Monday, March 24, 2014

The Art of Drilling

We simply cannot go balls to the wall rolling all the time. Not if you want to do BJJ the rest of your life. In fact, many of the old BJJ Legends are currently advocating drilling rather than hard core sparring in order to improve in BJJ.

But what does drilling mean? Why do you drill? What do you drill? What is the end goal of drilling?

Drilling generally means training a technique or move in repetition, and the goal is initially to get a good feel for it, to take ownership of it. Then, especially in BJJ terms, you want to be able to recognize instantly the opportunities to perform said moves, and ultimately to react and perform said moves instantaneously without thinking. So the purpose of drilling is to make certain things second nature to you.

But what do you drill?

Technique Drilling

Generally I think we all start BJJ this way. Our instructor teaches us a move, and we drill and drill that move to "own" it. We watch in amazement and emulate our instructor and practise our armbars, chokes etc.

However, although this is good as it hones your familiarity with the technique, it is unfortunate that to most, the concept of drilling stops here, and the rest is learned indirectly through rolling.

The following are other ways you can drill, in order to improve your game.

Alternatives Drilling

This is usually the next step in most BJJer's development. You learn the alternatives to moves. I used to teach my classes predominantly like this. For example, you have a position, say guard, and you drill all the alternative sweeps and submissions from that position that you learned and get familiar with the game.

Besides looking and drilling from certain positions as your starting point, you can also drill from a counter to a submission or sweep to a position or another submission. For example, from a triangle attempt, you drill the alternatives such as a armbar or omoplata etc.

Situational Drilling

This is used by many top teams. Your opponent gives you a move, say a pass, and you instantly react to it, over and over again. This builds your reaction time, training you to recognize an opportunity instantly and react to it.

The simplest example would be catch and grab armdrag drill. Your opponent reaches out with his hand, you catch his wrist with your mirror arm and armdrag him with your other arm, and repeat.

Movement Drilling

Movement drills build stamina and smoothness. It helps you get comfortable and familiar with moving a particular way and be comfortable with your body movement.

Movement drilling also includes position drilling, moving from position to position, getting comfortable with such transitions.

Other ways of drilling movement, are for example doing some Ginastica Natural if you are solo, or animal walk drills, hip escapes, rolls etc.

Concept Drilling

Concept drilling is a bit vague, but you have a very specific goal you are intending to achieve. For example, you are drilling takedowns, but it does not matter which takedown you use, the goal is to off balance your opponent's hip, making sure one side is higher than the other.

For judo hip throws for example, I know the judokas have their own offbalancing drills, but I like to look at it through my lens of BJJ understanding, and emphasize that the conceptual goal is to bend your opponent's spine. Thus using most grips, for a hip throw the goal would be to move and off balance your opponent's shoulders.

So you attack his shoulders with different grips and techniques, the goal is to know instantly what the goal is, and to familiarize yourself with the timing and feel of the move.

You can even drill positions but focusing on the concepts. For example, keep his shoulders and hips pinned to the ground, but twist his spine.

Linear Drilling

Linear drilling is where you drill your submission trains. You drill specific movements that link well together, based on the natural reactions the majority of your opponents will give you.

This form of drilling is opposite of alternatives drilling. In alternatives drilling, say for example, you start with an armbar from guard, if he resists, you switch to something else, like maybe a sweep or choke etc.

In linear drilling for example, instead of looking for alternatives when you go for a technique, instead you link the technique with another technique.

The simplest example that most will know will be a scissor sweep to armbar. Now go further. If your opponent does the hitchhiker escape, you switch to omoplata. He again escapes doing a forward roll, you switch to another omoplata. This time he rolls again, you instead go for a marceloplata.

Initially you chain a submission to a position before you go for another submission. But as you get better, you can chain submission to submission.

Traditionally in traditional martial arts, this would probably end up a kata. Unfortunately, most katas are not realistic because they are not based on real reactions from real opponents out to hurt them. Similarly in boxing or muay thai, most attacking combinations are only up to maybe 3 or 5 move combos.

In BJJ, we have the advantage of rolling and seeing again and again real time reactions to our attempts. Thus if we are diligent, we can form our own personal "katas" of chain linear attacks and practice them in linear drills to hone them.

Finishing Drilling

Lastly, finishing drilling. You will be surprised how often you bread and butter submission doesn't work in competition scenarios when adrenaline is high. This probably will make you worry, will it work on the street?

I have noticed over the years, as we progress in BJJ, we THINK we know our submissions. You would think that because you have gotten many taps, you can put someone to sleep, or break their arm. But have you ever put anyone to sleep, or broken an arm in a fight?

I am not advocating breaking arms in your gym, but drilling your submissions, so that you know that you know that you know they would work 100% is not a bad thing.

Work on finishing your submissions without having to change grips, or changing submissions. Make everything tight, including using your position to its 100% positional advantage by grinding, stretching etc 100%.


