My Life as a Jiu-Jitsu Enforcer

Every gym I’ve ever been to has an enforcer. This isn’t an official title. It’s a role that goes mostly unspoken and when it is talked about, it’s communicated in code between instructor and student—half-statements that seem to echo the doublespeak of 1984.

“Look out for the new guy, he’s really tough!” said with a laugh.

“Meet so-and-so. They have some previous experience,” said with a little extra direct eye contact.

And then, other times, it’s a discreet nod done from across the room.

The message: Take this guy through the paces. Show him what jiu-jitsu can do, and if he’s rolling really rough, shut that down with some noticeable authority.

The challenge with the enforcer role is that it feels inherently violent. A new person has stepped on to the mat, and they might be big, or they just might roll too hard for that particular class level. The instructor then pairs the student with an enforcer—if the instructor him or herself doesn’t step in themselves to play that part--and the enforcer uses experience to humble the troublemaker or exhaust them to the point that they are no longer a danger to themselves or others.

So, let’s be honest, if we step back and really think about the idea of an enforcer, it’s weird.

I’ve been teaching jiu-jitsu from pretty much the day I started. Yes, I wasn’t really qualified to teach, but I founded a University club with a few other white belts because we wanted more time to train (and couldn’t afford to pay for more mat time at our school). So, even as a white belt, I felt some responsibility to take the tougher rolls that came into the room. The new guy that wrestled in high school or the muscle head that thinks he’s a fighter. Better they roll with me, the most experienced guy in the room (a really low bar in this case), than with a newer student.

As I rose through the ranks and took on more formal teaching roles, even running a satellite school for a brief stint, I often found myself playing the role of the enforcer. If I was running class, I had to grab the guy that rolled too rough, or I had to take the new guy and deal with a round of him testing me to see if I was really worthy of teaching him.

What I’ve come to realize, however, is that the violence of being an enforcer doesn’t solve the actual problem we’re aiming to solve.

We don’t talk to a new person about how they’re rolling too hard or how they might end up hurting someone. We send in a ringer to rough them up, and if we want to add a big serving of potential embarrassment, we send in someone that is much smaller than the troublemaker. The problem, it seems to me, is that we have fallen into a trap where we think that violence will actually solve a problem, and we might also be coping with a bit of group ego as well. Using the enforcer can often be just as much about protecting more vulnerable students—the smaller students, the less experienced students, or the injured students—as it is about saying, “Hey. Just because you beat up one of our white belts doesn’t mean that you’re better than us.”

If I tap a troublemaker out in a few seconds of starting a roll, by virtue of simply capitalizing on a big mistake in an efficient way, the reaction has never—ever—been “Oh I must need to slow down and make more methodical and tactical choices with my grappling.” No. They just go harder. And then harder. And then harder. Eventually, after a few months of taking classes and rolling with dozens of jiu-jiteiros, the osmosis of a healthy training pace may sink in. But that’s a slow process.

After years of playing the enforcer, I stumbled into a better approach: Use technique to shut down the rough and tumble style of a new and overly zealous student, and then actually talk to him or her. After two quick taps, I pause the roll and say, “Going harder isn’t the solution. You need to make better choices. Try doing this instead.”

And then, if they continue rolling really hard, I take a dominant position where I am least likely to take a stray elbow to the nose (belly down back mount is nice) and let them thrash like a beached fish for a few moments. Then I use a coaching voice to say that their approach is only making it worse, and I give them a simple tactical solution like “Protect your neck and start peeling off my feet.”

Rinse and repeat with a good dose of patience.

I’ve seen a high level of success with this approach because what we forget when we send in enforcers is that the average new student simply doesn’t know any better and isn’t actually trying to hurt anyone. In fact, some of them even express some level of horror when you explain the danger they could pose to other students. If we can set aside our own egos and take the time to communicate, we might be able to use enforcers less often and accelerate the transformation from spazzy new student to model jiu-jiteiro.

But if the person is just being a jerk, by all means, drop the shoulder of justice.