There’s a smartphone game out there called Dumb Ways to Die.
Well, many BJJ guys are playing a similar game every time they step on the mats. It’s called Dumb Ways to Get Injured.
To fight this trend here’s an important new article written by my friend (and training partner from long ago) Jeff Meszaros.
In this article you get some of Jeff’s crazy stories about some of the dumbest things he’s seen in BJJ classes over the years. And hopefully learn how to avoid some dumb ways to die… and dumb ways to get injured.
A Rant by Jeff Meszaros
As martial artists, we all have to make a choice between safety and reality. On one hand, we could train in an art designed to prepare us for real fights. But real fights are dangerous so any martial art designed to simulate a real fight is also inherently dangerous as well. At least, more dangerous than those arts that have taken a departure from reality and, while totally safe, offer no self-defence applications at all.
Consider that at one end of the spectrum we have full-contact stick-fighting without padding using Dog Brothers rules, and on the other, we have tai-chi in the park with 90-year-olds.
So reality or safety? Choose wisely, my friend.
This is why Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an attractive option. It’s realistic enough to defend yourself, if need be, in a real fight. But it’s not so over-the top that you’re going to a hospital every month with lacerations and broken bones. At least, that’s how it is for me.
But if you’re on a first-name basis with all the local emergency-room nurses because of your BJJ training, you either need to find a safer club or make a few changes to your training. Otherwise, your future isn’t good.
Of course if you’re a professional fighter and you make money by winning realistic fights, you have some justification for going “balls out” a bit in training, because you need to be ready for that once it matters.
Still, you want to start your match injury-free or, at least, relatively injury-free. A training camp that stops you from doing your best, or even fighting at all, is not a successful one. That a tiny detail that some UFC fighters could stand to remember.
So, how can you train realistically but still safely? Here are a few things
Don’t Train with “That Guy” Whoever He is.
Anyone who has trained for a while knows who “that guy” is. He is the guy who has no ability to train with anyone’s safety in mind. Not even his own.
You can pick this person out by the hush that falls across the room when they walk into the club, as people who were happily chatting go quiet and begin making peace with their Gods, planning how to get through class without ending up in the hospital.
If you’re new to a club and you can’t read the vibe, just watch for people who are going full-out in every match like their lives are on the line and seem not to care if they or their training partners are killed in the process.
Avoid these people.
Unless you are on an abandoned island with them, there are other people to train with; people who won’t try to escape from triangle chokes by eye-gouging and whose guard isn’t only kicking at your head.
I knew a guy like that once, and after a few close calls with death I chose to say “Thank you but no f**king thank you” to him.
My friend made the same choice but phrased it in a better way, saying “When it comes to training with you, the risk to benefit ration is weighted heavily to the side of risk.” I think that’s better than saying “Leave me alone, you dangerous lunatic”.
Have Club Rules That Always Apply
If you have only trained at one club, allow me to enlighten you about an amazing fact. What is acceptable at one academy is often entirely unacceptable at another.
Where I train and teach, for example, slamming and heel-hooks are both “not cool” but I have heard of other clubs where, amazingly, that is entirely ok.
Why does this happen? Well, in the case of BJJ, it’s because not every club has the same goal.
Some BJJ clubs are MMA oriented, whereas others are sport oriented or even self-defense focused.
Accordingly, at the first club it might be alright to punch someone in the face, while at the second club it may not be and at the third place not only is punching your partner ok, you can pull a knife on them to escape a triangle choke… because that’s what would happen in the streets!
This is why it’s a good idea to have rules posted on the wall of your club for everyone to see.
You never know when a person from somewhere else will stop by and do something so dangerous that no rational person would’ve expected it to happen.
I can recall one fellow who stopped by the club I was training at and, when confronted with my guard, threw a flying knee directly at my head. The amazing part after I called him on this was that he was sincerely surprised to hear that was not cool.
Know the Rules for Specialized Drilling
Beyond general club rules that specify what should never ever happen (like “no biting”) its also important to know the rules for each individual drill you may be doing.
