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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

08 November 2012

08/11/2012 - Teaching (Operation Tattered Belt: Side Control Escapes)

Teaching #079
Gracie Barra Bristol, (BJJ), Can Sönmez, Bristol, UK - 08/11/2012

Two of my favourite bloggers, Julia and Megan, have set up a project they're calling 'Operation Tattered Belt'. The idea is to focus in on several areas of their jiu jitsu in order to improve, based on Saulo's Jiu Jitsu University and Roy Dean's Blue Belt Requirements. I'm excited because Julia and Megan are excellent writers and the source material they've chosen is right at the top of my list for instructionals. So, should be really cool!

I'm going to be joining in from a teaching perspective. I won't be able to sync up directly with what Julia and Megan are doing, because Gracie Barra Bristol has set themes for each fortnight, based on the Gracie Barra curriculum. However, I do have the scope to focus on particular techniques within those themes, which is where I can join in with Operation Tattered Belt. This week, it just so happens that the two DO sync up, as the GB Bristol theme is currently side control. Going off the plan on Julia's blog, that means I'll be focusing on chapters 4 and 8 of Saulo's book, along with the section on side control escapes from Blue Belt Requirements.

That focus is fortunate for me, as this is probably the area of BJJ I'm most comfortable teaching. It was the first lesson of BJJ I taught back in May 2011. Since then, I've been trying to refine the techniques I teach, so the chance to closely analyse my lesson has come at a good time. I have settled into a pattern, which I think bears closer consideration, as I might want to change elements of it in future: hopefully this project can help me with that.

My warm-up is normally 10-15 minutes. This is the one part of the lesson the head coach sets, as he wanted me to always use the official Gracie Barra warm-up: you start by running round the room, then knees up, heels up, stepping sideways facing in, then out, then two in and two out. Next are breakfalls down the mat, then shrimping, then shrimping to your knees. Finally, you do two sets of 10 star-jumps, squats and press-ups, before finishing with 20 'choke sit-ups' (i.e., doing a collar choke against the air, switching which hands and feet you're crossing on top after 10) and then sit-ups where you bring your elbow to your opposite knee.

If I was free to do what I wanted with the warm-up, I would probably do something quite different, putting in lots of jiu jitsu specific drills. However, I don't begrudge that one imposition, as I really appreciate the ability to choose how to organise the rest of the lesson, which after all is the fun part. ;)

This marks the fourth time I've taught these particular techniques, so they've had a good bit of trimming and focusing. I feel that these two techniques are the two most important escapes to learn from side control while also remaining accessible to beginners. The other side control escape I personally use a lot is the running escape, most often just as a survival position, but that's also more advanced. In the previous thematic set-up at GB Bristol, I was free to teach whatever position I wanted, so used a cycle of three weeks on each position, covering maintaining, escaping and attacking.

That meant I would leave a gap of several months between teaching the basic escapes and the running escape. Now that the cycle has changed to a two week theme chosen by the head coach, I'm tending to bunch them together instead. I'm not sure if the running escape is therefore a little confusing to the beginners who normally attend my lessons, so I hope to find that out next week by making a push for feedback.

Tonight, I began with the basic side control escape where you shrimp to guard. Along with the running escape, this is what I personally use the most. I started by focusing on your hand and arm positioning. First thing to note is that they will want to kill your near arm. This is bad for you, because it means you can't stop them shifting up towards your head. From there, they can make as much space as they want and pass to mount.

So, you need to get your arm inside, the forearm pressing against their hip: this is a bit more reliable that grabbing the gi material, as they can potentially still bring their body onto your hand and collapse it due to the loose material. The forearm into the hip will help block their movement, and initiate your attempts to create some space. It should also help you block them moving to north south, as if you clamp your arm by their side, your body will move with them if they try to switch position.

One thing to note is that having your forearm by their hip like that does leave you more open to the cross-face. So, you could potentially block inside their cross-facing arm instead, which will prevent their shoulder pressure. This is the Saulo method from his book, which I'll get into later.

With your other hand, grab the gi material by their shoulder, close to their neck, then pull down. Twist that arm up into their neck, keeping the elbow in: you need to be tight here, as otherwise they will go for a figure four on that arm. Once you've got the forearm into their neck, they can't press down into you, as they'll essentially be choking themselves. Note that this is a block: you don't want to start pushing and reaching, as that may leave you vulnerable. Reach too far and they can shove your arm to one side and set up an arm triangle.

Next I moved on to the legs. Your legs have two main purposes here: first, blocking your opponent getting to mount. Raise your near knee and drive it into their side. The idea is to wedge them between your knee and the arm you have by their hip. Personally, I like to keep my knee floating, glued to their side.

That makes it easier to slip my knee under as soon as they give me any space, which is something I learned from Roger. Many people prefer to cross their foot over their knee, which is something I used to do in the past as well. However, as this long Sherdog thread discusses, that can leave you open to a footlock, and also limit your mobility. Then again, you can see it used at the highest levels, like here at the Mundials.

The second use for your legs is bridging. Marcelo Garcia has a handy tip for this (although the escape he is doing there is slightly different), related to increasing the power of your bridge. To do that, bring your foot right to your bum, up on your toes. That increases your range of motion, so you can really drive into them.

Make sure you turn into them as you bridge, rather than just straight up. This will help the next part, which is to shrimp out as you come back down. That's why you've created space in the first place: if you simply plopped back down, then you've wasted the opportunity. As soon as you shrimp out, slip the knee pressing into their side underneath. Note you aren't trying to lift them with your arms. Instead, you want to push off them, moving your body away rather than pushing theirs higher up.

