“Position before submission,” is an oft-repeated and oft-ignored mantra in jiu jitsu. It’s sound advice, of course, especially for the overly eager beginner who tries to apply a submission before she has adequately shored up the position. When one ignores this simple piece of sage grappling wisdom in the heat of the moment, one usually not only fails to get the submission—one also tends to give up position in the process. It’s a lose-lose situation that is to be avoided. So, my goal in this post is not to dispute the soundness of this mnemonic advice. Instead, I want to take a few initial steps towards explaining why it is so often and easily ignored. In short, what I am going to suggest in this post (and a few follow-up posts) is that there are some pedagogical gaps in the way jiu jitsu is traditionally taught that make it more likely that people will think about submissions without paying due attention to position.
To begin, I want to introduce a four-tiered taxonomy for analyzing and understanding a grappling match. The foundation of this taxonomy involves the root principles of force—i.e., the basic anatomical and geometrical mechanics that govern how bodies, body parts, etc. move. For instance, when one’s spine is in alignment, one will have more core strength or when one’s hips are secured, one will have less freedom of motion. The second tier in the taxonomy involves the basic positions—namely, neutral (or on the feet), top and bottom closed guard, top and bottom open guard (in all its variations), top and bottom closed half guard (in all its variations), top and bottom side control (in all its variations), top and bottom north/south, top and bottom mount, and top and bottom rear mount. The third tier in the taxonomy involves tasks at hand—namely, securing a position, advancing position (which includes sweeps, passing guard, recovering guard, and anything else that improves one’s position whether one is in an advantaged or disadvantaged position), securing a submission, escaping a submission, and finally, finishing a submission. Finally, we have techniques, which are the means we use to accomplish whatever task we happen to be undertaking.
One of the reasons jiu jitsu is such a hard martial art to learn is that one has to work towards mastery of each of these four layers. This also explains why people who have background experience in another grappling art like wrestling have a head start in jiu jitsu—namely, they come to jiu jitsu with a preexisting understanding of the principles of force (however tacit this knowledge often happens to be). However, the difficulty of learning jiu jitsu can’t be entirely chalked up to the complexity of the art form. It is partly an artifact of how jiu jitsu is taught. After all, while instructors spend a great deal of time showing, explaining, and drilling techniques, they often neglect to pay much (if any) attention to principles, positions, and tasks. Given this approach—which has a tendency to atomize techniques and unmoor them from the network of underlying principles, positions, and tasks that are always in play—students aren’t required to spend enough time thinking through the more fundamental pieces at work when rolling. But a technique has merely instrumental value—that is, it is only good for accomplishing a predetermined task or goal. The task provides the reason for applying one technique rather than other in a given context. Moreover, the position itself dictates which tasks (and hence, which techniques) are appropriate. Finally, the principles ultimately dictate which tasks can be accomplished from a particular position via a particular technique.
I will have more to say about this in the weeks and months (and maybe even years?!) ahead. For now, I simply wanted to first lay out the taxonomy and say a few words about its relevance. For instance, given this way of understanding the principles and goals in play in jiu jitsu, it becomes clear why people often go for submissions before they have secured position—namely, we spend a great deal of time learning and drilling techniques (e.g., submissions) but we don’t spend nearly as much time learning about the fundamental principles of force or the basics of securing each of the positions. The same problem arises when it comes to the application of submissions as well. This explains why people are often able to get the set up for submissions even when they can rarely get the submission to work. Because we are often taught to focus narrowly on techniques—e.g., the omoplata—we don’t spend sufficient time thinking about how these techniques are dependent upon the underlying tasks, positions, and principles that are in play. The solution to this gap in the way jiu jitsu is often taught is for instructors and students alike to slow down and (a) spend more time breaking down techniques into their constitutive parts, and (b) spend more time thinking about how these constitutive parts are driven by the tasks, positions, and principles that serve as the foundation of jiu jitsu.
So, while you should always remember the well-worn mantra “position before submission,” I suggest that two new mantras be added to the grappling lexicon—namely, “principle before position,” and “task before technique.” Otherwise, we over-simplify all of the moving parts in play during a grappling match to our own detriment. It makes no more sense to attempt a submission when you haven’t first secured your position than it does to apply a technique without first having thought through what it is precisely you’re trying to accomplish (and what principles are in play given your present position). Or so it seems to me. That said, I will revisit these and related issues down the road. In the meantime, I wanted to preliminarily sketch out my thoughts on this front. Let me know what you think!
p.s. Some instructors are excellent at teaching both principles and techniques—even if they don’t rely on my preferred four-tiered taxonomy in explaining what they’re up to. For instance, Saulo Ribiero, Damian Maia, Dean Lister, and Ryan Hall come to mind. Their instructional videos are always especially helpful for me precisely because they slow things down and focus on the foundational principles implicated in what you’re trying to accomplish whether you are attempting to maintain a position, advance position, or submit your opponent with a specific technique. By approaching techniques more holistically, these types of instructors make it more likely that their students don’t make basic mistakes---e.g., going for a submission without first securing the position!