We hear it all the time when describing top flight competitors who are starting to make their mark on competition jiu-jitsu: “one trick pony.” It’s so common that it’s cliché. Every athlete has their preferred moves, but is it better to focus specifically on winning techniques, thus focusing on specialization? Or should athletes develop all areas of their games?
A few years back it was pointed out to me that some of the very best in the game only utilize a small portion of their arsenal of techniques. They focus on specialization rather than diversification of techniques. Obviously it is important to have plans B and C for when plan A fails, but the better you get at executing plan A, the less you’ll have to fall back on plans B and C.
If you plan on getting to deep half guard and executing a specific sweep to a submission from there, you might be better off drilling your deep half guard entries and the subsequent techniques instead of drilling your double leg takedown. However, if you wind up in a situation in which your opponent forces you to play a standing game and have none, you’re gonna have a bad time.
Related: Should Grappling Competitions Adopt A Single Rule Set? Or Are There Benefits To Diversity Of Rules?
My coach advocates learning techniques that one isn’t liable to use in competition simply to promote awareness and familiarity with those techniques. The best way to learn to defend a technique is to be intimately familiar with it. If you know what makes a technique work, you also know what one needs to do to make it fail, and that can be a huge competitive advantage.
Many “one trick ponies” are anything but that. Even though a competitor may only display one specific skill set in competition, he or she may have another well-developed skill set right behind it. It just means that the one they display is the one they favor, and the one with which they enjoy success.
In my case, I compete at 205 pounds, and refuse to cut. I am therefore often on the smaller end of my brackets. Bearing that in mind, most of my opponents wind up on top of me, so I pull guard. However, I love passing the guard and I love playing the top game. I realized early on that bigger opponents will prefer to be on top, so I developed a guard game.
Learning which game is most appropriate for development is a result of trial and error, but ultimately the more refined your game becomes the less of it your opponents will see because you’ll be able to make that A Game be your primary avenue for attack.
All of this begs the question: is specialization a good thing or a bad thing? Is the action of refining one’s game to fewer techniques of higher efficacy something that can ultimately result in loss of crucial skills? Or is that refinement important to higher level grappling?