Personal Evolution of Jiu Jitsu

One often finds that with jiu jitsu (as with most things in life) being able to determine personal progress is difficult. Mostly this is because you are living through that progress. So you can’t really compare yourself today from where you were say a year (or more) ago. This is made even more difficult when you have the same training partners, as you are improving each day along with them.

One way that you can compare yourself is to look at old competition footage and examine the differences. I recently competed in a local no gi competition and, thanks to one of my regular training partners who always records these things, I now have the ability to compare myself this year to myself when I competed in the same event two years ago.

(Note, due to illness I didn’t compete last year which is a pity as I would have like to seen the year on year progress.)

Here is the video from 2015

Here is the video from this year

Some things that I notice almost immediately

  1. I’ve developed a bit more of an ‘aggressive’ game. I don’t know if aggressive is the right word, but I definitely take a more active approach to both defence and attack now than what I used to. While I still train a patient approach during my training I’d like to think that in competition I am more focused on Keeping it Real vs Keeping in Playful.
  2. I react better and with more focus. Watching the 2015 video there are some places where I know now I would do things differently. Early on in the 2015 match I allow my opponent to take side mount, something that I would definitely not do today.
  3. My movement now has more purpose. Also, during the stand up phase of the fight I am more focused on keeping good posture.

There are also still areas where I can improve.

  1. I need to work my take downs. I still rely on my opponent to shoot for a take down and then defend and control from there.
  2. I need to improve my open guard foot lock defence. I’m mostly sure that the only reason I didn’t get foot locked is because I was able to use my size to my advantage in defence. I’m not 100% sure that if my opponent was bigger or stronger I’d have defended as well.

It’s quite fun to be able to visually compare yourself to your past self. My current motto for jiu jitsu is that I don’t want  to be better than anyone else, I just want to continue to be better than what I was yesterday. Being able to review my jiu jitsu from 2 years ago and today at least gives me hope that there is progress.


Interview with James Smart

James Smart is the owner and head instructor of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Cape Town, the only certified Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school in South Africa, as well as the owner of STREETSMART, a provider of real world self protection /combative training to Civilians, Law Enforcement, Military and Security. James has been my Gracie Jiu-Jitsu instructor for 8 years and his experience and opinions on self defense and self protection are always insightful and thought provoking. I recently chatted to James about the realities of self defense training.

Hi James, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

My pleasure, always great to talk to you, you always throw some really good questions out there.

Thank you, I guess its because I had a good instructor who taught me the value of questioning what works and what doesn’t 😉

First off, for those who’ve never met you, could you give us the short history of your Gracie Jiu-Jitsu journey?

Well, its hard to give a short history of a very long journey, and as you well know, I’m not that good at keeping things short, I tend to get carried away. But here goes, I started Japanese Ju Jutsu way back, when Gary (my training partner) heard of these Gracie guys from Brazil, in particular Rickson. So we went on holiday to LA to train with them and see what it was all about. We got to the Gracie Academy and met Rorion, Ryron and Rener there. It blew us away not only how great they were at fighting but how cool and chilled they were as people. Coming from a TMA (traditional martial arts) background it was quite a shock to not have to bow. We traveled back and forth to LA for a few years then in 2000 I decided to leave my job with Philips Electronics and travel to LA and train full time. After LA I went to Brazil, in total training full time for 1 year. Actually, you could say I have been training / teaching full time ever since. I am now a Black belt under Ryron and Rener Gracie and still learning as much, if not more, today as I did as a blue belt.

There has been a lot of debate about the ‘street vs sport’ schools of jiu jitsu. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Cape Town is probably more of a ‘street’ jiu jitsu school. What in your opinion are the advantages of training at a ‘street’ school vs training at a ‘sport’ school?

I’m not really sure there are any advantages, unless of course you count not getting beaten up as an advantage 😉 What do I mean, well I think BJJ (lets use BJJ to define the sport and GJJ to define the street) is a great sport, it has now evolved so far down that road and the guys and girls that are top of their game are no doubt athletes. Can they defend themselves in the street? Yes, more than likely. Is it possible because of the way they practise the sport that they’ll get punched out? Yes, it is. We have seen many times how BJJ guys have had to significantly change their game just to get into MMA, it’s all about punch protection. In GJJ we learn punch protection and dealing with the psychology punches being thrown at you first and then worry about the sport later. Does that handicap us when it comes to sport? Yes, I think it does in the short term but I believe it all evens out in the long run. If you’re a great grappler, you’re a great grappler! I guess my philosophy as an instructor and GJJ students is – why did I and most people walk in my door? To learn to defend themselves. If I teach them BJJ am I fulfilling that in the shortest time possible? No. If I teach them GJJ and get them into the fight sim class, am I fulfilling that? Yes, 100%.

