“Stick to your game plan!” I yelled this phrase repeatedly last weekend as I was helping coach students in a competition. Preparing for the tournament I found my biggest focus with the competitors was making sure that they had a Jiu Jitsu game plan.
What Is A Jiu Jitsu Game Plan?
Before we get started though, I want to identify ….
There are two types of Jiu Jitsu game plan that aren’t helpful.
1.) The “Open Strategy” Jiu Jitsu Game Plan Doesn’t Work.
I hear “I’m going to win”, “I’m going to not lose”, and “I’m going to see what happens” way too often. This is positive or optimistic thinking which is important, but NOT a Jiu Jitsu game plan. These answers are due to procrastination since the competitor doesn’t have the tools to establish a more detailed strategy.
Spoiler alert: If you go into a match without a focus and your opponent has one, then the odds are astronomical that you will be going “into his game.” This means that you will be struggling against the VERY best part of his game, using the “meh, it’s ok” part of your game.
When I roll in class there some people who I roll competitively with as long as I avoid their strong spots. “I have to stay out of Rob’s footlocks”, “Don’t let Jered get to knee on belly,” “Watch out for Greg’s knee slice pass,” and “Don’t let Mike get a butterfly hook” etc. Why change this for a tournament and LET them get to their spot? The correct reaction is go to MY spot.
When I insist on MY spot, there is a small chance that it matches up perfectly with my opponent’s strength. For example, if playing Spider Guard is my strongest position and I get matched with an opponent who is strongest at passing Spider Guard, then I may have a long match ahead of me, but I honestly haven’t seen this occur very often in any tournament. The tradeoff is if I just go “wherever the match leads me” there is a good chance that I will be wading right into his strength.
2.) The “Rigid Choreography” Jiu Jitsu Game Plan Doesn’t Work
This one is a little more rare, but I have been guilty of this myself in some of my earlier tournaments. I decided that I was going to map out my every movement in a match. Here is an abridged version of a “Rigid Choreography” game plan:
1.) pull half guard
2.) hit the electric chair sweep
3.) Pass to side control
4.) Set up the d’arce choke in transition and finish
In actuality, the match started, I got taken down and spent the rest of the match thinking how am I going to pass his guard and d’arce him from the bottom of side control. Creating a BJJ game plan like this to implement against a resisting opponent is living in an imaginary world of fantasy. My thinking was too locked into a specific train of thought and I didn’t adapt to what was ACTUALLY happening.
Sometimes this also presents itself in the form of “I roll friendly in class because those guys are my friends, but when I get to the tournament I’m going to go hard.” I have only seen one or two exceptions out of thousands to the rule that we compete the same way we train, (and these exceptions shocked me when I saw them!).
Don’t plan on having a Disney movie moment and turning it up at the tournament to unseen heights of expertise. If anything, be optimistic, but plan on rolling like your worst day of rolling in class. Thanks to anxiety, that’s how many competitors compete until they are used to dealing with the nerves of a tournament. The good news is you can still win!
So now that I’ve talked about what NOT to do, what makes up a Jiu Jitsu game plan? How do you create one?
Ideally, I decide on my strategy at least 3 -6 weeks from the tournament and begin focusing my rolling time on executing it. During this time, I’m not adding new techniques. I am sharpening and chaining my current ones together until it is second nature.
1.) How are you starting the match?
This isn’t the same as choreography, because you are DEFINITELY getting to this position. The match starts on the feet, so, what first? The remaining steps of the Jiu Jitsu game plan branch off from here. A strong foundation is essential.
Are you going to go for a takedown or a guard pull?
My opinion is that if you don’t have at least one takedown you feel confident in, you should be pulling guard. A guard pull is simpler to execute with less punishment for inferior execution. If I mess up a guard pull there is a chance my opponent is working hard to pass my guard, but I can try to scramble and reguard and present obstacles to frustrate him. If I stay on my feet searching for an inferior takedown, I will be the one getting taken down and my opponent will get 2 points for the takedown and will probably be on his way to passing my guard like before, but now with the cushion of points.
You may say “but Lucas, I don’t have a takedown in my arsenal I feel confident in.” Then after the tournament that should be an area of focus. Don’t neglect training this area after the tournament is over and before the next one so you have more options, but 3 weeks out is probably too late to add a high percentage takedown. You are a guard puller for now.
2.) What is your “Ideal Spot”? (a position where you are on top)
If I were setting you and an opponent up in any position of your choice, what would you choose? My criteria
- You must be good at maintaining this spot. If you instantly get rolled off of your opponent from this spot, then you’ve lost it and this probably isn’t your spot. Ask yourself “Where do I feel strongest?“. (Best answers include positions like Top Side Control, Mount, Back Control, Knee on Belly.)
- You should have at least one high percentage submission from here. Ask yourself “What submission do I finish the most often?” “What submission do I feel most confident in finishing once I have it locked up?”
