Defence and a SYS-tem for Every Position

When a student asks me why something isn’t working in live practice, the answer usually leads us back to one thing; observing what our opponent is doing, and in reality it leads us back to the core of Jiu-Jitsu itself. The answer to any given situation we look at on the mat, or on the ‘street’ lies in the very meaning of Jiu-Jitsu.

Here I’ll delve into the lessons taught to me by various instructors, influences, martial arts literature and my personal training experience which brought me to the realisation that the meaning of Jiu-Jitsu is in fact, purely in its simple method!

I’ll then give you a little 3 stage method, what I term a Defence SYS-tem for easy reference, applicable in any position, life in general and guaranteed to improve your Jiu-Jitsu!

Why does Jiu-Jitsu work? What really is ‘JIU-JITSU’?

I have heard some people describe Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to be “All about Technique”, not strength, some just say it means “Gentle or soft” technique and leave it at that.These may be true, but only partially give us a picture of what Jiu-Jitsu really is; In reality, such definitions leave us very short of describing the art and its true form.

If we try to describe it as something static in nature like “A system of Techniques” or a “Gentle Art” we are bound to fall short. My own personal experience proves Jiu-Jitsu to be not just a static body of techniques, but a process, a methodology of protecting oneself if one assumes their opponent ALWAYS has greater physical attributes.

The key to defining Jiu-Jitsu therefore lies in describing how it works and why it works.

The following are a few of the concepts, strategies and philosophies I have learnt from a wide variety of sources over my Jiu-Jitsu Journey, together they comprise my understanding of Jiu-Jitsu and what I believe to be a more appropriate and encompassing definition.

Let’s Start with an idea that was first taught to me by my instructor,also taught by Master Pedro Sauer, Helio, and many members of The Gracie Family since and potentially Maeda and many Japanese Ju-Jutsuka before him as well.

That idea;

Jiu-Jitsu is primarily an art of DEFENCE.
What does this mean? Jiu-Jitsu requires opposing energy or action from another person to exist. It is not, “doing stuff” to your opponent, but utilizing and capitalising upon what your opponent tries to do to you. Otherwise Jiu-Jitsu then would just be a bunch of individual, choreographed ‘techniques’ that we apply to an opponent.

Why is Jiu-Jitsu DEFENCE?

To uncover how and why Jiu-Jitsu is a Self Defensive Art lets first look at the word itself, then at the art in practice and in Philosophy while also touching upon my own training experience and then come to a more appropriate definition.

Jiu-Jitsu when broken down, is said to be a Japanese word meaning -Ju;”Gentle/Soft” and -Jutsu; “Art or Technique”. However, we must go a little deeper into the Art to understand what “Jiu” really means. If one is to survey martial arts literature of the past it becomes clear that “Jiu” does not simply mean “Gentle” or “Soft”.

Let’s have a look at the meaning of Gentle as per the Oxford Dictionary:

‘Gentle: Moderate in action, effect, or degree; not strong or violent’
While we can agree that this does describe Jiu-Jitsu to some degree, it is missing some description in its application. How does one be moderate in action, not strong or violent and defeat or survive a stronger opponent? If we can answer this we can come to a more conclusive definition of “Ju-Jutsu”, the process in which this occurs.

How do we stay moderate in action but not strong or violent while being attacked and end up controlling the situation?

From my personal experience of examining the literature and philosophies of Kano, Helio, Mifune and other prominent figures coupled with the tutelage of my instructor Phillip Grapsas and of course the other major influence in my training, Pedro Sauer among many others, the answer has become much clearer. (Many of these Sources say the same things in different words so I will not go on a quoting rampage here, but just summarize the basic philosophies of the art passed down through the ages)

The answer, has thus, come from my understanding of all of these lessons from them all. All of these teachers and sources together or in part consider this;

  • Our opponent is ALWAYS bigger, stronger, heavier, more athletic (and hopefully uglier) than Us!
  • Engaging forcefully against such an opponent at a point of mutual physical disagreement is futile (e.g. forcing to apply a technique an opponent who is resisting).
  • In turn we must understand what they need next or how they are going to achieve it.
  • Then we Allow, yield to, intercept and use their mechanic against them rather than resist it to achieve our goal and be more energy efficient!