Gracie Academy (and specifically Rener) have taken some heat recently in regard to Gracie Academy Blue Belt instructors misrepresenting their rank. As a certified Gracie Academy black belt and owner of a CTC how do you feel about what’s been going on?

First off, I think it was one instructor, I stand to be corrected though. With regards to Rener taking flack, I 100% support Rener and Ryron and what they do. The Gracie University is simply the best on-line learning available for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. I know some don’t like on-line learning and I get that, clearly its not preferable to learn a martial art or any fighting style for that matter on-line. And yet, there are 100,000’s of BJJ DVD’s out there. DVD’s that don’t give feedback, don’t cover all the angles, don’t even have instructors that can speak English and yet they don’t get slated. I can tell you right now, there is something in the pipeline with the Gracie Uni that will change most if not all of the complainers.

Now regarding the whole belt thing, I have to tell you I’m well and truly over it. There are people in all martial arts that have fake belts. We have seen many, many videos recently of people who have claimed to be BJJ black belts and been shown not to be. If something is worth having people will try and find a way to get it and not always honestly. There are instructors out there who give belts out like they are going out of fashion, in my opinion buying loyalty. I know why belts are there and I fully get the value of them, but getting my black belt didn’t change anything, I’m still learning, I’m still training. The day I got my black belt  I didn’t all of a sudden become better. Much more important is, who have I learned from? How long have I been training? What different experience do I have (BJJ tournament, Street, MMA) to offer to students? Come to a class and let me teach you, roll with me, then judge me. But even then always feel free to question me. Don’t listen to someone who has conviction and just believe them. As people we tend to be very very easily fooled by someone who “sounds” like they know what they are talking about.

I think I might have got off of subject a bit, sorry!

Not a problem at all.

You’re one of the few people I know who has actually worked the doors at bars/nightclubs in the UK. How did your martial arts experience help/hinder your ability to deal with the types of fights that go on in the nightclub scene?

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was the single best thing i did for being able to work on the doors, actually that and conflict management. That said, I really didn’t need to know all of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, just the Rear Naked Choke. Interestingly I lost my faith in some of the other martial arts around then when I realised pain compliance (wrist locks) don’t work on guys that have been taking acid all night. I restrained someone once using a wrist lock, he stood up into it, felt no pain and shattered his wrist. I let go and put him to sleep. I realised then that mechanical compliance or choked unconscious was the way forwards.

A few years ago, you also started a company called STREETSMART. Tell us how that came about?

Having been involved in martial arts for nearly 30 years I am always evaluating different fighting styles. About 7 years ago I met a guy who is highly trained in Combatives, not Gracie Combatives but what’s known as Combatives/CQB/CQC etc. Anyway, we started training together and I started learning all about the world of solving problems quickly and based on concepts. As time progressed I was fortunate to train with some of the world’s legends like SouthNarc and Lee Morrison. I realised there was a place, in fact a very significant place, in my self protection universe that all of the martial arts I had done, including Gracie Jiu Jitsu, was not able to look after and Combatives could. Everything kind of grew organically from there, my knowledge and experience growing and demand for people to learn growing if not faster. In STREETSMART we now have a team of instructors who teach everyone from Armed Reaction Officers through to Anti-poaching units. We teach ALL new ADT recruits throughout South Africa, with our program only last week being described as “the most valuable part of the Reaction Officers training”. Our team is made up of me (obviously) doing all of the unarmed and extreme close quarter fighting, an Ex UK and SA special Op’s members and a highly trained medic and a risk assessment specialist. We have lots of big plans on the horizon.

What would you say is the core difference between what you teach as a Gracie Jiu Jitsu instructor vs a StreetSmart one?

Gracie Jiu Jitsu is for solving social fights or what I would call ego driven fights. One guy cuts another off on the road. The one who got cut off gets annoyed and the two guys start to fight. It’s ego driven, these fights normally operate on a subconscious moral code of, “I won’t kill you, I just want to show you who is the man”. STREETSMART Street Survival (our civilian course) is for criminal interactions, the situation where there is desperation or a lack of moral compass rules and you stand a risk of dying. Another way of saying it is, imagine your fighting abilities are like a dimmer switch. You can’t go 100% all out every time, you’ll end up in jail. You want to be able to deal with a fight with necessary and reasonable force. A combination of Gracie Jiu Jitsu and STREETSMART give you this.

