Turning thefts into gifts; submissions should be gifts, not thefts

Navigating your BJJ journey entails mile markers, defined differently by all; tournaments, number of classes attended, rolls without breaks, and the obvious rank upgrades. You achieve it, and you’re motivated to the next, always moving forward and evolving along the way. Great ways to measure progress, and are easy to measure.

But some milestones aren’t as easily identifiable as events or achievements at all, they’re more like transitions. As an instructor, my favorite example of these is the long transition from “stealing” submissions to being “gifted” submissions. I’m always scanning for progress in this area.

Still with submission as the example, it’s great to see the initial cue recognition, and the player’s response to it…getting the actual tap or not is initially irrelevant. Just proud to see the cue and it’s response.

After some experimentation and countless failures, the details of each technique come together and they start getting the first few, live taps, against full on resisting partners, and confidence skyrockets. It doesn’t usually look pretty during the struggle, but the first objective, and their focus, has been achieved with the rewarding tap. And it’s a sweet transition to watch as it shows their skill set and confidence growing.

But infinitely more impressive is the next transition to the “gifted” submissions. Until this transition takes hold, most submissions are attacker attacking, defender defending, and victory to whoever does whichever better. It’s simple, The attacker needs to know more of the steps of the attack and faster, before the defender can recognize the attacker’s shortcoming with time to exploit them. Straightforward struggle that often comes down to attrition.

As the grappler evolves and polishes along their journey, each attack requires less full on dedicated, thought-driven focus to achieve success. So much is left to habit to handle, that frees up the mind to think outside the immediate initial objective. This allows him to think more like a flanker than a straight charger. With this flexibility in focus, the attacker is able to attack multiple targets, other limbs, angles on the same limb, the neck, positional upset etc. Because of this the defender splits his focus, unable to defend all his real estate. As he defends one aspect, he’s leaving himself open to be outflanked and attacked elsewhere. It’s on the attacker to be savvy to this, constantly attacking while predicting escape route and prepared to snag vulnerabilities as they present themselves. The attacker works to get so smooth with this, that the defender’s full on defense of a choke lands his arm in their lap, appearing as a gift in exchange for the safety of his neck. No struggle, no back and forth, no attrition. No muscle fatigue, no immovable object vs unstoppable force. It should look gifted.

If it doesn’t seem realistic, you haven’t yet approached this transition yet, or are currently in transition with us 🙂


Published by: JonFriedland

Jon Friedland here, finally putting some of my thoughts to type. I've been training well over 23 years, receiving my black belt in 2007. I’m a 16-year dojo owner and head instructor of Brazilian Jiujitsu. Started training Jiujitsu casually in early 1995, formally in 1997. Teaching BJJ since 2000, i received my black belt in 2007, opened my academy, Neutral Ground, in 2005, am the head instructor, and am currently a 3rd degree black belt under Master Pedro Sauer. i can be reached at jon@wisconsinbjj.com

Categories bjj, jiujitsuTags, , 10 Comments

10 thoughts on “Turning thefts into gifts; submissions should be gifts, not thefts”

  1. Thanks Jon.

    All of this makes sense. I’m guessing this is the deeper lesson from the adage “don’t insist?” It feels like I’m missing something here. I also had a few questions about the gifts vs. theft axiom you’ve mentioned here.

    1. Is this the highest order mindset for a martial arts practitioner to aspire to?

    2. Is this mindset something that can/should be applied successfully in a combat/life or death setting?

    3. How do you hold this view in tension against an equal or higher level opponent who behaves as a thief?

    This was eye opening for me. Thanks for sharing this.


  2. Exactly! The “gift” of submission is a perfect analogy, and a signature flow style of Neutral Ground. The way we achieve submissions should become more important that the submission itself. All Blue Belts take heed of this. Nicely put Sensei.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This makes a lot of sense.

