A Guide to Grappling Gear

You’re training in a sport that, at its core, consists of two human beings rolling around trying to submit one another. This all seems very simple, and you don’t need a lot of gear to get started other than a mat (and maybe a gi). But In this article I am going to discuss a few additional items might make your time on the mats more enjoyable and productive.

The MOST Important Training Gear of ALL!

The single-most important, completely indispensable training gear of all is your sparring partner!

Grappling is a contact sport where we struggle to apply techniques to our sparring partners while these same people are doing their very best to resist and apply similar techniques to us. The training of techniques against partial or full resistance is the central pillar of our training method, and it relies absolutely on having sparring partners. No sparring partners equals no sparring equals no improvement of skills.

So given that this is true, then why do some people take such poor care of their sparring partners? Why do some people think it is acceptable to crank armbars, or apply full force toeholds? At best that person will stop sparring with them, at worst they may sustain serious injury requiring surgery. Either way, the person without control loses a sparring partner and makes it more difficult for himself to improve his skills.

Preserve your training partners – it’s the only way to get better!

Mouthguards

If I could only choose one piece of protective gear to wear on the mat it would be the humble mouthguard. Grappler’s faces are always getting banged up, even if they don’t practice mixed martial arts. Whenever there is a scramble to pass the guard, to escape a bad position or to apply a submission there is always the possibility of getting hit in the head by an errant leg, head or arm. I have trained both with, and without, a mouthguard and have learned my lesson repeatedly. Nowadays I spar with one in at least 95% of the time.

Mouthguards protect you in many ways: they stop your teeth from chipping or getting knocked out, they reduce the likelihood and severity of biting your own tongue, and help prevent concussion. By offering you something to bite down into it also makes it harder to break or dislocate the jaw, should something hit you really hard.

If you decide to wear one you should try to wear it all the time while sparring. If you only put one in for competition you may find that it interferes with your breathing. If you become used to it in ‘regular’ sparring you will find that it bothers you much less when you’re really going hard. Not that I’m recommending this, but keep in mind that some boxers do their roadwork while wearing their mouthguard, just to become accustomed to breathing hard with it in.

The basic “boil and bite” mouthguard is usually available for about $5. Although there are mouthguards that protect both the upper and lower teeth, I recommend starting with the style that mounts only on the upper teeth. If you can afford it (or if you have a good medical plan) custom-made mouthguards are way to go. Your dentist can take a mould of your teeth and have a sports-mouthguard made that will fit you perfectly. This is not a cheap option: I have heard of dentists charging anywhere from $50 to $150 to do this, but once you’ve tried these mouthguards you’ll never want to go back.

Tape (aka ‘External Ligaments’)

An old judo coach once tried to help me with an injury by saying: “there are internal ligaments in the body, but there are also external ligaments that are available to you” as he handed me the roll of white athletic tape. I often think of his “external ligaments” comment as I tape up the small injuries that plague me since I am no longer in my twenties.

Applying tape correctly accomplishes two things: 1 – it limits the mobility of a joint and providing stability, and 2 – it provides compression. Both of these actions can be useful when trying to train with an injury, and prevent re-injury of a weakened area.

Taping techniques can be very simple, such as wrapping your finger to provide protection to a hyperextended digit, or very complicated, such as trying to provide protection and support to a damaged shoulder. There are books, courses, and internet resources available on the subject of athletic taping, and if you use tape for anything more complicated than wrapping your fingers you might want to to track them down.

One golden rule of taping is that it MUST NOT IMPAIR CIRCULATION. Getting your taping job tight enough to offer support, but not so tight as to cut off blood flow, can be a tricky balance at first; don’t be afraid to unwrap your taping job and start again if it is too tight.

I would also caution you against using tape each and every session, because you may be weakening the joint in question by making it reliant on the additional support. Tape is only part of the solution, not the whole solution. If you have a joint that is so unstable that it always requires tape then perhaps what you really need is some skilled physiotherapy instead.

Buy tape in large quantities (it’s cheaper that way) and take it to every class. Ed Beneville, author of The Guard and Passing the Guard, contributes: “I am a fan of duct tape. Athletic tape is great but the prices are ridiculous. Duct tape does the job almost as well but at a fraction of the price.” Regardless of the type of tape I am using, I try to always have some tape in my gym bag, because even if I don’t need it, someone else surely will.

