Constraints-based learning

In the following clip Ben Galloway (Opposite Direction) introduces us to the contemporary coaching method Constraints Based Learning. I believe this video is an absolute masterpiece and might change the way many approach coaching!

This approach resonated very much with my understanding of complex systems theory and phenomenological philosophy (Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty).

As always I really recommend you to research all the “heavy” theories and concepts Ben outlined if you are not already familiar with them to really grasp them.

Those who are familiar with my approach probably already noticed that constraints-based learning is a huge part of it!

What are constraints?

Our perception and action is undeniably constrained in countless ways. The obvious ones are physical constraints. Physical constraints in combat sports or grappling might be the environment we act in (mud, mats, ring, cage, …), our own physical attributes (size, body type, conditioning, …), our opponents physical attributes, the equipment we wear (clothing, Gloves, …) and so on.

But our actions are also guided or constrained by much more subtle or abstract constraints like our skill (knowledge, intuition, …) or the rules of the sport we compete in (the task).

The light-switch

Let’s think about the following example: You are at home ready to binge your favorite show on netflix. You enter the living room. In your left hand you hold a beer and in your right a bag of cheetos. You want to turn the lights off (task). After you walked to the light-switch you give it a slight push with your elbow, since both of your hands were occupied (constraint), and turn the lights off.

You had a task (or goal) and the way you perceived its environment and constraints led naturally and implicitly to a certain action. This is how we naturally act in everyday life, yet this is not how most coaches teach sports.

Or how Ben put it so brilliantly:

“The combination of individual, environmental and task constraints create emergent behaviors. Rather than teaching explicitly, telling people how to do an action, individuals learn implicitly and produce actions through their own perception and experience.” – Ben Galloway

In the following clip Ben presents an example how coaches can use constraints based learning to develop adaptable skills in their athletes!

Ben is a football/soccer coach but obviously this method can be used for sports in general and even most other skills.

I use concepts of constraints-based learning in every practice!

Once you understand the overall message, you realize that we are talking about a huge paradigm shift when it comes to teaching combat sports/martial arts!
Rather than instructing explicit and idealised techniques you create tasks, formulate constraints and you let your students repeatedly solve them until they find robust solutions via Trial and Error, auto-regulation and self-organization!
This is the only way they will develop intuition and adaptable skills.

Please check out Ben’s YouTube Channel and support his good work!

On movement and the brain with Daniel Wolpert (I)

In this TED-talk neuro-scientist Daniel Wolpert did an incredible job, introducing his research to a wide audience in an accessible manner. Yet in this fairly short talk he outlines some extremely powerful and important ideas for anyone interested in human movement and motor-learning!
For that reason I decided to do a commentary on some sections of this talk, outlining the key take-away points, to make sure no important information slips under your radar.
In the following you will watch clips of his talk, followed by my commentary. This way I will “guide” you through this talk and will try to emphasize important bits of information for coaches or athletes.
I recommend to re-watch the whole talk afterwards, since it is extremely information-dense and interesting!

Why do we have brains?

“We have a brain for one reason and one reason only and that is to produce adaptable and complex movements.”

In this segment Daniel Wolpert goes on to expand on why he believes that the brain’s only function is to produce movements.
If the brain’s only reason is to produce movement is (philosophically) debatable but the primary importance of motor-control is not!
The take-away for us coaches or athletes who are interested in teaching or learning movements is:

You can not understand the brain without movement and you can not understand movement without the brain!

Playing chess vs moving chess pieces

Lets try to understand how the brain controls movement or in other words, how it regulates and monitors muscle contractions.

A good way to gauge our understanding on brain function and movement are computers and robots. Because we can basically put our scientific theories into algorithms and see how well the computer or robot does (compared to humans)!

In the next section Professor Wolpert shows how well computers do at purely analytical tasks, like playing chess, but how poorly they perform even simple movement tasks compared to a 5 year old.

