Grappling for Self Defense

It’s very easy to forget all about the self-defense aspects of what you are doing when you train grappling. There’s so much material to work on, and it’s so much fun to train, that self-defense considerations can get overlooked.

This point was driven home to me a couple of years ago when three very large, athletic guys wanted me to show them some of that ‘Gracie’ stuff. We hit the mats and I sparred each one in turn for several ’rounds’ each. Because they were inexperienced on the ground it was relatively easy to armbar, kneebar and choke them quickly, even when I started in bad positions.

But then, after getting tapped out two or three times, the biggest guy decided that if I couldn’t grab anything then I couldn’t tap him out anymore. He clamped onto two of my fingers with all his strength and held onto them with grim determination.

This tactic initially surprised me and alarmed me. It was not something I experience very often, and I was acutely aware that if he twisted the wrong way he would break or dislocate my fingers. This tactic wasn’t malicious on his part – he had no idea that this could injure me. After a few tense moments and some quick improvisation I freed my fingers, and immediately tapped him out again.

The moral of this story is NOT how tough or skilled I am.  It is simply this: BJJ, submission grappling and MMA sparring are wonderful training tools, but they all have certain spoken and unspoken rules. If we follow these rules 100% of the time we can develop a certain myopia.

This myopia means that we might be unprepared when someone thinks outside the box in a real-life confrontation. The big guy who grabbed my fingers was thinking outside the box, and it took a while to adapt to the situation.

In sparring it is useful to focus on self defense once in a while: here are some suggestions for self-defense oriented grappling sparring sessions:

  • Include finger grabbing and (gentle) finger locks
  • Include hair pulling
  • Simulate biting and (very gentle) eye-gouging
  • Work on your headlock escapes. Skilled opponents rarely try using the headlock, but if a strong and desperate person gets hold of your noggin and squeezes it is always difficult to get out.
  • Wear a gi and include striking or simulated striking. Most of the time when people practice MMA they are wearing T-shirts or spandex: having a gi to grab and pull can change things dramatically.
  • Try grappling against two partners at the same time: your goal is to either submit them both or to be able to stand up and clear distance
  • Grapple with a dowel, simulating a knife. This drill will really emphasize the importance of wrist control!
  • Grapple with a rattan stick: you can use the stick to strike, to lock, to choke and to implicitly. The Dog Brothers are geniuses at doing this.

I’m not suggesting that you explore these scenarios very often – once every month or two is perfectly adequate for self defense considerations. Also you want to do these sparring sessions with someone you trust, NOT the class spaz or the guy with the huge ego.

You need to approach these sessions with an attitude of discovery, not competition. Thinking outside the box every couple of months will dramatically increase your ability to take your art out into the real world.

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