The Element of Surprise


Surprise provides a definite tactical advantage. Fairness dictates that we not ambush our training partners or other tournament competitors as they step onto the mat. So how then can we gain the element of surprise when the opponent knows where we are? We move when we aren’t supposed to. Each match has its own pace and rhythm. However, there are certain patterns that arise across matches. If you recognize and disrupt these patterns then you will gain the advantage of surprise. These methods are what would be considered tactical rather than technical. Let’s take a look at three of these and how they can be exploited.

The Calm before the Storm

A typical match has a short-period of inactivity before the action. In a standing situation the grapplers will circle and move before deciding how to grip or attack. Likewise a person who is attempting to pass guard may take a few seconds before proceeding. If you deny your opponent this expected lull with a well-executed blitzkrieg, you can catch them off guard. It is sometimes possible to beat an opponent who is more skilled just by quick, decisive, unexpected action. Try to develop a sense of the rhythm of grappling in general and matches in particular to apply this method.

Whose Turn is it Anyway?

Oftentimes live grappling becomes a series of alternating turns. Person A goes on offense while person B defends, there is a break then B attacks and A defends. If you make an effort to keep attacking and retain the initiative then you drastically increase your chances of scoring and winning. Taking your turn earlier than the opponent expects can also take him by surprise. Two of the best times to attack are (a) immediately after you have attacked and (b) immediately after you have defended your opponent’s attack.

Standing vs. Ground Work

There is a perception among many grapplers that grappling on the mat is something completely different than standing grappling. We have takedowns and we have matwork. This mindset leads to a number of expectations:

  • Takedowns happen from the feet and submissions happen on the mat
  • My opponent and I are EITHER fighting for takedowns OR grappling on the mat
  • A match starts on the feet then goes to the ground and stays there

This is why grapplers are so surprised when they get caught in standing chokes or armbars; when someone jumps on their back while they are still standing; when they get double legged during a guard pass attempt; or when their opponent quickly stands up to gain the advantage in matwork. You should blur the distinction between standing and ground grappling in your mind. Fluidly moving between the two will catch many opponents off guard.

Brian Jones, PhD

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