How Being A Defensive Grappler Can Help Your Jiu-Jitsu

Image Source: Trinity SP Photography

A lot of jiu-jitsu practitioners (especially smaller ones, and especially smaller ones who are fairly new to BJJ) experience an ongoing internal battle about relying so heavily on their defensive skills. It’s frustrating, after all, to be involved in a martial art that focuses on submissions and realizing that your main (and possibly only) skill is simply surviving.

Recently, I’ve seen this come up more and more in the lamentations of my smaller teammates and long-distance BJJ friends. And I get it. When I first started training, I was usually the only woman in class, and at 125 pounds, I was significantly weaker and smaller than basically everyone I rolled with. Just like the larger, stronger white belts didn’t know enough technique to stop trying to muscle their way into positions or submissions, I didn’t know enough technique to overcome the size disparity and gain advantageous positions or lock in submissions. So instead, I started with, you know, not getting submitted and worked backwards from there.

Just as bigger BJJ athletes eventually learn enough technique to stop relying on muscle and pure explosive energy, those of us who aren’t built for squashing and smashing eventually start figuring out what works best for us and incorporating it into a more offensive game. It just takes a while, and in the meantime, we build up some skills that can really help us later on:

1. You gain the power to see into the future.

Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But if you spend a long time focusing on your defense (again, especially in the beginning of your journey), you learn to see submissions coming before they’re locked on. You learn very quickly to keep your arms tight to your body, and you figure out how to shift your hips to retain guard better. You have a much better chance of submitting your opponent before the clock runs out if you yourself don’t get submitted first, and learning the red and yellow flags that signify something bad is coming your way is a huge advantage when it comes to protecting yourself.

2. Your risk of injury decreases.

By developing a solid defensive game, you don’t just learn how to defend against submissions — you learn how to defend against aggressive or inexperienced grapplers whose rolling style actually puts your safety at risk. Particularly if you’re training jiu-jitsu for self-defense purposes, this skill is crucial both in the gym and in life. You can’t expect to ever see your skills expand if you’re too injured to train, and being a stellar defensive grappler often means that you’ll be better prepared for the ego-driven “street fighter” who comes into the gym and immediately tries to rip your limbs out of their sockets.

3. You’re less likely to make “dumb” mistakes.

Jiu-jitsu practitioners who focus only on offense might be more adept at hunting for submissions, but they often do so at their own expense, putting their head, arm, or leg where it shouldn’t be and paying the price with a tap. Defensive grapplers, on the other hand, develop good preventative habits early. Once they do start working on their offense more, it’s second nature for them to keep their body parts where they need to be in order to avoid getting submitted in the process of trying to submit someone else.

If you feel like your skill set is almost completely based on defense, you will need to start actively working to hunt for submissions at some point. But then, that’s jiu-jitsu. We all have holes in our game, and practitioners who’ve done nothing but play offense since day one will also get a wake-up call when they realize that they are properly screwed once someone gets past their guard. Once you do start incorporating more offense into your rolling, you’ll be better able to multitask — your knowledge of how to stay safe and unsubmitted will protect you and allow more room for error and second chances when you dedicate more time and effort to submissions.

All of us just kind of flop around and struggle until we gradually begin to feel more confident as we learn more, and your abilities are almost guaranteed to be a bit unbalanced as you figure out which techniques suit you best. As long as you’re a good person to your teammates and continue to show up, there’s no right or wrong way to start your jiu-jitsu journey.

Featured image by Trinity SP Photography


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