In your opinion, from a self defense perspective, what is the benefit for a regular individual in taking up Gracie Jiu Jitsu instead of other martial arts styles.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu will work, other martial arts might work if you train long enough. I guess that’s a bold statement but it’s been proven way too many times before to say anything different. I guess to clarify it I could say, with Gracie Jiu Jitsu, you have a plan of what to do when the fight starts (close the distance safely), you have an objective (get the fight to the ground), you have a goal (control and submit your opponent). All of this is done with relatively simple, easy to remember, forgiving if you don’t get it 100% correct, techniques. In most other martial arts, you wait and see how the fight is going to start and then react, there is no objective and no plan. And its usually with either hard to learn, requiring great body mechanics and conditioning strikes or hard to remember, complex and un-forgiving techniques.

I’m glad you said “in your opinion” in the question. I’d hate to be taken that I’m stating fact! 😉

20 plus years ago Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was heralded as the most effective form of self defense. Do you think this is still true today?

To go back to my previous answer, it’s the most effective form of self defence in a street, ego driven, one on one fight. Is it the most effective in a criminal attack? It’s sure better than nothing and a million times better than a lot of stuff that is taught. But, if there are multiple attackers or weapons involved, you must stay on your feet, do enough to create space and get out. And no, that is not Gracie Jiu Jitsu, that’s STREETSMART Combatives.

A topic that often comes up in self defense circles is the one of weapon defences and how they are taught across various styles of self defense. You’ve had some extensive training in this area, give us your thoughts on weapon defences.

Don’t unless you really, really have too. When do you really really have too, when you or someone else will lose their life if you don’t. I have to be honest here, I am not going to go into the how to of weapon defense. It’s just too big a topic and open to too much misunderstanding. What I will say though is, if you learn a weapon defence and for one second think “hmmmmmm this is super cool”, stop learning it and find one that isn’t super cool. The super cool ones are far to complex and far too likely to either not work, require far too much training or you just won’t remember it when someone is stabbing you or has a gun in your face. What ever you learn MUST be blindingly simple and uncool.

Finally, do you have any last words on self defence you would like to leave with our readers

Yes, I’d like to re iterate a post that I put on Facebook the other day –

Ask yourself – how many people do I know who have been involved with / victim of a criminal interaction?

Then ask yourself – how many people do I know who have been in a building fire.

I’m guessing the answer is far more in question one to question two.

My questions to you are –

Doesn’t it seem odd that we are most prepared for the least likely event and least prepared for the most likely event?

My next question is – do we learn simple, effective easy to remember, proven skills to deal with and escape fire?

If so why do we “try” to learn complicated, hard to remember, unrealistic, ineffective, stay there until it’s finished techniques to defend ourselves?

Thank you for your time James, it’s always interesting talking to you.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Competition.

One of the biggest debates of the last year in jiu jitsu circles has been the street vs sport debate.

I am not going to go into it in too much detail. Basically it boils down to the ‘old guard’ of jiu jitsu practitioners bemoaning the sportification of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the ‘new school’ defending their belief that competition jiu jitsu is just as effective in a self defence scenario. There are strong arguments for both sides and this platform is not really the place to discuss either.

At Infinitus Jiu Jitsu we train for both self defence and competitions. There are various grappling events happening this year and as I haven’t really written anything about the topic of competition and I thought now might be a good idea to do so.

Whether or not you train purely for self defence, competition jiu jitsu has a lot of benefits for the average student.

It gets you fit.

A lot of people who train jiu jitsu do it for two main reasons. One is for self defence but the other is to get fit(ter). Now, even though jiu jitsu should not require you to be fit to train in the first place, the mere fact that you are doing something physical for an hour will increase your fitness levels over time.

However, if you want to really see boosts in your fitness levels and weight loss, train for sport jiu jitsu matches. Sport jiu jitsu requires you to push yourself to your limits for all 6 minutes of your match. Try pushing yourself to your limit during a few 6 minute rolling sessions and you’ll be amazed at the results.

Learn to trust your techniques.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from my first competitions was to trust the techniques I knew. I remember one fight where I did not trust my triangle finish. My setup was good, but I hesitated in completing the choke. My opponent used my hesitation to bust out and pass my guard, leading to my loss. I learned that day that if I have a good triangle setup and simply trusted the rest of the technique, I would finish with a triangle every time.

Testing your jiu jitsu against a strange opponent

One of the downsides of only training at your club/gym/academy is that at some point you will get used to how your fellow students train. For some this takes longer than others, but each of us has a ‘game’ and unless we are actively pushing that ‘game’ to test it’s limits it becomes predictable. By competitng you get to experience other jiu jitsu practitioners ‘games’ and learn how they apply their jiu jitsu.

