Active Guard and the Relaxation Myth (diary entry)


armbar from guard3

Beyond the superficialities of martial arts techniques there is a reoccurring and consistent point that is critical for any fighter: being proactive. Traditional Japanese martial arts scholars often articulate the driving force behind proactivity through the practice of zanshin. Modern Reality-Based Self-Defence teachers preach the concept of awareness to the point of semantic satiation. Fortunately tonight’s proactivity and awareness can be easily conveyed through direct physical training. The one snag is that training a proactive guard on the ground requires a fair amount of hard work and – like most aspects of awareness – it needs to be trained as a habit.


Whatever position you take in a fight, it needs to be primed and ready. I have had several clients pipe back that surely they should be relaxed. Relaxing is not a good description for the posture and position that a good fighter takes. It is true that he needs to be in control and not over-tense. However, he will be coiled to some degree in order to assert this control and act decisively.


Even though today’s lesson was firmly rooted in the sport of submission grappling, I took time to explain to my cross-training client the universal applicability of what was being taught. The self-defence fighter might adopt a seemingly passive and relaxed position when he uses the fence to set up a pre-emptive strike. However, this posture is not really relaxed but a ruse to allow the fighter to make his strike as soon as his attacker attempts to breach his personal space. In reality the person holding the fence position is on balance, mobile and will be setting up his best angle to act.


Likewise even the counter stand-up fighter is not merely just waiting to be attacked. The greatest defensive combat athletes in history were excellent provokers and often physically acted in order to get their opponent to unleash a high pressured attack, where the counter-puncher repeatedly springs his trap. He is in a ready posture, although the observant will note there will be a degree of tension throughout his frame. His posture is active even if it gives the illusion of being purely passive.


This concept is probably never better shown than in grappling, where fighters seem to learn how to relax into tension. Strikers that are unfamiliar with grappling often reflect on the different type of fitness that is required when clinching. The clinch-fighter will quickly run out of gas if he is over-tense and yet if he is too relaxed he will be thrown onto his back in no time at all. The grappler learns how to conserve energy whilst maintaining control between flurries of action.


This is taken to its logical extreme when fighting goes to the ground and especially when a fighter is holding the guard position. Yet most of us are guilty of lying back when we hold guard whilst sparring. This is a habit born of grappling-only sparring, especially classes that spend most of their time ground-fighting. Just as a driver rarely threads the steering wheel through their fingers after they have passed their test so the submission grappler gets into the habit of lying back. This is probably not helped by the fact that much more experienced fighters will often do this in sparring because their reactions are generally so good that they usually have enough time to resume a more active position when rolling with a far less experienced opponent. Tonight we focused on retaining an active guard position – shoulders off the ground, coiled core and on the attack.


As the reader might expect, all my warm-up exercises were focused on groundwork muscle engagement and mobility. I needed my fighter to develop a keen awareness of retaining a mobile yet stable core at all times.


From an MMA perspective, getting a sweep is the priority from the guard. Therefore, we covered this first. Sweeps tend to work best when the opponent on top leans back or tries to posture rather than when they assuming a “safety position” and try to crush the fighter holding guard. Tonight I had the fighter in active guard almost simultaneously attack the opponent’s opposite side hip and wrap the opposite side arm. We then went through a series of contingency techniques. This chain went from the initial sweep to a regular arm-bar from guard to a triangle choke to an oma plata to an arm-trap arm-bar to an oma plata sweep.


The lesson was finished with two five minute rounds of guard passing sparring, the fighter playing both top and bottom games.

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