Watching a black belt in action can be mesmerizing. The fluidity of her movements, the ease in which she can escape even the tightest chokes, her ability to pull submissions seemingly out of nowhere – it is hard to believe she was ever a first-day white belt who couldn’t even pull off a simple armbar.
But she was.
And in the process of becoming that fluid ground-based killing machine, she had to break a seemingly endless list of bad habits that left her at the mercy of her opponents’ attacks.
I am nowhere near black belt. In fact, going at my rate, I won’t feel the joy of seeing that red bar on my belt until I am well into my forties or even fifties.
But in my comparatively short journey to blue belt, I have had to break a host of bad habits.
Here are three of them.
Using guard solely as a defense
Mere minutes after tying my blue belt around my waist, my instructor advised me to become more dangerous in my guard.
Like many white belts, I had a bad habit of solely using guard for defense: I would pull guard, hold on, defend against attacks, and wait for the clock to run out.
But that is not what guard – any guard – is for.
When I am in my instructor’s guard, I am constantly fighting to not only maintain my balance, but protect my neck, arms, and almost every other part of my body from his barrage of submissions.
There is not one second where I am allowed to catch my breath.
What many students, myself included, did not understand, was that guard is as much an offense as it is a defense. Yes, it is about stopping your opponent from passing to mount or side control, but it is also about subjecting him to whatever sweeps and submissions you can throw.
Using guard as an offense has improved my game tremendously.
Turtling up too long
Another “defensive” position I constantly misused was turtle.
As many jiu-jitsu practitioners will tell you, turtle can be an effective, last-ditch effort to stop someone from getting mount after passing your guard.
My problem was I just stayed there and let my opponent break down my defenses until she forced me into a submission.
What my instructor taught me was to treat turtle as a transitional movement. If my opponent passed me, the best thing to do was briefly turtle up, then immediately regain guard.
I learned that in jiu-jitsu or in any martial art, I could not just sit there and let my opponent chip away at my defenses.
I had to get myself back on offense.
Avoiding stand-up grappling
During my white belt years, I was afraid of stand-up grappling. The idea of getting thrown or slammed – even on mats – scared me so much that I would pull guard or shoot in for a sloppy takedown even when I knew I would not hit it.
The ground was like a security blanket for me, and I wanted it as soon as possible.
Thankfully, my last few instructors have pulled that security blanket away from me.
Stand-up grappling is a vital part of jiu-jitsu, and the people running my gym are forcing me to give it the attention it deserves.