I’m going to attempt to answer the question that school owners secretly dread: “Is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Safe?”
The answer is: “Define what safe means.”
That’s a bit of a cop out of course, and it could be followed up by a deflection on how one takes their chances when they get out of bed in the morning or cross the street and if that answer satisfies you, there’s no need to read any further.
Perhaps a better phrasing of the question might be to ask “Is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Dangerous?” I find that this satisfies both sides of the fence in that no one wants to be considered unsafe, but it’s infinitely cooler to label something as dangerous. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has three elements that make it a more dangerous activity then getting out of bed or crossing the street.
Firstly, Jiu Jitsu is a physical activity. Every physical activity has a base level of risk.
Secondly, Jiu Jitsu is a competitive physical activity. The more competitive you get, the level of risk increases.
Finally, an end goal of Jiu Jitsu, the application of submissions, are designed to injure an opponent. This third element may make Jiu Jitsu a unique pastime.
ALL SUBMISSIONS FROM BASIC TO ADVANCED LEVELS, FROM TRAINING TO COMPETITION TO SELF DEFENSE ARE DESIGNED TO CAUSE INJURY, NOT TAPOUTS. THE TAPOUT IS TO SIGNIFY THAT ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THE SUBMISSION AND SURRENDER BEFORE THE INJURY OCCURS. TAP EARLY AND TAP OFTEN
I strongly believe in honesty being the best policy, and an acknowledgement of the inherit risks involved in Jiu Jitsu makes for a safer and ultimately happier student.
The best question to ask then is “Does the benefits of Jiu Jitsu outweigh the inherit risk?” For myself, and many others, the answer is a resounding YES. I am not going to expound on the benefits of Jiu Jitsu in this article however (there is much material on the subject and I will contribute my own ver soon), instead I am going to address those of you who have made the decision to train and want to make it a safer experience or at least be able to properly assess your risks.
I am going to broadly categorize the kinds of risk within Jiu Jitsu into broad categories. The first will be the risk of sudden injury. Aside from the potential of injury from submission as discussed there are the potential of injuries that come from a competitive physical activity including but not limited to falling improperly, collisions, and general lack of body awareness at times that occurs with one or more participants. Those chances can certainly be lessened through experience, but the chance of injury is never diminished to zero percent. While much can be said about being a “good training partner” the truth is as a martial artists we must be prepared to accept the personal responsibility to always attempt to protect ourselves. A place where as my safety is totally in the hands of either my partner or opponent is not a place I have any intention of being in. I may well have compete faith in a training partner to not intentionally place me in harms way, but I do not trust situations at all.
As a very specific example, I don’t like being up in the air or otherwise disconnected from the ground at any point. The longer I am disconnected to the ground, the more likely it is then when I regain contact with the ground it will not be to my liking. Even a careful training partner likely won’t have my safety as their first or even second priority at this point, particularly if I am hunting for a submission.
The second risk is the chance of an injury or damage accumulating over time. The chance (or severity) of injury can be largely attributed to two sources. Firstly improper technique or training, meaning that training doesn’t address the potential risks of training and bad technique or form will lead to cumulative damage.
As an example, the guard, ie your ability to fight off of your back is considering a core position within Jiu Jitsu, but bad form or an overuse of the position can result in some rather debilitating back injuries over time.
Secondly as Jiu Jitsu can be an intense physical endeavor, a strength and conditioning program to match that intensity should be applied as well. To be clear, Jiu Jitsu can be a part of a great strength and conditioning program, but as with anything certain areas tend to get worked out more than others and it is entirely possible to be over developed in certain areas, while being completely underdeveloped in other areas.
Earlier in my career I was primarily concerned with only developing those areas that I felt would “help my Jiu Jitsu”. These days in my time away from the mat I am concerned with developing everything else.
Helio Gracie, famously one of the founders of Jiu Jitsu as we know it now often emphasized it as a self defense art first. In his book Hello emphasized your safety being your first priority, as as long as you remained in the fight, you always had a chance to win (or something like that, translated from the Portuguese which was his native tongue. This is very similar to the famous Napoleon Hill quote, in that “Victory is always possible for the person who refuses to stop fighting”. I have interpreted these quotes in different ways over the course of my career. For me victory is each and every time I get on the mat, because that always gives me the chance to better myself in so many different ways. Thus my interpretation of my safety is my ability to make it to the mat in a meaningful way each time and I don’t take for granted any of my time on the mat. I am aware my time is finite, so I intend to get the most and best use of my mat time as possible.
See you on the mat