Improving Your Jiu Jitsu Attacks.

Improving Your Jiu Jitsu Attacks. Lessons From Predators and Scavengers of the Animal Kingdom.

Jiu Jitsu confers an almost magical ability to control and submit another person. Untrained people unknowingly betray the weakness of the human form – allowing the Jiu Jitsu practitioner to ply his or her wares both effectively and efficiently.  However, when the adversary also has the power of Jiu Jitsu – it is necessary to dig a little deeper, becoming more thoughtful and nuanced in our attacks.

This first step towards “winning” is not “losing.” Which is why self-defense is widely considered to be the most basic tenet of Jiu Jitsu. However, the true spirit of Jiu Jitsu requires us to go a step further – and that is to make our adversary submit.

As we strive to improve our skills [i.e. increasing our capacity for tapping out even skilled practitioners] – the question naturally arises,

“How can I improve my Jiu Jitsu attacks?”

One surefire way of improving our attacks is by increasing our opportunities for attack. Here it can be helpful to take a lesson from Nature – and break things down into a twofold approach:

  1. Creating opportunities for attack – much like a Predator.
  2. Recognizing pre-existing opportunities for attack – much like a Scavenger.


  • Predators (such as hawks or eagles) tend to subsist on a limited diet and employ a highly specialized skillset. They have one dominant skill upon which they depend for their survival.
  • We see their counterpart in the Jiu Jitsu world – the extremely effective practitioner who subsists largely on a limited set of moves. Highly skilled, they are able to overwhelm their opponent’s defenses with superior offense and nuanced attacks.
  • Whether in the natural world, or the Jiu Jitsu world – successful predators learn to initiate attacks only when the chance for success is high.


  • Scavengers (such as dogs or rats) can adapt to practically any environment and consume a variety of foods.
  • Successful scavengers utilize a more general skillset than the predator – which enables them to recognize and capitalize on opportunities in a wide variety of environmental conditions.
  • On the mat, a sound general skillset can enable the scavenging Jiu Jitsu practitioner to make use of a variety of different resources.


My Professor encourages his students to be both proactive and reactive – equal parts predator and scavenger. A specialist and an opportunist.

Like a tiger – we should “stalk and kill the prey” by developing a specialized skillset and some “favorite techniques.” And like a vulture soaring calmly overhead – we should seize upon an opportunity that presents itself.

Hunting for a perfect technical sweep, like a predator – or “finding” a “sloppy” opportunistic reversal, like a scavenger, can yield the same result – yet scavenging can be easier than hunting.

The more we specialize in a limited set of our “favorite techniques” (Tokui Waza in Japanese) – the more we develop our “predatory” skill. The more we develop a general skillset (Mastering the Basics) – the more we will be able to recognize and capitalize on an opportunity. Consciously combining both approaches can help improve your Jiu Jitsu attacks.

Are You Frustrated By Jiu Jitsu?

It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task, which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome. – William James

“I can’t believe he submitted me again…with the same move!!!

“He is much smaller than me, how can he be so much better???”

“Am I ever going to get my next belt?”

“I suck! I should never step my foot in this place again!”

“How did he tap me out when I was in midair???”

Any of these sound familiar? These are just a few of the many frustrating thoughts and feelings I have experienced on the way to black belt.  As a black belt, Jiu Jitsu is still frustrating – there is always someone who is better, and there is always more to learn.  There is an endless supply of complicated moves that we are supposed to know and be able to execute under pressure.  Meanwhile, feedback on our “failures” is quick and immediate.  TAP, TAP, TAP!!!

When our desire to do well meets with undesired results – “That white belt just got the Mount and choked the shit out of me!” – we are likely to get upset and feel frustrated.

When we experience an excessive amount of frustration – we are likely to give up.  But some frustration is healthy, and even vital to our long-term development.

Over the years I have tried (and often failed) to make frustration work for me and not against me.  Here are some suggestions:

Frustration is an Important and Inevitable Part of the Jiu Jitsu Journey.  It is important to recognize that feelings of frustration motivate us to grow. If we experience too little frustration, we wont be motivated to improve – then where would we be?  Frustration is a physiological necessity for us to reach the higher realms of our individual Jiu Jitsu potential.

Frustration is a Sign of Growth.  Frustration not only spurs growth, it is also the byproduct of improvement.  Improving our skills requires us to try new things, be uncomfortable, fail, learn, expand and become more than we were before.  Frustration and discomfort are signs that we are exploring new territories and acquiring new skill sets.  Frustration is a sure sign that we are growing and increasing our abilities.