After the last Mother City Open Ryan came to me and said the following ‘I was not prepared for the aggresion that I faced’. This is so true, unless you compete you may never experience that level of aggression because you are not fighting someone else who is bent on defeating you.


In closing, while I will never force a student to train with a competition mind set or compete in any competition, if approached the right way competition can have valuable advantages to the self defence student.

Get the most out of an open mat

In a few weeks we will be celebrating our 1 year anniversary with an open mat sparring session. If all goes well we will have all available students (and some visitors) sharing the mat and testing their jiu jitsu against each other.

However, if you have never sparred before (or a little) or you only do jiu jitsu for self defence but you don’t want to miss out on a training session, the idea of an open mat can be a daunting one.

Here are some tips to get the best out of an open mat session.

1) You do jiu jitsu for self defence and you only have a few classes under your belt.

Great, go an find other students like yourself (you know who they are) and spend as much time as you want reviewing your techniques. This is a great opportunity to drill the techniques you already know or ask someone about a new technique they have previously learned.  Think about the reflex drills we often do at the end of a class, string some techniques together and practice the drills. Pair up with a more experienced student or your instructor and see if you can learn some new details that increase your proficiency in your already learned techniques.

This is also great advice for women who want to drill their self defence techniques.

2) You only have a few sparring classes experience

Take it easy. An open mat can be tiring if you spend all your energy in your first roll. Work on conservation of energy. Remember that it’s OK to tap, especially against experienced opponents. Use the time to see how to defend against common attacks and where the openings are. Ask questions. If someone does something cool let them show you how they did it and then ask them if you can try it on them. Seasoned jiu jitsu practitioners love sharing their cool tricks.

3) You are have been rolling for years.

Your job is very important. Besides having a huge amount of time to roll and (hopefully) new partners to roll with at some point you may partner up with someone mentioned above. Take this time to share your knowledge with others, or help them drill techniques, even if they may seem ‘boring’ to you. Remember that the foundation of a good practitioner is mastery of the basics, so reviewing the beginner techniques will only improve your game. Feel free to show off a cool new technique or two you have learned. People love to learn new, cool stuff!

If everyone respects the various levels of experience they may come across on the night and acts accordingly, not only does an open mat become a place to have run and roll but also a place where lessons can still be learned and your jiu jitsu can grow.

See you on the mat.

The business of importing gi’s

An open letter to anyone who has ordered/wants to order a Gameness gi from Infinitus

As you know, Infinitus Jiu Jitsu is currently running on offer on Gameness gi’s from our website.

When I was contacted by Gameness, with the massive trade discount they offered, I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to get some great branded gi’s at a really good price. Who wouldn’t want to take up this offer?

My goal was to be able to pass the saving onto anyone who ordered a gi. All I wanted to do was cover international shipping costs. So I calculated what I expected this to cost, based on a cursory investigation and posted the prices online.

Then I got a call from James (Smart, Gracie Jiu Jitsu Cape Town), someone who has already had experience in importing goods for his school. He pointed out to me that I had possibly not taken into account the 40% import duty I would be charged, as well as the 14% VAT (over and above the already 12% Sales Tax from the UK) I would be charged on the gi’s. A second round of research and more calculations and I posted an update to the offer and a new range of prices.

At this stage the prices displayed only take into account the following:

  1. Cost price to me for the gi’s in Rands (calculated at the exchange rate at the time)
  2. 12% Sales Tax on the cost price (UK Tax)
  3. 40% import duty on the cost price
  4. 14% VAT (SA) on the cost price

This price excludes any international shipping/handling/customs charge that may or may not still be added during the process.

Because this is the first time I have tried this I really have no way of telling 100% what the final price will be. I am hoping it will only be a small additional amount on top of the prices on the posted prices. There are online calculators and tools that I can use to do this. However, because I want to make sure that anyone who orders is charged only what it actually costs to import the gi, it’s difficult to calculate a final price. If I was adding say a 50% profit mark up I could use that mark up to cover any additional charges. The problem is, at this stage I don’t know entirely what these charges will be.

So in line with this I would like to make the following promises.

  1. Once I have all the pre orders, I will do my best to make sure that before you confirm and pay for your order I have taken into account all factors and can give you the closest accurate price possible. Having said that, once the gi’s actually arrive, there may be a small additional charge on the gi that you may be required to pay. I will do my best to ensure this is a minor amount.
  2. I will ensure that the total cost to you is only what it is costing to get the gi to SA and that I am making no profit on this order, nor do I want to.
  3. Once I calculate an estimated final price and you are not in a position to pay/not prepared to pay that amount, I will not hold you to your order. No money will be required by you until you confirm you are happy with the price.
  4. I will keep you up to date, via email, of every step of the process.

