When Per­fectly Good Tech­niques Fail

RI­CARDO LI­BO­RIO on Why You Need a Backup Plan for Com­pe­ti­tion and Self-De­fense


Mike Tyson is fa­mous for say­ing, “Ev­ery­body has a plan un­til they get punched in the mouth.” Think what you want about the for­mer heavy­weight boxing champ, but there’s deep wis­dom in his words. That wis­dom hap­pens to be the rea­son mar­tial arts in­struc­tors so of­ten re­mind their stu­dents about the ne­ces­sity of hav­ing a backup plan.

The logic ap­plies whether you’re en­gag­ing in a friendly spar­ring ses­sion in the dojo or fight­ing full con­tact in the ring. Or bat­tling for your life on the street. Suf­fice it to say that you should strive to have a Plan B for many, if not all, of your go-to tech­niques. In other words, you should have a con­crete idea of what you’ll do if you take your best shot and for some rea­son it misses the mark. Ide­ally, you also will have prac­ticed do­ing those Plan B moves in a rel­e­vant con­text.

Ri­cardo Li­bo­rio has a sixth-de­gree black belt in Brazil­ian jiu-jitsu, as well as a black belt in judo. The co-founder and for­mer coach of Amer­i­can Top Team, as well as founder of Brazil­ian Top Team, he’s a big be­liever in backup plans. He teaches his ad­vanced stu­dents about the im­por­tance of this, and he re­cently col­lab­o­rated with Black Belt to pro­duce this piece to spread the word. Be­ing a grap­pler at heart, Li­bo­rio, 50, shows in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing pho­tos ex­am­ples of how he might re­act if a choke at­tempt goes south. How­ever, the prin­ci­ples he demon­strates and the words he speaks ap­ply to all mar­tial arts tech­niques.


Think of a phys­i­cal en­counter in which you pit your skills against those of an­other per­son as a chess match, Li­bo­rio says. Sure, you can play mo­ment by mo­ment, eval­u­at­ing the board afresh af­ter ev­ery move your ad­ver­sary makes. But that’s for be­gin­ners. Ad­vanced com­peti­tors use strat­egy.

“You have to think a cou­ple of moves ahead of your op­po­nent,” Li­bo­rio says. “That’s how you ac­count for the un­ex­pected and gain the ad­van­tage. The best way to guar­an­tee your vic­tory is to make sure you have op­tions and be ready to use them.”

Makes per­fect sense. But if you’re new to your art — say, you’re a white belt who’s still fine-tun­ing his or her ba­sic tech­niques — is that a vi­able path to fol­low in the dojo? “In gen­eral, white belts aren’t skilled enough to think that way yet,” Li­bo­rio says. “If they barely know the tech­niques, it would be ask­ing too much of them to plan two or three moves ahead. It takes an ex­pe­ri­enced mar­tial artist to keep their cool and see po­si­tions and op­por­tu­ni­ties when they come. They have to know the ba­sic skills by heart and be able to use them with­out too much thought.”

An­other com­pli­ca­tion arises from the ef­fects that stress has on the hu­man body, Li­bo­rio says. “Stress can blur your ‘vi­sion’ of whether a tech­nique will func­tion in a given sit­u­a­tion. The more stress you feel, the worse it is. You have to main­tain a cer­tain cool to see an open­ing for a backup move, and that hap­pens only with ex­pe­ri­ence, with train­ing and drilling, with time spent imag­in­ing which sit­u­a­tions could hap­pen if you try a spe­cific tech­nique and then get­ting on the mat to find out if you were right.”

The chal­lenge is sim­i­lar — and per­haps worse — in self-de­fense, he

says. “Very few peo­ple who haven’t trained ex­ten­sively in mar­tial arts would be able to do this on the street. For the un­trained or those who have just trained a lit­tle, self­de­fense is never as straight­for­ward as they imag­ine be­cause the tech­niques they end up try­ing don’t al­ways work. And that brings us back to the im­por­tance of hav­ing a backup plan.”


The best way for any­one be­low the rank of black belt to over­come the afore­men­tioned ob­sta­cles is to train with a clear fo­cus on the fun­da­men­tal tech­niques of his or her art, Li­bo­rio says. “That means re­peat­ing the ba­sic moves that are known to hap­pen a lot in the type of fights you’re pre­par­ing for. Those moves have to be in your mus­cle mem­ory. That’s your No. 1 pri­or­ity.”

Af­ter that, start adding a sec­ond move­ment and then a third move­ment that you might be able to tran­si­tion to should that ini­tial go-to tech­nique fail, he says. “Prac­tice them in the dojo, pay­ing at­ten­tion to your ac­tions and your op­po­nent’s re­ac­tions. Your goal is to learn how to read the other per­son, read his move­ments, read his emo­tions.