Confronting Frustration Increases Confidence.  Frustration is a motivating factor.  It can motivate us to quit, or inspire us to improve.  Giving in to frustration will leave us even more dissatisfied in the long run.  That is because working through frustration increases our confidence, while giving up in the face of frustration lowers our self-esteem.   Frustration provides us with an opportunity to gain the confidence that results from feeling deeply and not falling apart.  Feeling frustrated but staying on target for your goal will let you get in touch with the feeling, deep down, that you can and will figure it out.

Ways to Overcome Frustration.  Remembering that frustration is necessary and beneficial can help change our perspective on frustration from an enemy to an ally. Here are some other suggestions for overcoming frustration:

Recommit to Having Fun.  Take the pressure off by reminding yourself that Jiu Jitsu is a fun activity.  It is a form of play.  It is much more than a contest of who won or lost – it is also a creative outlet, a way to get into great shape, a social activity, and much more – all of which can have a very positive impact on our lives.  Take the pressure off. You don’t have to be the best – just having fun is a legitimate reason for doing something.

Want It Bad Enough.  You are responsible for your own inspiration.  Having a strong desire to learn and grow will provide us with the fuel to deal with the inevitable frustration that is associated with learning Jiu Jitsu.  

Lower the Bar.  It sounds strange, but lowering the bar can replace frustration with satisfaction.  Don’t beat yourself up for not training 6 days a week.  Commend yourself for making it 2 days a week.  If you have a family and a career – that is commendable.  If you are home playing video games – less so.  Strive to be your best – but learn to accept your limits are real.  

Focus More on the Journey than The Destination. Focusing on the journey itself can be enough for the pressure and frustration to subside.  Pushing ourselves and striving to be our best can be a good thing, but there is a point at which it can turn on us – and become overwhelming.

The Road is Hard Enough – Adopt a Positive Mindset.  Applaud your progress.  The road to Black Belt (and beyond) is hard enough.  If we continually beat ourselves up along the way it becomes impossible.  We can easily become our own worst critic.  We all make mistakes – there is no need to magnify them.  Focus on what you did well and the areas in which you are improving.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others.  The natural tendency to compare our selves to others can quickly lead to frustration.  Don’t compare yourself to others.  Compare yourself to where you used to be.  Are you better than you were last month?  Last year?  Better than you were as a white belt?  If the answer is yes, then keep going!  You will soon realize that you really have come a long way. Time to celebrate, not mope.

Conclusion.  Is Jiu Jitsu frustrating you?

You are not alone.  It seems that frustration is a natural and normal part of the Jiu Jitsu learning process.

Frustration is an intense emotion – but on the other side we can often find growth and progress.

Like Zen Masters who deliberately lead their pupils to points of maximum doubt and frustration, and even beat them – knowing that such moments will often precede enlightenment.   Likewise, Jiu Jitsu requires us to persist in the face of negative emotions, in order to reach a higher level of skill.

Embrace frustration – learn to let it motivate you, and not handicap you.  Openly face and accept that it will not be easy – and that is part of what makes it so worthwhile.

Keep training, you wont regret it!

The Importance of Relaxing in Jiu Jitsu

My training partner Juan was a white belt like me, except he had 3 stripes on his belt, where I had none.  He was presently on top of me in side control.  As I struggled against his superior position and extra 30 pounds, one of his many sweat droplets fell into my left eye.  In between Juan’s grunts I think the word “prison rape” flashed through my mind. As I panicked, the Professor shouted out, “RELAX!!!”

In the early days of my Jiu Jitsu training, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this “relax” concept…I was anything but.  How could I be?  It felt like some of my training partners were trying to kill me – plus, just being in close physical contact with another male was enough to raise my blood pressure.  Not to mention, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing…

Yet I trusted my Professor, and the relaxed poise many of the advanced students demonstrated during training was not completely lost on me.

I found that learning to relax in Jiu Jitsu is simple in theory, but challenging in practice.  Overriding the natural tendency to become stiff and defensive when engaged in close combat with another person is not easy.

Yet, somewhere along the path to black belt, it happened.  I did learn to relax – not only my body but also my mind and, I believe, my soul as well. The more I relaxed, the faster I progressed.  This is one of the paradoxes of Jiu Jitsu.

