Things are always evolving! People, ideas, technology – they all evolve; well, they evolve, or they go the way of the dinosaur. But what are the driving forces behind evolution? That is an interesting question; and the answers vary depending on the subject of interest; but in the case of Jiu Jitsu, techniques evolve in response to changing environmental conditions on the mat.

Every mat is different; because each instructor is different. There are myriad of micro-environments at play on the BJJ landscape; each contributing in some small way to the evolution of the art as a whole. One mat may be putting the emphasis on Guard Passing, another on Guard development, another still on transitioning, another on submissions; each in a unique way, setting a ripple-effect in motion that effects almost everyone on that mat.

The mat that focuses on Guard Passing will, over time, produce some good Guards – as the Guards continually evolve in response to the pressure put on them by the emphasis on ‘passing’. And vice versa goes for those ‘Guard-heavy’ mats – the better the Guards become, the better the Passing will develop.

ben-henderson1Similar forces are also at work when it comes to attacks and counters to those attacks. Let’s take a look at what has happened with the popular Guillotine choke for example. Well, the Guillotine is a very popular and widely used attack – and it is so, because it passes my Technique Popularity Litmus Test …

  1. Will the rough & unsophisticated version of it still yield a high result: YES
  2. Can the technique be applied from many different positions? YES
  3. Can the relative novice attempt the technique: YES

You can see, when we apply my litmus test to the Guillotine – we get three yes’s!

This usually means that the technique will become popular with the larger percentage of players/athletes, over time.

So with the Guillotine presenting as an often-used technique – what effect does this have on it’s evolution in the BJJ and wider martial arts landscape? The answer to this question goes to the very heart of how techniques evolve and develop.

With a lot of people using the Guillotine on a regular basis – many people will get used to seeing it on the mat almost every time they go to practice. In short time, most people will develop natural or ‘learned’ counters to it – and become ‘immunized’.

Those people who have had good success with the Guillotine, will often become very ‘invested’ in it – ie: they will be reluctant to give it up, even after the majority of their team-mates have become immunized against it. So what are they forced to do? Evolve it.

They make some small adjustment to it, some small modification that allows them to nullify the counters they have evolved in their local environment. Their Guillotine now has a new lease on life – and so the process begins all over again.

The Guillotine is a classic example of how a technique becomes more robust through constant pressure-testing. A student learns the basic Guillotine, has some early success with it and so attempts it with more and more regularity every time he or she hits the mat. The more often that student is successful, the more likely they are to try it again; and so the cycle of success begins.

Over time though, regular training partners will become immunized against it; they know what it looks like; they learn to see it coming. So now, our Guillotine addict needs to finds new ways to apply his or her beloved Guillotine; not only counters to their counters but equally importantly, new angles or positions to apply it from.

When our training partners learn to spot the telltale signs that a Guillotine is on it’s way – we need to find or create situations where they are thinking about something else (when they should really be thinking about the Guillotine). An example of this is that might threaten them with another attack (something that bears no obvious relationship with Guillotine) so that while they are thinking about that, we are setting up our Guillotine.

Example One: Attack with Crucifix – and allow them to escape – but into our Guillotine.

Example Two: Sweep with a Butterfly Sweep – and while their attention is dealing with ‘balance’ – attack with Guillotine.

In short, in applying Guillotine in an environment that has evolved a natural immunity to it, we need to disguise our Guillotine attempts by preceding them with other (seemingly unrelated) techniques.

marcelotineWe also need to understand how people are likely to counter our basic guillotine attempts and finds ways to nullify those counters. The original Guillotine was a pretty simple (code for highly effective) idea. It amounted to encircling the neck in such a way that the blade of our wrist cut into our opponents neck as we arched backward. But the opponent can fairly easily counter this by wrapping one arm deeply around our own neck and thereby preventing us from stretching/arching effectively enough to apply the requisite pressure. So against such an educated opponent, we need to finds ways of nullifying his ability to reach around our neck with his free hand … and so, for instance, the ‘high elbow’ guillotine was evolved.

So evolution of a technique usually involves at least two approaches;

  1. As counters are developed; so too counters to those counters are developed
  2. New angles, set-ups are developed so that the technique ‘attempt’ is not recognized until it is too late

To a large degree, this is how BJJ has continued to evolve over time; and it is a large part of the reason that the art is so powerful and effective.

Humans are able to live and even thrive in almost every niche this world has to offer because we are so very adaptable. BJJ, likewise, continues to evolve. Each and every technique finds it’s niche, is pushed out by newly developed counters, then fights it’s way back to relevance via new adaptations. And so the art grows, changes, morphs and evolves.

Perhaps this explains to a large degree, the fascination people have for BJJ. It is anything but static. It evolves daily; through pressure-testing on the local mat, through pressure-testing in the competitive environment. There is always something new, always something to work on; always some new nuance, some new detail to learn – that will make ‘all the difference’.

It is anything but boring – and as I have said before – perhaps it’s the simplicity of the art that drew me in to begin with – but it’s definitely the complexity of the art that has kept me there for over a quarter of a century!


John Will
5th Degree Black Belt

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