Many gyms don’t teach leg locks with the same precision and seriousness that they teach other submissions. Leg locks have long been viewed as a “dirty” set of submissions by many grapplers. As a result, when a person who competes “comes of age” and has to start entering advanced divisions, they may wind up in hot water.
A reader turned friend asked me an interesting question on this subject: as he is nearing that threshold where if he wants to compete at tournaments that don’t follow IBJJF rules, he will have to contend with a whole family of submissions to which he hasn’t exposed himself.
“What’s you advice in transitioning to competing in no gi with heel hooks? Learn to defend them or learn to recognize when I need to tap? I’m so afraid people will just yank on them.”
I entered my first advanced division unwillingly a few years ago when I was still just a blue belt (they didn’t have anyone in my bracket so they threw me into the advanced division), and I won that first match against a purple belt by heel hook. That was the first leg lock I had ever hit in a competition. I was terrified he was going to somehow turn the tables on me and my knee would explode. Since then, heel hooks and leg locks in general have become an integral part of my game.
Like just about any upper body submission, there are a series of things that have to happen before you can trap someone in a heel hook. Even if someone is going full ape on you, they still need to isolate your hip and knee before they can do permanent damage, and that takes a bit of time. Watch the best leg lockers in the world. Even though it looks like everything happens in a blink of an eye, it really happens over the course of a few seconds.
When you first start learning leg locks, you will be tapping preemptively because you don’t know your own limitations. You don’t know where your own breaking point is. And at the beginning that is okay. Just bear in mind that you can beat someone even if they are hunting for heel hooks throughout the match, as long as you understand how to undo/defend those heel hooks.
Most major injuries that come off of leg locks are not the result of a spazzy applier, but rather the person on whom the lock is being applied either taps too late or tries to spin out. Spinning out is dangerous if you don’t know which direction you should spin. My advice to anyone just getting started is to learn static escapes before learning dynamic ones, as the static ones are safer and you won’t injure yourself doing them.
Make a habit of verbally tapping to leg locks. Because of where the other person is relative to your upper body, they may not feel or hear you tapping, but if you yell they and the referee are more likely to hear you.
The thing with heel hooks is that once you start training and drilling them you will know when you’re caught. At first you should tap when you’re caught. As time progresses, try escaping when you’re caught, knowing that you will not feel pain the same way in your lower body as you do in your upper body. I personally tap as soon as I feel pressure in my knee; I never let it get as far as experiencing pain because it’s just not worth it for me. There are people who will take it further.
As I get more comfortable with the leg lock game, I look forward to being able to ply my craft on my opponents at a competition. The heel hook can be a great equalizer, and it can make the game much more interesting. Think of it as adding another piece to a chess board. But remember, it’s a powerful move that you need to respect and you need to give it attention and time.