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Grappling: A systematic science

If there is one lesson we can learn from the grapplers at the elite level, it’s that systematic approaches to grappling are far more effective than simply a well rounded game. The grappler that has perfected a specific system is far more likely to come out on top in an exchange with an all-rounder.

I want to explore 4 reasons for this; with respect to positional understanding, technical ability, timing and meta-cognition.

Before we start running off our list, it’s important that we understand the concept of systems. Whether we see Keenan playing Worm Guard, Mister Edge’s Rubber Guard or some of Danaher’s leg and back attack systems, we need to realize that these approaches have been developed by that grappler to achieve specific outcomes. The outcome might be control oriented; allowing the practitioner to dominate their opponent, or it may be submission oriented; maximizing ones ability to finish from a specific position or sequence.

With that said, a system is not just a technique or submission that a practitioner is particularly good at. A system is a deep, technical pathway that provides solutions, avenues and a nuanced understanding based around a specific position or technique. These take a long time to develop, constantly visiting the positions the system is concerned with, many failures and many revisions.

Lets begin…

Positional Understanding

One of the reasons that grapplers with a system-based approach have so much success is because of their positional understanding. When a grappler spends a large amount of time working from the positions that their system is concerned with, they develop a very deep understanding of the nuances of that position & the possibilities that develop from there.

All of the grapplers I mentioned previously are examples of this, but particularly I would also like to mention Craig Jones. Jones has developed a very strong leg lock game which he has built around his Z Guard. Jones has probably spent more time in Z Guard than any other grappler at his weight; making his understanding of this position & the possibilities from there far greater than that of his opponents.

The same can be said of Keenan, Eddie Bravo’s students of the Rubber Guard, Eddie Cummings or the Danaher Death Squad. The experience these practitioners have with the respected positions required of their approaches is unparalleled.

The lesson here is simple: the more time you spend working from a specific position, the greater an understanding you develop of the nuances of that position and all the possibilities that branch from that into the wider game.

Technical Ability

The ability to execute and complete techniques is also something that systems-based grapplers show a particular high success rate in. Among all the grapplers I have previously mentioned, all have a very high submission percentage within competition. A large part of this is due to their constant implementation of the same set of techniques. 

Many of the leg lockers within that group are exceptionally good when it comes to the execution of the heel hook. Despite the variation in their setups and entries, these grapplers have chased the heel hook so many times that their ability to finish has become devastatingly effective.

The ability to apply a technique successfully requires technical ability. This means building an understanding of key details that make any technique work: where to squeeze, when to turn, placement of hands etc. The more details a person can perfect and apply, the higher the success rate becomes for that technique. 

The lesson here is probably the hardest to implement in practice, because it requires the most mental engagement: constant attention to detail and refinement leads to a greater level of technical ability. Those spending their time repeatedly working on their system )and the techniques required to make it successful) will ultimately improve at a faster rate than those just randomly using techniques and not focusing on any one particular thing.


Timing is possibly one of the most crucial things for any proficient grappler to develop and refine. 

Systems-based grapplers will develop good timing by understanding & anticipating the responses their opponent offers up (more of this in meta-cognition).

Timing, for the large part, is motor memory and computing speed. The more repetitions of any given movement that we put our body through, the more efficient our body gets at performing that movement. 

When it comes to systems, timing is crucial. Without the ability to mechanically move through the correct planes, a practitioner will not be able to implement their system.

So simply put: the more times you visit a position and execute specific movements, the better your body becomes at doing those quickly. 


This is probably the hardest of the four to talk about. Systems-based grapplers develop a higher level of ‘meta-cognition’ because of the level of strategy and intention required to implement any given system.

The term ‘meta-cogntion’ refers to the awareness and understanding a person has of their own (and others’) thought processes.

It’s only a short jump to see why this is so important within grappling as a whole, but easily the best reason for why you should be working to develop a systems-based approach within your own training. 

Essentially, by developing a systems-based approach you are forcing your opponent down pathways in which you can anticipate their actions and elicit specific responses. Because many systems-based practitioners are so well versed in their game plan, they have already seen all of the options that can be used against them. They have failed so many times that they have come to understand what it takes to make their positions, movements and techniques work. 

It becomes a simple equation in this situation: If I do x, I can expect response. If I know what to expect, I can capitalize with my timing & technical ability, using my positional understanding to end up in an advantageous position of control.

With more & more grapplers displaying a complexity of technique and skill within grappling, the demand to find more creative solutions and develop innovative systems is constantly being driven at a rate never seen before. Not only are we seeing new training methodologies being employed, but we are seeing grapplers improve exponentially faster because of the development of new systems & strategies.

A system is not the same as a game plan or “A Game”, it is an entire conceptual and theoretical exploration. It is extremely challenging to develop, but also extremely rewarding once perfected. It helps a practitioner to build a branching tree and create pathways through which all concepts can be understood and implemented. It’s a holistic way of learning and an approach to the discipline which we are continuing to see produce top grapplers and notable achievements, well worth the time exploring for coaches and competitors alike.

Thanks for reading.