Speed on the Mat: Beating Your Opponent To The Position And The Submission

By: Joe Mullings

Have you ever watched someone train or rolled with someone who just seemed so fast? Everything that they did always was ahead of you or their opponent.

There are many characteristics that make athletes successful and speed is definitely one of them. The good news is that you can positively train to greatly improve your speed in the sport of Jiu Jitsu – because speed is more than just being fast As a coach and trainer of athletes, I had a “Holy Crap!” moment a few years ago when I was sitting in a seminar that a good friend on mine, Tony Blauer, was putting on. He had spoke about speed and suddenness and it has stuck with me since. In the sports world, the product of “speed” is determined by a number of components. The positive development of each of these components can greatly improve your “speed” in your sport.

The components are:

  • Response to Stimulus
  • Efficiency of Movement
  • Genetic Characteristics
  • Physical Development of Respective Power System

For simplicity, lets use the example of a world class sprinter. We have all watched the 100 meter race in the Olympics. The goal of the sprinter is to cross the finish line before all others in the race. Here are the main components that determine their success:

Response to Stimulus – the athlete is focused for the auditory signal of the gun/bell of the “starter” to start the race. This stimulus is the signal to the athlete to initiate his movement. The athlete who is “first out of the blocks” has an enormous advantage over those who were slower.

Efficiency of Movement – the ability of the athlete to move his arms, his legs and get under his hips as quick as possible and as efficient as possible gives him a mechanical advantage to direct his body down the track towards the finish line. Proper “body position” and its movements allow him to compound his efficiencies stride after stride through the 100 meters.

Physical Development of Respective Power Systems – when you look at a world class sprinter, their bodies are developed specifically for their sport or event. The muscular development of the sprinter revolves around their ability to explosively generate speed and power with their arms, legs, shoulders, etc, down the track towards the finish line.

Genetic Characteristics – genetic characteristics are most definitely instrumental in the athletes success but those characteristics alone are poor indicators of performance. There are things to consider like fast twitch vs. slow twitch, muscle size, attach points of a muscle, etc. Then there are the other genetic factors like brain function and cognitive abilities to react to stimulus and what some refer to as “hard wired perceptual speed”. These genetic characteristics can also be conditioned and improved through nutrition and training, but for this article, lets assume that you will be working with “the cards you have been dealt” by your parents.

So the “gun” goes off the and the athlete explodes down the track and his performance is based upon a combination of the above listed components. The manner in which the sprinter utilizes the components will decide you gets to the finish line first. The same can be looked at on the mat in Jiu Jitsu. The goal of BJJ is to “get to a position” before your opponent does. This occurs dozens and dozens of times during a match and how “fast” you are will be determined by the products of Response to Stimulus, Efficiency of Movement, Genetic Characteristics and Physical Development of the Respective Power Systems in play.

Lets explore how you can effect change and improve your “speed” in each of those respective areas. Also, given that most of us are not “professional competitors” and do not have the luxury of working on all of these as a fulltime career with endless time on our hands, some suggestions will be made as to where you may want to consider spending your time.

(Response to Stimulus) X (Efficiency of Movement) X (Genetic Characteristics) X (Physical Development of the Respective Power Systems) = Determination of Speed

Response to Stimulus

Remember your first BJJ roll? Want to talk about sensory and stimulus overload? Holy cow! There were so many things going on, so many assaults on your senses that your brain and body most likely went into lockdown mode after the first 30 seconds. You could not possible have addressed all of the kinesthetic indicators that were going on during that session. So your brain and body shut down and just screamed!

Fortunately as time went on, you learned to work your way thru the assault on your senses and determined with time what was important to pay attention to and what wasn’t. Our bodies are designed to adapt in order to survive – and that’s the only way to improve your ground game.

As you progress through your training, you learn techniques and the subtleties that allow those positions to work. For most techniques, there is a specific chain of events or movements that need to occur for that “position’ to work. Lets use the classic armbar from closed guard as an example. The first time you were in someones Guard and your arm was suddenly locked up, their hips were extended up and stuffed in your face and your tricep was squeezed tight between their thighs and your elbow joint was extended and felt like it was going to explode in the wrong direction……you were hooked. You were also probably arm barred just as easily a few dozen other times until you figured out what was going on. So lets look at what had to happen for that basic Arm Bar to occur.

