possible – once I have it secure uke should be completely bent over to the side, front, or rear for the throw I want to do.

We did two throws with this. The first is just sliding your legs out into kesa from standing. If you did a hard kuzushi to begin with, uke should just gently fall with you as you lower yourself to the ground. The second is O soto gari. I love O soto gari because it’s an easy throw to control the amount of force. You can gently lift your partners leg while lowering yourself to set you both on the ground or you can wind in and pike your body out and really get some power going.

Saturday Wade is coming down to do an open guard seminar. I’m pretty sure we’re putting takedowns behind us and moving into guard starting this weekend, so I’ll probably get a chance to teach that guard class sooner than expected.

Getting Ready For Brown Belt

I haven’t written about it yet, but August has been “choke month”. Looking at what Roy Harris described for purple belts getting ready for brown, I decided it was time to take the initiative to get myself ready for brown belt. For me, August is only chokes; September will be only arm bars; October will be only leg locks. Rather than picking a specific limb, the next few months after those will be submitting from only specific positions (closed guard, mount, side control).

Forcing myself to use only one submission type has forced me to be more assertive in how I roll. I can’t get to a choke just wading through the roll until the opportunity presents itself like I can when all submissions are on the table. I need to move forward into a guard or top position and immediately start setting up an attack to mask the choke. Against white/blue belts it’s going awesome. Against purple/brown/black belts I need to do more setup – the positional game is fine, but I’m struggling with finishing the submission against skilled defense.

In addition to “at-will grappling” there’s a set of things I want to improve before brown belt. Or rather, there are a set of skills I expect from brown belts, so to me these are the prerequisites for me before I’m ready to talk to Mike/Matt/Arun about it.

  • Teaching – be comfortable teaching any class, gi or no-gi, whether it’s my specialty or not. Since teaching my specialties has gone well, I’m going to ask Mike if I can teach a guard class (see below).
  • At-Will Grappling – be able to restrict myself to one submission or style of submission against any belt level and still dominate (if not consistently finish) the roll. This has already helped my “being too damn lazy while rolling” problem.
  • Chokes – of all submissions, chokes are my weakest type. Leg locks are my favorite technique to work so I’ve spent a lot of time on them. Arm locks are the only submission that’s been allowed in every form of grappling I’ve done so I’m very comfortable with them. Chokes are an iffy area for me. RNC, arm triangles (D’Arce, Anaconda, etc.), triangles, and guillotines will be the focus for techniques to polish.
  • Guard – it’s been a long time since I’ve done serious guard work, especially since I prefer to fight-up and deal with a standing opponent when someone tries to pass. I need to review the guard to ensure I have a well-rounded game before brown should even be on the table.
  • Start on a serious path to learning SAMBO beyond just borrowing techniques. I’m dead serious about finding a time to head down to Iowa and learning some SAMBO. I’d like to eventually spend a few weekends a year down there to learn more about the pedagogy and approach SAMBO presents for the grappling puzzle.
  • Optional: compete. At one point I felt like I really needed to compete to validate my belt; however, rolling with guys who do compete has sated my concerns that I’d end up going somewhere and be completely underwhelming in my application of technique. While it’s something I’d like to try to do, it’s not something I feel like I need to do before brown belt.

My goal right now is to finish all of this by next summer. Per Aesopian’s data from 2013, three years is about average time from purple to brown as it is. Interestingly, all three lines show about 3-4 years for purple belt. There’s little to no difference even for the 2.5th percentile for how long they spend as purple belts. I’ve been a purple belt for three years already, but my total time grappling is over a decade now. And even though I had a hiatus from BJJ, I was still actively doing judo as soon as I could after my injury. I didn’t stop grappling, watching videos, reading books, learning the art. I just focused on a different part.

When I got each other belt, it wasn’t a question of if I was ready or deserving. It was a forgone conclusion and everyone told me “you’ve been a [color] belt for awhile”. Since I’m not actively competing to sandbag, I want brown to be the same way. I feel like these are the things that will ensure that’s the case.

Where the shit will really hit the fan is that I’m pretty sure everyone agrees I need to get my judo shodan before BJJ black belt will be an option, and I am quite rusty at judo-style randori. Maybe SAMBO will help, but that’s definitely an area to start tackling after I finish patching up the holes listed above.

Knowledge, Application, Attitude

Andrew summed up ranks pretty well – it’s a mix of how much you know, how well you apply it, and what your attitude is. I liked that summary. Someone famous probably said it first.

Teaching a Different Way

Someone on reddit summed up Sambo as teaching action first, and techniques second. I tried that tonight. I think it worked super well. We did the basic elements of a throw – kuzushi, tsukuri, kake. As in, I had them feel for balance for a forward throw entry, then how to enter in low, then any throw of their choice (with koshi guruma as the demo in case someone had no particular forward throw they like). Then we did finishes into controlled positions, then submissions from the control positions – emphasizing that the concept and the movement is more important than the detail (pick your sub – here’s an armbar if you want to use this position).

