Taking Risks- The Risk Versus Reward Equation

Behind the physical aspect of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and indeed any other sport, there is an inherent Risk versus Reward equation that can sometimes govern the difference between loss or victory, submitting your opponent or being submitted. Whilst we train or fight, our brain is constantly weighing up odds and calculating risk as we move through sequences that we deem ‘sound’ or avoid options that are too ‘unsound’. The more I have come to understand this concept, the more I’ve come to understand a little bit more about competing and how to practice in the training room. In this article I will discuss both aspects of the Risk Versus Reward equation; in the training room and in competition. 

Some of the most entertaining Jiu-jitsu players to watch are those who employ techniques which, despite not being considered ‘low risk’, pay off in big ways.

I remember watching Garry Tonon escape Kron Gracie’s arm bar with a seemingly impossible hitch hike that had every spectator anticipating an imminent snap, which never came.

Garry Tonon frees himself from this potentially disastrous arm bar by taking a calculated risk. Picture courtesy of Stuart Cooper Films

Likewise I recall picking my jaw up off the floor even more recently after watching Gordon Ryan escape from another insanely deep arm bar at the hands of Craig Jones. The whole EBI crowd watched in awe as he went on to escape and then win against Jones in over time.

Gordon escapes potential catastrophe to reach the win. Image courtesy of EBI

It’s not out of coincidence nor ‘fan-boyism‘ that I have chosen both two members of the “Danaher Death Squad” as examples here. Both are arguably among most entertaining grapplers in America at the moment, both have competed against some of the most dangerous opponents around and both take risks that other competitive grapplers would not. Let’s explore what I’ve come to understand from watching these two grapplers.

When two opponents are equally matched in technique and strength, the contest becomes a true game of tactics. Each competitor will seek out dominant positions, better leverage and pursue avenues to victory by making quick decisions that they deem to be ‘sound‘. Someone might consider a ‘sound’ technique or sequence as one that has high success, low risk and puts themselves in the best possible position to reassert themselves should their attempt fail. Grapplers like Garry and Gordon are so interesting to watch because of their employment of techniques that some consider ‘unsound‘. Both will pursue techniques (such as these arm bar escapes) that many would consider far too risky to attempt. However both their risks yielded rewards in the form of not having to conceded the submission.

Both men compete at the highest level of grappling on an international stage. To compete at this level requires monumental levels of preparation, both physically and mentally. I think it is safe to say that John Danaher, mentor to both Gordon Ryan and Garry Tonon, has both men doing their homework. Both of these athletes will be preparing avenues of attack and defense thoroughly in the training room with training partners who put them through their paces to the enth degree. The training room is the place to experiment and to discover whether a technique is ‘sound’ or ‘unsound’, too risky to employ or holds just enough risk to yield reward. Neither Tonon nor Ryan would be attempting techniques on the competitive stage that they have not done numerous times in the training room. They understand the risks and have calculated that they are worth taking.

When it comes to this concept and your training, it is important to understand that calculating risk and understanding when to take risks will undoubtedly help you to improve your practice and preparation. Experiment extensively in the training room outside of your game plan because not everything goes right in competition. Accept that this process of opening up your game and allowing yourself to make mistakes will lead to you being submitted. There are no gold medals in the training room and you are not cashing any checks by squeezing your training partners’ necks. The more you open yourself up to risk in preparation, the more you will be able to understand when to avoid it in competition and when to employ risk to reach greater rewards. This is not about intentionally putting yourself into bad positions, if your training partners are good enough you will be in those anyway, this is about employing techniques outside your normal regimen and finding out where the risk lies within techniques and sequences you would hope to avoid normally.

Thanks for reading, hopefully this provokes some thought about your training and practice.





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