Spoiler: Movement is way more complex than chess!

Noise and Variability

In this section Daniel Wolpert outlines how humans control movement:

  • neural signal to contract muscles (output)
  • your body moves (process)
  • you get sensory feedback of your actions (to regulate new outputs) (input)

To make things (alot) more complicated, we have to add noise to the neural signals which contract our muscles and to the sensory feedback of our perception. Additionally our task (like pouring a tea-pot) is usually also extremely variable, adding even more uncertainty and complexity to the process.

Human motor-control and movements are adaptable and auto-regulated solutions to extremely variable tasks, mediated by noisy feedback.

Or how Professor Wolpert put it: “a sensory-movement-task soup of noise”
But how is it even possible that we can successfully navigate through this soup of noise and still perform such sensitive and miraculous movements?

Probabilities and predicitons

One way to deal with uncertainty, noise and variability is to make decisions based on mere probabilities.

In this section Professor Wolpert discusses how Bayesian Decision Theory might help to understand human movement and decision making. A small outline of Bayesian decision theory might look like this:

  1. “We generate believes about the world” based on
    1. Data (sensory input)
    2. Prior knowledge (memory)
  2. These beliefs are represented by probabilities
  3. Based on these believes we make predictions about the most probable outcome
  4. We act based on this prediction
  5. (We gather feedback of our action and update our memory)

In other words: Our actions are guided by guesses about the world based on our present perception and past experiences.

This means we have to create more experiences and improve our perception if we want to make more accurate guesses and consequently better decisions!

Tickling, time-delays and why we all move (almost) alike.

I want to stop my commentary here because I feel like we already discussed enough incredibly important information for one post. I hope I was able to outline the relevance of Daniel Wolpert’s research for coaches, athletes or anybody interested in movement and motor-learning.

At some point I will do a commentary on the second half of this talk, as it is also packed with super significant information.

You can check out my post on feedback and autoregulation and I recommend you to further research the concepts and theories you encoutered in this talk!

Special thanks to Steve Morris for first sharing this talk and pointing out the significance of Wolperts research for fighting and combat sports.

Enjoy the rest of the talk!

Escaping the Rear Bodylock/Mat Return

The standing rear bodylock was one of the most frequently occurring and crucial positions at the last few ADCC World Championships. Many matches were decided when one competitor got behind the other and locked his hands around his opponent’s waist.

This was often achieved after a single or double leg attack. Once in a rear bodylock the two major strategies were to either bring the opponent to the mat by lifting him or to start attacking the back by throwing hooks in while the opponent is still standing.

The primary defensive strategy was to escape to turtle. This is a highly flawed approach since one should progress from the turtle to a standing position and not the other way around!

The following sequence which occured in the 2017 ADCC -77kg final is just one example of this playing out (JT won gold again two years later vs Vagner Rocha with a very similiar sequence):

This theme extends far beyond just ADCC and grappling competition. Obviously the art of escaping the mat return is one of the cornerstones of folkstyle wrestling. Even in mixed martial arts this skill is becoming more and more important. In the next clip you will see the great Khabib show a variety of mat returns of the rear bodylock:

This should give you just a small outline of some of the offensive strategies your opponent might employ but mat return strategies will be the topic of a future post. For now we want to discuss how to defend and escape the rear body lock!

Pretty much all mat returns or back attacks your opponent might come up with will require him to keep his hands locked around you waist.
This makes breaking the lock our number one priority and we should always aim to attack his hands whenever possible!

Breaking the lock


In the previous clip you saw Coach Jay LaValley demonstrate how to properly break the lock.

Let’s break it down into a simple step-by-step scheme.


First of all attack the top hand of the opponent’s lock by digging your thumbs behind the fat part of the opponents thumb.

0. Attack the top hand by digging behind their thumb.

There are two prerequisites to then successfully break the lock.

