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Behavioural Psychology in BJJ

A while ago, I posted a picture with a caption that briefly talked about psychology in jiujitsu, and how you can “lull” someone into further control over them, and how if you’re not careful, you could be susceptible to the same. In this, my first blog post, I plan on diving a bit deeper into the topic and sharing some of my favourite excerpts from one of my favourite books I’ve read again and again throughout the last few years, and how I tie it into BJJ. Should you enjoy the post, I would greatly appreciate it if you shared it on social media, and should you disagree, I would love to see your side of things, too. Here goes!

Through personal experience and teaching, I’ve found that you can lull opponents into the pace you set, and, you as well, can be caught with or antagonized into a pace to your opponent’s favour! Essentially, when you approach an opponent or training partner, and get your first feel for the other person, you can get a glimpse of what kind of match or roll you’re going to be getting out of them. This qualification period may take some experience to recognize things, but with a keen eye and plenty of time, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the scrappers, the calm “suave” types, and some other styles including smaller things even, like their self-doubt, their eagerness, or their competitive drive to "win". To relay this through one of my favourite books, where the author talks about what he calls the 3 kinds of time, long time, where you are avoiding reacting impulsively, waiting for opportunity. Forced time, short term lengths where manipulation can be used offensively, for example to upset an opponent’s timing, and finally end time, where you must move with speed and force, after waiting for and discovering the moment of opportunity.

Robert Greene, on "long time":

"When you force the pace out of fear and impatience, you create a nest of problems that require fixing, and you end up taking much longer than if you had taken your time. Hurriers may occasionally get there quicker, but papers fly everywhere, new dangers arise, and they find themselves in constant crisis mode, fixing the problems that they themselves have created. Sometimes not acting in the face of danger is your best move - you wait, you deliberately slow down. As time passes it will eventually present opportunities you had not imagined.

Waiting involves controlling not only your own emotions but those of your colleagues, who, mistaking action for power, may try to push you into making rash moves. In your rivals, on the other hand, you can encourage this same mistake: If you let them rush headlong into trouble while you stand back and wait, you will soon find ripe moments to intervene and pick up the pieces.”

To me, this epitomizes the white belt, and the kind of mentality you want to avoid. Eager to progress, to get better, and not yet sure what they’re actually doing or supposed to do, they act and react in a craze to each and every thing that the person they’re training with or fighting against with all their might. In this, they make it just about as easy as possible to hand a gift of an opportunity to their opponents for counters, redirection, or if nothing else, an open look at the cards they’re holding. If they instead try to gather their bearings, be even an inkling more analytical, and try to acknowledge their opponent’s goals and cards they may be hiding, although they might not yet have the technical ability to counter efficiently, they might just figure out what it was that happened to them. In a healthy training environment, they can inquire about the things which trumped them most, and perhaps gain further insight on counters or preemptive defense. When you just try to bulldoze people without specific methodology or sufficient experience, it's as if they’ve jumped in the deep end and can’t swim, they struggle their way to the bottom of the pool, or in a jiujitsu context, the bottom of a heavy mount.

When you get this first set of grips on them, of course this is the best opportunity to set your favoured controls into place, and play “your game”, as just about every single coach, at every single tournament, yells at their white belt students as they muck about trying to figure out what they’re game might even be. If, through experience, you’ve adapted your jiujitsu to your personal specs - your body type, your level of athleticism (strength, speed, and the ratio between the two), your mental capacity to meet and conquer hardship, etc, you’ll be able to set yourself up to get into positions where you can take a backseat for a moment and look at just what it is that’s going on. Is your opponent frantic? Are they waiting for you to move first? Are they constantly looking to their coach, or the clock? Is your opponent cool as ice, stone faced? Are they passive, or aggressive? Many times, your behaviour and your opponent’s clash, and whoever can enforce theirs first will have earned home court advantage. Whether conscious of it or not, the aggressive person overwhelming the jell-o guard player with a passing blitz, had likely first offset their opponents comfort, starting with behaving in ways the guard player doesn’t like, or doesn’t normally encounter. For this reason, it’s good to search out the toughest and most explosive guard passers in your gym and work to survive their barrages. If you don’t train against that style, you won’t be prepared for the mental and physical taxation that this style takes to defend.