People want to fall. We’re just helping them to the ground.


I feel it’s pretty normal for people to ask “what do I need to do to get to the next belt?” I’ve noted here before that I’m not really sure what it means to go from purple to brown yet myself. It’s easy to find descriptions, curricula, opinions that would point you to what you need to do to be the next rank. Those are all bullshit things to look at. I’ve trained at four different gyms with seven different instructors (just for BJJ – those numbers don’t count other grappling right now). Every instructor is looking for something different and often a single instructor is looking for different things for two different students. A curriculum is more like base expectations – you should be able to show these techniques.

When I think of white belts I think of people who either don’t have a lot of grappling knowledge yet, or just completely lack chill. You’ll see guys who know a lot and they can roll really well, but they can only roll hard. You’ll see guys who can control the pace and roll with some chill but then get to a point and go “what do I do from here?”. It’s the point where you show someone an escape and they’re amazed saying “That looks so easy. Why am I having so much trouble from this position?” and all you can really say is “Experience. You’ll need to rep this a lot to hit it in rolling.”

When I think of blue belts I think of people who understand “how the pieces move” so to speak. They know a few techniques from any of the major positions. They can roll pretty well. If an upper belt sets a trap, they’re still probably going to fall into it, but they’ll do so trying to do the “right” default thing. I pretty much characterize them as grapplers who have knowledge of the rules, but not the knowledge of when to break the rules.

When I think of other purple belts I think of masters of their individual domains. They have a technique, position, or area of techniques that they’re very good at and can tell you about in detail. They have a functional knowledge of all of the basic positions and feel comfortable enough in the uncommon positions. They can set traps a few steps ahead . That kimura, it’s a distraction. You need to fight off the submission and the sweep when you make a mistake.

When I think of brown belts I think of masters of all of the basic domains. Everything we expected a blue belt to know, it feels like a brown belt has mastered. I also think of guys who are drilling all the time. Every brown belt I know drills like crazy. (That’s probably a sign for the lower belts who just want to roll rather than drilling at open mats)

When I think of black belts I think of guys who have polished all those areas of mastery – the basics and their own special area. It’s hard to describe the difference between rolling with a brown belt and rolling with a black belt. Both are setting traps a few levels deep. Both have developed strong top pressures. Both are confident and smooth in their sweeps. Black belts are just a bit more quick to take advantage of a mistake? I guess I’d say a black belt is just a brown belt with a bit more experience and confidence from my vantage point.

Book-Ending Classes

In jujitsu we’d start every class with a semi-formal bowing ceremony. More formal than we do in judo, but less formal than what the Bujinkan group used to do. Everyone would line up by rank. Kiotsuke! Seiza. Mokuso… Mokuso yame. Sensei ni rei. If you were going to do it in English, it’d be something like “Stand up straight. Kneel. Meditate. (after a minute or two of quiet contemplation) Okay, we’re done meditating, bow to the instructor.” Class ended the same way it began.

The jujitsu bowing ceremony’s meditation was nice because it was a time to delineate between mat time from the rest of life. You meditate to start class so no one is thinking about normal life stuff like what they’ll be eating later. You meditate to end class so people can come down from a high adrenaline state and be ready to be normal people again when they step off the mat. It was nice.

When I run class we stretch between rolling and lining up. That’s just how it is. No one has complained about it. A few people have actively commented that they enjoy it. For me it serves the same purpose as that meditation period – it’s quiet contemplation so you can come down from the adrenaline of rolling and be ready to go back into the normal world. It doesn’t hurt that it helps my back feel better or that we all end up with more flexible hips. But my point for it is really to help myself (and hopefully others) chill before we formally end class. I don’t feel like we need any more than the warm-up to get into class mode. Having someone yelling “sprawl!” as you run is usually enough to get your heart going and keep you from thinking about too much else.


Mike has been out on paternity leave and last night Matt was out sick, so I’ve been filling in more. We started out with the back the first week, now this week in no-gi is leg locks and in gi is throws. Part of me feels like I’ve lucked out because throws are arguably a specialty of mine with respect to BJJ because of my time doing judo. Another part of me was looking forward to the challenge of seeing if I knew a random position as well as I ought to given my time learning grappling.

Things are coming a lot easier than I expected. Questions aren’t the complex, nuanced details I had feared – at least, they don’t seem that way to me – they’re mostly “how do I avoid X?” or “I don’t feel like I could finish here. What did I do wrong?”. Those are easy to answer – have them show their concern and point out the frame protecting them, the angle they’re not cutting, or show them the missing part for power generation.

It feels like I’m doing okay, and that makes me feel more comfortable in my rank. I seem to know stuff a lot deeper than I give myself credit for. Seem to.