How to Train Dangerous Submissions

In the previous article we discussed some of the most dangerous submissions in grappling, and ended with the question of how one can train these submissions realistically…

The easy answer “slowly, gently, and with control”. But even with this advice people still get hurt, so obviously more explanation is required.

Below are some solutions used by different schools to solve the problem. None of them are perfect, but they should provide some food for thought.

-Use With Caution-

Many schools simply tell you to “be careful” when you are using dangerous submissions. What this means exactly is rarely clear in advance, but the implication is that you should moderate how hard and fast you apply your submission, which is certainly better than the applying them full force.

For this approach to work students need to be well informed about which submissions are dangerous. It’s not always obvious how damaging certain submissions can be.

Ego is the enemy in this training method: ego makes you apply dangerous submissions a little too fast, or makes you tap out a little too slow when you’re caught in them yourself. If there is someone in your club who just can’t handle losing or tapping out then this is NOT the method of choice.

Finally, keep in mind that the level of force you might consider to be safe could be quite different from what the class spaz thinks is safe, so pick your sparring partners carefully if you are playing under these rules.

-The Complete Ban-

Another valid approach is to just to ban dangerous submissions – many clubs, for example, forbid heel hooks and neck cranks outright. This approach requires the instructor to make the ground rules clear to all new students and visitors so that there are no misunderstandings.

The problem with this approach is that you really only learn to be aware of, and defend, submissions when you are attacked with them in sparring. If you’re never attacked with wristlocks, for example, then your ability to defend wristlocks will be weak. This is a particular problem if you’re a competitor: if you want to compete successfully then the competition rules must be reflected in your sparring.

-The Rank-Dependent Ban-

Some schools ban certain submissions for students below a given rank or belt level. For example, you might have to be at least a purple belts to attack with, or be attacked by, neck cranks.

This approach assumes that higher ranks have greater control, awareness and discipline, which, for the most part, is true. The other assumption is that the higher belts are better able to recognize when they are caught in a dangerous submission and tap out earlier. A beginner doesn’t differentiate between tapping to a triangle choke and a toehold, but the consequences of refusing to tap are very different: one results in unconsciousness, the other in torn ligaments, muscles and broken bones.

-Catch and Release-

Another approach is to use the ‘catch and release’ method when attacking with dangerous submissions. Here you apply the technique but don’t finalize it – no pressure is actually applied against the joint. As soon as you have the submission positioned you let go and continue with your sparring.

The problem with this approach is that it could result in an argument that goes like this:

“I got you”
“No you didn’t, I would have escaped”
“Yes I did get you – I was blocking your counter”
“Whatever, but my dad is still stronger than your dad”

I guess we’re lucky that everyone we train with is a LOT more emotionally mature than this…

-10 Second Rule-

A variation of the catch and release method used by some schools is to have a ’10 second rule’, which means that holding a submission position for 10 seconds (but not actually applying it) is considered to be a successful attack. You might end up putting your opponent into a heel hook but not applying any pressure against the joint. For the next 10 seconds your opponent tries to get out while you use your arms and legs to prevent and block his escape attempts.

This method does require some emotional maturity, because initially you are going to ‘tap’ less people when you train like this – 10 seconds is a long time for people to work their way out of a submission. You also have to be on the lookout for somebody inadvertently cranking the the submission on tighter while they are wildly twisting around, trying to escape.

This method can actually IMPROVE your submissions, because you will learn how to control an opponent and counter his escape attempts, rather than relying on speed to obtain a quick tapout. This way of applying a submission is basically what Jean-Jacques Machado did to me the one time we ever sparred.

-The Bottom Line-

Regardless of the rules and restrictions placed around certain submissions, it all comes down to preserving your training partners. The ethic of applying submissions carefully comes from the top down. If the instructor and senior students at a school take the time to explain the dangers of certain submissions to everyone then they’ve just help make the training environment a whole lot safer.

It is critical that everybody is on the same page. I’d rather be sparring under anything-goes rules than be in a scenario where my opponent and I have differing assumptions about which submissions are legal. I remember one sparring session where I spun to attack my opponent’s feet, secured a toehold and then stopped (basically I was using a 10 second rule). Instead of trying a technical escape my opponent applied his own vicious toehold with all his strength. I screamed in pain, yelling out “Why the hell did you do that?”, “I had to”, he replied, “it was the only way I could get out”. Our differing assumptions resulted in my injury.

In closing, remember that, no fool-proof system of dealing with dangerous submissions is proof against a sufficiently talented fool. Even if your school bans a certain lock DON’T get complacent about it, or leave yourself vulnerable to it, or refuse to tap to it. Maybe it will be a newbie who just doesn’t know, maybe it will be a visitor who just doesn’t care, or maybe it will be your friend who just applied it by accident, but dangerous submissions DO get used at every school. Protect yourself at all times, and remember that protecting yourself includes tapping out early and often, whether the submission is ‘legal’ in your school or not.

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