How to Start Bjj as a Wrestler

Every year about this time, a generation of wrestlers retires. District and State Championships define the top of the sport, and the season ends. Few go on to wrestle in college and even fewer become Olympians. As an adult, you can always coach. But if you want to continue gaining new skills and possibly competing, Bjj is your best bet. We do a few key things differently, they follow positive natural changes that adults with responsibilities naturally understand. This is what you need to know.

There are more positions to learn in the absence of a back pin rule. But there are also more ways to get points.
This is a very rough breakdown, but at least six of these positions will be familiar for you.
The rules have a lot of detail and take a little time to get used to. Mainly stay on top, pass the guard, establish clear control.
Your existing skills can help you, but you will need to keep an open mind.

Takedowns are still 2 points just like in wrestling. We have a couple key differences. There is no penalty for missing a shot. If you shoot, they sprawl and come around behind you, no points. Same with judo throws. This is to encourage action. Guard pulling is allowed, but not encouraged. If you grab the pants or initiate a takedown before the pull, you get the two points. There are also no takedowns from your knees. You can shoot and drive in a continuous motion, but if you stop for three seconds, either stand up or sit back to guard. This rule also avoids several awkward stalling battles.

The mats will be different without wrestling shoes. You can still be on your toes and apply pressure, but driving off the mats is not going to happen. I like this because it forces us to place our weight carefully and put more thought into top positions.

Learn how to pass the guard.

I used to say it too. “They’re scared of the takedown!” But after 17 years of Bjj, pulling guard is a practical solution to get to top position quicker. My body doesn’t need to engage in brutal takedown wars all day anymore. Instead, I work takedowns a few times a week with people who are safe for me. We never did this to look cool. Remember the wrestling singlet? I learned to think about passing the guard along the same lines as hunting for a takedown. The satisfaction of passing is similar. You can move in similar ways, and also learn about incorporating your legs more into your movements. The legs can fight the legs while the arms fight the arms. There’s no reason to be “Scared to pass the guard!”

Play Guard primarily sitting up.

Playing Guard doesn’t mean you have to lay on your back. Play sitting up with one hand on the mat for mobility. A couple simple tricks will help you to learn how to wrestle from your butt and avoid guillotines. Think about it. You have already changed levels, and they can’t take you down because you’re already on the ground. Double and single legs are still great options from sitting. You will develop contingency plans as you meet failures.

Hold position longer.

Stalling is when you spend 20 seconds deliberately not advancing. However, you need to hold a position for three seconds to get your points. Side Control from a strong Bjj or Judo player will change how you think about pinning.

At any given moment, half the room is trying to escape.

Tap early and tap often.

The addition of submissions is nothing new to wretstling. Catch wrestling has always been around in some form. I have been reading books and watching video of old wrestling lately. We have a lot to learn from our past mistakes. The inherent danger of submissions is both what gives grappling its teeth and what makes people quit. Our rules allow different submissions by belt rank, and going outside them warrants a brief friendly discussion in gym rolls. We don’t often do neck cranks or twisting leg locks because the risk of serious injury is higher. I don’t believe it’s wise to ingnore them entirely, but using them competitively is not something I’m interested in either. Drill everything carefully at first, and note precise points of danger for each individual so you can learn what it is. Learn how to hold the position for long enough to give your partner time to tap before they are in pain. You should also learn how to be on the recieving end of these things safely. If you are in doubt, be honest with your training partners. Helping each other is what helps us all improve.

Regular people with jobs do this. Sustainable training is imperative.

Wrestling rules limit our movements to a handful of positions, and has more focus on athleticism and toughness than Bjj. This makes it theoretically safe for kids to learn something simple and go as hard as they can. We always have people trying to implement more or less of these things in Bjj, but their use is governed by sustainability. For example, I was taught in wrestling to grab people’s fingers and grind them together. Nobody appreciates that shit. A grown up who types a lot for their job will simply not train with you. Nobody is required to hurt themselves for your improvement. We do still have people who use explosive movements. Those movements should be mapped out and tested systematically. Because we cover so many more positions, we need to be more careful and aware of potential risks. When in doubt, slow down. You can speed back up once you are certain about the risks. Remember, Safety First!

Cleanliness is extremely important to us.

For some reason, many wrestlers feel it’s ok to just put some tape over their ringworm and keep training. We don’t do that here. Good wrestling programs also don’t tolerate this, but apparently someone out there is saying that it’s ok. Wearing a gi also greatly cuts down on the grossness of sweaty people. I personally feel that it’s important to train both gi and nogi. At the end of a nogi day you smell like everyone you trained with. At the end of a gi day you stink, but only like yourself. Lastly, I am sorry to say…. Your wrestling shoes are disgusting. No shoes, no exceptions. We will also yell at you if you walk barefoot off the mats, especially in the bathroom. Make sure your feet don’t have any funk on them, and keep your toenails trimmed. Get some flops and keep them on the edge of the mat.

Pace yourself, you have plenty of time.

I was a wrestler too. In fact, I didn’t like Bjj because I thought it was a few tricks someone came up with to bypass the hard work I had put in as a wrestler. But I was wrong. My mistake was being unwilling to see things from another perspective. These alien positions and complex sequences had incredible detail and application of concept that changed how I see the world. Don’t try to be fashionably ignorant. There is plenty more to learn, and discovering these puzzles is the fun part. I took four years to get to Blue Belt, and six more to get to Black. Competition has been a wild ride with a lot of ups and downs. We can do this for a long time if we are careful. I’m 41 and try to consistently compete six times a year. Our oldest active competitor is 61 and showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. You will find that there is always more to learn, and you can approach new challenges with increasing confidence. This game is as rewarding as it is complicated, so enjoy the journey.

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