Once, years ago, I saw one of my training partners get kicked in the head because he thought he was practicing boxing but his training partner thought they were kickboxing; even though neither of them were wearing any leg protection.
Of course, they weren’t wearing shoes either so a case could be made for either argument. But the whole ugly situation could’ve been avoided if they’d just taken a moment and asked one another “Are we going to be kicking each other?” which, come to think of it, is a good question to ask before heading into any situation at all.
Don’t Practice Throwing and Grappling Side by Side.
This is one is picked up while training in judo, which is funny since judo is ridiculously dangerous in other totally avoidable ways, but this is one aspect that they get right.
Perhaps it’s from trial-and-error but Judo somehow found out that people get severely hurt when other people are thrown on top of them. So they separated ne-waza (ground) and tachi-waza (throwing) into different parts of the class.
This way, you can focus on perfecting your triangle chokes vs. turtled up people without worrying that two other guys are going to come tilting through the air and break your neck. Seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? I think so, but I’ve been to classes where trying to explain this is needlessly difficult.
After it happens they usually see the light, but this usually involves between one and four people getting badly hurt, an ambulance gets called to a scene where “one guy threw another guy onto a guy who was choking another guy”, and several very confusing conversations with insurance people…
Know Who is “The Man” and Who is a Training Partner
This is something that, miraculously, Dana White has been saying for years.
His argument (and mine) is that, in boxing, you know who has a fight coming up and then you bring in training partners to help that one person reach their peak performance for their fight.
For some crazy reason no one does this in mixed martial arts. Instead, fighters get together and train as if they’re each the only one who matters. Then, surprise surprise, people get hurt.
Perhaps this is because everyone has a fight coming up that they have to train for. So be it, but I’m sure there are busy boxing gyms where fighters can all train for their fights without giving each other concussions in the process.
Here’s a little known fact that I rarely share: I do not roll to win much of the time. Rather, I often roll with the idea of helping my students or training partners improve.
The best way to achieve this is not kicking their ass every match like they’ve just insulted my family.
Rather I present them with situations they might come across at their upcoming tournament and I see how they react.
Then I raise the ante higher and higher so they are having to work at 100% to keep up with me.
Then, often, I let them win to boost their confidence. Because I’m awesome so, if they can beat me, they must be even more awesome, right? That, at least, is the conclusion I’m hoping they will draw.
What is the point of this random ramble? Simple. There is a huge difference between training to build your own skills and training to build someone else up.
When two fighters are both in the first mode – each building up their own skills – people get hurt. So don’t f**king do that, as Dana White would say.
Don’t Train with New People.
It’s funny how people come into martial arts clubs, wide-eyed with fear at the idea that they are going to be beat up. The crazy thing is that, often, the most skilled fighters are the ones who are the least dangerous. That’s because they can control exactly what is going on and treat you with kid gloves.
If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who has suffered a serious injury in training…
Chances are they’ll say something like “I was training with this new guy and he was kind of awkward and…“
Usually the outcome of a story that starts like that involves the new person doing something weird that ends with a totally unexpected outcome involving an ambulance for someone.
I was once gouged in both eyes by a man who was so afraid of being in my guard, he instinctively put both his thumbs in my corneas while screaming like something awful was happening. For the next two weeks, my eyes were as red as Tobasco sauce, which some girls found oddly attractive. But that is a separate anecdote.
I sometimes tell people that “jiu jitsu” means “the gentle art” so, as a black belt, I am an expert in being gentle while they, as white belts, are the most dangerous people in the room. I think that helps or, at the very least, it diffuses the idea that I’m about to put them in a full-body cast.
The point is that there’s no reason to train with a newbie if you have a fight or competition coming up. If you don’t have anything important coming up and you’re in the mood to win some points with your instructor, then go ahead.
Otherwise, leave it to the people who get paid to roll the dice on taking an accidental elbow in the ear from the wild white belts.
