As martial artists we like to think of our training as multi-faceted. We train to refine our technique, we train to develop sequences and “games,” we train for strength, for endurance, for speed, etc... But we might be overlooking one of the most important tools we have available, strategy. Rarely do amateur combat athletes seriously consider tactics and strategy in their routine of overall training.
At the highest levels of competition though, these factors are seen as critical to success. Recently I talked with Kerry McCoy, the head wrestling coach at University of Maryland. McCoy is a former NCAA champion and a 2 time Olympian. While we were discussing the idea of strategy, he shared with me the level of detail this subject got in the Olympic Training Centers and it surpasses anything I have seen to date in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
In this article I’ll focus on the application of these ideas to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and we'll use coach McCoy's functional definition of strategy and tactics.
“Strategy,” as he was taught, is about your general game plan for winning in your sport – including the moves you like, the way you usually win, the pace you tend to keep, etc...
“Tactics,” on the other hand, involves a more specific focus on playing within the rules of the game itself. Here we'll talk about both of these components in reference to both the opponent and to the rules.
Opponent Strategy and Tactics
Strategic thought means knowing and creating a plan for dealing with your opponent’s strengths, weaknesses, patterns, style, and tendencies. To create an effective plan you need to compare these with your own traits in order to determine a best method of approaching a particular opponent. A classic example might be a bigger and stronger guy wanting to take advantage of a smaller opponent by staying on top and applying pressure.
One practice I use is something I learned from Vinicius 'Draculino' Magalhaes. He told me that before big tournaments, the top competitors would get together and help create strategic game plans for their team mates – looking at the most likely opponents that they would be facing and determining the best ways to beat them. Even if they never got to face one of the opponents they prepared for, the insights they gained on strategically beating that person's game was able to help them be better prepared for future tournaments and styles of opponent.
Practicing preparing yourself with tactics and strategies specific to your opponent doesn’t have to happen only at tournaments. Pick a particularly challenging fellow student in your gym – someone of equal or slightly greater skill – and do a strategic analysis of how you can beat their game. This isn't for the sake of creating rivalry within the school, but for you to really get used to experiencing the process of building a game plan around beating a particular opponent.
Rules Strategy and Tactics
Functioning within a set of rules is the reality of any sport – and understanding how to play to the rules can sometimes be associated with being “cheap,” or “stalling.” Though some players seem to abuse the point system to a degree that takes away from the spirit of sport, the point system is a reality of the game – and though neglecting it for the pure sake of diving for the submission can seem “admirable” to some (I think it’s pretty cool), it’s still inevitable that the game will end up being won by points and advantages a good percentage of the time.
At the Olympic training center, the wrestlers are trained on what to do in almost all conceivable real match situations. For example, you're up two points with one minute left in the second period, and you're on top – or – you're down two points with two minutes to go in the third period and you and your opponent are standing.
In Jiu Jitsu, most of us only have a vague “in-the-moment” conception of what our best game plan is in various situations like these (IE: down three points in our opponent's closed guard with two minutes left). Of course some of these scenarios change depending on the skills and style of your opponent, but there are a lot of basic tenets to know and work by (I can't tell you how many matches I've seen lost by people dropping for an unsuccessful foot lock in the last few seconds and losing two points when they were initially going to win).
The best ways to get used to involving tactics and strategy into your own training are:
Watch the best Jiu Jitsu players at work. Most of us Jiu Jitsu addicts already watch tons of competition footage, on DVD or YouTube, but instead of looking only for cool moves, keep an eye out for how different high level players strategically play the game when they're up points, when they're down points, and when time is almost up.
Train in tournament situations. Not only will this prepare you well for the pressures and considerations of a real tournament, but it will get your brain thinking about preserving energy based on time remaining, playing techniques more or less aggressively depending on points, etc...
Actively do some brainstorming with experienced grapplers on the best actions to take in different situations. Again, some of this will vary per opponent but it’s important to have a solid understanding of general time and point strategy and tactics.
Even a lot of the seasoned competitors in the BJJ and submission grappling world give almost no conscious consideration to points and time (outside of actually being in a competition in the first place). Training and thinking in ways that bring you to understand these factors will ultimately get your mind more and more used to playing your opponents, the clock, and the rules in the right way – and further your chances of winning when hardware is on the line.
_Dan Faggella is an MMA academy owner, a national BJJ competitor, and at age 23 recently received his Masters degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Continuing to write for BJJ publications and present for college and mixed martial arts teams, Dan's mission is to revolutionize the effectiveness of combat sport training. You can find his writing at www.ScienceofSkill.com_