Jiu Jitsu Physics: When Grappling Particles (and Partners) Collide

“Given unlimited mat space, all grapplers thereon will nonetheless congregate in a very small confined space.” It might sound funny, but BJJ physics is dangerous. Here’s how to avoid getting hurt.

I frequently joke about something I like to call “jiu jitsu physics.” The main theorem of jiu jitsu physics reads as follows: “Given unlimited mat space, all grapplers thereon will nonetheless congregate in a very small confined space.” In other words, pairs of grapplers have a tendency to end up on top of each other, being apparently scientifically unable to maintain safe distances from other pairs of grapplers.

This phenomenon is fun to joke about, but it’s also potentially dangerous. Several years ago, I was rolling with my then-instructor, and a second pair of grapplers moved dangerously close to us. My instructor poked one of the pair to get them to stop and move out of the way. But the other person in the pair didn’t notice and kept rolling, catching me perfectly – and hard – between the eyes with his heel, like an axe kick.

I remember crumpling to the mat and covering my face with my hands as the pain started to kick in, and I felt what would become an enormous goose egg start to grow out of my forehead. My coach told me to stay down and sat with me while one of the other students ran to get an ice pack. Unfortunately, the only thing in the freezer was a pint of raspberry sorbet, so I used that to try to counteract the swelling. I don’t know if the owner ate it after I was done. Eventually that kick proved to be the gift that kept on giving. I sustained two black eyes and I’m pretty sure I was concussed (though, like many grapplers, I was too stubborn/stupid to go to the doctor to make sure).

It was an occupational hazard, and I don’t blame the guy attached to the heel that caught me between the eyes. The point is, another of the many considerations and hazards for us to account for when we train is our proximity to other pairs. It is important, both for respect and for safety reasons, and it is something we need to work at, just like any technique. I’m sure I’m not the first person who’s ever been kicked or elbowed in the head while training, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. But perhaps we can reduce the number of casualties of jiu jitsu physics, or at least reduce our own likelihood of being counted among that number by making a point of noticing our surroundings.

bjj physics, bjj etiquette, bjj beginners, training bjj, bjj dangers, bjjTypically, BJJ etiquette dictates that a grappling pair should move out of the way of another grappling pair if at least one of the partners in the first pair outranks the rest of the grapplers. For instance, even if a black belt is rolling with a white belt, two brown belts would be the ones to move out of the way if everyone got too close. And so on down the line. White belts, then, spend a lot of time moving out of the way of others – if they are paying attention.

Where things get a little fuzzy is if two blue belts are rolling with two blue belts. I’ve seen many confrontations where two pairs of blue belts run into each other and then give each other the stink eye, waiting for the other pair to move. To those people I say: Move. All four of you. This is not really one of the battles you want to pick. Believe me, you’d rather have your wits about you. And keep in mind that, as I learned the hard way, foot always beats face. So get yours out of the way of theirs.

Have you seen pairs of grapplers balk at moving out of the way of other pairs? How do you think those disputes should be resolved? Do you agree with the rule of having lower belts move for higher belts? Post your opinions to comments.

Photos provided by David Brown Photography.

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