“Position before submission” is one of the core tenants of Jiu Jitsu. It is one of the first sayings that a grappler learns. What does it really mean and how can we best focus on mastering Jiu Jitsu positions?
Understanding the answer to this question is one of the big concepts that will eventually unlock strategic opportunities.
It is easy to miss the whole picture
Early in my journey, I thought “position before submission” meant the same thing it does in other sports. Since I played basketball and soccer growing up the concept seemed familiar.
In basketball we talk about “catching the ball before we try to shoot it.” A common mistake is to get overly excited for the chance to take a shot and try to do it all at once before the ball has been securely caught. This increases the chance of fumbling the catch and/or missing the shot.
“Haste makes waste” applies here. Taking the mental time to execute one step perfectly before the next step is executed separates success and failure.
I assumed that “Position before submission” was talking about this same principle. If I dive on that choke before I have actually established back control, then my opponent will escape.
Establish the back, then choke. Don’t skip setting up the position to go for the submission.
The Bigger Picture Of Mastering Jiu Jitsu Positions
There is truth in that initial interpretation, but it only scratches the surface. The truth is, that without establishing that millisecond of control, I WOULDN’T get that choke.
The use case it too small though. What if I have the position, but there is no submission present? At first, this question wasn’t a problem.
When rolling with white belts when I would get into a dominant position, they would struggle to get out and leave openings for submissions. An extended arm, means I can adjust my body to the armbar position and now finish with a submission. These low hanging fruit submissions present themselves. I merely have to identify them and seize my opportunity.
Until they don’t…
As my training partners improve, their reactions start to shift. Now when I get into a dominant position, they clam up and go into full defense mode. They have realized that staying safe is the most important strategy to execute. “Escaping” from side control into an armbar where they have to tap isn’t escaping at all. Better to remain in side control, in a bad spot, and stay safe, they realize.
Staying patient and safe can actually lead to their escape. Feeling like I don’t have any valid attack options form the top of side control, I may transition to mount, and in that transition there may be an opportunity to reguard. They are on track to truly master the position of bottom side control (go them!?!?).
From these more conservative reactions where my opponent stays safe, I start to be presented with a problem. Now I have position, but they aren’t opening up for any submission attempts.
I’m in top side control and am “winning” but they are safe. This isn’t a very satisfying way for me to beat my training partner, especially during training.
(In a tournament, this can be a great way to win. Advance to the next round without going to war? Yes please!)
The Right Posture For Every Position
Early in my Jiu Jitsu journey, I only thought of posture as something we worried about in guard. Posturing up minimizes our opponent’s control of us in the guard and keeps us safer. The concept is much broader though. What got me to this level of success, isn’t what will take me to the next.
The problem I ran into above was created because my opponent in bottom side control has a familiarity with the position and is making some correct postural choices.
Actually, every position has its ideal posture or body positioning. Typically when on bottom the areas of posture we focus on are creating barriers and frames and staying on our sides and not flat on our back. When on top, minimizing the bottom player’s control, while making dominant grips of our own and applying pressure is the key.
In bottom side control, we learn to keep our arms closer to our torso where they are stronger and avoid sending them off on suicide missions alone to get armbarred. All of these position independent postures were first introduced to me by the wonderful book Jiu Jitsu University.
Side control isn’t just one position. There is head and arm control, judo side (kesa gatame), twister side, head and hip block, head block and hip, hip control, and others.
The correct “posture” from twister side control, isn’t the same as the correct posture form head and arm side control. We follow the correct individual principles closely for each variation, adapting to our opponent’s attacks.
I am holding them and they can’t move. I’m controlling the position, aren’t I? So what am I missing?
Control isn’t about statically holding my opponent immobile. While this has its place, I am expending more energy than needed by forcing them to remain where I want with force.
Since my focus has turn to holding them, I am less “flowy” and more likely to miss small opportunities for positional improvements because I am latched in. Tunnel vision begins to settle in because I am being reactive.
The downsides are subtle but real!
Establishing Dynamic Control
True control of a position comes from dynamic control not static. Dynamic implies movements and adjustments made on the fly, whereas static is unchanging.
The more relaxed I am, the more accurately I can feel and sense my opponent’s reactions. Now, I get early warnings that certain movements are coming and I can be more pro-active. As my opponent moves, I maintain my position by adapting in the moment and staying ahead as much as possible.
From top side control switching to blocking the hip when they start to turn in, so I switch to blocking the hip to stop the regard. Falling behind? Instead, I circle around to the other side of side control, maybe stopping off at North South. They have a solid frame? Switch to judo side.
As opposed to the person I have trapped in side control having the luxury of just staying safe, and working towards a single escape option, now they are instead trying to escape an ever changing position. The must hit a target I am deliberately moving. Escaping correctly from Judo side will not get you out of twister side.
I like to compare the dynamic approach and the hold to control approach as baseball vs. Tee ball. When I am moving, my opponent’s escape is much harder to hit. Since the top player is switching to the right control position each time they are in the most energy efficient way to restore control. If I am stagnant in a single position, eventually they are going to figure out how to advance the game in their favor.
Positions, They are everywhere….
This same concept applies to top side control, bottom half, de la river, ANY position. Each position is made up of micro positions, each having their own ideal attacks and defenses.
“Position before submission” doesn’t just refer to taking one step at a time. My first understanding of it wasn’t broad enough. At all times, in the hierarchy of decision making, I must focus on positional correctness, before submissions will even become possible.
The concept of position isn’t just the second before the submission but the entire match leading up to it. There are millions of micro battles that are won or lost that determine the positional strength and opportunity for success.
Applying this concept to learning
People try to learn the new cool De la riva sweep but can’t, because they haven’t built the ability to control the position first. Grips, frames, and sweep threats all lead to additional control in a position. As long as our opponent is reacting, we have the momentum and it is hard to turn the tide.
Practice staying dynamically in positions. Transition between the variations. Start to build isntinctive reactions. Understand the weaknesses of a spot, and find a few solutions to protect those weaknesses.
Spend time in these positions. There is no shortcut for time in the trenches.