Notice the answer to our question on How we can survive while being moderate in action lies now in point 4;

Allow, yield to, intercept and use your opponent’s action.

This is the key! This is done through developing a superior knowledge of any given position through understanding body mechanics, leverage, movement, distance management and physics of that position.

Therefore, in Jiu-Jitsu we ultimately aim to achieve the goal that in any given point in time we understand the position, are safe in the position and know all of our opponent’s likely responses from that position, which we can then yield to, intercept and use to our benefit.

When one understands this is the goal, one then realises that Jiu-Jitsu is DEFENSIVE in nature; it relies heavily on opponents offensively giving us their actions, for us to receive and then use. It is thus my strong belief that the “Ju” in Ju-Jutsu should thus be better defined as ‘flexible’ or ‘adaptive’ and ‘yielding’ rather than purely as “soft” or “gentle”.

So now how can we better define Jiu-Jitsu? Consider this:

Jiu-Jitsu is the process of allowing, yielding to, intercepting and using your opponent’s actions to your benefit in a way which at all times keeps you safe and in control. This is done through utilizing one’s understanding of principles of leverage, body mechanics, movement, and distance management.

Thus, is it appropriate that we still define Ju-Jutsu as simply “The Gentle Art” or “Soft Technique”? Taking the definition I proposed from all sources above, a more apt definition would be “The system of yielding to and utilizing an opponent’s energy”. This seems not so dissimilar to Kano’s original definition and guiding principle of Judo; “Most efficient use of mental and physical energy to achieve your goal”.

So if we take this to be a more appropriate definition. What does this mean for our training??

Any time we are looking at a position, what should we be doing??

Here, I turn to the wisdom of one of my greatest martial arts mentors and constant source of inspiration, Master Pedro Sauer.

Pedro Sauer, the head of our Association suggests that first we should make the position comfortable and safe for us. Second, make it uncomfortable for our opponent (To generate a reaction). Then use our opponent’s reactions against them by applying our own mechanic and understanding of the position to advance control or submit.

What this means in any position is the first thing we do is make the position safe for us, then we use our opponent’s reactions to secure a better position and the process continues until submission.

Thus I thought it fitting to summarise this main strategy and process as the following acronym:SYS-tem. Safety, Yield & Utilise,Secure.
Note:Yield will be defined as: ‘Using without direct resistance’

S 1. Positional Safety Above all else make the position safe. This means safe from strikes, submissions and make it comfortable, efficient to maintain and based on natural and good body mechanics.
Y 2. Yield to Utilize Opponents What this means is now, having achieved positional safety, you build upon your opponent’s reactions to this safe position. This can also involve starting to introduce Additional Influencing Elements (AIE) to make your opponent uncomfortable in the position, to generate or influence a certain response, which you will then utilise to advance your position.
S 3. Secure Next Position/Submission After using good mechanics and positional understanding to nullify and utilise your opponents attempts to attack, strike or advance on you to secure a better position, you must then secure and maintain what you gained. This will involve positional control and dynamic positional retention but most of all making the new position Safe again.
This process then continues until Submission.

I encourage you guys to try and apply this SYStem strategy in all positions you explore.

That is:
How do I first make myself safe, then build upon my opponent’s reactions to that safe position, then secure the outcome I achieved?

Truly, when I started to apply this in my training, my effectiveness, my consistency and development of all areas went through the roof. I would suggest making flow charts to help formulate this process better in your mind. I have included one such basic chart at the end of this article that I share with my White belt to Blue Belt Students to assist their learning and demonstrate this process in action. This is Jiu-Jitsu in a nutshell, if you build your understanding around this Jiu-Jitsu SYS-tem it will be sure to keep you in good stead on your journey.



While this mentality will get you far in your development, what happens if you are sparring and both parties don’t move or remain stagnant in a position for concern of being countered etc.? In such a consideration I have picked up two options during my Jiu-Jitsu journey one from Pedro Sauer and another from another amazing mentor (albeit never having met him in person), Ryron Gracie.