Here are just a few of the benefits of avoiding the tendency to become nervous, uptight and tense:

  • We are less likely to panic and do something stupid.
  • We are less likely to be injured.
  • We will be able to train longer.
  • We can be more creative.
  • We will progress faster.
  • We will develop the ability to quickly and coolly assess a situation – even under stress.
  • We will be a better training partner.

It is the ability to be relaxed, clearheaded, present and cool under fire that separates the best from the mediocre.  On the Jiu Jitsu mat, a strong individual is not a rigid individual. In fact, exactly the opposite is true.  Strength comes from adaptability.  It’s important to bend, to move on, to change, to compromise, or you risk snapping like a dead branch in a stiff breeze.  Let us not forget, Jiu Jitsu is the Yielding Art.

Of course, like Jiu Jitsu itself, developing the physical and mental control to relax in a stressful situation is an ongoing process.  I still fall back on bad habits when I get out of my comfort zone – becoming tense is a deeply engrained response to stress.   Having better players deftly use relaxed mobility to slice through my stiff resistance always serves as a healthy and humbling reminder.

Some things we can do to relax:

  • Do not become emotional.
  • Avoid rough, loud mouth-breathing.
  • As much as possible, breathe through the nose.
  • Avoid angry faces.
  • Let your face, mind and breath all reflect an inner calmness.
  • Devise a strategy, and employ actual techniques.
  • Be patient.

Conclusion.  Jiu Jitsu training requires us to relax – but not like the person on the couch eating milk and cookies.   Instead we should be like the river that flows around obstacles; or like the modern buildings of Tokyo, which are built to withstand earthquakes.  Their foundations are strongly enforced, but there is also room for sway and give.

To be relaxed in Jiu Jitsu does not mean to be weak, or to flounder around in an aimless and confused manner. No, it requires self-discipline.  The ability to relax in Jiu Jitsu requires skill, knowledge, a cool head, an appraising eye, poise, balance and correct judgment.  And it is the key to graceful and effective movement.

So, “RELAX!!!!”

Does Jiu Jitsu Have a Philosophy?

iStock_000000450441_ExtraSmallThroughout history the majority of martial arts have operated within a culture of honor. Warrior classes from Vikings to Medieval knights to modern military personnel have shared this tendency as well.  The ideal has always been to combine martial skills with ethical codes of behavior.

In Japan this ethical code of conduct was called Bushido (“Way of the Warrior) or Budo (Way of the Spirit.)  Bushido was intended to permeate the life of the samurai.  Specifically, it developed these seven character traits: right action, courage, benevolence, respect, truthfulness, honor, and loyalty.  Many modern day Jiu Jitsu practitioners still find the concept of “Bushido” to be an important component of their practice.

Why have codes of moral virtue been combined with martial skill?

Charles Darwin suggested an answer – he was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict the most basic premise of his Theory of Evolution, that natural selection should favor the ruthless.

People who are kind and generous should therefore die before passing on their genes to the next generation.  Yet this is clearly not true, and all societies value kindness and generosity among their members.

Evolutionary biologists say that this seeming contradiction arises from the fact that we pass on our genes as individuals, but we survive as members of groups – and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole.

Neuroscientists say this dynamic has resulted in two patterns of reaction in our brains, a “Fast Track” and a “Slow Track.”

The Fast Track focuses on the individual.

  • The Fast Track focuses on potential danger to us as individuals.
  • It is characterized by the immediate, instinctive and emotional.

The Slow Track focuses on the group.

  • The Slow Track enables us to take a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others.
  • It is characterized by the reflective, rational and altruistic.

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive.  The slow track leads us to more considered behavior – it brings moments of moral beauty into what might otherwise be harsh and lonely lives.  The Fast Track helps us survive, but it is the Slow Track that enables us to thrive.

The Importance of Bushido.

This puts us in a position to understand why bushido was an important component of martial arts in the past — and why we still need it in the future. By encouraging ethical behavior, Bushido strengthens and speeds up the Slow Track.  It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning moral behavior into instinct.

Bushido is the antidote to reckless behavior.  It replaces emotional outbursts with moral choices.  By metaphorically carving bushido into their hearts, the ideal samurai aimed to make “right action” automatic.  This guided them towards the appropriate use of violence.  Those who fell short of the ideal were more inclined to misuse their power and compromise their honor.