When you learned the basics of your first Arm Bar position from the Closed Guard it went something like this:

  1. Break opponents posture
  2. Grip their right sleeve with your left hand
  3. With your right hand reach across and mark their right arm
  4. Keep their thumb pointed towards the ceiling
  5. Open your guard and put your left foot on their left hip
  6. Close your thigh against their right tricep applying pressure to trap it
  7. Bring your right leg up high on their back, across the shoulder blade line to break posture
  8. Bring left leg around the front of the opponents face and leg curl around their head
  9. Hold their right arm tight to your chest, their thumb pointed to ceiling
  10. Extend hips

Leaving out any of these steps, doing them improperly or have them interrupted by your opponent will likely lead to failure of the attempted submission.

When you were first training BJJ, you were likely caught in more arm bars than you would like to admit or remember. As time went on though, you became more adept at avoiding this submission because you knew what to look for. You started becoming better at identifying the “stimulus” that was the start of the arm bar sequence. Once your mind was able to “see” or “feel” this attack or position and its onset, you did something to interrupt that sequence and your opponent had to do something else.

You were knowledgeable of the arm bar position, you knew the basics of the sequence of movements that lead to it and you were able to respond to a stimulus early in the chain of events that therefore allowed you the greatest number of options to avoid the submission or move.

The more “positions” you know, the more stimuli you will be aware of. The earlier you are able to respond to a stimulus, the more options you will have to escape or counter the attempt.

BJJ is a contact sport, arguably the most extreme contact sport. Therefore, there are hundreds of “contact cues” occurring during a match. Some “contact cues’ are very obvious and are setting up an entire series of positions or opportunities for your opponent. Think about when you opponent opens his Guard and shifts his hips and places his foot as a base on your hip. This is a clear setup for a number of attacks. Clearing his foot off your hip sooner than later will limit your liability to that series of attacks. Allowing him to move through his chain of movements based upon that foot on your hip will pull you into deeper water and will reduce your range of effective defenses or counters.

Understanding why positions work and the critical components of a position required for its successful execution is another area of the “response to stimulus” part of your game that you need to work on. The further you develop in your BJJ game you will become more adept at seeing the chessboard and the intention of your opponent will reveal itself which in turn will allow you to potentially counter him and setup instead your attack by “beating him to the position”.

There are things that affect your ability to effectively respond to stimulus. One of those is fatigue. When the body and mind become exhausted your ability to identify and react to kinesthetic triggers is greatly reduced. Proper cardiovascular training and preparation is key to extend your ability to identify and respond to stimuli.

“Adrenaline Dumps”. Everyone has experienced these. Some “dumps” are positive and some are negative. Generally “adrenaline dumps” find their basis in fear. Fear of losing, fear of being over powered, fear of the unknown, but it all comes back to good old fashioned fear. We will go into the “Fear Factor” later in a follow up article with a great friend and industry expert Tony Blauer. So keep in mind that calmness in your training is critical. There have been numerous studies performed that show adrenaline dumps clearly affect your gross and fine motor skills. BJJ has its share of fine motor skills required to effectively execute positions. The higher the adrenaline dump, the more difficult to execute a fine motor skill. Clarity of mind is key to being able to pick up your opponents intentions. Adrenaline dumps and cardio dumps, both of which effect respiration are caused by different things and affect the athlete in different ways. You need to keep all of your “receptors” available when trying to sense what your opponent is doing. Those receptors are where any part of your opponents body comes into contact with your body.

So what do you do now? Start with basic positions and learn why they work. Understand what the critical aspects of the positions are. Understand where your opponents hips, legs, shoulders and head need to be in order to start to execute the position as well as finish the position. Once you know the starting point of the position, you can start to design your counters that will immediately shut down his intended chain of moves and immediately allow you to start attacking. So in essence, his initial move is setting him up immediately for your attack. Practice these concepts with BJJ Chess.

Efficiency of movement

BJJ and Grappling are all about physics. Human beings are a series of rigid bodies that are linked together by mechanical joints. They are subject to tension, compression, rotation, rest / motion, displacement, velocity, speed, acceleration, etc. There are efficiencies in the use of these concepts and if you have studied any BJJ you know that leverage is a key component to the game. One of the fundamental principles of BJJ is use all of your strength and power in your body and apply it to a smaller more susceptible joint or body part of your opponent to force a submission. An example of this would be an armbar. Your hips, legs, arms and lower back are all working in a synchronized attack against a smaller elbow joint. Forcing a submission or a potential brutal injury should the opponent choose not to tap.

Once you comprehend the concept of leverage you can then move on to understanding the application of that force and how that force is magnified by proper body position. Where you put a specific part of your body relative to a position or technique will have a direct effect of the success of that position or technique. How fast you get to that position of “application” with economy of motion will impact the success of the position. BJJ is about locomotion, the ability to move your body into positions where the least amount of energy can result in the greatest amount of force in regards to your opponent.