Don’t be Shy About Saying “No Thanks” to Spazzes
For a long while, I considered it cowardly to tell people I wouldn’t roll with them. But then I had a few experiences that made me re-evaluate that idea. Generally, these were situations that weighed heavily on the side of risk on the “risk to benefit ratio” idea that I mentioned earlier.
I might be repeating myself but it’s ok since my hammering home this point might one day save your life. Besides, I have another anecdote to illustrate what I’m talking about. Here we go.
There was once a guy showed up to train at our “no-gi” class and said that he’d trained before.
I said “ok” and asked no further questions of him, which was a bad start.
Because as soon as we began rolling, he went into full “backing up” mode – scooting away again and again – which made it feel like I was trying to abduct him. To keep him from running away I started to shoot at his legs, and then he would respond by trying to squeeze my head off between his knees. Eventually I would take his back and begin choking him.
He was a big, strong guy, so to ‘defend’ the choke he tried again and again to get to his hands and knees to dive forward and try to spike both our heads into the mat.
Despite his attempted double neck-breaking manoeuvre I ended up choking him five or six times before I asked him for further details about his training.
I said “Where did you train?”
He said “In my buddy’s living room!”
“Anywhere else?” I asked.
“For sure. We trained in the kitchen too.”
Had I asked him that begin with, I might’ve just decided not to roll with him.
There were two problems with him. First, he had no idea what the hell he was doing (as demonstrated by my ability to choke him half a dozen times with the same move). Secondly he was a super-strong dangerous fool (as shown by his attempts to paralyze me by doing forward dives with me on his back).
Was there any benefit in rolling with him? Probably not, but even if there had been it would have been heavily outweighed by the risk. This is my point.
You know, I have another story on this topic…
Years ago, there was a guy who had never done BJJ before but wanted to train with us. He started out by saying “That BJJ stuff doesn’t work”, which made me feel like it was my job to prove him wrong.
I said “Alright, you do whatever you want and I’ll just do jiu jitsu and we’ll see what happens.”
He agreed to that and then, as soon as I took a step towards him, he turned and sprinted out the door!
For a moment, had no idea what had just happened but then he came back and said “See? You couldn’t do anything to me.”
The next time we tried this I positioned myself between him and the door.
When he tried to run past me, I just tackled him to the floor. I ended up in side control where he reached around to cup my chin with his hand and then ran his feet up the wall like Spiderman. I had never had to deal with anything like that before but, thankfully, I had the common sense to just roll with it rather than have my neck broken.
We ended up in my guard and from there I quickly finished him with a triangle choke, but that isn’t the important part of the story.
The take-home lesson is that, once again, I was fighting a crazy person who had no problem with attempting to break my neck while offering me no real competition in the long run.
What did I gain from the experience besides this long and strange anectode? Wisdom, perhaps… And the ability to pass that wisdom along to you without you having to roll the dice on becoming a quadriplegic at the hands of some nut.
If some guy who seems a bit off his rocker asks you to roll, don’t be afraid to say “Thanks, but no thanks, you nutty dude.” On second thought it might be best if you omit those last few words, otherwise you might find yourself fighting them whether you want to or not.
When Practicing Technique Just Do the Technique
Here’s a lesson that I learned the hard way. All it cost me was an arm. Or, at least, an arm that hasn’t been badly broken.
Let’s get to the story and we’ll see if you can figure out the lesson to be learned. Hint: It’s “don’t goof off.”
People probably think that sparring is more dangerous than just doing technique and often that’s exactly correct. After all, during sparring you’re able to do almost whatever you want, whereas training techniques you’re just doing one thing that your training partner expects.
Or are you?
Imagine if, as you are doing the same technique again and again your training partner suddenly an weird countermovement. Or, imagine if you’re the person being practiced upon (the “uke” in Japanese terms) and your partner unexpectedly switches from the technique to something else you didn’t expect. Either way you aren’t resisting the technique since you’re busy being a good training partner.
Let me share a story that involves me badly hurting myself, probably worse than I ever have before.
It was even my own fault.
We were practicing throws and wanted to show my partner how powerful a certain combo was. I faked with the first throw and then launched into the second throw.