A strengthening of the slow track will highlight the honor in restraint.  Unmitigated violence without the balance of a moral code is self destructive to the individual and the community they reside in.

The idea that Jiu Jitsu can now do without some form of ethical code of behavior, or Bushido, not only flies in the face of history, it contradicts evolutionary biology.


The emotional strength and psychological fitness that is associated with the Slow Track will likely have a greater impact on our life than martial arts skill or physical strength.  This makes strengthening the Slow Track of our brains a supremely practical endeavor.

Philosophies such as Bushido are not a useless thing from the past.  In fact, when combined with martial skill, they provide a more well rounded knowledge that is the way of the future.

What do you think?  Do these moral codes still have a place in modern day Jiu Jitsu?  Can they still be effective in helping us balance physical capabilities with a strong moral character?

The 7 – 5 – 3 Jiu-Jitsu Code.

The 7, 5, 3 Code of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu incorporates the 7 Principles of Bushido, The 5 Keys to Longevity, and the 3 Zen Minds.  i first heard of the code from a friend who trained with Master Pedro Valente

The Seven Principles Of Bushido.

  1. Right Action.  Doing what is just without regard to consequence.   (Correct judgment or procedure for the resolution of righteousness.)
  2. Courage.  Having the inner strength to stand for what is right.
  3. Benevolence.  Having a kind disposition that reflects love and affection for others.  “Benevolence brings under its sway whatever hinder its power, just as water subdues fire.”
  4. Respect.  Being polite and courteous to others.  “In its highest form politeness approaches love.”
  5. Truthfulness.  Having integrity in word and action while following the Law of the Universe.
  6. Honor. Enjoying a reputation for ethical conduct.  “Dishonor is like a scar on a tree which time, instead of effacing only helps to enlarge.”
  7. Loyalty. Faithful allegiance.

The 5 Keys To Health And Longevity.

  1. Daily exercise
  2. Proper nutrition
  3. Adequate Rest / Sleep
  4. Hygiene
  5. Positive Mental Attitude

3 Minds. 

Zan Shin is translated as ‘Remaining Spirit’ and refers to a vigilant, all-encompassing awareness.  Zanshin is being fully present in the here and now.  The mind is fully aware of its surroundings and in a state of ever-readiness – unattached, yet present to the task at hand.

Mu Shin means ‘Mind Without Mind,’ or the state of No Mind.  Mu Shin is a state of spontaneity that allows immediate action without conscious thought.  “Mu” means “emptiness.”  The mind is empty in the sense that it is void of fear, anger, worries and various other preoccupations.  The absence of these distractions creates the space for an increased awareness and clarity. Mushin is sometimes referred to as “the zone,” – a relaxed state of peak performance.

Fu Do Shin is the ‘Immovable Mind.’  It is the mind that has met all challenges of life, and has attained a state of complete composure.  This state of mind cannot easily be disturbed by confusion, anger, doubt, or fear. It is the calm in the center of the storm.

“Mental calmness, not skill, is the sign of a matured samurai.” – Tsukahara Bokuden

2 Keys to Higher Level Jiu-Jitsu: Lessons from the Chinese Finger Trap.

What is the Chinese Finger Trap?  The “Chinese Finger Trap” is a thinly woven bamboo tube with openings on each end that are roughly the size of a human finger.  An unwitting victim is asked to insert their index fingers into the openings, whereupon they find themselves trapped.

This sensation of feeling trapped elicits a stress response — the natural reaction is to pull the fingers back out again.  But this will make the openings at each end of the tube constrict, gripping the victims fingers ever more tightly. The harder a person pulls outward, the smaller the circumference becomes, and the more decisively they are trapped. It is only by relaxing one’s efforts at escape, and by pushing the fingers further in, that the ends of the tube can widen, and the fingers can slowly twist out and be free.

The Chinese finger trap serves as a metaphor for problems that:

  1. Can be overcome by relaxing.
  2. Have a counterintuitive solution.

How does this relate to Jiu Jitsu?

High-level Jiu Jitsu practitioners highlight the very same principles as the Chinese Finger Trap.  It is normal to panic and become tense when we feel trapped.  If we feel one of our limbs is threatened, it is seemingly sensible to strongly pull it away from danger.

Yet effective Jiu Jitsu practitioners often do the opposite of these expectations.  They react in ways that seem illogical to the untrained person.  When engaged in a close physical struggle with a resisting person, most high-level Jiu Jitsu practitioners exhibit a mental calmness that is reflected in their breath and facial expressions.  When their limbs are trapped, they might consider pushing deeper into the lock; and they know the details that separate an advanced student from a beginner are often not obvious at all.

