Too often we find ourselves training without a purpose beyond putting in the mat time we know we need to improve. Incorporating Ryron Gracie’s conscious mental hierarchy towards your intentions while sparring can serve as a template if you ever feel you are hitting a wall.
At any point throughout a roll, your mind ought to consciously be focused on one of four principles:
Big, Small, Deep
The very nature of the roots of jiu-jitsu lie in survival. Defending doesn’t mean getting out of a bad position, but stopping the progress of your opponent. The onus is on your opponent to submit you, and he can’t do this if you’re sensitive to his intentions. In understanding the ‘chess’ game of jiu-jitsu, appreciating that in an inferior position, it’s your opponent’s move to transition from control to submission. You then become aware of what you need to shut down in your quest for self-preservation. ‘Big’ defenses fall into the category of a critical checkpoint towards your opponents progress — pinning and isolating an arm in side control being one example. ‘Smaller’ defenses may be identified as moves within a move, perhaps a kimura transition or switching to an armbar. A ‘deep’ defense may be where your opponent is a step or two from a submission, and your survival depends on timing their submission attempt to maneuver out. You still may be in an inferior position, but separating your defensive intention from your escape intention will increase your odds of survival.
Accept, Create, Force
The key to a successful escape is patience and defense. If you’re in a defensive position and literally do nothing, your opponent needs to sacrifice a degree of control in order to move towards a submission. In such instances, being in the correct mental framework allows you to ‘accept’ the escape opportunity presented to you. Another thought process would be to ‘create’ bait for your opponent to act, causing him to prematurely advance his position when you have a predetermined response and creating your window for escape. In instances where there’s a time limit or a situation where you absolutely need to get out of a position, you can ‘force’ an escape. This can often lead to the quickest result, but it also carries the greatest risk. By forcing an escape, you effectively play your card for your opponent, giving him an opportunity to pounce. This action should be reserved for a dangerous situation on the street, a competition where you can not afford to wait in an inferior position, or in sparring when you want to make a conscious point to take risks. Many people, particularly beginners, make this their default when they find themselves in an inferior position. Ryron’s philosophy suggests deferring to the highest level of this hierarchy, defending before attempting to channel an escape.
Closed, Open, Dynamic
When in a superior position, we may find ourselves losing the position in a fruitless attempt to push forward to advance our position or work towards a submission. Shifting our default behavior from submission to control allows us to slow down the pace and be aware of whether our opponent is in a defensive or an escape mindset. ‘Closed’ control refers to holding an opponent tight, preventing either of your movement in an effort to hold the position without interruption. On an opponent adept at creating escapes, the pressure and clinch you impose from side control may be the opportunity they need to roll you over, so you need to complement this with ‘open control’. Basing your hands out and utilizing gravity, weight distribution, and base allow you to deal with the explosive actions of your training partner. In the chaos, your opponent may force a scramble, so you may need to employ variations of ‘dynamic’ control — in other words, keeping your opponent contained within your web regardless of which way they move. Following an opponent around from position to position can only occur if you aren’t worried about committing to an attack.
Accept, Create, Force
Many believe that victory in sparring is defined as submitting your opponent, but this is simply not true. Beyond the age of 90, Grandmaster Helio Gracie was physically at a point that he couldn’t escape inferior positions from opponents far younger and heavier, despite that he could defend against submissions. If on top, upon instructing his training partner to not escape the position but merely defend, his control was said to be so sharp that he would eventually catch you. Ryron mentions that students will be in a control position and ask, “What do I do from here?” It’s one of the great fallacies of jiu-jitsu that you must march towards a submission. Controlling an opponent is in itself a victory. You simply need to identify your opponent’s escape attempt to ‘accept’ a submission that happens on its own. Savvy control artists can utilize fakes and dynamic controls to ‘create’ opportunities where even more experienced opponents concede a submission. As a last resort, you can ‘force’ a submission, but understand that this will put you at risk of losing the position. It’s ok to take risks as long as you understand the potential consequences.
Next time you begin a round of sparring, be aware of your intentions and the intentions of your training partner. Play around with the idea of consciously switching between mindsets as the roll unfolds. Take pride in the small victories, such as holding an opponent a little longer in a position or being able to survive longer against a more experienced opponent. These are all signs that your mindset is headed in the right direction.