The Fallacy of Technique

The Plan

Back when I was a blue belt I developed a great idea of how to get good at BJJ. I decided that the way to get good was to collect techniques. I’d collect a set of high percentage techniques from each position and I’d add a technique or two at a time until I had a vast library of techniques to draw from. I imagined that when I rolled with a guy and I found myself in one of those familiar positions I’d pull a technique out of my library and apply it. If he tried a technique on me I’d look through my library for the counter technique and apply. It was a perfect system and made logical sense.

The Realization

Except it didn’t work. What I found happening instead was a frustrating journey that eventually made me completely change the way I learn and coach BJJ. More often that not I’d go into class and the instructor was teaching techniques with a theme. It could be subs from cross sides top, or escapes from bottom etc. I’d work through them in class. Learn the details of how to do it correctly. Drill it against resistance, and commit it to memory. I’d leave class knowing that I tried the technique against resistance and pulled it off. I understood it technically and knew well how to do it. It was now in my library and ready to use.

Imagine my surprise when I got back to the gym and tried the technique in sparring and found that I could not pull it off. I was missing something. This kept happening to me over and over. At first I chalked it up to me just not paying enough attention to details. Maybe I was not doing it quite right. Sometimes though I’d learn a technique in class and I could apply it right away. I’d come into the gym the next day and I would be killing with that new technique. It was mine and I could integrate it into my game right away.


Eventually I accepted this as the reality of the way BJJ works. Sometimes your game is ready for a technique and sometimes it isn’t. If you are lucky you happen to show up to a class just at that point where your game is ready for the material the instructor is teaching then you can incorporate it into your game. If not then you have a fun class and get some good rolls but nothing you can use to build your game. I got to a point where I could sometimes tell whether or not the stuff I was learning in class would be applicable or not.

New Thinking

This went on well enough until I started coaching at the gym. I found it very inefficient to think that my coaching was only reaching a couple of students out of a whole group. I didn’t like that even when I grouped techniques together in logical groups they weren’t really accessible to many students. I wanted to find a way to teach so that everyone who walked into the gym would get something they could use in class. So, I really began to think about breaking things down farther. I wanted to understand better what you needed to already know in order to be able to use the techniques I was teaching.

Breaking it Down

What I eventually came up with was the 3 P model (Posture, Pressure, Possibilities). I found that in order for students to be able to use the techniques right away they needed to know how to hold and survive in the posture needed to execute the technique. If they could get posture, hold posture, and survive in posture then they had a solid base from which to launch the techniques. My job as coach was to find the appropriate postures and figure out how to teach them. So, that’s what I did. Before I’d teach techniques in class I’d work on how to teach and drill the initial postures. After a bit I found that doing that took up most of the time. I’d at most teach one or two techniques. Most of the time was spent drilling postures and pressures that go with the postures.

Lose the Technique

As this went on I’d from time to time teach no real techniques at all. I’d spend the entire period exploring the posture and pressure possibilities within different positions of BJJ. An interesting thing happened when I did this. I’d find that students started spontaneously doing techniques without being taught. The techniques were inherent within the posture/pressure model. These I’d call possibilities. So what I was left with was: Posture within the position, pressure within the posture and possibilities within the pressure. It was a beautiful thing. What I really loved about this is that it unleashed student’s creative energies. They could find the techniques for themselves. This means that the techniques they found were already theirs! No need to find a way to fit it into their game.

Putting it into Practice

I’ve been teaching like this for probably a couple of years or so now. It’s really been a great way for me to both teach and learn BJJ. When I work to put together a lesson for class I never start with techniques anymore. I always start with posture and examine what the basics of each posture are. I also teach in progression now. I teach the most important stuff first (posture) and the least important stuff last (possibilities/techniques). That way the learning is scaffolded in a way that students can stop taking information in when their brain gets full. Beginning students learn the posture. Intermediate students learn the posture and pressure. Advanced students add possibilities and begin to explore the position. Something for everybody.


  1. Cane would you consider this more like a principle based approach? I guess I look at ‘technique’ as all the tiny details within a position that really start to matter at black and brown.

    However, what I think your saying is all that means nothing without foundation (posture) and an understanding of context. To steal from Daniel Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind’ book, technique is text and principles are context.

    For me having a broad understanding of context is what black belt is all about. You think you have the big picture at blue and purple, but the reality is you don’t have enough experience to comprehend the whole yet. It takes time.

    • I think so Jeff. I think my black belt is still too fresh to feel like I have an understanding of the whole in any position. I feel I’m moving away from the idea that to understand Jiu Jitsu you have to understand or know a lot of technique. To me it’s more about understanding the posture, pressure, and possibilities posed by both parties in any particular scenario. The techniques are expressions of that understanding. Everybody who has a “go to” technique has an effective way of expressing a certain understanding of those principles. Sometimes that understanding is only kinesthetic and sometimes it cerebral and kinesthetic. When it’s both it’s easier to build out from there in my experience.

      In any case I think using the words technique and posture and pressure are only good for making general statements about the game. At a certain point it begins to break down as a concept. When does a pressure within a posture become a technique? Lines blur. What I encourage students to think about is not solving a particular problem with a particular technique but to examine why things work the way they do. To get a more general understanding of the leverage, framing, and balance points as they relate to the particular scenario. I will show techniques though. Usually only after I feel like students have some conceptual framework to hang them on though. The technique becomes an expression of the concept or context.

      Still waiting for the big picture aha moment! Not sure if my game is any better than at purple but my understanding is… Thanks for the comment.

      • Cane I think you hit the nail on the head with ‘examining why things work the way they do.’ Good stuff.

        I had to sort of reverse engineer a lot of Hemphill’s stuff by creating principles and asking lots of questions.

        Anyway, enjoy the sunshine out there holmes!

  2. Pingback: NewsPaper - The Three P’s

  3. Could you elaborate on what you mean by posture, pressure, possibilities? I think I have an idea as to what you mean by this but am not sure it’s accurate.

    There was a thing that I used to do as a blue belt that I regretfully don’t do anymore, but led to some of the most drastic improvements in my game. When I was learning a new technique as a blue belt, I would often practice trying to maintain the position that was the basis of the technique we had just learned in class. For instance,taking the back from de la riva guard. Rather than focus on the technique itself, in sparring, I would not attack or do anything but maintain the de la riva guard. If my opponent broke out of the position, I would fight to get back to it and maintain it for as long as I could. I found that this gave me the ability to eventually make the new position part of my game. Over time, the techniques would eventually come as a result of the mastery of the position. Out of that, there would be a multitude of possibilities that presented themselves. Some of the techniques often seemed to happen spontaneously. Some of the techniques were unique in that they were based on how I rolled, and how my opponents interacted with my guard.

    This is just my guess as to what you mean by the 3 P’s method. I could be totally wrong. I agree with you though. I’ve always felt that too many instructors are trying to make their students carbon copies of themselves and are too stuck on “moves”. This I feel, leads to a stagnation in their creativity and slows the evolution of the martial arts.

    • HI George,
      I think your description is spot on. There is a post on the 3 P model here if you look in the coaching articles section. I’ll often drill positions with students before we move on to escapes, passes, subs etc. Sometimes the drill is trying to get to the position and sometimes it’s trying to maintain it. Isolating that battle from what we actually do from there gives students a chance to work on it separately and get a better platform to launch the technique from. Thanks for the comment.

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