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5 Tips for Building a Jiu-Jitsu Gameplan

In jiu-jitsu, the suggestion to “have a gameplan” or to “stick to your game” is thrown around so often that sometimes we can forget to talk about what that actually means for your development as a grappler, which can be frustrating if you think you are supposed to have something but aren’t really sure what it is you are looking to develop.

A gameplan is akin to having a strategy. You have a set of go-to techniques that connect together and support each other, ultimately creating a coherent “path” for you to follow. When a match starts, you know what kind of takedowns or guard pulls you are going to do, and for each position along the way you know what your preferred move is and have a pretty good idea of how your opponent will counter, allowing you to have your own batch of re-counters stashed comfortably up your sleeve.

For example, your gameplan might be to pull spider guard. If your opponent resists your fundamental spider guard sweeps, you start to work lasso hooks to threaten more advanced sweeps while also hunting for the triangle and omoplata. If you get the sweep, you will probably end up in a knee on belly position because of the nature of spider guard sweeps, so a good portion of your top game might be built around knee on belly attacks and transitions.

And so on.

A gameplan is useful because it eliminates the guesswork of what to do and when. When you have spent a great deal of refining your game, it’s a lot like practicing laps on the same racetrack. Your timing gets really sharp, and if someone tries to race against you on your home track, they will have a hard time keeping up. You know what turns are coming. You know where the gravel is. You know where you can take risks and where you have to play it safe. Your opponent will not be nearly as comfortable because they haven’t spent as much time on this particular path as you have.

As your gameplan and style develop, here are 5 tips to keep in mind:

  1. It’s normal to not have a gameplan. At the white belt level and for much of blue belt, you are a technique collector. The goal is not have your style figured out at this point but rather to familiarize yourself with the big picture of jiu-jitsu in a very general way. This is critical in your development because you need to understand what’s out there to be able to defend against it, and you can’t expect to find the best techniques for you if you don’t know what’s out there to begin with. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself if you are nearing purple belt and still aren’t quite sure what your style is.
  1. Patch the holes. One of the easiest ways to round out your game is to identify and address your weaknesses. You could write down what you like to do from major positions, or you could reflect on your last few rolls against training partners near or above your belt level. Where do you get caught? What can’t you escape? What position do you find yourself landing in without any real idea of what you should do next? Answering these questions will give you techniques to drill, which will help you to define and refine what your go-to moves are for problem positions.
  1. Look for the connections. An effective gameplan is built on efficiency, which means tightening the gaps between techniques until they appear seamless. For example, if you like butterfly sweeps you will probably find yourself needing to cross knee pass fairly often to complete the sweep and finish in a dominant position. If you like de la Riva guard, you will probably find yourself finishing with leg drags or over-under passes. If you aren’t sure how to build your gameplan, you can start with one position or technique that you know you like and build from there. It can be a sweep, a takedown, a guard pass, or a submission. Ask yourself: if I go for this, what happens most of the time and what would I do next?
  1. Build your game around a submission. If you have no idea where to start, pick a versatile submission that you happen to particularly like. When I say versatile, I mean a submission that is available from multiple positions. Most of your fundamental attacks—armbars, triangles, Kimuras, cross collar chokes, omoplatas, etc—are good for this. Once you have picked a submission, obsess over hitting it from as many places as possible. Challenge yourself to only finish with that one attack to force yourself to develop a funnel of set-ups and counters that all end with your favorite submission. Soon you will find yourself playing a game gear around that one attack.
  1. Experimentation is good in moderation. In jiu-jitsu, there are two extremes of training mindsets. Some grapplers will play wide open loose games where they try to bait and flow while they work to land one of a dozen new techniques they like to work on. The other extreme has some grapplers doing the same thing every roll, over and over, without fail or deviation. If you spend too much time on either end, your progress will be stunted. The people that experiment too much are unlikely to get really good at any specific position while the people that don’t experiment at all will fall behind because they aren’t expanding beyond their comfort zone.

Instead of living permanently on any one extreme, alternate how you train to find a happy medium. For 2 months, play with new positions and ideas (being perfectly okay with the fact that you will fail a lot as you learn them). For the next 2 months, tighten your game back up, returning to your favorite moves and attacks as if you were preparing for competition. If you maintain this training pattern, you will start to see that every time you return to the competition mindset that a few of your experimental techniques follow along, becoming natural extensions of your primary game. Not every move will follow, maybe 1 out of 5, but your game will grow.

Keep training!

Your gameplan won’t materialize overnight. It will take to develop, and you will likely find your game evolving as you discover new facets of jiu-jitsu or are exposed to new techniques and ideas. This is part of the jiu-jitsu journey, and starting to think about your jiu-jitsu in this way will make your journey more fun and more productive.

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