Being able to control how your opponent can move is a huge part of BJJ and an exceedingly useful skill in rugby union. The three key control point in BJJ are the hips, the shoulders, and the head. By applying pressure on these areas, BJJ players can force an opponent into a bad body position and an eventual submission.

Controlling the head – the head controls the spine. Wherever the head goes, the body will follow. In Jiu Jitsu, controlling the opponent’s head is easiest from a top dominant position (often referred to as side control). This position allows you to prevent your opponent from getting back to a kneeling or standing position. But “steering” an opponent’s head is also something that Jiu Jitsu players will attempt in standing or scrambling positions. By steering the opponent’s head, they’re unable to balance correctly; this will often lead to a more advantageous position for the player doing the steering.

Controlling the shoulders – either from the side control position or other ground positions, BJJ teaches players that once they gain a top position, they should control the opponent’s shoulders. This shoulder control prevents the opponent from regaining their feet and keeps them flat on their back (unable to roll). Your shoulders are also a useful tool in BJJ. The shoulder is often used to place pressure on the opponent’s head and neck as part of controlling their head. Pressure on the neck draws the opponent’s attention away from other areas as they attempt to restore breathing.

Controlling the hips – this is perhaps the most relevant part of Jiu Jitsu for rugby players. As in rugby, a Jiu Jitsu player’s hips are a critical tool for controlling their direction. Rugby players are taught from a young age to focus their attention on the ball carrier’s hips, because… “the hips don’t lie.” In other words, watching an opponent’s hips is the best way to know what direction they will move in.

Whether you’re trying to take down, or keep down an opponent, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu aims to control their hips as much as possible. From the guard position, pressure on the hips can force the opponent to release their leg control of your waist. From the half guard, hip pressure can allow you to pass their guard into the highly sought after a “mount” position. The hips are also the focus of many different takedown techniques borrowed from Judo and employed in MMA.

In rugby, controlling the ball carrier’s hips gives you a huge amount of leverage to effect the tackle and get the opponent on their back. A tackled player who is face down on the ground can protect the ball from players on their feet using their body. However, if the tackler can position the ball carrier on their back, this exposes the ball to “poachers” in a standing position who can then compete for possession. Note that the tackler is still required to release and roll away immediately. But controlling the ball carrier’s hips on the way down can give your teammates a greater ability to steal possession back for your team once the tackle is effected.



Rugby is a game played by people on their feet, end of story. One prop I played with suggested quite adamantly that… “It takes absolutely no talent to stand up.” But it’s not that simple when you’ve either been tackled or cleaned out of a ruck, and you have a 255 lb brute laying on top of you. While most Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players are comfortable on their backs, they also recognize that this is a weak position in self-defense situations. As a result, BJJ players train to get back to their feet as quickly as possible from laying flat on their backs with pressure from an opponent on… you guessed it, their head, shoulders, and hips. In rugby, being able to get back to your feet quickly means an extra player in the defensive line. Training Jiu Jitsu can help rugby players get back to their feet and into the game.

When rugby players first start out in Jiu Jitsu, it’s tempting for them to utilize their superior strength to bench-press opponents off of them. Unfortunately, this seldom works against a player who is the same size or has the superior skill or both. In most cases, all you’ll accomplish by trying to brute-force your way off your back is to burn precious energy reserves. Instead, BJJ teaches players to use their arms and hips to create space underneath the opponent for an escape. This technique is known as “Shrimping” and is particularly useful in rugby if you have someone laying on top of you who is pinned by another player’s weight. You’re not going to move all that bulk with your arms. Bridging with your hips, however, can often create enough space under your body for you to wriggle free and get back to your feet.



If body control is the ability to manipulate the position of your opponent in grappling or contact situations, body awareness is an understanding of your physical abilities and limitations. Do you have functional or straight-line strength? Can you control your breathing under pressure? Does your body bend and twist correctly? How do you react when you’re out-matched physically?

