As a beginner in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you may feel overwhelmed by the number of techniques and strategies in the martial art. After your first class, you may be wondering, “what should I learn first in BJJ?”
While there is no perfect order to learn BJJ, there are some general principles that can speed up your progress, reduce your frustration, and help you overcome the more difficult initial aspects of learning to grapple.
When it comes to focusing your game as a beginner, learning to survive in bad positions and developing escape options should be your primary focus.
The following article breaks down the reasons for focusing on survival and escape as a guiding philosophy during your time as a beginner.
By the time you finish reading, you will be well-prepared to get the most out of your early days in BJJ.
Survival as the foundation of BJJ
Helio Gracie, one of the primary founders of BJJ, was a small man. At around 130 pounds, Helio could not rely on strength or athleticism to win fights. For Helio, BJJ was about surviving fights and coming out on the other side in one piece.
Of course, no one becomes a Grandmaster in BJJ without a sick arsenal of submissions. However, BJJ is about surviving first. Control and submissions are only reliable when you can ensure your own safety.
Beginners spend most of their time in bad positions
As a beginner, you will likely be in bad positions constantly. With that in mind, learning to survive in worst-case scenarios such as having someone on your back or on top of you is the logical first step.
It will likely be some time before you are consistently in dominant positions. Realistically, you will not have many opportunities to attempt submissions before you can establish and maintain control positions.
The good news is that as a beginner, you will have plenty of time to practice your survival skills.
The point of survival in BJJ is to delay getting submitted for as long as possible. The longer you delay the submission, the more you frustrate your opponent.
The more you delay getting tapped and the more frustrated your opponent becomes, the more opportunities you will have to escape the position.
Good defense improves your offense
Learning the details needed to defend common attacks such as the rear-naked choke, armbar, and Kimura will give your critical insight into the mechanics for finishing the submissions.
Defense and offense go hand-in-hand. If you know the detailed defense to submission, you will be better able to counter these defenses when you do find yourself in an attacking position.
In the long run, developing solid defense early in your BJJ career improves the effectiveness of your BJJ.
Great defense also makes you a more challenging training partner for experienced students and improves their learning as well.
When you are ready and able to start submitting serious opponents, you will know exactly what they will do to defend the initial attack and be well-prepared to set your own traps.
Escaping bad positions is vital to good BJJ
Once you can survive in bad positions without easily getting submitted, you can focus on escapes.
Given that you will be in bottom positions often, learning to re-establish some control from a bad spot is vital to your development as a grappler.
Having a technical, step-by-step escape plan from any bad position will make you a challenging roll even for experienced BJJ players. Furthermore, effective escapes allow you to take more risks from good positions.
A well-developed escape system truly separates top grapplers from those who are hungry for submissions without good fundamentals.
Escapes allow you to practice more BJJ (and win)
Being unable to escape bad positions is the equivalent of deciding to tap long before an opponent has beaten you.
Imagine if any time you ended up on bottom, you had already lost.
Pretty soon, you would be spending an inordinate amount of time getting smashed by people you could otherwise beat.
From a self-defense perspective, if your training does not allow you to escape mount or side control, you cannot rely on it to save your life should that situation arise.
On the other hand, if you are great at escaping, your opponents will quickly realize that passing your guard or even taking your back is far from victory.
Demoralizing an opponent by escaping and reversing a position they worked so hard to acquire works wonders for your long-term ability to tap them out.
An opponent who feels hopeless when trying to hold you down or get a submission is much easier to beat than one who can grind you to a pulp with top pressure before going for the finish.
Escapes allow you to take more risks as the attacker
One of the dichotomies ever-present in BJJ is that you must risk position to improve position.
If you want to pass your opponent’s guard, you must risk getting swept.
If you want to attack a submission from guard, you will risk getting passed.
Finally, if you want to finish a submission from top control, you must sacrifice some degree of control to attack the neck or joint in question.
The thing about good escapes is that losing a position is not a big deal. After all, if your guard gets passed due to your failed submission attempt, you know how to get out of it.
On the other hand, if you are deathly afraid to take any risk because you get stuck on bottom with no way out, you will be far more hesitant to attack.
Not attacking leads to boring rolls and ultimately, lack of progress.
BJJ is about getting repetitions. If you never get reps because you hate being stuck on bottom, your offensive development suffers.
Being a skilled escape artist minimizes the psychological risk of losing position.
Learn escapes, reduce your fear of being on bottom, and watch your offense rapidly improve.
Should I not learn submissions as a beginner?
The focus on survival and escape does not preclude learning submissions. If you are attending a general BJJ class, your instructor will be going over submissions.
However, you should not judge your initial progress by whether you can submit your partners.
Your assessment of your own BJJ should be based on your ability to survive and escape bad positions.
In fact, this philosophy applies throughout your BJJ journey. There will always be people better than you at BJJ.
Depending on your partner or opponent, judging your ability based on surviving and escaping the attacks from better players is a much healthier philosophy than keeping tally of who you tapped out and who tapped you out.
The bottom line: survival and escape will always define good BJJ
Eventually, even the most seasoned black belt will face younger, faster skilled opponents.
When this situation arises, its far better to judge the master’s ability to thwart their student’s attacks rather than their ability to submit anyone they roll against.
Developing flawless BJJ survival and escape skills will allow you to train for a lifetime against the best BJJ players and still benefit both you and your partner or opponent.