Earguards

The vast majority of submission grapplers and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners do NOT wear earguards, and neither did I for a long time. I thought I was immune to ear trauma, until after a tournament I found my ears tender and swollen (my attempts at home ear-draining might some day form the basis for another tip of the week). When ears are subjected to impact, grinding and crushing (i.e. your average day on the mats) they sometimes take offense and become swollen. If the swelling is particularly bad, or if it sticks around for a long time, so-called “cauliflower” ears can develop.

Cauliflower ears are badges of pride to some people in judo, wrestling, and rugby, and if that’s your thing then more power to you. Personally I’d rather avoid mangled ears: I am ugly enough as it is, and have rather large ears, so I can only imagine what I’d look like with lumps of mangled flesh on either side of my noggin.

So nowadays I usually (80% of the time) wear ear guards while sparring. They make it a little more difficult to slip out of headlocks, but I think the tradeoff is worthwhile. Even if you don’t want to wear them all the time you might still want to own a set for when your ears are sore from a previous workout. If they are sore but not swollen then the ear guards might just be the thing you need to stop them from going to the next stage.

I wear lightweight, flexible ear guards, the type without the rigid plastic cups over the ears. I find that these lightweight ear guards provide sufficient protection for me, but someone with ultra-sensitive ears might want to get the full-on competitive wrestling headgear with hard shell protection and more straps than a B&D outfit.

Athletic Cups

I personally don’t wear an athletic cup during training – I find that they chafe and are uncomfortable. I know that I am trading off increased comfort for the possibility of getting ‘sacked’, but this is a risk I am willing to take. Competition is a different story, and then I DO wear a cup. Many people, on the other hand, wear a cup year-round and do not experience any inordinate discomfort.

I have tried many different designs of athletic cups, and my current favorite is a plastic cup with soft rubber sides that flex, set in a normal looking jockstrap. The rubber sides reduce the chafing to an acceptable level. I wouldn’t wear such a cup if I was fighting in Muay Thai Kickboxing, but for grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu it provides an adequate level of protection.

Speaking of Muay Thai, some MMA fighters prefer the metal Muay Thai cup for grappling. This is a convex and triangular piece of metal with rubber along the edges, secured to your body by cords that comes from each corner of the cup. I haven’t tried it myself, but they provide LOTS of protection, and provides a VERY hard fulcrum when you are applying armbars or kneebars.

Wrestling Shoes

Wrestlers are no stranger to wearing shoes while training, but I think that shoes can also be useful for jiu-jitsu and submission grappling practitioners under certain circumstances.

Wrestling shoes have two major advantages: increased traction and injury prevention.

The traction benefits of wrestling shoes compared to slippery bare feet are undeniable. You will be able to grip the ground much better when driving for a takedown or jockeying for position on your feet. It is for this reason that my former teammate Denis Kang elects to wear wrestling shoes in the majority of his MMA fights.

The injury prevention potential of wrestling shoes is often overlooked. They stop your foot and ankle from going to extreme ranges of motion, and thus prevent, or reduce the severity of, strained ankles, twisted toes and other foot injuries. It is for this reason, more-so than increased traction, that I usually wear wrestling shoes if I am going to be doing a lot of standup grappling, because I have had my share of major foot and ankle injuries.

Wrestling shoes are also a useful splint for the whole foot when you are nursing a preexisting injury to the foot, ankle or toes. Twisted toes, for example, can be very difficult to protect with athletic tape, but if you put a shoe on it keeps all your toes together and somewhat protected.

There definitely are a few DISADVANTAGES to wearing shoes while grappling on the ground. They make it harder to escape footlocks, and they make your legwork in the open guard a little more difficult, especially if you aren’t used to it. Also at 100+ dollars for a pair they are not cheap accessories. Finally if you are training at a new club you might want to check with the instructor before stepping onto the mat in wrestling shoes – some clubs have a strict ‘no footwear’ policy whereas others are considerably more relaxed about this issue.

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