BJJ Advice & Opinions

Tools in the Toolbox

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Not everything you learn in jiu-jitsu will work for you.

Some people may disagree with this because we like to believe that every jiu-jitsu technique can be tailor-made to our games if we just make a few modifications to suit our unique body type. But in reality, while some people have the perfect flexibility, limb length, and learning capabilities to put absolutely everything they learn into practice on the mats, most of us will eventually encounter a few techniques that we just can’t do. Or, if we can do them, they only work on certain people with specific skill sets or body types.

A transition or submission that is easy for one person may be challenging for someone else — maybe they can only land it on smaller people, for example. Sometimes, these challenges are overcome by modifying a technique to suit a unique situation. But in other cases, no matter how many adjustments are made or who you’re practicing with, a technique may just not work for you. And that’s okay.

Every time I teach a technique, I tell the person learning that they should consider it a tool in their toolbox. While some of your tools will be widely applicable, and you’ll find yourself reaching for them for a variety of projects, there are others that you may only use rarely for particular situations. You may have some tools for ages and only use them once, years after you acquire them. There may even be some tools you never use at all.

So, how do you know when (or if) a jiu-jitsu technique will ever be useful for you? Well, you don’t. But much like a plunger, it’s better to have a technique and never use it than to not have a technique right at the time you need it.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to instantly learn and apply any jiu-jitsu technique the first time we saw it, banking it away for the future to retrieve any time we needed to. In reality, this isn’t possible (at least, not for most of us). Each technique we learn takes a significant amount of time and practice to remember, and even more time and practice if we want to apply it mid-roll intelligently. 

Simply put, this is frustrating, especially when we see other people who seem to have an easier time learning and applying what they learn in class. Most jiu-jitsu students, though, will have to pick and choose the techniques we want to focus on at any given time. Sometimes, new tools will have to be tucked away for a while to allow you to improve on the tools you already have. It doesn’t mean you’ll never learn how to use them; now may simply not be the best time in your jiu-jitsu journey to pull them out.

While you likely won’t use every tool in your toolbox — at least, not on purpose — you also shouldn’t dismiss techniques just because you don’t understand them the first time around. A screw on its own, for example, seems useless and hard to work with until you’re introduced to a screwdriver, and even then, you may not understand how to make them work together until someone explains it to you. Many jiu-jitsu techniques, too, are confusing and challenging the first time you see them, especially if you don’t have other critical foundational techniques acting as support. 

If you don’t understand a technique the first time around, be patient with yourself. Put it in your toolbox, even if you’re not sure if you’d even be able to identify it if you saw it again. The second time you learn it, it may start to feel familiar to you — maybe you’ll even move it closer to the top of the box to play around with some time. By the third time you learn it, it might finally make a little more sense. If you haven’t already, this is the time to pull it out and start trying to apply it in your rolls. And, at this point, if it’s not clicking for you at all, it may be time to start experimenting or asking your coach for modifications or alternatives you could use to make the technique work for you.

Try not to be resentful if a technique you really want to use doesn’t work as well for you as you’d hoped. For many jiu-jitsu students — especially those who are on the extreme ends of the size or proportion spectrum — there will be some techniques that seem custom-designed for you and others that seem like they were custom-designed to be used against you. 

This isn’t so much a disadvantage as it is just part of the game of jiu-jitsu, though. Indeed, it’s one of the aspects of the sport that make it so dang cool. Someone else may have your tools in their toolbox but be unable to use them as well as you do… or even unable to use them at all. The reverse can also be true, of course, and while it’s okay to be frustrated by this, it’s also important to remember that it’s a struggle that everyone in BJJ encounters at some point.

The more you train in jiu-jitsu, the more tools you’ll put into your toolbox. And while you may not always get the tools you want or get a lot of use out of the tools you have, the good news is that your toolbox will always have room. Don’t be afraid to get creative and open your mind to new strategies and techniques, even if they’re out of your comfort zone. It’s all a part of your growth as a person, a student, an athlete, a teammate, and possibly, a coach. Besides, as anyone with an unexpected home repair job has learned, there’s nothing like the feeling of finding a tool that you need but didn’t even know you had.



Averi is a brown belt under Nick Hughes of Trinity MMA and an ambassador for Grapple Apparel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bjjaveri.

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