Once I have completed the first order, I will have a much better idea of the costs involved and hopefully the second option to order will be much smoother. (That or I’ll give up trying all together.)

If anyone has any questions about this, or wishes to change or edit their order, please do so via the order form on the original offer.

Infinitus Jiu Jitsu

Jiu Jitsu, the antidote to bullying.

If you have met me or heard my story, you will know that it started way back in primary school, where I was a victim of school yard bullying.

Mine was not the atypical, Hollywood style ‘give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up’ bullying. I don’t actually recall the full reasons, but to me it seemed that my circumstances were the cause of the taunts, name calling, pranks and beat downs. Based on who and what I was and probably various other factors I wasn’t even aware of, I was picked on and often beaten up by fellow class mates. Maybe I wasn’t ‘cool’ enough. Maybe I was a nerd. Maybe my sense of humour wasn’t understood or appreciated. Honestly, I can’t remember.

What I do remember was how if affected me as a person, both my confidence and my desire to fit in. It also lead me (eventually) to Jiu Jitsu. It is one of the main reasons I become an instructor, to be in a position to reach children who are experiencing the same things I did.

As an adult, I can look back at the (some vague, but still there) memories of bullying attacks and each time I can see how knowing Jiu Jitsu as a boy would have helped me in these situations.

  1. Jiu Jitsu techniques (especially the Bully Proof programme) are taught in a fun, safe, playful environment, so that as a child you not only learn how to defend yourself, but get some good healthy exercise at the same time.
  2. Jiu Jitsu teaches you how to control and subdue an attacker without inflicting any injury on them while doing so.
  3. Once you know how you can deal with a bully, physically if you need to, you now have the confidence to stand up to them.
  4. This confidence leads to the ability to shrug off any taunts that are directed at you in the first place, never having to place yourself in a situation where you have to defend yourself anyway.

If I had one wish, it would be to have enough time and resources to teach every single child in the country the art of Jiu Jitsu.

For now, I’ll happily settle on reaching every child in my community.

5 Tips to get ready for your Blue Belt assesment

The blue belt is probably the most important and, I believe, coveted belt in Jiu Jitsu. It is the first belt you have to ‘grade’ for and indicates that you have progressed from the rank of beginner and can now start your journey towards mastery of the art.

I’ve had the opportunity to take my blue belt assessment three times. Not that I failed any of them, the first was my actual blue belt test, the second was to qualify to be accepted into Gracie Jiu Jitsu Cape Town’s Instructor programme and the third was to be accepted into the Gracie Academy’s Instructor programme. As such I feel I can confidently say I am qualified to advise what is required to pass your blue belt assessment with flying colours.

1) Get a good bad guy.

The most important aspect if your assessment is not how well you know the techniques, but how well your bad guy does. The assessment is aimed at testing your reflexes against the most common forms of attack, as detailed in the Combatives programme. If your bad guy does not know and understand all the attacks, as well as how to effectively and, most importantly, realistically present them to you, you stand as good a chance of failing as you do if you don’t know the techniques well enough.

The best kind of bad guy is either someone you have trained with extensively, another blue belt, or your instructor. Remember however that your instructor may not be available to be your bad guy as he will probably be the one filming the drills, so rather make sure you have someone else in mind.

2) Know your techniques.

I know this sounds pretty obvious, but it actually isn’t. I’ve had the opportunity to assist a few students over the course of the past 3 years with their assessment preparation and believe me, a lot of people who think they know the techniques well are surprised at how many key details they have missed or forgotten (myself included).  The human brain can only process so much extra information so unless you are training techniques for 1 or 2 hours every day, some pieces of information get lost.

Not only that, but knowing the descriptive names of the techniques will go a long way to assisting your execution of them in a timed drill.

Your best course of action, if you can’t train every day,  is to review the Combatives videos (either via DVD or online) as much as possible. Even to this day I often review techniques when preparing a lesson and I pick up little details I have forgotten.

3) Use your time wisely.

We all love rolling. It’s one of the most fun things in Jiu Jitsu. But there is ample time to roll once you have your blue belt. While you are preparing for your assessment use any spare time (even rolling time) to practice and review your techniques or assessment drills.

When I took my first assessment, my training partner Duncan and I gave up our rolling time to practice our assessment drills. Even if it is only one rolling session per class you give up, it will be worth it in the long run.

4) Time yourself.

Each of the five assessment videos needs to be filmed within 5 minutes. Trust me, you don’t want to find out on filming day that you can’t do the techniques for a drill within that time. Before you even book your assessment day, make sure you have at least completed all 5 drills within the time limits.

5) Instructor input.

