At its core, jiu-jitsu is based on two overarching principles: survival and efficiency. Both of these principles inform the strategies and moves of jiu-jitsu, but it should be remembered that efficiency is secondary to survival. Efficiency is the best means of survival, but it can be sacrificed in cases where an explosive movement will bring an end to the fight and ensure survival.
Why Is Efficiency So Important?
While jiu-jitsu will teach you how to win a fight and submit your opponent, it does so with far less emphasis on strength and speed. Instead, the goal is to survive for long enough to exploit a weakness in your opponent’s defenses. The weakness may be instantly discernible because they are inexperienced fighters. In that case, you may be able to submit them quickly.
Alternatively, finding a weakness may take more time if your opponent is an experienced fighter. In this case, survival is the ability to neutralize their attacks and escape whenever they take a dominant position. Moreover, you want to do so without expending a lot of energy so you can bide your time and wait until they make a mistake.
This is why efficiency is absolutely crucial to jiu-jitsu. Even the most experienced fighter will eventually make a mistake if you keep them on the mat long enough. If you can conserve your energy and unleash it only when that opening occurs, you will be able to survive any fight.
Confidence, Escapes, and Survival
On an episode of the Lex Fridman Podcast, legendary trainer John Danaher noted that the first skill that every jiu-jitsu student must master is escapes. Teaching students how to escape from bad positions where they are in danger of getting tapped does more than just give them the ability to defend themselves or avoid getting tapped. It also teaches them confidence.
For John, confidence is not just an appreciation of personal skill. It’s the knowledge that you have the capacity to keep yourself safe even if you find yourself in a difficult position. That knowledge is crucial in a fight. If you are worried that an attack may expose you and you lack the confidence in your abilities to escape from bad positions, you will be more likely to hesitate when it comes time to use the moves that you’ve learned in jiu-jitsu class. That hesitancy will significantly decrease your chances of survival.
“You can train someone and teach them technique until you’re blue in the face, but at some point the athlete in question has to go out there on the stage and pull the trigger when the time is right,” John says. “What’s going to give you that ability to go from the physical skills that you’ve learned to execution under pressure is confidence.”
Where Does Confidence Come From?
To return to the point about escapes, John initially focuses on teaching escapes because he feels it teaches students to become less risk averse. “When you don’t believe you can be pinned, when you don’t believe your guard can be passed, you’ll take risks, because there’s no downsides to your actions,” John says. There’s nothing to fear if your attack goes sideways because you know that your opponent will not be able to exploit a botched attack.
According to John, learning this kind of skill means spending the first year of one’s jiu-jitsu training learning escapes and creating defenses for the most likely submissions in a jiu-jitsu match. While there are endless variations in any jiu-jitsu match, there are really only a handful of finishing moves (e.g., rear naked choke, armbar, guillotine) from a few different positions. If you can escape from these positions and identify how an opponent is most likely to advance in their attack, then you can work backwards and create a defense for every step of the progression.
John is aware that this is not the kind of thing that anyone wants to hear. When most people think of martial arts, they envision dominating their opponent rather than coming into class day after day learning how to break free from bad positions. It’s neither glamorous nor fun, but it is the kind of training that builds confidence, and that confidence is the foundation that allows for the creation of championship fighters.
Moreover, fighters who have strong escape skills will not only be more confident; they’ll also be better at survival. “They know that if things go wrong, they can always get out, they can always live to fight another day. That is what gives them the ability to attack without fear.”