If you get comfortable defending them, chances are you also picked up a few tells, a few key things they often do before they blitz, before they explode into a knee cut, whether they look to strip your grips, or start backing away momentarily to coax you into rising up to your elbow or hand, where you’re less capable to defend passes that are long range, circling around you instead of driving straight towards you. When you start understanding these tells, you’re also learning what you can do in the top position to conceal your intentions better than your opponent did with theirs. Appearing to relax, stripping grips, allowing them to regrip and stripping them again constantly so they get used to it, and when you’re ready to explode, they’ll be accustomed to immediately regripping, rather than preparing to defend a blitz. That may not directly relate to the topic of behavioural psychology in jiujitsu, but its a good tip nonetheless!

Anyways, when you are in this feeling out period, you’re to be very careful of the cues and tells you give away accidentally. Deliberate, deceptive tells, though, are great… If you have a plan afterwards! Let’s use the scenario of an explosive guard player attempting to pass your guard again. If during his blitzes you maintain your guard, but you’re visually struggling, breathing hard, grunting with frustration, he’ll almost certainly be motivated to continue at or ramp up the pace he set. If, however, you’re able to defend the pass attempts - even if they’re just as tough to defend - with the appearance of ease, maintaining your breathing, a poker face, and sticking with them step for step, they’re far more likely to realize your guard may have more to it than he previously imagined, and he may continue at the same pace, may get frustrated and ramp it up, or he may lessen the pace and/or settle into your guard - trying to figure it out. Not much of this had to do with your technical ability, although you will need to have a baseline of understanding to begin these mental games... Unless, you and your opponent are of relative size and skill, or you’re more skilled than your opponent or training partner. If they’re bigger, stronger, better, or have already set the pace on you, you’ll have a much harder time defending, obviously, and “mind games” may not suffice alone, but having the appearance of ease will always confuse them more than gasping for air, sighing heavily when they continuously rack an advantage up, or wince at every little thing.

People have often told me I have a “lazy” guard. At times, I’m able to allow my opponent the first move or so, and try instead to smoothly counter, instead of rigidly defend. This again falls into the context of what Greene called “long time”, the waiting game. A lot of this is in the appearance, though. Poker face, breathing only through your nose, and not being overly tense or anxious-looking, your opponent will at the very least notice this posture and quiet confidence. This could change their whole approach, and it could be to the benefit or the detriment of you! Sometimes, if the guard passer feels superior or equal to you, or just has a chip on their shoulder, this appearance of laziness and ease of defense can come off as disrespectful. If the right personality feels disrespected, bet your bollocks they’ll double down and be a little bit less mindful of whether their attempts at head control are clocking you in the chin, whether their head is colliding into your body in pressure passing scenarios, or if they’ve broken your grips too hard. These can all prove far less than ideal, but don’t underestimate the proficiency of countering someone who is no longer level headed!

That would lead us nicely into the second of the three, forced time. In this, you have an opportunity through having waited or having been aggressive, in manipulating your opponent or upsetting their timing at least. Another excerpt to kick us off:

“The trick in forcing time is to upset the timing of others - to make them hurry, to make them wait, to make them abandon their own pace, to distort their perception of time. By upsetting the timing of your opponent while you stay patient, you open up time for yourself, which is half the game.

Making people wait is a powerful way of forcing time, as long as they do not figure out what you are up to. You control the clock, they linger in limbo - and rapidly come unglued, opening up opportunities for you to strike. The opposite effect is equally powerful: You make your opponents hurry. Start off your dealings with them slowly, then suddenly apply pressure, making them feel that everything is happening at once. People who lack the time to think will make mistakes - so set their deadlines for them. This was the technique Machiavelli admired in Cesare Borgia, who, during negotiations, would suddenly press vehemently for a decision, upsetting his opponent’s timing and patience.”