Sometimes, with beginners, they don’t have any “Ideal Spots” that meet this criteria. So now, the key is to choose a spot that is closest to meeting the criteria and spending preparation time shoring up the gaps. If you’ve got a killer cross collar choke from mount, but you usually get rolled from the mount position, improving your mount maintenance before a tournament is feasible. If you are great at holding side control, adding in a submission option or two from there should also be a manageable tuneup.
As you advance, you’ll have a larger number of “Ideal Spots” and use these 2nd and 3rd string spots to increase your chances of winning, but first you have to solidify ONE.
You must have a good understanding about how you will be getting there. If mount is your best spot, do you have high percentage transitions from side control to mount? These transitions usually don’t take very much time to implement and hone in a game. Your game plan is get to your ideal spot, maintain it, and submit your opponent. But it probably won’t be that easy, so…
3.) What is your “Bail Out Spot?” (a guard position)
It’s all good and well to decide that you feel good with your single leg takedown and that you want to be in top side control on your opponent as your ideal spot. But what happens when you slip on a sweat spot on the mat and end up in the bottom side of turtle instead?
Your plan may be to be on top but you have to be able to work your way there from an
inferior position as well. When making a Jiu Jitsu game plan many competitors act like an ostrich burying its head in the sand to avoid thinking these negative thoughts. Being honest with yourself and planning for both success and resistance is essential to a complete BJJ game plan. Staying safe from submissions, points, and energy expenditure is the main focus of your “Bail Out Spot”.
Choosing A Bail Out Spot
If you have to be on your back, where do you want to be with the following criteria?
- You must be good at maintaining this spot. If your opponent can easily pass and collect their 3 points, this isn’t the spot for you. (Pro tip: Quarter guard probably isn’t the right answer). You want to keep them in a solid guard so you can work your attacks.
You must have 2 solid sweeps from this position. Sweeps are even more important than submissions. Finishing someone off your back gets harder and harder as skill level increases and the fresher the opponent. Get used to sweeping and finishing on top. Your sweep threats will help open up your submission game. These sweeps should connect and cover your opponent’s major reactions. (Example from closed guard: Use the pendulum sweep vs. broken down posture. If they are keeping their posture it won’t work, so hip bump sweep vs. posture. A common beginner counter to the hip bump is to tackle someone down which gives up posture and goes back to a pendulum sweep opportunity)
- You must have at least one solid submission from this spot. The threat of a submission will make it easier for you to open up and threaten your opponent and hit sweeps. In later tournaments this will help you score Advantages when it matters. If your opponent falls asleep at the wheel you’ll finish the fight here.
Using Your Bail Out Spot
If your “Bail Out” spot is closed guard and you find yourself in the bottom of mount, you are going to work to elbow escape to quarter guard, from quarter guard you are going to half guard, from half you are going to closed guard. You are only going to pursue your A game sweeps and submissions once you get to your “Bail Out” spot.
So, no matter where you are on bottom, your goal is to get back to your “Bail Out” position. If you named closed guard as your “Bail Out” and you are in half guard, do you try half guard sweeps? No. You transition back to closed guard and work your money sweeps instead. Occasionally your focused goal will have your opponent over compensate to stop you from going to your “Bail Out” position. When this happens you have to stay fluid in your thinking and either
1.) Insist and get there anyways. They are afraid of it for a reason.
2.) Hit a sweep if they are giving it to you. Don’t force it, and don’t “invent.” Remember, this guard isn’t your “Bail Out Spot” for a reason. Its because it isn’t your BEST game. So if they are doing most of the work for a sweep for you, hit it, but if not, get back to your spot.
3.) Hit a submission if they are giving it to you. Again, your strongest submission should be from your “Bail Out Spot,” so why play around with a 3rd or 4th string submission?
Remember the lesson of excessive rigidity from earlier, we have to stay in the moment and do what is right. The purpose of a Jiu Jitsu game plan is so that you always know what you should be doing. You always have a goal. You are never in a position thinking “What next?” while your opponent is thinking about advancing. The purpose isn’t to script a movie then act it out flawlessly matching the scripted choreography. Stay present in the moment and do what is natural.
Jiu Jitsu Game Plan Summary:
How do you want to start your match?
Drill your takedown or guard pull daily
Where do you want to be from a good spot?
Drill to improve entrances, position maintenance, and submission finishes
Pursue this position in rolling
Where do you want to be when you are in a bad spot?
Drill your transitions to get here
Drill sweeps and submissions once recovered
Pursue this position in rolling
By tournament time this should all be second nature. You shouldn’t have to think, “Oh now I’m going to the hip bump sweep” Your body should have developed pattern recognition to see posture and start the hip bump. That’s the goal.
Comment any problems or questions you have had creating your Jiu Jitsu gameplan.
Good luck and happy competitions