Over my years of training, I’ve seen a LOT of trends come and go with BJJ protective gear. I’ve found that like most things, there aren’t many hard and fast rules. Most choices are more personal preference than necessity.
The most important ‘safety measure’ is usually the most overlooked. The number one thing you can wear to make sure that both you and your jiu jitsu training partners stay as safe as possible is a gi that is free of rips, tears, and holes. If a gi has holes or tears, fingers and toes can get caught inside the material and lead to dislocations and small joint injuries. Back when I wasn’t able to replace my gis as often as I do now, I used to throw a new patch on any spot that started ripping. There are International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) rules for patch placements, but if it’s just a gi for training at home, it’s more important that it’s not going to catch on anything than having the patches in the proper places.
Likewise, all patches should be sewn on securely and double stitched. If one of your patches starts to fall off, sew it back on or rip it off. The in between could catch on something leading to twists, cuts, or similar small joint injuries to the ones I mentioned with ripped gis.
When you’re training no-gi jiu jitsu, keep these same guidelines in mind. It’s not mandatory that you wear a rashguard and spats. A t-shirt and gym shorts or even gi pants all work. As long as there are no rips, tears, loops, or anything that can trap a finger or toe, it’s going to be safe for you to train. In time, you’ll start to develop your own preferences for what you like to wear. But as long as it’s safe for both you and your training partners, I consider it acceptable training gear.
Moving away from the absolute necessities, the piece of safety gear that I really highly recommend is a mouthguard. It’s not technically mandatory, but honestly, I see no reason not to use one. I personally wear one every single time I roll. I started out using the ‘boil and bite’ mouthguards that you can get from the sporting goods stores. When my wife and I got together, I started wearing a custom mouthguard. My father in law is a dentist so he took impressions of my jaw and to this day, he makes all of my mouthguards.
The difference between boil and bite mouthguards and custom mouthguards is night and day. Boil and bites can be a little tough to roll with, I think that’s why a lot of people quit wearing them. Boil and bites are designed to be used with ANY sport. They are pushed up on the upper teeth and when you hold your mouth closed they will naturally stay in place. Unfortunately, in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you’re on your back, upside down, moving quickly from one position to another and you might have your mouth open, they tend to move around. You’re not in the same positions in jiu jitsu as you are in other sports. So, the boil and bites tend to get jostled around and can feel like you’re going to swallow them or you have to concentrate too hard to keep biting them to keep them in place. It’s distracting, so jiu jitsu players tend to spit them out.
Custom mouthguards or mouthguards that stay in place that don’t require you to bite down and hold them in are great for jiu jitsu. I highly recommend them because even though our sport doesn’t have striking, bumps can happen by accident. Basic mouthguards can help protect you against a lot of the minor dental injuries that happen from those occasional bumps.
After mouthguards, the next most common piece of safety or protective gear that jiu jitsu players tend to wear is wrestling headgear to protect against cauliflower ear. I used to wear headgear from about 6 months into my training through my years at blue belt. I started wearing it initially because I had a couple of spots of cauliflower ear developing. Not everyone is susceptible to cauliflower ear, that bloated & puffy looking ear that is a characteristic of wrestlers, but I am. I’ve never liked the look of it, and I didn’t want to deal with any hearing issues that can come from it.
One strange part of jiu jitsu culture is that cauliflower ear can be a badge of honor in BJJ, wrestling, and grappling. While I never ‘wanted it,’ when I was in my early 20’s, I didn’t really care too much about preventing it either. For that reason, during that time, I was hit or miss about wearing my headgear. When I was about a year into my blue belt, on a day I had skipped wearing it, I had a pretty bad ear injury that required stitches. It was a weird accident where someone’s ankle bone pulled my ear forward & disconnect it. I needed stitches behind my ear to reattach the cartilage. After that, I wore headgear every day to keep that protected.
After I got my purple belt, I stopped wearing my headgear and I haven’t had any more problems. I was at a point in my game where my ear didn’t get aggravated in the same way that it used to. I’ve talked with a few of my other friends who are black belt academy owners and we all agree that around purple or brown belt, if you haven’t gotten cauliflower ear, you’re probably in the clear. By that time, you tend to not have your head wrapped as much as you did at the beginning. When you aren’t constantly defending and you get to play your offensive style, that’s usually a sign that you might be in the clear. Hard takedowns or a lot of pressure on your head can also cause ear injuries. Most people in jiu jitsu don’t wear it unless it’s absolutely necessary because it can be hot or a little uncomfortable, but headgear is an simple and effective way to avoid these types of minor ear injuries.
The only other piece of protective gear that I’ve ever worn is knee braces. In Ann Arbor, we are fortunate to be located across the street from the world headquarters of a wrestling gear company. They make great compression wraps that have no metal pieces but still provide good support against lateral joint movement. I had a minor issue with bursitis in my knee a few years ago. When that happened, I wore braces on both knees for about a year.
People come to jiu jitsu with a lot of previous injuries from other sports and activities. The best part about Brazilian jujitsu is that we can develop any game to suit your strengths and diminish your physical weaknesses or prior injuries. But, even when we develop a game that minimizes those issues, many people feel more comfortable wearing basic compression wraps on those joints that are a little weaker than the others. Again, as long as there is no metal in the brace that can hurt yourself, your training partners, or rip the mats, you’re free to wear any brace that makes you feel more comfortable and protected.
Speaking of protection, I haven’t mentioned the use of cups. A lot of people assume that all male jiu jitsu players wear them based on the nature of our sport. Despite the physical contact that we have when we roll, cups are actually highly discouraged in the academy and they are not allowed at all in tournaments. As I said before, for the safety of your training partners, any brace has to be soft sided and not have any hard pieces. The entire cup is made out of hard plastic. They were outlawed in competition because people were taking top positions on their partners and pressuring the cups into people causing injury, even breaking noses.
If you watch competitors get ready for tournaments or even get ready to roll in the academy, you’ll see a lot of people taping their fingers, toes, wrists, ankles, etc. Some people go through a TON of athletic tape to wrap up just about everything. I know a lot of people who swear by this taping method to protect against small joint injuries. I don’t personally do it, but there is nothing wrong with the practice and it can’t hurt anyone else, therefore it’s fair game.
I hate to use this cliche’ but the best protection is prevention. If you find that your fingers are getting hurt, that’s a sign that you’re relying too much on your grips. Don’t overcommit at the expense of your fingers. You can always let go and grip again.
If you find that you or YOUR training partners are constantly getting bumped and bruised and no one else is having that problem, slow down. Focus on rolling smoother with more fluidity.
If your jaw is getting hurt because you’re tucking your chin to defend when someone is applying a choke, that’s YOU putting yourself in a bad position. At that point, you are too late, you lost, and you need to tap to protect your jaw and to tell your partner that they completed the technique. THAT’S ALL A TAP REALLY IS, a signal that the move is completed correctly.
If you’re rolling with me, I would personally never pressure your jaw for a tap, but, it is not your training partner’s responsibility to make sure that you’re comfortable during the choke and in a tournament, your opponent will pressure down on it all day long if you’re applying this ‘bandaid defense’ of a choke. Like we always say, at that point, you didn’t lose because of the tap. You lost because you allowed yourself to get into a bad position probably 2 minutes before the submission happened. If you’re finding that submissions are hurting or uncomfortable, there is a simple fix, tap sooner. Don’t let your ego cause physical pain or injury.
If you have any questions about any of the protective gear that I mentioned in this post, please contact us at URSA Academy. We would be happy to help point you in the right direction & hook you up with the appropriate gear that will allow you to practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as safely as possible for many years to come.