The Chinese finger trap takes advantage of its victims hard-wired stress response in order to keep them fixed in a predicament.  Skilled Jiu Jitsu practitioners operate in much the same way.  By placing their opponents under pressure, they can predict and exploit their opponent’s instinctual reactions.

This is one of the reasons why Jiu Jitsu has such a steep learning curve.  Our progression is largely based on overriding instinctual stress reactions, and replacing them with technique. 

 Conclusion.   Not reacting to stress with panic will leave us better able to think critically and creatively.  Not only does this help us conserve energy, it leaves us less vulnerable to common traps.  Like the Chinese Finger Trap, higher levels of Jiu Jitsu require us to relax and see beyond the obvious.

“Become aware of what is not obvious.” – Miyamoto Musashi


5 Reasons Why Jiu Jitsu is The Gentle Art.

Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as real strength. – St. Francis de Sales

Jiu Jitsu is a Japanese phrase that is commonly translated as “the gentle art.”

At first glance this might seem misleading.  After all, the goal of Jiu Jitsu is to control and submit a resisting person. Limb attacks are designed to damage soft tissue and dislocate or break bones.  Chokes can render an opponent unconscious, and have the potential to kill.

It can seem there is nothing “gentle” about Jiu Jitsu.

At the same time, the Japanese were known for coming up with very descriptive names.  So lets take a look at 5 reasons why Jiu Jitsu is the Gentle Art.

Jiu Jitsu is based on using skill over strength.  Jiu Jitsu is the gentle art because it does not meet force with force.  When engaged in a close struggle, Jiu Jitsu maximizes the role of skill and science over strength and aggression.  The best practitioners operate with a relaxed ease, and are adept at using their opponents force against them.

“Jiu means gentle or to give way, Jitsu, an art or practice, and Do, way or principle, so that Jiu-jitsu means an art or practice of gentleness or of giving way in order to ultimately gain the victory; while Judo means the way or principle of the same.” – Jigoro Kano

Jiu Jitsu is less violent than the striking arts.  Another reason why Jiu Jitsu is the gentle art is because it is substantially less violent and injurious than other forms of combat or martial arts. 

Effective martial arts for real world self-defense require a component of “live” sparring.  Sparring in Jiu Jitsu requires less violence and results in less serious injury than sparring with strikes.  With Jiu Jitsu there is an agreement to stop a technique short of permanent injury – which cannot be done with a punch or a kick.  This “gentler” approach to live training means sparring can be done on a daily basis – with much less risk of permanently damaging yourself or your training partner.

Jiu Jitsu promotes longevityThe third reason why Jiu Jitsu is the “gentle art” is because it is more forgiving than many other athletic activities.  When done intelligently and at an appropriate intensity, it builds the body up without breaking it down.  So despite its capacity to inflict harm, Jiu Jitsu does not chew up the body like many western sports or other martial arts. Grandmasters Helio and Carlos Gracie embodied this principle, continuing their training into their 90’s.

Gentleman rules.  The fourth reason why Jiu Jitsu is the gentle art is because it abides by “gentleman rules.”  These rules are universally adopted in other forms of grappling as well.  They include no punching, slapping, kicking, biting, eye gouging, fishhooking, pinching, hair grabbing or individual finger locks.

Jiu Jitsu decreases stress and anger.  The fifth reason is that Jiu Jitsu generally promotes an easy-going, laidback attitude.  That is because Jiu Jitsu is known to reduce stress, anger and insecurities.

“A coward is much more exposed to quarrels than a man of spirit.” -Thomas Jefferson


Brazilian Jiu Jitsu emphasizes the use of science over strength and aggression.  This results in greater control, and allows the intensity to be varied to a level appropriate to the situation.  But this is not the only reason why Jiu Jitsu is the “gentle art.”

Although reality-based martial arts that include sparring will never be completely “gentle,” much of the appeal of Jiu Jitsu is centered around it being substantially less violent and injurious than other forms of combat or martial arts.

The techniques of Jiu Jitsu are geared towards incapacitating another person in the most effective and efficient way possible, yet Jiu Jitsu can still be a very pleasurable activity, and “gentle” enough to train on a regular basis for the rest of one’s life.

The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world. – Lao Tzu