Since they weren’t resisting we fell to the ground so hard, I ended up breaking my own arm by landing on top of it with the force of a meteor falling to the Earth.
Had I given my training partner a heads up on what was about to happen, then maybe I’d have two good elbows today instead of one normal elbow and one that is the size of a genetically modified mango.
Screwing around in training and suddenly doing something your partner doesn’t expect can be dangerous.
At least in sparring everybody knows you’re sparring, and your partner will react realistically to what’s going on. But when they’re allowing themselves to be dead weight in drilling, things can go bad for you if you try to trick them with something out of left field.
Another story involving me getting hurt…
Years ago, I was practicing throws with someone I didn’t know all that well. Basically I was bear-hugging someone from the side and then making them fall face-first to the mat.
We’d been doing it for a while when, for no reason, he decided to pull off something fancy when we hit the mat.
After I’d taken him down, he seized my arm and suddenly rolled. I had no idea he was going to do that, so I went face-first into the mat like a cannon ball thudding into the ground.
Both my arms went numb and I thought I’d broken my neck. Thankfully, after a few minutes of screaming in agony, I could use my hands again. When I gathered my wits, I asked him why he had done that.
He said “That’s what someone would do!” which is likely true, but skips the part where I’d totally let my guard down after throwing him since I had thought, quite rightly, that we were only doing the throw.
By this idiot adding a sudden explosive roll to the takedown I nearly ended up in a wheelchair, a less-educated version of Stephan Hawking.
So what’s the moral of these stories? Don’t do surprising things when training. You could hurt yourself or your partner.
Do a Sane Warm Up
Before beginning my jiu-jitsu career, I was a mediocre judo student.
I absolutely loathed the warm-ups at the judo club I trained at: we warmed up by playing soccer! It wasn’t even normal soccer, you know, the type of soccer where people constantly fall down and pretend they’re hurt when, in fact, they are totally fine.
When we played “judo soccer” where people collided and clashed shins so often and with such power, it was incredible that it became the standard warm-up.
Judo is a dangerous sport, but it can’t hold a candle to the foot-breaking violence of judo soccer, which saw one or two people injured every day.
I’m still not sure why it was so dangerous, but the sheer number of casualties it caused was unbelievable.
Once, years later, I had the bright idea to begin a jiu-jitsu class by having everyone do sumo wrestling.
I didn’t see any harm in the idea: After all, sumo doesn’t have any big throws and the idea is just to push someone out of a circle….
I had all the students take off their jackets, Separated the class into heavyweights, middleweights and lightweights, and then marked out a certain area with belts on the ground.
The idea was simple: Push your opponent out of the circle or make them put something on the mat besides their feet.
I thought it’d be fun.
For some reason, the guys began suplexing each other in ways I’d never seen them do before and I never saw them do again.
I was expecting light-hearted pushing and, instead, everyone turned into Russian Greco-Roman wrestling monster Alexander Karelin. I still have no idea why it went that way, but that single night saw a few guys get injured. Now, years later, they’re still injured from that ‘warmup drill’.
Another crazy warmup I’ve seen is a game called “Brazilian Street Fight.”
This is basically team vs. team jiu jitsu with everybody fighting everybody. People who get tapped out are eliminated. It usually ends with the only person left from one team being simultaneously armlocked and footlocked and choked by three guys from the other team.
Once, we played it with slaps and with the lights out. Do I need to tell you that it was madness?
One guy got slapped straight on the ear and he swore his eardrum had been ruptured. Another time, I saw a guy who had just come back from a knee injury get his knee injured again as two guys struggled to take him down.
Oddly, no one seems to learn much from the recurring injuries and the game keeps cropping up every now and then to claim fresh victims.
So what have we learned?
Sumo wrestling and soccer both make terrible warm ups. Warming up with hard physical contact is a bad idea.
It’s better to build a sweat up with burpees, jumping jacks, squats and pushups first.
Let Injuries Heal. Don’t “Train Around” Them
Hospitals are full of beds for an excellent reason.