  1. Create pressure on the lock by leaning back into your opponent and stretching them out.
  2. Further increase the pressure on the lock by getting it over a single hip to “cut” it open with the “blade” of your hip bone.

After you weakened the lock in that manner, the next step is to break it.

  1. Break the lock by “popping” your hips and separating their hands with yours.

Once you separated their hands and opened the lock, alway keep control of one of their hands.

  1. Keep control of one of their hands and put it in your back pocket.

After you successfully escaped the rear bodylock is a good time to immediately reattack with your own shots!

5. Reattack!

This time you will see Coach Cliff Fretwell show how to escape the rear bodylock. He goes over on how to keep the opponent from getting an angle on you, lean back and down to create pressure on the lock, break the lock and hip heist out!

How to train it

The rear bodylock is great for positional or situational sparring. And you should start implementing it in your training right away.

Just let your partner lock their hands around your waist, try to break the lock and escape. If they return you to the mat or take your back just stand back up and go again right away. Start with low intensity and increase as you get better.

You can get in many repetitions in a short amount of time this way thus learn a lot by trial and error alone!

As always, these are not the only thing you can do to escape the rear bodylock but knowing how to properly break the lock and escape should be essential knowledge for every grappler.
Also it is obviously prefered to stop the opponent from locking his hands in the first place by correctly sealing them off and constantly attacking and controlling atleast one of their hands!

The THREE BEST Online Resources on Back Attacks

Hands down the best FREE resource on how to control and how to finish from the back is Tom Halpin’s Back Attack Series on Youtube. This is some high quality stuff by the 2019 ADCC European Champion!

Some noticed the similiarities with the back attack Instructional by John Danaher as Tom’s Series covers many of the same concepts! But before anybody dares to accuse him of plagiarism – he uploaded his clips months before Danaher released his DVD!
Some moves just work better than others and with enough research and effort ideas will naturally converge. Real inventions rarely exist in combat sports!
In his series Tom goes over on how to control, finish and recover from the back. All this in serious depth and with many small details which lead to huge improvements in my own game!

With the quality and depth of the content (50+ min) Tom could have easily made this a full fledged instructional DVD and charge you some serious cash for it. Instead he published a second, updated series. Again for FREE on Youtube!

I believe these two series should be the open source standard reference for controlling and finishing from the back!

For most people there is no need to pay hundreds of dollars for other instructionals focusing on finishes since Tom’s series is PLENTY to work with.

Here are the links to the full playlists:

Tom Halpin’s Back Attack Series (Part 1)

Tom Halpin’s Back Attack Series (Part 2)

The second primary resource is Ryan Hall’s Back Attacks DVD. It is an old set but it is definetly not outdated!
Ryan’s DVD focuses on understanding the underlying concepts and principles and not too much on individual techniques. Ryan is a great teacher (probably the best I came across so far) and the knowledge you gain by studying his DVDs will make you an all around better grappler. I frequently rewatch his DVDs and still learn new stuff to this day. They are the gold standard of instructionals.

Ryan goes in depth on all the fundamental prinicples, positions, submissions, entries and transitions. But the third part of the DVD focuses entirely on the Rolling Back Attack. This is a great primer for more advanced lower body entries to expose the back.

The only problem with Ryan’s DVDs is they are fairly hard to get or very expensive. If you are lucky you can get used ones for a few bucks on amazon/ebay though.

I think once you studied Tom Halpin’s and Ryan Hall’s sets on Back Attacks you should be a back attack master… atleast theoretically.

The rest comes down to practice and experience. But with all that knowlege you should have many things to play around with and problem-solve when rolling!

The third major source of information on Back Attacks is competition footage of great competitors!
If you put in the work, watch and analyze competition footage you can learn A LOT. Depending on your skill level you can even learn intuitevly by watching great athletes move (but thats a topic for a another post).

The good thing about competition footage is that it is already “filtered”. If you just search for back takes on YouTube or Google you will find TONS of information on back attacks but sadly many of the techniques you’ll find just suck. They lack the evidence they would work in a real match against a good grappler and most just wont!