Efficiency of movement and economy of movement will allow you to roll more effectively and for a longer time while not becoming exhausted and thereby negatively affecting performance. One of the things you may have experienced as a beginner is to over react or under react to what your opponent is doing. Think about when you first started to drive a car. You would over steer responding to something that happened on the road and then got caught over correcting and then over correcting to your over correct…..you get the idea. This happens a lot in BJJ, especially with a beginner. That’s why beginners are usually easily swept or easily led down a path of over reaction to a technique and then providing an opening for yet another technique based upon their over reaction. It is also one of the reasons why a beginner “gasses’ so early because they are using so much energy in response their opponents movements.

As one gets more advanced in their training, there are movements and positions that are performed dozens of times during a match. Execution of these “basic movements” can have a profound impact on a match. From the bottom, think about how many times you hip escape, pull guard, switch from one hip to another while switching sides from open guard, hip switch when executing a sweep from half guard. From the top position, standing up in place to open a locked closed guard, execute a baseball slide sweep, drop to double unders when trying to pass a guard. These are all fundamental movements that are executed numerous times in a match and how your body moves with the greatest application of force available in those positions will greatly enhance their effectiveness.

None of these movements of the body occur in isolation. There is a chain of movement in the body when executing movements in BJJ. Hip position relative to foot position relative to arm position as in the case of a sweep.

So what do you do next? If you are a beginner, work on your hip escape. First determine the correct movements with your instructor and really understand all the details. Ask why your instructor does everything. There are no dumb questions. Ask why the hand goes where it goes, why the foot goes where it goes and then groove that movement from both sides until you have it perfected. If your opponent cant pass your guard, he cant score. A well executed hip escape is a lot more than just scooting your hips backwards. Start your drilling with a partner at 1/3 speed, slow down everything so you can really see what is going on. What is the chain of movement when all of your body is working in harmony to execute this move. Where can you improve efficiencies and “pull the string tighter” as I like to call it.

If you are more advanced in your training, you may want to first address what your “game” is. Is your game half guard? Do you like to work from Dela Riva? Look at the positions you already enjoy working from and now slowdown your game and examine all of the movements that are critical to your game. First, make sure you are executing the positions correctly. Ask your instructor to watch you execute the position and all the details with it. Remember, with BJJ, the devil is in the details. Define the proper movement and know where the hands, legs, feet, hips go and why they go where they go. How do they work in harmony? How can you move your body with the greatest efficiency to arrive in the position that you are trying to get to before your opponent in order to gain an advantage. As you feel the position get “grooved” and have the chain of movement best defined, now you can start to increase the speed as well as the resistance from your opponent.

Genetic Predisposition

Some people would say that this is “the hand they were dealt” in regards to natural resources. While part of that statement is true, it is not an endpoint. What I mean is that you should not be predisposed to not thinking you cant effect your genetic dispositions. While genetic traits and characteristics are instrumental in an athletes success, those characteristics alone are a poor indicators of performance. Dealing with genetic factors is part of the equation and it is our opinion that most genetic factors can be dealt with if the athlete is willing to pay the price. Most under achievers will use perceived “genetic limitations’ as an excuse….true winners wont. Jean Jacques Machado…..say no more.

Of all the components that can effect speed, genetic predisposition can take the longest to effect change relative to others if part of your genetics are perceived as a liability. Or in the case of them being an asset as in lung capacity, natural resting heart rate, muscle attach points, etc they can be greatly amplified with the proper programs and training. So for this article we wanted to mention it as a key component that could be greatly amplified with exercise, diet and supplementation. We will go into this subject in later discussions on this site.

Physical Development of Respective Power System

Strength does matter. When all else is close to equal, the stronger person will likely win the battle. That “battle” may represent a position, submission or a defense. Strength in the sport of Jiu Jitsu should be looked at as a blend of strength endurance, power, muscle movement and range of movement as well as maximum strength.

Jiu Jitsu requires the entire body to move in what we refer to as “chain body movements”. Rarely is a single muscle or muscle group accessed in isolation. Your larger muscle groups which include, legs, hips, lower back upper back and shoulders are your “Power Systems”. These muscle groups are constantly being recruited and transferring movement back and forth to each other during a match.

The development of these power systems will dramatically amplify your response to stimulus, efficiency of movement and genetic predisposition. Now, overlay on top of all three of those concepts the physical development of the athlete and you can see how horsepower can be added to your game.


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