There are so many ways of drilling. In fact, many classes can be taught purely in terms of drills. Work on the many different aspects of BJJ until they are second nature to you. If we are all honest with ourselves, we know what we have to work on.

So to conclude: Do more kata

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reflections of a Black Belt

I was asked by one of my blue belts, Robert runs his own training group in another state, to get together a syllabus for white to black belt, and I have been trying for several years now.

The problem is this. Many years ago, as a purple belt, I wrote a syllabus from white to blue. And I think it came to 140 plus moves! It was comprehensive for the knowledge that I had at the time, and was designed to produce a student with a pretty well rounded game.

However, it gets harder as I went up ranks, and tried to design a syllabus to purple, now to brown and black. Why? Because with each belt progression, I found myself looking at my understanding of BJJ with a completely new light and paradigm.

There is just so many things that I think a BJJ student should know, but there is so many approaches to it. Let me explain my personal path.

White Belt

As a white belt, I took weekly privates from my instructor, John Will, and I was always researching and focusing on learning techniques. I was primarily a technique collector, which was why probably I took longer than my peers to get my blue belt (took me 2 years). I had too many moves to choose from, and took me some time to develop my game.

Blue Belt

As a blue belt, after a year as a blue in Australia, I came back to Malaysia and started the first BJJ class in Malaysia in 2002. I guess at that stage, I was still a technique collector. However, by teaching I started experimenting with my students. As most of my students were Asian, they were not as strong as what I was used to in my club in Australia. So besides simply collecting techniques blindly, some selective refining and culling of techniques were necessary.

This was also the belt I started to develop a guard. I was primarily a top player before that.

Purple Belt

As a purple, I started experimenting with movement drills, relaxing under pressure, this was where I experimented and stopped caring about getting tapped by my students. Purple belt for me was about movement, what leads to where, trying to answer every problem by finding a solution by moving. I intentionally wanted to sample my student's games, getting myself into trouble and trying to feel my way out.

Movement was not simply about escapes, but also flowing from one submission to the next, how opponents move. This also includes studying how champions move, and trying to emulate certain movements as a whole.

Brown Belt

Brown belt was interesting. I stumbled upon some judo concepts as well as went more in depth in my understanding about leverage, posture, balance as thought in BJJ. My newer students (under the last 4 years) would acknowledge my teachings at this period was quite alot about spinal structure, body mechanics.

I experimented these, proving to myself that simply by using structure you can neutralize strength and explosiveness, and when grappling, there is more focus on what is the goal to be achieved. By learning to target the posture and balance, structural integrity of your opponent, you spend less wasted energy in an unfocused manner.

As I was thinking bio-mechanically, it answered alot of my questions about difficulties with positions and submissions that some were having, and others were not. And most times, the answer was pretty simple once you understand the differences in body type and adjust accordingly.

It also helped me understand deeply the different types of guard at a fundamental level, especially the newer guards.

Black Belt

As black belt, I have been deconstructing techniques and positions, reassembling them and, up to the level of my current understanding, improving techniques for them to work nearly 100% of the time.

Hence my revision of guillotine chokes, rear naked chokes, kimuras, armbars, leg locks etc etc. These are the techniques thought completely differently from what I used to teach years ago.

The idea is to tighten and improve your submission without releasing or changing grips and positions, with as minimal movement as possible.


So, if one was to follow my progression, having a broad enough technique base is important. You need to have a well rounded game before you have reference points to slot in new moves to your game, as well as be able to delve deeper into different aspects of your game.

As for my syllabus, what can I say. Technique basic requirements are important, and relatively easy to write up for up to blue belt level. But many things beyond that are student specific. Of course some concepts and drills can be thought and written down, but most other things involve just a simple correction, a deeper understanding in a concept, a shift of angle, weight, posture.

So if I were to write a book, like most books of BJJ, technique fills pages, and probably will sell better. While some of the more advanced stuff may be explained in only a page or paragraph.

This is why most descriptions of Rickson Gracie seminars are vague and nearly incomprehensible to those that didn't attend. His Invisible Jiu Jitsu seminars are probably wasted on blue belts and below, as most of the stuff he is showing require you to have an understanding of Jiu Jitsu already.

So that is roughly my progression through the ranks, and the different viewpoints throughout the years. This clearly can be seen over the different generation of students I have had over the years too. You can tell which "batch" they are by their style of grappling.

This has been my experience and this may not be the same for all black belts.

That is not to say I don't still do the other things I used to do at different belt levels. If anything, now I run any new knowledge through my different approaches.

I still collect techniques (have to keep up with the current games being played)
I still like to play around with movement (and try to solve problems using movement)
I still like to play with body structure and mechanics (both to disrupt my opponent, or keep myself safe)
And I am constantly thinking about ways of making techniques and positions better.

Anyway, these are just some ramblings of a reserved black belt.

Safe training and have a good 2014!

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