Learning to Swim in The Deep-End of the Pool

By: Carlos Soto
December 17, 2017

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I recently received a second stripe on my white belt. As I received the tape on my belt, it struck me that I may not be completely new to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, even though I often don’t know what is going on. The whole experience in this sport reminds me of learning to swim as a child, say four or five years of age. I knew enough to take one or two kicks under water – to move small distances – but I couldn’t swim well, yet. I remembered being afraid, somewhat, of the potential and power of the fully-submersible parts of the pool. The excitement of swimming provided the courage to venture toward the deep-end of the pool, as long as I bear-hugged the pool wall, and I eroded my fingertips shimming down the concrete edge.

Eight months in, and I no longer dread the warm-ups. Eight months in and I no longer panic when I start rolling with a colleague – even one that is well more experienced. Not because I don’t fear them but rather because I seek to learn from them and from that match. The confusion is no longer emotional but rather more cerebral in that I strive to understand the nuances of weight and pressure, no longer to drive a specific submission, but more to create deception and mislead my opponent. In this capacity, I like my colleagues, have developed some go to moves and tricks, “swimming pool, wall-hugging tactics,” so to speak.

At some point, a particular lesson resonates, and you practice that move when you see the ability to use it while sparing. And then another lesson sparks a connection between the previous lesson- and next thing you know you start leaving clues for your opponent to recognize in the hopes of leading them to the one position you feel comfortable enough to submit them in.

For example, for me it is the use of an x-guard sweep. I have short legs and short arms, but my legs and my grips are strong. Given these physical qualities I gravitated to close guard as a single-stripe white belt. It felt natural to for me “pull-guard” which meant that at the beginning of a match I would pull the opponent on to me as I laid on the ground and cross my legs around their lower back, thereby locking them into me in a manner that resulted often in stalemates, and that allowed me to avoid common chokes and arm-bars.

As I progressed, however, my colleagues, recognizing this pattern, started countering by learning how to submit me in this position. They quickly became gifted in paper-cutter chokes, as well becoming better at escaping this traditional position. Then I had a lesson on the x-guard and I immediately noticed that my legs are small enough to execute this move quickly. As I entered my second stripe, I then noticed that x-guard would also open-up my opponent to an omaplata, which is where I am able to get my leg to curl behind my opponent’s armpit, providing me with the leverage to pin them and exposing their shoulder to potential injury if they don’t tap out.

When put together, the routine starts by baiting my opponent with the close guard, waiting for them to stand and posture to escape my guard, and then launching into an x-guard and attempting an x-guard sweep. If my opponent holds-off the x-guard sweep by effectively using their weight to remain balanced, then I would switch to the omaplata. These steps are not perfect and most often are executed with Neolithic incompetence by my part. But occasionally, and to my amazement, they work.

What I found interesting, however, is that failing to complete the moves drove me to practice more and to focus more on technique, rather than power. My goal is to commit these moves to muscle memory and focus on the technique as much as possible, but my goal also quickly became to continue to practice other moves and look for other techniques that resonate with me. I think that by following this approach, I will continue to gain the skills I need to progress on this journey. But I still recognize how deep the water is and how far I have to go to be able to swim in the deep-end.

Shrimping Out of Life is a blog by Carlos A. Soto as he attempts to survive Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu while attending the Lepri BJJ premiere Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training center in the Charlotte metro area- a member of one of the most dominant teams in the history of the sport, Alliance Association Jiu Jitsu.