So often we hear the phrase in Grappling “He/She is on another level” as an explanation for why one grappler defeated another. As someone who loves studying nogi grappling, such a phrase provides me little information on how to improve. Such an explanation can impair critical thinking and subsequent progression of a grappler. What does being on another level actually mean?
To find an objective, evidence-based place from which we can study grappling we need to demystify the way we categorize proficiency in submission grappling.
The Problems with Using a Belt System to Classify Skill
When we first start BJJ, we have some notion that there are different levels of proficiency denoted by belt levels (in order: White, Blue, Purple, Brown and Black). Early on you quickly surmise that higher belts are better at grappling than lower belts. This information is largely anecdotal and personally based. In the start most people will do whatever they want to you, and when you ask them how they got so good they say usually say something along the lines of: “When I first started I also got smashed. Don’t worry it just takes time”. Generally this is true, spend more time in the art and you get better. Further, more time spent in BJJ is correlated with an increase in belt level. However, there is a problem with this sort of thinking to analyse technique. For example saying a “black belt” armbar is different to a “blue belt” armbar sounds to me like the belt itself imparted some sort of armbar +2 dice roll magic bonus.
Compare this sort of thinking with how people talk about technique in wrestling for example: a high school wrestler’s low single leg versus John Smith’s low single. There is still some element of ‘levels’ present (High School vs Olympic) but for the most part we understand that John Smith is doing something different to the average wrestler when he performs a low single. It encourages students of the art to analyse what is being done differently so that they can drill and replicate what he is doing. It does not prescribe that you must be a black belt in wrestling, having spent 10 years in the art, before you finally understand a particular technique.
“But BJJ is no different” you say, “Of course I know that Ronda Rousey/Rickson Gracie is doing something different when she/he armbars people”. I’m not saying we don’t know that (although terms like ‘invisible jui jitsu’ do nothing to demystify skill in BJJ). I am just asking how you can prove it. For example, if I master the armbar to what I believe is a Rickson-esque level, how will I know that I have. The first barrier to this is the competition structure of BJJ, which is separated by belt levels. While I might destroy everyone I ever face at blue belt via armbar I would still at best be though of as a world class blue belt with a great armbar. When, after some period of time and training I become a black belt and attempt the armbar on Garry Tonon is when I will truly know if I am as able as I think I am.
In contrast, in wrestling I may face the NCAA Champ in my first match in College. I will get immediate feedback on how well my technique works, and thus in theory can shortcut the time required to master elements of my ‘game’ (provided I make changes to improve). In short, what I am saying that the BJJ belts are not only misleading in terms of where you stand but can also discourage critical thinking in favour of ‘doing the time’ and making the belt a primary goal. This is less common in nogi grappling where belt levels are not always a prerequisite to competing with elite grapplers.
An Alternative Way of Thinking of Skill
If not belts then how can we identify what is higher level in submission grappling? Note that what I write here is with reference to the submission itself being the end goal of grappling. I propose that a better way of thinking about proficiency and progression in submission grappling is to understand that your own and others ‘game’ is made up of many different techniques at different levels of mastery. For simplicity, I considered how techniques can be Basic, Intermediate, or Advanced.
Basic – At a basic level you can recognise a submission or position and can finish it if the conditions are optimal. For example; you know what a rear naked choke looks like and can finish it if your opponent fails to defend.
Intermediate – At an intermediate level for a submission/position you are able to get into and out of a chosen position. Example; you can get into a butterfly guard from half guard and you know how to create conditions so that you can go back to half guard if need be. At this level you are beginning to combine techniques.
Advanced – At this level it is all about timing and catching the submission in transition . This usually happens from a positional transition or as part of a submission chain. If you are consistently able to catch a particular submission from various entries, and are setting it up as you move you are likely at an advanced level with that submission. You might even purposely give up position or submission to set up what you want. An example of this can be seen here, specifically in the finishing sequence (North-South Choke to Guillotine) as Marcelo Garcia catches a submission in transition.
Using this system encourages us to see ourselves as multifaceted grapplers who have different levels of skills in different areas. It also gives us an evidenced based (if somewhat subjective) way to categorize our technique and highlights where we can improve. It lets us recognise a truth about high level submission grappling: If I can engage my opponent in my “Advanced” game and prevent him from doing the same I am likely to win.
Note: I am not against the idea of awarding belts. I recognise that it is one way to reward progression and time spent in the art.