Once your knee is through, you need to be careful they don't immediately pass by pushing down and moving around that knee, ruining all your hard work. To prevent that, keep your hand by their shoulder. Straighten it, then add further support by bracing your other hand into their bicep (same side as the blocked shoulder). Your new frame should create a barrier to their pass, giving you enough time to recover your guard, or even move into a submission.

Alternatively, you can control their arm with your hip-bracing arm as you escape, like Roy Dean demonstrates in Blue Belt Requirements. That will also stop them pushing down on your knee, as their arm is trapped. It is worth trying both and seeing which you prefer, or which one the situation demands.

I normally mention defending the cross-face in passing, but I made more of a point of it this time, as it's something Saulo emphasises in chapter 2 (p35 if you're following along at home). I don't tend to use that side control position, as I prefer to get my arms into their neck and hip. However, in keeping with Operation Tattered Belt, I wanted to make sure I presented the Saulo perspective too.

He blocks the cross-face with the hip arm, while the neck arm simply lies across his stomach. That arm across the stomach is supposed to act as a brace, to stop them sinking their weight into you. If they release the cross face and bring their arm past his head, Saulo switches the cross-face blocking arm to block their hip instead. Either way, from there, he bridges strongly into them, then shrimps out. To recover guard, he brings his knee past their cross-facing arm, then recovers open guard (that sequence starts from p66 in the book).

Following my usual methodology, I then had everybody drill the technique for four minutes each, followed by three minutes each of progressive resistance. I'm a big fan of that concept from SBGi: in short, progressive resistance means you start off light, then ramp up the resistance gradually, with the aim of ironing out your partner's mistakes. I could possibly split out the Saulo option from the standard guard recovery, but I see them as variations rather than completely separate techniques. Nevertheless it might be too much in one go: hopefully student feedback will tell me whether to continue bunching them together or separate next time.

As mentioned, Roy Dean already features in my sources for teaching side control, especially for the second side control escape I like to demonstrate, where you go to your knees. It begins in much the same way as the shrimp back to guard, again establishing that frame with your arms, knee into the side and bridging (or alternatively, the Saulo method I described above). As an instructor, that meant I could review what we'd just done once again, which is useful: whenever possible, I also want to closely link whatever techniques I'm teaching.

After you bridge and shrimp this time, you're going to do something different with the arm you have into their neck. Rotate it under their armpit, then reach for their legs. Roy Dean shifts out to the side, ending up crouched next to them (as in the picture). From there, he reaches for the far knee and drives forward, moving to the top position.

In Saulo's book, he brings his legs straight back, so that he ends up in front. He stops the technique there, saying it is a good position for a takedown, which it is. The one I was taught starts by putting your leg and head up on one side. Be aware that there is a risk of getting guillotined here if you're not careful, so keep your head up. Grip the gi material by their legs, then drive with your raised leg and head, pulling their legs in the other direction. That should enable you to move through into side control, dropping your shoulder into their stomach before settling into the top position.

I always finish class off with specific sparring, which today was from side control. I prefer specific sparring to free sparring as a teaching tool, particularly when I can be extra-specific: e.g., particular grips, leg positioning and permissible techniques (e.g., closed guard sparring with an overwrap and only sweeps and passes allowed). If I ever ran my own school, I'd probably make time for free sparring after class and in separate open mat sessions. Or I guess I could just have longer lessons, but speaking personally I like 1.5 hr classes: 1 hr feels a bit short and 2 hrs feels a bit too long.


Teaching Notes: I noticed that people were going from side control to mount by swinging the leg over, which is something I generally discourage. That's because it is easy to snatch half guard, or alternatively bridge mid-swing and reverse the position to top guard. Then again, if somebody is successful at using the leg-swing to mount, I don't want to discourage them just because it isn't a technique I think is very long-term. Best thing to do might be adding in the bridge mid-swing technique, though on the other hand I don't want to take up too much time.

I do sometimes worry that my tendency to put in a variation on the technique can make it overly complex. Adding in the Saulo option doesn't seem to have too much impact, as people didn't seem too keen on it. Then again, that could just be because it is more difficult, IMO.

The same goes for the second option on getting to the knees: most people prefer the Roy Dean variation when you go to the side, as that avoids the problem of people sprawling on top of you. I find that sprawl is hard to avoid is you go to your knees head-on. Then again, it isn't a technique I'm particularly good at (I much prefer escaping to guard), so might just be I'm missing some key detail or other.

My warm-up also seems to have shrunk in size, as it only took a bit over 5 minutes when it should last 10. Although that could be because I haven't been doing as many additional drills as normal, due to this lingering groin injury. It does mean more sparring time though, which is good, with enough for 5 minutes of flow rolling. In fact, perhaps I could just stick on 5 minutes of flow-rolling at the start, as part of the warm-up?


  1. Love the idea of flowrolling as part of the warmup. Can't wait to hear your input! It's gonna be a fun year.

  2. Oops - I must have forgotten to respond to this one, Megan! Yeah, flow rolling is a great exercise which I'd like to use a lot more in my classes, though unfortunately with this groin injury I'm a bit hindered personally.

    The Tattered Belt project has been handy so far, as I've definitely been thinking more carefully about my classes. Back escapes tonight, so not in sync with you and Julia, but should still hopefully be an interesting one to analyse. :)