In jiujitsu, this can be replicated almost exclusively through your behaviour. Acting “lazy”, nonchalant, relaxed, and then seeing your opportunity - a mistake they made positionally, overcompensating with their balance in one direction or another, rushing - and going all in for it. There are concepts to be utilized to this end on top of your behaviour, such as tension, but that is, for now, another story. When you switch from showing yourself to your opponent as a lazy, overly relaxed counter-fighter, and suddenly switch into the aggressively blitzkrieg mentioned earlier, therein lies an opportunity to be more effective than you would’ve been if your moves were based solely on their technical ability. This, of course, means that you should be prepared to respond to those trying to trick you into waiting on them, or over-committing, and being prepared to switch gears and paces as well, to either counter or finesse them in return. If your opponent is acting oddly, seemingly too relaxed for example, be cautious of waltzing into a trap they’ve laid and need only your advance to let loose. Jiujitsu is funny like that, sometimes you can lay the perfect trap, and it’ll fail because your perfect trap required the perfect reaction. If they offer that to you, checkmate. If not, they may upset your timing, or presence of mind, upsetting you into an over-aggressive rush. This would accurately describe end time. Knowing if and when your trap is applicable, having other traps laying in wait for the other potential actions (or reactions) and letting them choose the path to their doom, it all won’t add up to much unless your prepared to execute with the speed, power, and technical ability required. Our last except:

“You can play the game with the utmost artistry - waiting patiently for the right moment to act, putting your competitors off their form by messing with their timing - but it won’t mean a thing unless you know how to finish. Do not be one of those people who look like paragons of patience but are actually just afraid to bring things to a close: Patience is worthless unless combined with a willingness to fall ruthlessly on your opponent at the right moment. You can wait as long as necessary for the conclusion to come, but when it comes it must come quickly. Use speed to paralyze your opponent, cover up any mistakes you might make, and impress people with your aura of authority and finality … Your mastery of timing can really only be judged by how you work with end time - how you quickly change the pace and bring things to a swift and definitive conclusion.”

To me, what this means in the context of jiujitsu is that regardless of how much you master your behaviour as a tool of manipulation and coercion, if you aren’t prepared to let your shots fly and take calculated risks to get your reward, at best you’ll be a defensive stylist, surviving, tough to beat or score on, and not a whole lot otherwise. I sometimes struggle with this, myself; constantly focusing on trickery, redirection, and minute details rather than letting things go and taking advantage of the opportunities I may have opened up. So, when all is said and done, I would say you need to have different training methodologies that you enact on a basis of what you’d like to get better at. If you’re looking to lay better traps, be more strategic mentally, and learn how to offset your opponent’s mentalities, this behavioural approach should suit you well. If you’re looking further into learning how to enforce your will onto someone, and throw a lot of these mind games over your shoulder, you’ll need to work on your instinctive reactions, your pressure, and your ability to make your opponent sufficiently uncomfortable to the point they’re more worried about regaining a certain level of comfort, rather than laying traps or playing mind games. This, then, is simply one of many ways to approach jiujitsu, a mental technique rather than a physical one, something neat to compliment the techniques, concepts, and systems you’re already competent with. Once you have discovered which style and attacks resonate with you most, your application, execution, and variances of the two will become of more importance. Until then, train, train, and train!

That’ll conclude my first blog post. Should you have read to this point, I commend and thank you. I hope you found some insight in this, and hopefully it can help you along your jiujitsu journey, competitive or otherwise. If you’ve enjoyed it, once again I would seriously appreciate a “share” on your social media, and would love to hear your feedback! Please let me know what you liked and how you think I can improve, whether it be in the format I’m writing, or the content I’m writing of. Let me know what else you’d like me to write about, and I look forward to many more posts covering a variety of topics in the jiujitsu and grappling world. Thank you very kindly for your time, stay tuned for the next one, and do let me know if you’ve tried this out with any success or failure!

Works Cited

Greene, Robert. “The 48 Laws of Power.” The 48 Laws of Power, 1st ed., New York, NY, Penguin Books, 2000, pp. 296–99.

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