The Art of Learning the Cross Collar Choke

The Art of Learning the Cross Collar Choke

One of the most significant things I’ve learned about BJJ was the cross collar or lapel choke from closed guard. It’s the first submission I learned and on the rare occasion that I’m working with a newly minted white belt, the only submission I teach. The choke itself isn’t that significant. It gets the job done. But careful study and consideration of the choke have unlocked much of BJJ for me.

I was the spazziest white belt you’ve ever had the misfortune of rolling with. I was a whirlwind of elbows, heels and forearms that had lazerbeam like accuracy for eye sockets and other soft spots on my training partners. I was overwhelmed by the intensity and complexity of BJJ and was responding by freaking out.

I was saved by a lesson on the cross collar choke from closed guard. As my instructor, Louis Vintaloro, watched me drill it, he said, “I want you to focus on this. You have thin wrists and forearms. This is going to be a good submission for you.” I don’t know if he meant that, or if he was just trying to get me to calm down. But it worked. My focus began to shift to what Josh Waitzkin, the author of The Art of Learning, would call “Making Smaller Circles.”

I studied the components of this simple submission. It started with the right hand sinking deep into my partner’s collar. The deeper I reached, the more secure the choke felt. Then I began to notice the curvature of my right wrist. If I looped my wrist around my partner’s neck like a sickle, coupled with the deep grip, the choke worked faster. This came with the added bonus of controlling my partner’s posture to the point of their exasperation. Then came the intricacies of the left hand’s role. When I could sink it into the other lapel so deeply that my index fingers touched, the tap came quicker. I began experimenting with wrist positioning of the left hand, ultimately deciding that rolling my wrists, rather than pulling with my hands in a rowing motion, created a faster tap.

I continued to experiment over the course of a year, this time with the left hand attacking the left shoulder of the gi instead of the lapel. How much of the gi do I need to catch? Where exactly does the left hand need to grab on the shoulder? What if I fake a grab for the lapel and instead grab the shoulder?

My training partners had long ago wised up to this being my only trick. But I didn’t give up on it. I figured out that I could use this knowledge about my game against them by transitioning into an armbar once they defended the choke. Now I had a second trick. This led to a third: Using the choke to break posture and transition to a kimura. And a fourt, using the kimura to set up a triangle.

This one simple submission, and more precisely, the placement of my right hand deep in my training partner’s collar, became the first building block of my game. Jiu Jitsu started to make sense. It would be a few years later before I realized why.

I found the answer in The Art of Learning. In Waitzkin’s words, “The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.”

He uses the example of mastering the jab and how this often-overlooked strike is the bedrock of many martial arts. With enough practice, the mystery and myth of martial arts dissolve, and in his words, “It feels as if the ground is smashing the bag through my fist.”

Our own Mike Pandolfini recently provided a similar lesson on the jab in our Hybrid Kickboxing class:

“Why are we doing this?” he asked the class. “I was like most kids when I started. I came into the gym and said, ‘Coach, I want to spar.’ He said, ‘OK. Go over to the heavy bag and give me 100 jabs.’ So I did. I came back to him afterward, thinking the entire time that this was ridiculous, and he held up a pair of focus mitts. He said, ‘Throw your jab.’ I did. He said, ‘You’re leaving it out there.’ I said, ‘No I’m not.’ He said, ‘Throw it again.’ I did, and he was right. So I gave him 100 more jabs. He said, ‘Good. Now you’re dragging it through. I want you to jab and return straight back to your guard.’ Then we went from there.”

Whenever the complexities of a new technique feel overwhelming, I break it into small pieces, remembering this lesson about the jab, and Waitzkin’s words:

“Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

Joe Hannan is a journalist and writer. You can find more of his work here.

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