The Quintessential Way to Break the Rules

Posted: August 24, 2009 in All Eli's BJJ Posts, Most Recent Posts
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First, I will preface this post by clarifying that I am not talking about “rules” as in competition rules; I am referring to those specific mandates that are delivered to you from your instructor. Is it OK to break the rules that you are taught and reminded of over and over? I say absolutely…but not really. Lemme ‘splain:

Prescriptive teaching is the easiest way to convey the most important elements to masses of people. Karate today doesn’t look like it did hundreds of years ago when the knowledge was disseminated to a smaller group (if not individually) at a time, in more intimate settings. But, as the need arose to teach scores of students at a time in less frequent intervals, much had to be scrapped away for the sake of posterity and information retention. This is why you go into a Karate class now and line up and do your kicks, punches, blocks, what-have-you, in very regimented fashion. Karate is one of those unfortunate arts that have been so watered down that it is rare to find someone to show you a realistic application for movements within kata. This happens with nearly anything though, when only the “rules” are taught. The rules are important, quintessential. But so is the context in which those rules operate.

Prescriptive teaching is also the easiest way to keep the student from becoming overwhelmed or confused by learning exceptions to rules as they are learning the rules themselves. For example, a decent teacher should not teach you the guillotine choke for the first time, teach you the nuances of how and why it works, and then in the same lesson go on to show you the counter. The subconscious lesson to the student is that the technique can be defended, so be weary trying it, if not avoid trying it altogether. Much better is it to teach the technique, let the student have some time to run and play with it, and bring them the counter or variation as their need arises. Let the student know that the technique is good and can work. Let them see the magic trick before revealing the prestidigitation.

Rules I find myself shoving down students’ throats all the time have to do with posture, base, superior and inferior positioning, position over submission, and many more. However, one thing I am always certain to avoid is saying that this or that “rule” is absolute. “You always hold this position this was,” or “You always apply this technique like this,” are things I avoid saying, even if I really want to drive a point home. I always want to leave open the potential for exception and variation down the road…because I have been on this road a while and the exceptions to the rules are ubiquitous.

Yet, as many exceptions as I know to a rule, I have come to understand that getting that rule across is the quintessential thing. There is that damn word again, “quintessential.” What the hell does it even mean? Let’s get some help on this one:

Man, can she explain words or what?! But that is why I call the rules quintessential; they get to the heart of the move. Just as a submission is nearly useless without the proper position, you can never go against the rule until you have learned why the rule is in place and how the rule works. Learn it before you can break it. I need more specifics, I think:

As a white belt, and even blue belt I suppose, I learned things like: 1.Don’t try to attack someone when you are inside their guard 2.Don’t extend your arms when mounted 3.Don’t keep flat on your back under side control.

As a brown belt I have 1.Submitted opponents from inside their guard 2.Escaped the mount by reaching straight the hell up and pushing my opponent off me, and 3.Play flat on my back more often then not from under side control.

This is not to say that I don’t follow the rules more than I break them – I do. I only say these things to illustrate that having an understanding of the rules and how they work, I am able to manipulate the situation to circumvent the rule. If I know how my opponent can take advantage of the situation if I try to, say, apply a choke from within his guard, then I can perhaps take necessary precautions, avoid the things I know he can do in response, and thereby dismantle whatever he attempts to do in response to me applying my technique. However, if I am ignorant to the fact that the guard is a superior position in terms of the leverage it affords the bottom person, and thinking I am on top I go for a submission, I am likely to get tapped or swept in response because I took no precautions and blindly attacked a well-guarded (pun-intended) opponent.

The rules are important. They are the product of exploration into the essence of Jiu Jitsu. Without them, your expression of Jiu Jitsu will be corrupted. With mindfulness to the rules of Jiu Jitsu, amazing things are possible. But, as with any rules, it is always a good idea to keep in mind the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law and give each its due attention.

And while it is difficult to find a video illustrating this topic per se, here is the old Gracie Academy commercial in case you haven’t seen it yet:

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