Basic vs Advanced Technique

Thanks to SBGi Ireland coach John Kavanagh for the blog post idea. He says, and I agree, that basic vs advanced is probably not a great way to describe techniques in BJJ. That maybe high percentage vs low percentage works much better. It may seem like just a matter of semantics but it sets up a value judgement about learning BJJ that gets in the way if you aren’t careful as both coach and student. Let’s examine this idea a bit to see what I mean.

Basic Technique

What is a basic technique? You probably can define it different ways but most definitions would be similar. They would include words like simplicity, fundamental, general not specific… It’s a technique that is easy to master that can be used in a broad range of circumstances. It’s something that beginners can learn and use right away. Examples would be the upa escape from mount, the triangle choke from guard bottom, the RNC from back position.

Advanced Technique

Advanced techniques are usually defined as more complicated. Maybe more steps or more particular or refined or complex movement patterns. They are less general and used in more specific circumstances than basic techniques. They require a higher level of BJJ skill to pull off and are not for beginners. Examples would be things like gogoplata from rubber guard, reverse oma plata from armbar setup,  calf cutter sweep from x guard etc.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

This idea is pervasive in BJJ circles and sets up some bad ideas about both teaching and learning BJJ. The faulty idea is that beginners learn basic techniques. Once everyone masters the basics they can move on to learn advanced techniques. The idea is that basics are like hacking at things with a machete. When you get advanced techniques you have a set of scalpels that allow you to be more precise. There may be a hint of truth in this idea but not as much as you might expect. The real issue with this is that I’ve seen time and time again that when students get to blue belt level with this idea in mind they’ll often start throwing out “basics” in favor of “advanced” techniques. By labeling techniques basic or advanced we automatically set up a value judgement that equates advanced with better. Why would you want to do basic techniques when you can do advanced techniques? I know I’d rather do advanced ones if I could. So, blue belts go off on a wild goose chase to find as many arcane and exotic techniques as they can. Armbars are for white belts! Unless performed from an upside down x guard of course… I want to get to purple belt so I need to start learning advanced techniques. Makes sense because purple belt is an advanced belt right?

This side tracking of the learning process seems like a natural evolution that everyone goes through at blue belt. I know I went there. I don’t think it’s entirely necessary though. If we shift the focus a bit we can keep the blue belt on track and maybe help them to understand the path to mastery is not in collecting “advanced” techniques. Eventually they all find this out on their own. They don’t get to purple belt until they do. I used to think this was a natural phase that everyone just had to go through. Now I’m not so sure. We need to help them to understand that they don’t trade up. They don’t simply replace the basics for advanced as they grow in BJJ. This is where the basic vs advanced analogy breaks down and causes problems. You can’t simply replace the basics with advanced because they serve different purposes. We’ll examine this later with the toolbox analogy.

A New Way of Thinking

Let’s redefine basic and advanced. We’ll call basic techniques high percentage techniques and advanced techniques low percentage techniques. What kind of shift would happen in training and learning if we did that? I think it would cause a huge shift. What it does right away is place the blame for failed techniques in a different spot. “You weren’t able to pull off that advanced technique” is way different than saying “You weren’t able to pull off that low percentage technique.” One blames the player and one identifies the difficulty of the technique itself. If we rename the basics to high percentage techniques then they don’t become the property of beginners. They are everybody’s techniques. This is a more accurate description anyway. How do the blackbelts in high level competition escape mount? Upa and elbow escape of course. High percentage (basic) techniques. What are the most popular subs in competition? Triangles, armbars, RNC, collar chokes etc. Again high percentage moves.

Tools in a Toolbox

Let’s use the analogy of tools in a toolbox. If we are building a toolbox of tools to use around the house there are some that are essential and used for a variety of general purposes. Things like a hammer, crescent wrench, phillips screwdriver are high percentage tools. They are used in a large variety of scenarios and way more often than other tools. Things like a flywheel puller, 18mm box wrench, and a feeler gauge are low percentage tools. They are useful but only in very specific scenarios. The high percentage tools are indispensable. A master craftsman will still use a hammer and screwdriver all the time. Even as he becomes a master of his craft he still will rely on these basic (high percentage) tools all the time.

How this relates to BJJ is that as coaches and students we need to emphasize that the basics (high percentage moves) are still our most often used techniques regardless of rank or skill level. Like a hammer in the toolbox the upa escape will always be necessary. As we become master mechanics we may well learn to use the flywheel puller. It’s necessary if we want to remove and replace a flywheel, but this doesn’t lessen the importance of the hammer. This simple shift in terminology and focus will help beginners to not throw out the high percentage moves as they advance in BJJ. Hopefully they will keep them and simply add some specific tools (low percentage moves)  where they find them necessary. You need to hammer in a nail? Go ahead and use the hammer. It’s alright…

90/10 Rule

John Frankl of SBGi Korea describes this rule as “10% of techniques take care of 90% of the situations.” This is as true in BJJ as it is in my toolbox. At SBGi we focus heavily on that 10%. By doing this we give students a very solid foundation.  It requires some discipline to stick to this game plan but it’s worth it. In 10 years I’ve never seen my coach Matt Thornton teach anything fancy or “advanced” to students. He patiently teaches high percentage moves (basics) over and over. I admire his discipline and steadfast adherence to this principle. As I gain more and more experience in this art I find myself returning to these high percentage moves again and again. Constantly refining and knocking off rough edges. I’ll add a flywheel puller and feeler gauge to my toolbox from time to time but I always find myself reaching for my hammer.

Anyway, thank you John Kavanagh for prompting me to relearn something I already knew. I’ll be more thoughtful in my language as I coach. I’ll check that word basic and be way more careful about using it. I”m more mindful about the consequences of language and how something as simple as word choice can derail someone’s training.


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