A Beginner’s Guide to Passing The Open Guard in BJJ

While I may not be some savant at passing open guards, it’s the one aspect of BJJ I find most rewarding. For me, it’s a form of puzzle solving, my veritable Sudoku on the mats (fun fact: I suck at Sudoku). Truth be told, I find passing a challenging open guard more satisfying than catching a sub on someone of equal or higher rank.

Open guard passing is, however, fraught with frustration. For beginners and novices, it can be next to impossible to process all the information one is confronted with while trying to pass a challenging open guard. There is so much to contend with that, more often than not, it leads to analysis paralysis. It’s quite common for beginners and novices to simply freeze up while the guard player weaves a web of sweeps and submissions.

Here are some beneficial tips I’ve learned from coaches and higher belts alongside a fair amount of study that continue to help me develop a good guard passing game.

Be First

Rick, an older brown belt buddy with a soul-crushing collar and sleeve guard, insisted to me over and over again during our rolls to be first when passing. Rick’s advice is reminiscent of an old mantra my boxing coach would say when asked about streetfights (legal ramifications aside): “The best punch to throw is the first punch.” In other words, take initiative and do your best to impress your will upon your opponent rather than wait around for him or her to establish position. If you’re going to knee cut or Toreando, do so immediately. Commit. The minute your opponent starts to get his or her points of contact, the more challenging guard passing becomes.

There are certain passes that are fantastically effective if you can get the jump on your opponent before he or she can establish position. The Toreando pass in all its various guises as well as a blast knee cut pass are great in this regard. BJJ World Champion Jon Thomas offers detailed tutorials on both:  




“Don’t be a Rock” – Lucas Lepri

These are deceptively simple words of advice from Lucas Lepri, one of the greatest BJJ guard passers of all time. In the following short, but incredibly insightful tutorial Lepri insists on maintaining a very fluid approach to guard passing. It’s a great vid because it offers a very accessible conceptual outlook to balance and base in relation to passing that is not often touched upon in our training:

The more stiff you are, the more likely you’re playing right into the guard player’s proverbial hands. It’s often a reflexive action on our part to remain rigid as beginners, sometimes simply holding on for dear life. It’s usually to our detriment though.  

As Lepri insists, your base and balance are in jeopardy the more rigid you become. It’s essentially just another form of freezing up. Not only does this limit your ability to pass, the chances of getting swept or subbed dramatically increase. As Bruce Lee put it, “Be water, my friend.”

Square Peg, Round Hole

Often when we learn a pass within a limited scope of time and ability, the tendency is to just try and jam it in repeatedly during a roll regardless of what one’s opponent is presenting to us. I certainly did this ad nauseam when I first learned to knee cut.

Trial and error is certainly not a bad thing. It’s a very inherent and necessary aspect of BJJ. However, when it veers toward a mule-stubborn and uncritical approach on the mats it’s time to step back and reassess one’s attempts at guard passing (and BJJ in general).  

A quick caveat though. I realize that this is somewhat precarious advice that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Certain passes, especially pressure passes, flourish under persistence. Just watch Bernardo Faria steamroll folks with his over/under pass. He does so with incredible patience, perseverance and a kind of profound obstinacy:

What I mean though is that often we need to address what’s presented to us first and foremost. If you’re caught in someone’s Spider Guard it’s futile to attempt a knee cut pass. If I’m lassoed I could Toreando, but I’m all but guaranteeing I’ll be swept if I don’t break that lasso grip against a good guard player. More often than not, we have to critically address what’s in front of us first and not just dogmatically throw up pass attempts expecting them to work. This, of course, takes time and practice.

Headquarters

Learning to establish the position known as headquarters is one of the biggest boons to my guard passing game. It’s a position popularized by Rafael Lovato Jr. who learned it from BJJ legends Saulo and Xande Ribeiro. Here’s Lovato Jr. explaining the position alongside a few of the many passes that work incredibly well from the headquarters position:

What I like most about headquarters is that it allows for a more systematic approach to guard passing. As a novice I often need concrete steps to follow rather than esoteric concepts. Headquarters gives me a very clear starting point to begin my pass attempts while also maintaining an advantageous position against the guard player.

If I take the initiative, divebomb a pass attempt and fail, I immediately seek to establish headquarters. From headquarters I have a myriad of passes at my disposal depending on what my opponent offers in terms of resistance and counters. These include knee cuts, folding passes, x-passes, long steps, etc.

Feints and Fancy Footwork a la Rafa Mendes

Footwork is fast becoming a focus for me when open guard passing. Something as simple as faking to the right before passing to the left can make a world of difference.

Feints in guard passing are very similar to setups for takedowns. Sure, one can try to blast into a double leg, but even something as minor as a collar tie slap to get one’s opponent to posture up can open up the double amazingly well. The same goes for open guard passing. Even a small setup can go a long way to successfully passing a difficult open guard.

Check out this highlight of Rafa Mendes passing. He employs footwork and feints with the precision of a ballet dancer. His opponent can only miserably flail about. Mind you this is a seasoned black belt he’s toying with. Take a look right around the 3-second mark. That particular fake is the BJJ equivalent to an ankle breaker in basketball. It’s like he crossed him up a la Allen Iverson or Kyrie Irving. It’s a marvel to watch:

For another highly entertaining example of beautiful guard passing involving feints and footwork watch the following clip of Josh Sapinoso:

https://www.instagram.com/p/BlbpDbEDzMN/

While, by no means, comprehensive, I hope this brief guide can point you in the right direction as a novice or beginner. Guard passing can be incredibly challenging, but also incredibly gratifying and fun.

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