It’s because, when you’re hurt, the best thing you can do is nothing at all. Just lay in bed and watch the Cartoon Network until you can get up and go about your life normally again.
But, for some reason, there are certain jiu-jitsu practitioners who can’t do that. I’ve seen guys with horrifying injuries insist that they can “train around” their issue by doing drills and techniques that don’t aggravate the problem.
It sounds reasonable, right?
But things invariably dissolve and they push the envelope further and further until, every time, they end up making the original problem even worse. Then the terrible cycle repeats and they get further and further towards being crippled for life.
I had a friend whose shoulder was badly in need of surgery.
I don’t know if he was afraid of doctors or whatever, but he never went and got it fixed. Instead, he would come to class once a month and try to “train around” his injury by sparring with one hand or doing open guard work or something.
Every single time he ended up messing up his shoulder again and then he’d disappear for another month.
It went on like this for a year or so before he disappeared entirely and I never saw him again. I assume he messed himself up so badly his last time out that he went mad, bought a boat and became a small-time pirate. If you had ever met him, you’d see my point and agree it was possible.
I myself have been stupid enough to “train around” various injuries throughout the course of my martial arts training and I’ve probably added fifty years worth of bone spurs in the process.
So when you’re injured, rest.
I’m no doctor but I think that’s the best idea. And it’s only taken me thirty years of training to figure that out.
Don’t Train on a Floor that is too Sticky or Slippery
I’ve saved this one for last because it’s the one I’ve never been able to understand. And I keep seeing it happen, sometimes ending careers or costing fighters and fight promoters millions of dollars.
Years ago, I did taekwondo…
The floor of the academy was hardwood installed by the devil himself. Sometimes it was as slippery as ice and people fell down left and right. Other times it was as sticky as the inside of an old honey jar and guys blew out their knees doing turning kicks.
What made it even worse was that many of the people I trained with insisted on wearing shoes with an odd sole to them that amplified the issue horribly.
Would you want to practice jumping kicks while wearing socks on a linoleum kitchen floor? No, that’s insane. But that’s what guys did, falling like old drunks with horrifying frequency.
It still wasn’t as bad as the guys who tore their ACLs though.
In fact that’s what I keep seeing high-level fighters doing; wearing wrestling shoes with very grippy soles while training on puzzle mats with grippy surfaces. Then they bust out turning kicks that require at least some slidy-ness to do.
Grippy shoes, grippy mats and spinning kicks? That’s just an ACL tear waiting to happen! I makes me light-headed with anxiety just to see it on TV. I also feel like my old grandma who talks to the television. “Why are you practicing kicks while wearing wrestling shoes?” I yell at them. “Stop it!”
But they don’t listen and then a little while later I read that they’ve had to pull out of their next fight because of a knee injury…
Preventable injuries like this makes me question their danger-avoidance skills.
Are these the same people who run around the swimming pool despite the “no running” sign and then dive into the shallow end even though the lifeguard gets angry every time? I wonder.
Nobody wants to get hurt but, for some reason, people don’t take the right steps to avoid an ambulance ride.
Maybe it’s because the martial arts can attract crazy people who have poor danger-avoidance instincts. Giving some people BJJ training safety tips is like giving a book on responsible gun ownership to a someone who sleeps with a loaded gun (safety off, of course) under their pillow.
As someone who has had quite a few injuries, I feel it’s my duty to pass along the lessons I’ve learned. Hopefully they can save you from a hospital ride culminating with a urinary catheter. I can tell you from personal experience, that’s something else nobody wants.
About the author: Jeff Mesazros is a BJJ black belt based in Vancouver BC.
More Free BJJ Resources on Grapplearts
- The Roadmap for BJJ Book. Download your free PDF copy of Stephan Kesting’s popular positionally-based approach to Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.
- The Roadmap for BJJ Mobile App. Stephan Kesting’s free video-based app for smartphones and tablets. This is the fastest, easiest way to understand the core strategies of BJJ.
- Other articles on training BJJ, MMA and Submission Grappling