On the Gentle Art #11

bjj evolve

“Pressure pushing down on me; Pushing down on you; No man ask for” – David Bowie

We may not ask for it, but we are, at all times, under pressure. Pressure is a fascinating phenomenon. Pressure can be a positive or a negative (I couldn’t resist the atmospheric joke). Pressure, say at 14.7 psi (or 1,013.25 millibars for you communists) can be a nourishing soup of nitrogen and oxygen for your lungs at sea level, but go a couple of miles up or down, and you’ll be in a world of trouble. You could hyperventilate and pass out from lack of oxygen at altitude, or be crushed by the pressure of water in the depths of the ocean.

Crushing pressure however is not relegated to the recesses of a deep water trench. No, it comes in many different forms, and not all of them physical. You’ve got final exams coming up? You have to pay the rent? Where are you going to get the money? Your boss hates you, and you share her sentiments. It’s your girlfriend’s birthday, and she wants you to do something romantic, but not expensive (she means expensive). You’ve got a toast to make at your best friend’s wedding, and everyone has their phone live-streaming. You’re making your debut at the Magic Mike cabaret, and you haven’t hit the gym in years. (Do 12 oz curls count?) You get the picture. (Actually erase the last picture from your mind!)

All of these scenarios are frightening, but the beauty in all of them is that pressure, if we respond to it correctly, can present an opportunity for growth. Everyone by now has heard of evolution; plants and animals evolved from common ancestors into what we see today. That’s fine and dandy, but the most important part of the theory is often overlooked: evolutionary pressure. Pressure is the factor that causes the change, and in Brazilian Jiujitsu, as in life, pressure can be both friend, and foe, or both at the same time.

There are times when I’m grappling with smaller training partners, and they feel like a mountain on my chest. Try as I might, I cannot escape their crushing clutch. They have honed their ability to focus every spare pound of their small frames onto one point on my body. This is called having a “heavy top-game” in BJJ parlance. This is how smaller grapplers can seem to have extraordinary strength when they are able to pin and dominate larger opponents. The key to having a heavy top-game is to make sure that you exert as much pressure on your opponent at all times by staying tight to their body. (Picture a boa constrictor coiling around its prey.) The bigger the difference in size between you and your opponent, the more judicious you have to be in exerting that pressure. That is to say, if you don’t have many pounds to spare, you have to make sure that you’re focusing them on sensitive places, such as your opponent’s face, jaw, throat, chest, or diaphragm. (These are where you get the most bang for your buck!)

But pressure serves a greater purpose than just pinning your opponent to the ground. Put enough pressure on one of these sensitive areas, and your opponent will respond to it. Here is where we get back to that idea of pressure’s dual nature. If your opponent panics in response to the pain that your pressure is causing, he or she will make a reckless mistake, and hand you a submission, or at the very least give you a chance to improve your position. For example, if you have pinned your opponent in side-control, and you are pressing your shoulder into their jaw, they might respond by throwing an arm up to push you away from crushing their face. (They’ll probably do so without anticipating the kimura to come. I speak from experience being the kimuree.) If your opponent responds wisely, he or she may be able to turn the tables on you. Your opponent may use your pressure as an opportunity to unbalance you. They may slowly work their underhooks around you. They may scoot their legs up to their hips bringing them within striking distance of your lower leg. Then at that right moment, when you are straining to make your pounds count, they’ll spring the trap, catching your leg and pulling you back into a mean half-guard, or come up and under you, and take your back. (You don’t know how many times!)

In either scenario, and whatever the result, pressure has served its purpose. The person on top has applied pressure to control the opponent, and the opponent may have responded in panic, and been submitted, or responded correctly, and successfully turned the tables to their advantage. The beauty is that both practitioners grew just a little bit by exposing themselves to that pressure-filled situation. The cool thing about jiujitsu is that if you do this enough times a white-belt can evolve into a blue-belt, a blue into a purple, and so on until black. This evolution is not out of reach for most anyone. All you have to do is willingly step onto the pressure cooker that is that mat. (Oh, and don’t forget that ice, ice baby!)

© J. Manuel

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