OPINION: If You’re Not Teaching Leg Locks Early, You’re Holding Your Students Back

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Image Source: Trinity SP Photography

As jiu-jitsu has evolved over the years, the no-gi sub-only scene has grown dramatically… and so has the necessity to learn leg locks. Thanks largely to the success of grapplers like Gordon Ryan, Craig Jones, and Eddie Cummings, the lower “50 percent of the human body” has become a more popular target for BJJ practitioners hoping to take their jiu-jitsu to the next level and even make some money through their hobby.

Many BJJ academies, however, aren’t completely on board with the direction competitive jiu-jitsu is heading. Some coaches are simply more traditional, considering the IBJJF — and its widely used rule set — the optimal standard for BJJ competition. They put their focus completely on chokes and upper-body submissions, making a limited exception for straight ankle locks (and rarely spending a significant amount of time on them) and not introducing their students to lower-body submissions such as kneebars until they’d be allowed to use them in tournaments.

Other instructors may simply be worried about the damage that newer students could do with an improperly executed heel hook. After all, white belts are known for being a bit too, erm, enthusiastic when attempting submissions. A hyperextended arm sucks enough as it is, but the damage caused by cranking an inside heel hook can cause the victim to need surgery and six months or more of recovery time.

At this point in jiu-jitsu history, though, BJJ practitioners can’t afford to start learning leg locks three or four years after their first class. More and more academies are starting to teach leg locks earlier on, which means that white belts with a year of training may easily have significant knowledge of a whole skill set that blue and purple belts have only seen in a few classes. Even though these white belts may not have the technique or overall skill that their higher-ranked counterparts have accumulated over the years, all it takes for them to secure a win in an open or advanced division is the knowledge of how to access and execute a leg lock on someone who spends all their time on upper body submissions.

We’ve seen this exact situation play out before. (Remember this white belt who leg locked all his higher-ranked opponents in a combined three minutes?) People like to cry “sandbagging” when it happens, but the truth is that if someone who has significantly less experience than their opponents manages to clean out the division with a very specific skill set, it indicates a gap in the upper belts’ training. You can be mad that rival academies are introducing leg locks to their students before they earn their blue belts, but your frustration won’t stop your own students from getting kneebarred and toeholded (toeheld?) and heel hooked by competitors who’ve been drilling leg locks for nearly as long as they’ve been drilling armbars and rear naked chokes.

Look, week-one white belts don’t need to learn how to cripple people before they know what closed guard is. At this stage, however, you’re doing your students a disservice if you aren’t teaching them leg locks despite knowing that they can safely roll with others. Every submission in jiu-jitsu has the potential to cause catastrophic harm — that’s why we tap. As long as you’re emphasizing the importance of safe submissions — which means tapping early and applying submissions slowly — everyone should be walking out of your classes uninjured (heavy emphasis on the “walking”). If not, there’s a fundamental problem in your academy’s culture that needs to be fixed.

Much like technology, jiu-jitsu is evolving, and our choices are to either evolve with it or get left behind. You have every right to set the rules in your own academy and let your students progress at the pace you set. But if your students feel like you’re holding them back, they, too, have the right to leave for a gym they feel will give them the tools they need to become more complete BJJ athletes. At this stage in the game, the choice you make can mean the difference between having a blue belt who beats all the brown belts, or having brown belts who regularly lose to a blue belt. The decision is yours.

Featured image by Trinity SP Photography

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