This is not a requirement, but once you have completed all 4 steps above, I suggest booking one (or two if required) private classes with your instructor. Often he/she will be able to give you pointers in areas that you haven’t thought of, or pickup critical errors you aren’t aware of, just because they a) know the techniques well and b) are seeing your execution of the techniques from a different perspective.

If nothing else, it will help break that fear of doing the drills in a timed environment while someone else is watching. Stage fright can be a game changer come assessment day.

And finally, above all else, remember to always, always, ALWAYS stand up in base!

KeepItReal vs KeepItPlayful

Very recently, Ryron Gracie, head instructor of Gracie Academy has started being promoting something he has called the KeepItPlayful Movement.

In essence, the ideals of the KeepItPlayful movement are aimed at teaching students of the art of Gracie Jiu Jitsu to never allow egos to dominate their sparring/training. By keeping it playful during a sparring session, one’s aim is never to dominate your opponent with the goal of submissions only. Instead you and your opponent allow each other to experiment with jiu jitsu, or as Ryron calls it, to ‘play’ jiu jitsu. In this manner both of you learn something new about yourselves/your opponent/the techniques, while at  the same time you are able to train with a vast majority of opponents, without running out of steam or injuring yourself.

This is a mindset that I have been in agreement with for some time now and anyone who has read this blog will attest to that. In all my sparring sessions my goal is to keep it as relaxed as possible, so that I can learn more about my jiu jitsu and the jiu jitsu of my opponent.

However it is important to remember that sometimes when keeping it playful you can often forget that you also need to keep it real, a sentiment that both Ryron and his brother Rener Gracie have installed in many jiu jitsu students who have watched their videos or participated in a seminar or class with either of them.

Keeping it real shifts the focus of jiu jitsu to the self defence applicability of the techniques and ensures that you are also spending some of your training time in honing your self defence skills. Does this technique ensure that I am preventing a knock out punch? Can I maintain this position against a larger, stronger opponent? Would this work if my life depended on it?

In my humble opinion both mindsets are valid in the right circumstance. I think it is great the Ryron is promoting the KeepItPlayful Movement.

However we should never forget the importance of KeepingItReal. In my/an ideal world, Rener would be promoting the KeepItReal movement in parallel to Ryron’s KeepItPlayful movement, reminding us all of both sides of the Gracie Jiu Jitsu coin…


The ‘don’t tap me’ philosophy and why it hinders your progress.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to cross train with members of various other local jiu-jitsu schools.

It has been quite an interesting experience training with students of other styles and understanding their fighting mindset. It allows me to broaden my jiu-jitsu by trying out my techniques on someone who would not react in the same manner as a fellow student at my school. I’ve learned so much more about myself than about the various people whom I have sparred with.

The one thing that I have seen a lot is what I like to call the ‘don’t tap me’  philosophy. In basic terms this is where someone who is in danger of getting into a submittable situation uses their speed/strength advantage to power out of a bad situation instead of relying on technique. Its great for them as it means they don’t loose by being submitted. But they don’t learn anything in the process.

Lets go a little deeper.

Lets say you are stronger than your current opponents and every time someone sets up a twisting arm control you use your strength to power out of the control. You dont want to be in twisting arm control, because you know it probably means an arm bar, so you feel good. You have successfully defended the arm bar attack. The next time your opponent sets up twisting arm control you power out again. Life is good. Every time you use strength to power out of the twisting arm control you are saving yourself from being arm barred.

But what if one day your opponent is bigger, heavier or stronger than you. What if he is more skilled and can negate your power move simply by using his better technique. Now you cannot power out of the twisting arm control. Suddenly you are in an arm lock threat position you have never been in before. You cannot use your strength and you have no defence to the next step, the inevitable arm bar.

Now, had you decided somewhere in the past to allow someone to get twisting arm control, you would have experienced what it was like to be there. You could have determined what your defence options are. Maybe they went for the arm bar and you spent some time in that position and learned some way to defend the arm bar. Or maybe they got the arm bar but you saw an openinng you could have used and promised yourself to you would try that next time. Or maybe you just learned a better way to get an arm bar.

Everytime you get into a ‘bad’ position, a submission threat, under top mount, under side mount, you are learning how to defend, escape or use those techniques. Every time you learn how to defend or escape or use those techniques you add another tool to your toolbox.Everytime you add a tool, you have more tools to unleash on your future opponents, giving you the edge every time.

The ‘don’t tap me’ philosophy may mean you don’t loose on the mat, but how it affects what you learn (or don’t learn) about jiu-jitsu and about yourself is worth more than any submission you might give away.