Jiu Jitsu practices will test your understanding of yourself. They demonstrate your areas of both weakness and strength. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re rolling. The open-mat format gives you the chance to learn and improve with virtually instant feedback from training partners who will help you grow.



Brazilian Jiu Jitsu requires an entirely different kind of conditioning to rugby. You’re not going to be running the equivalent of 7 miles in an hour. But you may still be exhausted at the end of your training session. Many first-time BJJ players will start out with deficiencies in strength, speed, and stamina, but these can all be trained on the mat.

Even amateur rugby players will usually enter Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with an advantage in size and strength over their opponents. But at the same time, they will typically lack flexibility, core strength and body awareness.

BJJ is perfect for rugby players, especially as an off-season training protocol, as the movements require combinations of:

  • Speed – not straight line running speed, but speed on the ground. The faster player will often be able to obtain an advantageous position and submit an opponent.
  • Squeezing – of the hips, grips, and adductors. In Jiu Jitsu, you’ll need to apply pressure with your arms and your legs. From a guard position, the legs are used to squeeze the opponent’s hips and prevent them from moving.
  • Relaxing – you can’t stay stiff the whole time, knowing when to relax is critical and usually foreshadows the application of pressure. Skilled Jiu Jitsu players will apply pressure in order to manipulate the body of the opponent. But relaxing during a round is critical to maintaining outputs for a full 5 minutes.
  • Pulling – unlike striking arts, Jiu Jitsu players are comfortable being close to their opponent. Submission maneuvers can only be effective in close quarters. So pulling and holding an opponent close, both with the legs and arms can setup these opportunities.
  • Pushing – is generally a defensive move in Jiu Jitsu. Pushing with the feet especially can force a standing opponent off-balance. While pushing with the arms can create space and the opportunity to escape compromised positions.
  • Gripping – is critical to everything in Jiu Jitsu. The application and maintenance of pressure with the hands and arms is important to many upper-body submission techniques. You’ll see virtually instant improvements in the gripping strength of your hands, fingers and forearms when you start rolling.
  • Getting up – sucks. Especially when you have someone on top of you preventing it. But as Rugby League has shown us, there is a skill to getting back to your feet quickly. A skill that BJJ teaches in almost every training session.



Right from the outset, Jiu Jitsu is a humbling experience. Without the technical knowledge, rugby players are at a significant disadvantage over more skilled opponents. You’re going to get tapped out. You’re going to get tapped out more than once. Maybe even more than once in a single round. The number of combinations of submissions is mind-boggling. And you’ll likely be the victim of every single one before long. And that’s O.K. Rugby players are not usually well known for their humility. But there’s nothing so humbling as being choked out by someone half your size.

The question is, how will you react to this challenge? Will you learn, ask questions and grow as a competitor? Or will you be dissatisfied with not being the most physically dominant player in the game?



Jiu Jitsu teaches two kinds of patience. Short-term patience on the mat and within a round. And long-term patience that will require weeks, months and years of commitment and dedication to BJJ. There are mile markers along the way. Points at which you’ll feel you understand what’s going on and how to defend yourself. Another where you’ll begin to formulate attacks and control your opponent. But the learning curve lasts a lifetime, just like in rugby.

Within a round, you may find yourself in a compromised position where there are few good options. Getting out of that position isn’t going to happen instantly. It requires testing, setup, defense and control all of which take time. Sometimes, you’ll need to wait for a mistake or an opportunity presented by the opponent. Sometimes, you’ll need to perform step 1, step 2 and step 3 in order to effect your escape in step 4. As a top dominant player, effecting a submission requires you to obtain perfect body position and wear down an opponent by applying pressure to the shoulders, head and neck. It takes time and patience, both to win and to not lose.



But you are going to lose. Consistently and often. That’s not easy for everyone. But for those that can put their ego aside, failure can be an excellent training tool. When you’re submitted with an arm bar, you have the chance to learn why it happened. Perhaps the greatest feature of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is that it gives you the opportunity to fail incredibly frequently. If you learn something every time you fail, you’re going to get better at Jiu Jitsu, at Rugby and at life.


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