“This is how you build up a few ‘chore­ogra­phies’ in your brain and be­gin putting them in your mus­cle mem­ory, too. It’s also how you build the knowl­edge and skills you need to make them hap­pen and, more im­por­tantly, to func­tion the same way in un­fa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions. It gives you the abil­ity to pick and choose what you do in a fight.

“Here, I have to add that you can have all the skills in the world, but if you’re not phys­i­cally fit, you’re go­ing

to strug­gle with mak­ing this work. That’s es­pe­cially true when you’re fac­ing some­one who’s stronger and/ or younger and your first tech­nique doesn’t work. In those cases, you have to win by knowl­edge and by in­stinct — but you can’t do that if you’re out of gas.”


To im­prove your acu­men in com­bat, you’ll even­tu­ally want to use trick­ery. “At higher lev­els in the mar­tial arts, you need to play games with your op­po­nent to set things up,” Li­bo­rio says. “Maybe you need to at­tack an arm to get his neck. Maybe you at­tack his neck to get an arm. Maybe you at­tack both at the same time — what­ever chance you have, take it.

“But to be suc­cess­ful at that, it all has to be struc­tured in your mind. That means you must be pre­pared. You need to have a good com­pre­hen­sion of the moves and po­si­tions so you know which tech­niques can work to­gether. And for that, you need to do what your in­struc­tor or coach says.”

To il­lus­trate his point, Li­bo­rio cites one of the mar­tial arts–re­lated pit­falls of train­ing in the in­for­ma­tion age: “We live in a time when peo­ple can get as much knowl­edge as they want for free. You can go to YouTube and learn how to do a fly­ing arm­bar be­fore you can even do an arm­bar. But you’re not go­ing to un­der­stand the con­cepts be­hind the tech­nique.

“There’s a rea­son for the pro­gres­sion that mar­tial arts in­struc­tors use. I see this some­times when I teach guys who are at the high­est lev­els. They don’t think they have time to learn the con­cepts, but that’s the wrong ap­proach. The coach has to take the time to make sure they un­der­stand the con­cepts. It’s im­por­tant for them to go deep in­side how ev­ery­thing works.”

Ex­am­ple: If you go for a tri­an­gle choke and your op­po­nent blocks the at­tempt, it’s your deep knowl­edge of the con­cepts be­hind the tech­nique that will tell you how easy it might be to tran­si­tion to an arm­bar from that po­si­tion. “There are so many set­ups like that you have to think about to get ready for fight­ing,” Li­bo­rio says. “You have to fun­da­men­tally know the transitions be­tween the tech­nique that fails and what you can do as a fol­low-up, and you have to know how to make that tran­si­tion as fast as pos­si­ble.”


Equally im­por­tant in any give-and­take en­counter is dam­age con­trol, Li­bo­rio says. “You need to know how to re­act if your first tech­nique does not work and you’re un­able to make a sec­ond tech­nique work for what­ever rea­son. The worst thing that can hap­pen is you lose po­si­tion. Much bet­ter is get­ting into a neu­tral po­si­tion.”

If pos­si­ble, avoid giv­ing up on a tech­nique un­less you have an ad­van­tage over your op­po­nent with re­spect to po­si­tion, he says. “When you know you have an ad­van­tage, don’t spend too much time try­ing to make a tech­nique work. In­stead, let it go and im­me­di­ately go to your backup plan.”

The take-away here is that with proper train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence, you will have op­tions if your pri­mary move fails, Li­bo­rio says. “There’s al­ways some­thing you can do to win. If you’ve al­ready seen the open­ing, do it. If it re­quires a setup, you’ll have to do that. Not as good is a sit­u­a­tion in which you have to dis­cover what your best op­tion is. If nec­es­sary, you go back to a neu­tral po­si­tion. That’s how your mind should work.

“Carlson Gra­cie used to tell us, ‘ You don’t give up po­si­tion un­less you know ex­actly where you’re go­ing.’ When you need a sec­ond tech­nique in a fight, you have to know where you’re go­ing, and you have to have a sense of ur­gency.”

● ABOUT THE EX­PERT: Ri­cardo Li­bo­rio ap­peared on the cover of the Oc­to­ber/ Novem­ber 2016 is­sue of Black Belt. In the story, he pre­sented three op­tions for ac­tion when an op­po­nent grabs your leg af­ter a kick. He cur­rently spends his time teach­ing judo and Brazil­ian jiu-jitsu in Or­lando, Florida; help­ing spread the mar­tial arts in Saudi Ara­bia; and putting the fin­ish­ing touches on a big project that will be an­nounced in an up­com­ing is­sue of Black Belt.

From his top po­si­tion, Ri­cardo Li­bo­rio at­tempts to slide his right hand in­side to se­cure a choke, but the op­po­nent blocks him Li­bo­rio changes FRXUVH DQG ULVHV RII WKH PDQ·V EDFN ZKLOH grab­bing his col­lar He then pulls the man up­right and takes his back...

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