The stuff that already works at the highest level of competition should always guide your own studies.

The best back takers today are Felipe Pena and Gordon Ryan in my opinion. They have quite different styles yet both are incredible! So you could start your own research by studying these two.

Luckily the great Gambledub already made an awesome gif collection of Felipe Pena’s back attacks and set ups.

Some of Felipe’s back takes are from the fancier kind but you should never forget the bread and butter back takes will always be the basics!

A future post will cover what I consider basic or fundamental skills a bit more in depth.

Also I updated my Back Attack Resources with some stuff on Felipe Pena for your studies!

ADCC 2019: Back Attack Study

The rear naked choke was the #1 submission at ADCC 2017, ADCC 2019 and all the trials in between. Even in MMA it is without comparison the king of submissions.

In addition back control was the #1 scoring position at ADCC 2017 & ADCC 2019 by a long shot.

This makes the back control or rear mount arguably the king of positions!

For that reason I decided to take a closer look at the back takes that occured at ADCC 2019. I acquired the data by breaking down all matches of the men’s divisions – thats a total of 95 matches. I did only count successfully executed back takes (both hooks, body triangle or finish) and not situations like a seatbelt with only a single hook or lesser positions.

Let’s take a look at the results:

Most successful back takes were launched by the top-player, accounting for roughly half of all back attacks. The neutral or standing position was the second most frequent place to see a back take from. Back takes initiated from bottom were the least likely to witness but with over 20% they are still significant!
These results seem to be fairly robust since my back take study of the trials leading up to ADCC 2019 showed very similar trends!

Let’s take a closer look at the positions or situations prior to the Back Attacks e.g. the Set Ups:

As to be expected by the previous graph most back takes where set up by passing the guard or being in mount/side mount (most of it where passes though).
More interestingly if we combine the front headlock, singles and doubles then wrestling accounts for 43% of all back takes!
Some of you may have already noticed that the previous graph stated that 7 back takes came from bottom yet we only see 4 in this one… This is because 3 of the 7 bottom back takes were set up by the guard player coming up on a single leg!

Another interesting thing to look at are the types of back takes:

As you can see the overwhelming majority of back takes where just a seatbelt/bodylock followed by a real basic hook-insertion like a chairsit or just throwing hooks in!
The other 5 Back Takes were hard to categorize – a rolling back attack here, a crab ride there or even some wrestling tilts by Gordon Ryan. 

All in all, the message is clear: The basics still work at the highest level! So it’s not about learning more and more complex back attacks but about getting great at basic skills and finding the ways and tactics to get there.


We did break down how the competitors got to the back but what did happen from there?

This graph was shocking to me… Despite the fact that the rear mount is so commonly regarded as the king of positions people did escape it pretty much just as often as they got submitted! And that’s even though Gordon Ryan did account for almost half the finishes alone (5 out of 12)!


After watching all these back takes it was obvious to me that some positions, grips or skills were just way more prevalent than others. These are the situations you should maybe be especially well versed in (offensively and defensively):

Even though I did say I did only count successful back attacks I wanted to point out that the following sequence was one of the major recurring themes of ADCC 2017 and ADCC 2019!

The single leg and double leg to the rear bodylock came up so often it was hard not to notice the importance of this sequence! Being able to capitalize on the bodylock or being able to successfully escape were deciding factors in countless matches.

With that my ADCC breakdown comes finally to an end. At least for now…

I have so many notes, gifs and clips that I will probably come back to them whenever new questions or interests arise. (If you have some suggestions just hit me up!)
If you feel like you need to improve your back attack game after seeing this study, you can check out my back attack resources!
I collected the moves I like and many of the free online instructionals on the back position which helped me personally there.

Also my next post will cover the three major resources that helped me understanding the back better (besides personal experience)… so keep an eye out for that too!