Helio Gracie fight philosophy backed up by science


(by James Smart, co owner and head instructor at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Cape Town)

In the Jiu Jitsu world, we know about the changes that Helio Gracie made to Japanese Ju Jitsu. By using leverage he made it more useable by a smaller weaker person and he incorporated live sparring. Some also know that he had a strategy of not losing the fight.  Helio figured that if he did not lose the fight, then in by default his opponent in his attempt to beat Helio would defeat himself, either through exhaustion or through making a mistake.  Others may know that Helios’ sense of preparation or planning for the fight gave him and his family an edge. At the stage of creating these philosophies some 80 years ago, what Helio could not have known, is that in years to follow science and research would prove  that his strategies where sound.

I will now attempt to break down each element of Helio’s strategy and thinking, to show how it makes 100% sense scientifically.

Changes to Japanese Ju Jitsu

Having done Japanese Ju Jitsu for many years, when I started Gracie Jiu Jitsu I found the difference to be subtle but significant. In Japanese Ju Jitsu there are many small joint lock and locks that require great accuracy of finger and thumb placement to be able to make them effective, in Gracie Jiu Jitsu this finite manipulation was excluded. The joint locks are on larger body parts i.e. the elbow, knee, shoulder and use much larger body parts to do the lock i.e. the whole arm, two hands etc. Another marked difference I found was that in Japanese Ju Jitsu, a very lager number of techniques had to be “set up” with a series of other movements and to “soften your opponent”. In Gracie Jiu Jitsu this did not seem so necessary.

So how does this apply to being able to fight more effectively and to science?

In a fight situation it is well known that the fighter’s heart rate goes up and you become stressed. How stressed will be talked about later, but your stress levels will affect many psychological and physiological abilities. At just 115 Beats Per Minute (BPM) your Fine Motor Skills deteriorate, at only 145 BPM your Complex Motor Skills deteriorate. What does that leave you with…………..Gross Motor Skills!

Now might be a good time for me to clarify what the different Motor Skills are that are relevant to this article.

Fine Motor Skills – Skills that are performed by small muscle groups, such as hands and fingers and frequently involve hand-eye coordination. In a fight situation a fine motor skill would include an action requiring hand-eye coordination such as catching someone’s moving hand in a wrist lock.

Gross Motor Skill – These are movements that generally involve large muscle groups or large movements. In fight, a gross motor skill, would include pushing, pulling or two handed gripping.

Complex Motor Skill – Complex Motor Skills are skills which involve hand-eye coordination, timing or tracking and have multiple technique components. An example of a Complex Motor Skill in a fight would be a Double Leg takedown.

So how does all of this relate to Gracie Jiu Jitsu – Gracie Jiu Jitsu in general, is made up of Gross Motor Skills. An Arm Bar, a Body Fold Takedown are all largely Gross Motor Skill techniques. Whether by Genius or by instinct, Helio Gracie when creating Gracie Jiu Jitsu, must have realised that the fine motor skills required for many martial arts to work, were simply too hard to do in a real fight. Yes, there are some Complex Motor Skill techniques in Gracie Jiu Jitsu, and to be able to solve all problems there has to be, but as for Fine Motor Skill, I can’t think of any.

If you take into account that Jogging is considered a 60 to 65% of maximum heart rate activity (with no stress) which means your heart rate will be somewhere around 130 t 140 BPM. In fight, you would have already lost or seriously diminished your ability to use fine and complex motor functions. I added “with no stress” in there because stress does play a part that I will explain. So, consciously or subconsciously, I can see that Helio thought, (maybe not using these terms) it is guaranteed in an attack situation that my heart will elevate, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be above 115BPM. So in a fight, if all I have will have at best is gross and complex motor skill, it makes sense for me to only train techniques that include complex and gross motor skills!


The next of Helios strategies, that I believe came more from Judo than Ju Jitsu (but please don’t shoot me if I’m wrong) was Sparring or what today we commonly call Rolling. During a fight our cognitive ability (think, prioritize, understand, plan, remember, and solve problems) deteriorates at about 175 BPM. Only using gross motor skills will combat this deterioration to a degree due to the fact that they do not require so much cognitive ability to bring into operation. However, many skills and even more situations do require a cognitive process. The question then is, if we know our stress and heart rates are going to rise. How can we make the cognitive process easier? In many martial arts we are taught a technique and then we drill it 20 times, 50 times, 100 times, often depending on how dedicated you are as a student. The problem is that in most cases, the drilling of a single technique does not teach us when that technique should be applied in a real environment. This means that, when the day comes that the fighter is “in fight” has a heart rate of 175BPM and sees an attack, the process of selecting the correct technique is very slow due to the fact that it is the first time the brain has had to process that information and make that selection.

