Collar and Sleeve Guard: A Foundational Open Guard for Beginners and Novices in BJJ

“Any other guard you play will be better because you learn the concept of controlling the distance when you play collar and sleeve.” – Rafa Mendes

The very idea of playing guard was anathema to me my first few years on the BJJ mats. Never mind that I found top position and passing inherently more fun, playing guard seemed so nebulous. Often, my attempts at guard play would amount to haphazardly flailing my legs around while divebombing sickle sweep attempts. It proved pretty ineffectual, especially against higher belts. At best, I was a one-trick pony. 

There were also a dizzying amount of guards to choose from. Many also demanded a level of dexterity and contortion that seemed to all but ensure another injury to my already hobbled lower back.

Kron: Legacy

My first breakthrough in improving my guard occurred while watching competition footage of Kron Gracie:

Here was a top competitor employing what to some was considered a very basic even antiquated form of guard play. Yet, Kron was mowing through top competitors with primarily collar and sleeve and collar guard. His approach was almost Zen-like with its profound simplicity – nothing fancy at all, just masterful precision.

Rafa Mendes on Collar and Sleeve Guard

I realized I needed a rudimentary and systemic approach to open guard, something fundamental to build my guard game. The usual approach in training at most of the schools I attended was to just spend a week or two being taught a new guard then move on to another guard or set of techniques. It often felt disjointed. Regardless, that approach just didn’t work for me. I needed something conceptual to build my open guard game step by painful step. 

My explorations on and off the mats finally lead me to one of the best videos on guard play for beginners and novices that I’ve encountered. It was actually sent to me by a purple belt buddy of mine over a year ago (he’s now a brown belt at Kenny Florian’s gym, if I’m not mistaken). While the following brief tutorial by Rafa Mendes offers many technical insights, what it mainly provided was a philosophical outlook toward open guard play that finally made sense to me:

Rafa insists that collar and sleeve is the foundation of guard play and opens the proverbial doors to various others. That coupled with Kron’s mastery of collar and sleeve convinced me that it should be the focus of my guard play for the foreseeable future.

A Few Collar and Sleeve Guard Details

As with just about all guards that I’m aware of, collar and sleeve guard is based on four points of contact: a cross collar grip, a sleeve grip, a foot on the hip/de la riva hook and a foot on the bicep/shoulder.

World Champion Jon Thomas provides a really succinct breakdown of the guard here:

Note that Thomas begins with the de la riva hook instead of on the hip. He explains why here though a foot on the hip is perfectly acceptable if you can establish it:

“The foot in hip is awesome if you can get it, but by nature of the position the guy usually has [his] elbow right [there] and you have to play with your leg on the outside.” – Jon Thomas

Attacking from Collar and Sleeve Guard

Perhaps my greatest epiphany while judiciously working on my open guard is that an active guard is an attacking guard. I can’t count the number of times my guard play was hopelessly limited in scope by only focusing on guard retention. It was almost a weird mental block for me as it may be for some others. I thought guard play was only effective if one could strictly defend against passes.

Nowadays, unless I’m going against someone with less experience, I’m no longer trying to only prevent getting passed. My current aim is to off-balance, unsettle, sweep or get back to my feet.

It helps that we start all rolls from standing and takedowns are encouraged at my gym. Sometimes the best defense for me is to push out with a stiff collar grip, execute a technical standup and get back to my feet. 

One of my favorite attacks from collar and sleeve at the moment is to kick out to make space, get to my knees or feet and execute a collar drag or an ankle pick. If you’re unfamiliar with collar guard and seated collar drags check out the following tutorial:

Similar to Kron (albeit as a consummate novice not an expert), I now actively switch between collar and sleeve guard and collar guard. It’s developing into a reasonably effective guard game with plenty of room for growth.

For me, at least, collar and sleeve guard is equivalent to a 1-2 combo in boxing. It’s fundamental, vital and the degrees of expertise one can develop with such a deceptively simple skill set are seemingly infinite.

© 2019 Gable Gripes All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “Collar and Sleeve Guard: A Foundational Open Guard for Beginners and Novices in BJJ

  1. This is really helpful. I am really trying to to work on this guard but feel lost sometimes. Thank for the information and videos!

    1. Great to hear and thank you. Aside from always keeping four points of contact, staying active while playing guard rather than passive is a real boon to my game.

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