Training Wheels, Leg Locks, and Takedowns

I have been riding a bike everywhere in Copenhagen. I grew up riding a bike, rode around some in college, but I have probably ridden a bike twice in the last 6 years. When I jumped on my bike at the rental store, it was a bit rough at the beginning—figuring out my balance, where to put my weight, finding the exact right spot to sit on that weird seat. After a few minutes, though, I was cruising.

Copenhagen bike infrastructure is amazing. They have wide bike lanes and even dedicated street lights and turning lanes solely to bikers. Being back on the pedals got me thinking about bike riding and that classic analogy: X is like riding a bike.

Haven’t played your guitar in a while? Don’t worry. It’s like riding a bike.

Haven’t entered a Magic: The Gathering tournament in a while? Don’t worry. It’s like riding a bike.

Everything is like riding a bike, apparently, and I’ve heard people say the same about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

I have never taken a training lay off longer than two weeks—knock on wood—so I can’t speak to the part of the analogy about coming back to BJJ after being away for a while, but I think the idea of training wheels in jiu-jitsu could be a powerful training framework.

Training wheels simplify the balancing act of riding a bicycle so that you can work on other important tasks like generating forward momentum and steering. In jiu-jitsu, placing an emphasis on beginner’s learning closed guard is like handing them a set of training wheels. Your opponent mostly stays in place, you probably won’t get submitted, and you get to learn basic attacks that won’t get you completely destroyed (necessarily) if you fail.

Opening guard becomes that movie-magic milestone where you take the training wheels off and start coasting down the hill all by yourself. You might fall a few times, and it will take a lot of practice before you have the awareness to zip around town or hit a jump or mountain bike up a rocky trail, but the training wheels are off either way.

We build in restrictions in other aspects of jiu-jitsu for the sake of safety and learning. Under the traditional ruleset, the justification behind limiting leg attacks and other submissions is very much in line with installing training wheels. Even despite the growth in popularity of leg locks and new formats where leg locks are allowed for all levels, many schools to still frown on them. It's hard to disagree with the fact that leg locks add another layer of complexity to the ground game, but some would argue that just as we have “helicopter parents”—get your helmet, your knee pads, and your wrist guards, and don’t leave the driveway!—perhaps we have helicopter instructors that are doing more harm than good with this particular set of training wheels.

Takedowns, like leg locks, are often restricted with the thinking that it’s better for the student’s safety if they learn them later. So we avoid them by teaching students to simply sit down, and years later, some purple belts still avoid training takedowns because of how dangerous they can be, sometimes going as far as to suggest that pulling guard is a tactical decision on their part.

Well, of course your guard is stronger than your takedowns at that point.

Yes, takedowns add another layer of complexity to the game. You could learn Judo throws, Greco takedowns, or freestyle takedowns. That’s a lot to pick from.

We may be at a point in our sport where we rethink training wheels. Closed guard as a form of training wheels still means that you’re in guard, and your guard will eventually open regardless. You might not be pedaling down the street entirely on your own, but you’re still learning. Completely eliminating leg locks and takedowns doesn’t align with that philosophy. That, to me, is like learning to ride a bike by not touching the pedals. You’ll never make any progress because you aren’t actually doing anything.

Training wheels are useful tools, but we’ll never get to a fully evolved grappling infrastructure if our training wheels are so restrictive that less people end up riding bikes.