Handicap and Brazilian jiu-jitsu: a technical inspiration

“Jiu-jitsu for everyone”, a slogan, a claim to underline Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s strengths: a martial-art that everyone can practice. Men, women, young or old people can step on the mat and also people with a handicap. Many stories demonstrate it but just a few media show how disabled athletes approach Brazilian jiu-jitsu. What if beyond the lesson about life they could be a technical inspiration?

Brazilian jiu-jitsu and handicap: life lessons

During the last year you may have seen articles or videos about handicapped Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners on the Internet. These nice lessons of life and courage touch more or less everyone, depending on each person’s sensibility. From Ricardo Liborio’s blind daughter, to an American father and former soldier who is triple amputee, these stories affect and make you put daily worries into perspective.

It is the same about sportive jiu-jitsu. You will easily find a documentary about competitors like the French blind man Nicolas Plessy, or Paolo Amadeo, a one leg amputee, who caused a sensation in blue belt at the 2014 IBJJF European Open.

All these portraits contribute to show that jiu-jitsu is for everyone. They also underline its benefits: strengthen self-confidence, develop capacity to surpass or adapt yourself. Especially because there is no special category for the disabled like in judo. All practitioners train and compete together.

However is there nothing more to find in these Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners’ performance? Beyond the life lesson and the (short) questioning it imposes (because nobody is sheltered from this kind of accident or disease), do we not have something more to learn from these athletes?

I wished to find more information about the way these athletes approach techniques, fights or how their coaches adapt their teaching. Unfortunately there is not much content about it on the net but we can think about it.

Be able to do a technique with one’s eyes shut

Have you ever tried to literally apply this proverb? The Top Team academy in Iceland gave it a try to celebrate Richard Harlow’s birthday, a visually-impaired team member. All the team members wore blindfolds in order to do a blind rolling session. They felt totally disoriented despite of Richard Harlow’s advices.

Indeed, the vision takes an important part (maybe a too important part?) in the way we perceive the opponent’s movements and intentions. However, touch and hearing are as much important as the vision. When you have difficulties to execute a technique do we not say that we don’t feel the movement?

According to Robert Biernacki (Robert Harlow’s coach), “The power of the blindfold in training is that it can force an athlete to pay more attention to their other senses” and to be more technical*. I have tried to train with closed eyes during technique and sparring and I have to agree with him. It allows me to feel much better my body position in the space and to better understand the mechanism of a technique. It is also easier to feel the weight distribution and the transfers necessary to maintain effective controls. This kind of exercise permits to feel jiu-jitsu whereas to focus on many details.

For me it’s a main point of progress and it’s my meeting with Andre Powell at Lange’s MMA academy, located in Manly (in the north suburb of Sydney), who inspired me. I had the chance to see him spar and I was impressed by his control and anticipation of the fight (today brown belt, Andre just won the Gracie Worlds in purple belt when I met him). His training partners were all surprised by his submissions.
Andre has just launch a blog to show his techniques and his approach from Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a visually impaired athlete. I will follow it closely! I also invite you to read an article about him.


Handicap: a mean to surpass yourself at training

With less grips and/or supports people with handicap have necessarily to adapt technically and strategically their jiu-jitsu. These adjustments can be very effective and open up to a new range of techniques. See Jean-Jacques Machado’s impressive underhook and sweep. He won the ADCC in 1999 (known as the most prestigious grappling tournament) and was in the same time designated as the more technical fighter of the tournament. There is no best example.

More recently I have discovered Geoff Real at the Eddie Bravo Invitational, a submission only grappling tournament. I invite you to watch his fights and how he goes to the clinch with a reduced reach to deploy his strategy (10’20). See also how he attacks and defends the choke from the back (54’32) and the leglock he did to win his fight (1h35’00).

In the same tournament you will also discover Matt Betzold (10 MMA fights, 6 wins including 5 with submission). Clinch, takedown, footlocks, he constantly put an impressive pressure on his opponent despite his handicap (1h9’53). Moreover I love his rashguard !

When you master your favourite technique and submit everybody at the academy, force yourself to use a handicap may be a way to continue to perfect it. In his interview to Inside BJJ, Royce Gracie says about his father that (Helio Gracie) “he used to train with one hand. The next day you switch and put the left hand in, and then he tied both hands and see if he can tap the students. […] then he would close his eyes, blindfold himself, roll, train, and practice”. For him it’s a mean to continue to surpass himself without training with partners at his level.

New controls, armdrag, overhook and fighting strategy in which you try to go under your opponent’s gravity center but also the search for a better feeling of jiu-jitsu… These are improvements opportunities for small biceps (like mine) or bigger one!


*Visually-impaired athlete inspires Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitors, Nanaimo Daily News