  1. Start Making Your Opponent Uncomfortable. Pedro Sauer teaches this; in order to generate a reaction for you to use and capitalise on, start to introduce elements to make the position more uncomfortable for your opponent to encourage a corrective action. For ease of reference and the learning process I’m going to take liberty to coin and use another
  2. acronym; Additional Influencing Elements (AIE). Introduce AIEs to a position to make your opponent more
  3. likely to move, or act, then counter/intercept that act or movement.
  4. Keep it Playful: One mantra very nicely summed up by Ryron Gracie in these three words. What it means; move and allow your partner to counter you for their practice and for your own benefit in practicing a worse position. This collaborative approach to learning is so helpful if you’re willing to let go of ego! Do it!

Considerations when Applying these solutions to Mutual Defensiveness:

1. When using AIEs (Additional Influencing Elements):
– Make sure they are not dangerous, abrasive or damaging and outside of agreed acceptable behaviour for your training environment. They should purely be elements that threaten to make a position feel more uncomfortable or controlling or to remind partners of a particular danger. They should not be elements which aim to hurt your opponent outside of the accepted rules or spirit of your training (A future Article). In sum, to quote Pedro Sauer again; ‘you should approach your training not as going to war but as scientists looking to work collaboratively together to achieve a greater understanding of the art’.

– AIEs can become offence. There is a fine line between introducing AIEs to a position and offensively attacking or approaching a position. If AIEs turn into offensive efforts to ‘defeat’ your opponent, then you start to fall into the trap of running counter to the core philosophy or “Ju” of Jiu-Jitsu. Where do we draw this line? It’s tricky- I’ll leave that to you to discover!
My advice is to start to introduce AIEs slowly to observe responses.

2. When ‘Keeping it Playful’:
-Be mindful that if your partner is always the one keeping it playful to generate movement, and changes to the position and it becomes one sided, it is likely they won’t stay keeping it playful for long. This mindset should be applied from both sides to allow each other to practice. However, due to the play-like nature of this, it does require a balance for us to experience different forms of training. This involves a blend of “Keeping It Playful” and “Keeping it Real”. Please check out Ryron’s amazing lessons on this movement for more information!

These are just some considerations and solutions that will serve to help you should both training parties become overly defensive in your sparring.How you apply them is up to you and your partner but always keep in mind the spirit of our training should always be to help each other become better Jiu-Jitsu ‘Scientists’. Let that principle guide you!

The Essence of Jiu-Jitsu, SYS, AIEs & Keeping it Playful

So what are some ideas we can take away from this article to help us in our training?
These are but a few ideas and concepts you can look to apply in your training. In some way, as a defensive art, I would argue the goal of Jiu-Jitsu is to understand any given position and apply your methodology through this lens;

Safety; Positional Safety
Yieldingly utilise Opponent’s action (Application of the principle of Ju)
Secure what you have achieved.

For your interest I will now succinctly describe one thing I have learnt and discovered from a variety of sources on my Jiu-Jitsu Journey, and a piece of advice I would give everyone starting to learn;

Let your Jiu-Jitsu development flow from observing your opponent’s reactions from a place of positional safety.

It is through careful observation that we can learn of all the possible actions our opponent can take from any given position. When training, go slow with your partner, so you can observe possible actions and then develop ways of using these actions to your benefit. This process of adapting to and utilising our opponent’s actions is the only way someone smaller can overcome someone with greater physical resources at their disposal and thus is the true way of “Ju” and the key to all Jiu-Jitsu.

These are just a few understandings I have developed over the years from many varied sources and are by no means purely my own and can be attributed to multiple people and experiences in my life and just wanted to share them to help others on this same journey come to the realisation it took me many years to make.

I am and always will be a student of this Art known as Jiu-Jitsu; dedicated to learning it, sharing it and being inspired by it every day.

Cam Sobey
Head Instructor

Cam is the Head Instructor at Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Singapore where he lives, breathes and welcomes development of this Art on a daily basis.

If you’re ever in Singapore come by and let’s work together to continually achieve a greater understanding of Jiu-Jitsu for us all!