    My question for both of you is this:

    1. Is this a higher level mindset to develop overall or does it apply in specific contexts (e.g. Sport, Self-Defense, Combat, etc.)

    2. Is it possible, prudent or wise to apply this as a general rule?

    3. Should this mindset be maintained when dealing with aggressive thieves who use force to get their way?

    I’m working on digesting this but the implications are pretty big.


    1. Hey Andrew, great followup questions.

      1) I don’t think it’s realistic to expect you would start out with this mindset, without the mat time, it’s just too tempting to emotionally attach ourselves to a particular direction, since we know so few directions as a newbie. And i do think it’s a necessary stage of making it look difficult before you even know how to make it look easy. Although I give this advice from the earliest beginnings of student journeys, it doesn’t become a realistic mindset shift for most until several years in, if at all! But the earlier you begin hearing this the more natural and probable the transition does occur.

      2) I think it IS possible, prudent and wise to apply as a general rule; to me, if it doesn’t look easy, it looks sleazy 😉 I’m more impressed with the failed attempt to make it smooth/slick than with the bullheaded war or attrition that yields the “successful” tapout.

      3)I believe it’s ESPECIALLY important to apply these principles against thieves, and they often are even more vulnerable to the strategy.

      Hope that helps Andrew!

      Side note: I would love to hear Jeff’s ideas on these questions as well!


      1. Sensei, I would be glad to add my 2 cents to Andrew’s questions, and it will pretty much echo your thoughts:

        The ‘Gift vs. Theft’ analogy is, or should be, an adopted mindset on our approach to the art of Jiu Jitsu. It’s a roadmap on how we want to develop. On how we travel this path and where we want our destination to be. Do we want immediate gratification of a “tap” no matter the cost? We shouldn’t. If we grind away at a submission (aka Theft) then we trade short term “success” over long term victory. The “grinders” tend to wear out. They are constantly injured and sore. They sit out every other round because they are too exhausted. They become Wall-Flies and kick back and rest up because they need to be fresh when they roll. Because they only see the “Tap.” These folks stagnate, get injured, or simply don’t evolve to their full potential.

        I think Andrew, you are concerned about “effectiveness” in a combative situation. That this high-order mindset (gift vs. theft), while noble, can cost you in the “developmental stage” and you wont be ready when you need to use it. You may be struggling to balance certain apparent contradictions in your mind: How do you become effective in a real self-defense situation (or against the “Grinders”) while still striving for sophistication? My answer, again, echoes Jon’s. You can always “dumb down” your sophisticated techniques when needed. When desperation calls, you can unleash the nasty side of Jiu Jitsu and inflict harm. This is actually easier than you think. The Dark Side is easily called upon. As Jon says, “it’s easier to be an asshole, than a poet.”

        “The Sophisticated can become Brutal at will, but the Brutal can never become Sophisticated.”

        So, it’s much more effective to train for sophistication rather than for brutality. If we train for brutality (aka, being Thieves) then we are extremely limited in our overall development. Be would remain “surface dwellers” and never discover the depths. However, we all start out as Cavemen and gradually weed out those primitive notions and instincts. We can do this by adopting the correct Mindsets, in this case Gift vs. Theft.

        Submissions are a very minor part of Jiu Jitsu. But it’s the stuff that’s obvious to the uneducated. The tip of the iceberg. We educated ourselves, through thousands and thousands of hours of mat time, and get to experience what’s beneath the surface. This is so much more rewarding. one CLEAR way to get to these depths (which will serve you in ALL ways, including legitimate self-defense) is to adopt the Gift vs. Theft mindset. Have faith in it. Especially if you want to still be training into your old age. The Thieves (Grinders) wont even last until middle-age. Their ugly “taps” come at a high price.


  4. Thank you both for teaching me this. I’m going to take some time to think about this for a while. Everything you both shared resonates as true/accurate to me. This is a very meaningful post and it’s something I’ve struggled with for some time.

    Thanks again.


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