Helio incorporated Sparring into the learning process, and in fact in more recent years, Reflex Development and Fight Simulation has also been included in the training process by Ryron and Rener. How does this benefit the student? In sparring and even more so in Reflex development and Fight Sim, we are not only practising the techniques, but we are incorporating them into a cognitive learning process. Our brain is processing the information, recognising the problem, building pathways for that program to be recalled quickly and solving new problems all in a relatively comfortable environment. In fact, studies have show (known as the Inverted-U Hypothesis) that between 115BPM and 145BPM cognitive processing is working at its’ best. So by doing a Fight Simulation and not accelerating the heart rate too high, we are able to optimize that learning process and give the brain and the body the reflexes to respond quickly when being attacked.

Not Losing

In Helios strategy of not losing he had 2 tactics. Firstly, it was to not make a mistake, to allow the opponent to do all the trying to win and eventually for the attacker to make a mistake. The second tactic was about being comfortable no matter where he was. Helio was comfortable underneath the mount on anyone. He had been under the mount on some of the best fighters of his day and not lost. If he was comfortable under Ricksons mount, then how could he not be comfortable under anyone’s.

Both of these strategies link into the same effect. Helio by being comfortable underneath was able to stay calm, keep his heart rate and stress levels at a level where he could use his Gross Motor Skills, Complex Motor Skills and Cognitive processing at its’ most effective. Conversely, his opponent by being on top, unable to beat Helio and not comfortable underneath, resulted in frustration which would send his heart rate through the roof. The fighter would be losing his Fine Motor Skills (which many martial arts rely on) deteriorating his Complex Motor Skill and have diminished Cognitive processing, resulting in a mistake, leaving the Calm and relaxed Helio to finish the fight.

We have all felt these effects when sparring normally in two ways. Firstly when we roll with someone we think we should be able to beat, we then try harder, stressing more and putting pressure on ourselves to be the victor. As a consequence, our brain freezes and we end up not being able to beat that person. Secondly, when we roll with someone we think can beat us. We get mounted, are not comfortable, get stressed, try to escape when we shouldn’t, make a dumb mistake that we would not normally do (this dumb mistake is the result of extreme stress and called Hyper Vigilance) and get tapped out.


Preparation can be seen in two main ways in Gracie Jiu Jitsu both ways giving the same very important result. Firstly we see that Helio prepared for a fight by having a plan. He knew he was not going to exchange punches, he knew he was going to close the distance, take his opponent to the ground, maintain and or improve his position and then submit his opponent. Having a clear plan gave Helio confidence, it decreased his stress before and during the fight. Stress level has a direct affect on the heart rate, the greater the stress the more elevated the heart rate. Reducing this had the effect of reducing his heart rate and as we now know, this resulted in him being able to perform better in the fight.

Preparation also has another benefit, in Fight Simulation classes we prepare by exposing ourselves to a simulated stress of our opponent trying to hit us. More recently we have included some “stress drills”. Both having our opponent trying to hit us and the stress drills has one main effect. It changes our perception of firstly that we can protect our self against the punches and secondly we become comfortable with how exhausted we will feel in a full on fight.

When someone learns to swim they learn in the shallow end of a swimming pool. Once they can swim in the shallow end they move to the deep end of that same swimming pool. Nothing has really changed in the swimming part, the only thing that has changed is that the student knows they can’t touch the bottom. However, the students stress levels will elevate because there perception of the associated danger of not being able to touch the bottom is greater. Once the student can swim in the deep end confidently they may well move to the Ocean. What happens to their stress level? It goes up again, simply due to the associated danger of the open ocean. Now if the student goes back to the deep end of the swimming pool, they have significantly less stress, simply because the perception of the danger has changed.

Fight Simulation and planning has the same effect of swimming in the Ocean, it changes our perception of the associated danger, decreases our stress level, decreases our heart rate and in turn makes us more able to use our Complex and Gross Motor Skills and our Cognitive processes.

Bringing it all together

Helio was not only ahead of his time with regards to the development of Gracie Jiu Jitsu Techniques, but also with his mindset. Somehow, Helio may have figured out that his ability to learn to defend himself in the shortest possible space of time, revolved around not only leverage, but a number of other key elements. He majored on techniques that used Gross Motor Skills. He created training methods that keep stress levels low enough to use cognitive abilities and strategies to speed up cognitive processing. Helio  kept the heart rate low enough to be able to use Complex Motor Skills and finally, he developed methods to change his perception of the of danger he was in.

This information was collated and transferred into a Gracie Jiu Jitsu context by James Smart. The main source of information and scientific studies was Bruce K. Siddle excellent book – Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge.