Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Scoring Primer: Guard Passing

[This is the second of a planned four-part series covering each of the ways to score in submission grappling.  The first article, covering takedowns, is available here]

Guard passing is one of the most misunderstood scoring methods in competition.  The confusion comes from the common misconception that controlling your opponent from side control is worth points.  Before I continue with this article allow me to clearly state:  There are no points for side control!  Side control is just a position.  It's the action of passing the guard that scores.  Now that I've got that out of the way, we can continue.

As with my previous article in this series, I will be using the commonly adopted IBJJF rule book.  Under IBJJF rules, passing the guard is worth three points, which makes it unique among the ways to score.  I've heard that in the (very) early days of competition a guard pass and a sweep were both scored equally, but guard passes were eventually bumped up to emphasize the advantage of being on top in a real fight.

Guard passes (like sweeps and takedowns) are "Actions", meaning they are made up of an initial position, a transition, and an ending position.  As with other actions, all three requirements must be met in order to score points for the pass. 


Initial Position

The only valid position to start a guard pass is from within your opponent's guard.  The guard position is probably one of the most varied in all of Jiu-Jitsu.  Over the years, it has evolved drastically from its humble beginnings.  The rules define the guard as a position where you are on your butt, back, or side and have your legs between you and your opponent.

Closed guard is the classic guard position, although it can't really be passed until it's opened.

White has Blue in a closed guard.

Open guard has far too many variations to list, but as long as your legs are trapping or blocking your opponent in some way the position is considered a guard.  Your legs are not required to be touching your opponent to establish a guard as long as they are physically between you and your opponent (this is commonly seen in a sitting-up style of guard).

In all of the above images White has Blue in an open guard.
Notice in the third picture that White's legs are not in contact with Blue but the position is still considered a guard.

Guard passes can also start from a half-guard, where the bottom competitor is only trapping one leg.

White has Blue in his half-guard.  Blue's right leg is trapped by both of White's legs.

Turtle Guard is unfortunately misnamed.  It doesn't actually count as a guard because in the turtle position you are on your knees instead of on your butt, back, or side.  There is no way to pass the the turtle, so moving directly from the turtle to side control would not score.

Blue is holding White in a turtle position.  White is on his knees and thus not in guard.
A guard pass cannot start from this position.

Final Position

UPDATE:  I recently learned that the IBJJF no longer requires your opponent's back to be flat on the mat to stabilize a guard pass.  Instead you must keep your opponent on his or her back or side and establish a "dominant control".  If your opponent is on his or her side and actively shrimping or trying to go to his or her knees, the position would not be considered stabilized.  Once you and your opponent have accepted the new position, the three second count can begin.  I have updated this section to reflect the new information.  Since this is a recent update, tournaments that follow IBJJF rules might still score a pass the old way (requiring the back to be flat on the mat).

Under the updated rules Blue could complete a guard pass from this position.
Even though White is on his side, Blue has established a dominant control past White's guard.

A guard pass ends when you have moved past your opponent's legs and kept his or her back (or side) flat on the mat for three seconds.  During this time, your legs must remain completely disentangled from your opponent's legs.

Blue has not passed White's guard.  His leg remains entangled in both of the above images.

Most guard passes are completed in side control, but side control is not a scoring position by itself. You can only earn points for side control if it's at the end of a guard pass.  Any of the osaekomi-waza techniques from Judo are also sufficient to finish a pass.

Blue holds White in side control and Kesa Gatame

It is also possible to complete a pass in the mount, knee on belly, or north-south positions.  Points for the mount or knee-on-belly can be scored in addition to the guard pass (see "Combinations" below).

In each of the above images, Blue is displaying proper control for a completed guard pass.

You cannot end a guard pass in the turtle or back control because your opponent's back (or side) would not be flat on the mat.  If you move to one of these positions, you will have given up the opportunity to score a pass.

Blue has moved to White's back instead of passing his guard, he cannot earn points for the guard pass.

The Transition

To correctly perform a guard pass you must move over, under, or around your opponent's legs without allowing your opponent to come to his or her knees or feet.  You are no longer eligible to score a guard pass once your opponent moves to turtle or stands up from the guard.

Moving your opponent directly from turtle to side control is worth nothing.  Taking your opponent from standing directly to the bottom of side control would earn a takedown but not a guard pass.



Competitive grappling uses two types of points: "Actions" and "Positions".  When the final position
of an action is also a scoring position, it is possible to score both simultaneously.  When this happens, the "Action" and the "Position" require a single three-second count to be considered stabilized.

Guard passing can be combined with either knee-on-belly or the mount.  Passing the guard directly to one of these positions and holding it for three seconds is worth:
  • Knee-on-belly:  5 points ( 3 points for passing + 2 points for knee-on-belly)
  • Mount: 7 points ( 3 points for passing + 4 points for mount)

Because you must keep your opponent's back (or side) flat on the mat in order to score a guard pass, it is impossible to combine a guard pass with back control.

Backing Out of the Guard

Unlike MMA, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is about ground fighting.  Once the fight has gone to the ground, it is the responsibility of the athlete on top to engage and pass the guard.  It's against the rules to stand up, back out of guard, and force your opponent to stand with you.  Doing so will earn a major penalty.

Blue has backed out of White's guard and is motioning for White to stand up.
If White refuses to stand up, Blue must reengage immediately or he will be penalized.


Failing to maintain the final position of a guard pass for the full three seconds after performing the rest of the technique correctly is probably the most common way to earn an advantage.  Remember that stabilizing the position requires staying on top, keeping your opponent's back (or side) flat on the mat, and staying free from his or her guard.

An advantage could also be awarded if your opponent manages to make it to his or her knees to counter your guard pass.  A pass must be in progress when the bottom player turtles in order to score the advantage.

Probably the least-known way of scoring an advantage is by dominating the half-guard.  To dominate the half-guard you must keep your opponent's back flat on the mat for three seconds.  This is traditionally done with a crossface and an underhook, however they are not strictly required under IBJJF rules.

An advantage for dominating the half-guard is only scored during "forward progress", meaning if the position results from a guard pass attempt it will be scored, but not if your opponent is recovering guard from mount or side control.

Blue is dominating White's half-guard and will score an advantage after 3 seconds.
Blue has a crossface, an underhook, and is holding White's back flat on the mat.

Also, note that this only applies to the half-guard and not the reverse half-guard.  The rules do not allow for dominating the reverse half-guard.

Blue is in White's reverse half-guard.
No advantage is given for this position.

Clearing the Submission

As with all other scoring methods, points cannot be awarded for passing the guard while you are under threat of submission.  To score points, you must clear the submission attempt.  Once the submission is cleared, the position must then be stabilized for three seconds.  If the position is lost or time runs out before the submission can be cleared, an advantage will be awarded.

Blue has passed White's guard but cannot earn points until the choke or the kimura is cleared.

[Before I go, I want to thank David "My Brother is a Blackbelt" Hall for modeling all of positions with me and Billy "I just had shoulder surgery but I'm still on the mats" Dowey and Tim "Ze Grappler" McNamara for helping with the photos.]