“Jiu-jitsu is what works.”
These words, spoken to me by my first instructor Adem Redzovic, echo in my ears even today. It was an inclusive statement that to me captures the essence of jiu-jitsu. There is no static list of techniques but an ever-growing art that is constantly pressure tested in the crucibles of sparring and competition. Applying techniques against live resistance is one of the key traits that separates the effective martial arts from those that aren’t.
So it is always surprising to me that it is the norm in jiu-jitsu schools to dead drill takedowns but then to rarely, if ever, start sparring sessions on the feet. It flies in the face of the central idea that you can’t truly know a technique until you’ve done it for real. Drilling takedowns gives some familiarity with the techniques, but a student who only ever starts standing a few times a year doesn’t know if they can actually apply them in a live setting. Regardless of whether your goals are to be an MMA fighter, a BJJ competitor, or just a hobbyist martial artist, this approach sells yourself short. How can one claim to be a grappler if they struggle to take down even a mildly athletic person fresh off the street?
Jiu-jitsu sparring used to start on the feet. There are many videos of the older generation of Gracies and BJJ black belts rolling in the gym and starting on their feet. So what happened?
The most commonly cited reason to start on the mat is injury prevention. But anyone who has trained more than a few months knows that injuries are part of combat sports. Yes, training takedowns can result in injuries, but ground grappling and submissions can lead to injury as well. The key is knowing how to train this range safely by picking the right partners and progressively increasing the difficulty and intensity of your takedown practice.
Remember that regardless of your belt rank in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, if you haven’t sparred more than a few times on your feet, you are effectively still a white belt at stand up. You’ll try to muscle things, you’ll be too tense, you’ll miss openings, and make all the usual beginners mistakes all over again. Much like in your early white belt days on the mat, being tense and awkward in stand up can lead to injuries. But this is where you learn arguably the most valuable skill: the ability to be comfortable while being thrown and landing safely. As you gain experience in being taken down and train with more experienced takedown artists, the risk of injury actually decreases so long as the proper training environment is established and maintained.
Overcoming this phase and establishing a good training environment is done by building the fundamentals of a solid takedown program.
First pick your training partners well. When looking to start a new aspect to your training in your gym, establish a culture by picking the people in the gym who already reflect that culture you hope to promote. You want partners who can dial back their intensity and focus on learning rather than winning in the gym.
When you practicing takedowns, it is the entries that should get the most repetition. In a basic training routine, a common practice would be to do the entry four times with the fifth repetition ending in the full throw, with higher impact throws being done on to a crash mat. This helps build the muscle memory of the entry while saving your training partner’s body from repeated falls. It also helps a novice uke become comfortable with the takedown before having to take his or her fall. In the early stages of learning takedowns a beginner level student should always know on which repetition they will be thrown and what takedown will be used.
When moving into live takedown training, start out at low intensity, possibly assigning one partner to be defensive while the offensive partner works for a specific chain of takedowns. As you move towards full on stand up sparring, it is important to keep in mind that many injuries that occur from takedowns are the result of fighting too hard against a takedown. It is not unlike the white belt who fights against submissions with all their power only to end up getting injured because once their defenses break the submission comes on even stronger. When starting stand up training there will be a temptation to resist too hard, especially when you are only focusing on the takedown and not the follow-up mat work. Remember that for jiu-jitsu players the takedown is only one aspect of our martial art. It is often better to accept that you are being taken down and try to win that transition to ground rather than fight it.
One of the real benefits of stand up training is that the transition from standing to ground creates opportunities that jiu-jitsu players are experts at taking advantage of. Submissions, guard passes, back takes, and reversals can all come quickly in the moments after a takedown, but it takes familiarity with the transition to exploit.
Being a complete grappler means working on developing all aspects of the game, including takedowns. How can one feel like a creditable grappler if you would struggle to take down an athletic new student fresh off the street? But with time spent starting on the feet you can turn this situation from one of mild dread to one that you could comfortably dominate, not only taking the opponent down but using the takedown to quickly find a dominant position or submission hold.
When beginning your takedown practice, you don’t have to jump in all at once. You can start by devoting one night a week to starting from your feet.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing stand-up at your school, find a credible judo or wrestling academy in your area and trade in one class a week of jiu-jitsu for stand up. If this is a route you take, remember that you are starting over in a new martial art and need to keep an open mind. How many students of other martial arts have you seen wash out of jiu-jitsu because they were unable to open their minds to what was being taught? Don’t be that guy. Some of the best ground grappling techniques I’ve learned were from judo and sambo, but at first glance my jiu-jitsu experience shouted at me that it was wrong. Keep an open mind and adapt the technique later.
This cross-training will be time well invested. Your overall game will improve, and it will likely spark an interest in your training partners. To change the attitude toward takedown training in BJJ, it will take spreading the new practices, one training partner at a time, but the results are worth it.
About the Author: T.P. Grant
T.P. Grant has written for Bloody Elbow, FloGrappling, and FloCombat. He is a brown belt with Team Redzovic and dabbles in Sambo and Judo as well.