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Creating a culture of safety in your grappling program

When instructors create a safety culture and invite their students to participate actively in that culture, the chances of injury are reduced exponentially


The most successful grappling programs have one thing in common: they promote an exemplary safety culture.

Photo/Tyson Kilbey

The recent tragic death of an LAPD officer during a grappling exercise is a stark reminder of the need for defensive tactics trainers to embrace a culture of safety during training. In this article, columnist Tyson Kilbey outlines the steps to achieve that culture.

Over the past several years, the law enforcement community has strived to teach officers grappling skills to gain control over combative and non-compliant subjects. The reasons for this are many, as Jiu-Jitsu-based curriculums offer advantages that many other programs do not have.

Jiu-Jitsu is leverage and technique-focused, so size, strength and natural athleticism become less substantial in the successful application of techniques. Furthermore, Jiu-jitsu teaches control through superior positioning and intelligent weight distribution. The result is that a subject can be effectively controlled while minimizing the risk of injuring them.

With the rise of Jiu-Jitsu and other grappling-based defensive tactics programs comes an increased risk of injury or death to the students. Any time an officer is severely injured or killed during training, whether on the firing range, during a simulation event, or during a defensive tactics session, the tragedy is felt throughout the entire community for years.

I have been teaching Jiu-Jitsu to civilian and law enforcement communities for almost two decades, in addition to visiting academies and schools across the United States. In both environments, success is primarily based on the level of safety in which skills are taught and practiced. I have learned that the most successful programs have one thing in common: they promote an exemplary safety culture. This article will focus on the most critical aspects of creating this culture in your agency.

It starts from the beginning

Like conducting safety briefings before range sessions, defensive tactics instructors should begin each class with a pre-training safety discussion. These briefings serve several purposes, most importantly to set the class’s tone and priority. Many students will respect that this is done and will be more likely to contribute to creating a safe environment.

Trainers should ensure the students do not have weapons on them and identify where the class’s first aid kit and AED are located. Furthermore, they should check for any pre-existing injuries and scan the training area for any safety concerns, such as tears in the mats, wet spots, or hard corners or pillars that could cause an injury.

Trainers play an active role

When demonstrating techniques, instructors should highlight safety considerations with the same emphasis they cover the technical aspects of the move. Instructors should be knowledgeable enough to demonstrate techniques smoothly while explaining the safest way to apply the movement. They should encourage the students to communicate cooperatively during the practical application of the move.

So many students believe that during technical practice, they should provide resistance to “test” their partners’ ability to act. At that stage, the need to provide resistance is rarely necessary. Resistance should come after the student has completed enough repetitions to apply the move correctly without much cognitive thought.

Far too many trainers stand together and talk while the students are practicing. Instead, trainers should be willing and able to jump in and work with the students in achieving proficiency. Doing this can also set an example for the students by being a safe, engaged and practical training partner.


Instructors should highlight safety considerations when demonstrating techniques.

Photo/Tyson Kilbey

Strategize partnerships

Grappling courses require training partners. Trainers should understand this and develop strategies to maximize the partners’ efficiency while fostering the safest environment possible.

For example, when the students pair up for drills, if the instructors notice a substantial mismatch in size or age or the partners themselves do not work well together for any reason, this should be recognized and adjusted accordingly. Also, while the traditional approach is to have partners match up in pairs, there are numerous occasions where groups of three students are more advantageous. By using this method, two students can practice while one student can be designated as a safety officer.

In addition, three student groups hold several benefits, including more efficiently using mat space, making safety a shared responsibility, and allowing visually oriented learners to see the techniques more often while practicing.


Resistance drills should be designed with a specific objective, such as the officer must escape from the mounted position, return to standing and deploy an appropriate tool.

Photo/Tyson Kilbey

Resistance drills require careful consideration

One of the most high-risk portions of any grappling training session is the dynamic or resistance portion. With this in mind, trainers should do everything possible to maximize safety without compromising the drill’s effectiveness.

Trainers should be “bad guys” in which the skill is tested with resistance. This can be difficult if several students have limited instructors, but this is ideal when feasible. Instructors generally better grasp the technique and the drill’s goal. When two students are doing dynamic exercises together, the chance of injury increases exponentially. This is one of the main reasons that in the civilian Jiu-Jitsu world, the most significant number of injuries occur when two inexperienced students (white belts) spar with each other.

In addition, resistance drills should be designed with a specific objective. Too often, resistance drills become nothing more than uncontrolled sparring events. While there is some value to that training, establishing a particular exercise aim is safer and more productive. For example, the officer must escape from the mounted position, return to standing and deploy an appropriate tool. Or the officer must safely manage punches from a ground position for a designated time until backup arrives. By establishing objectives, the officer can test their skills under pressure with less chance of the drill turning into an uncontrolled cage fight.

Debrief and review

Asking for feedback from the students is particularly important. Not only will this give trainers an idea of what the students took from the session, but some of the best ideas come from student suggestions. By reviewing each session, trainers can usually identify which drills or portions of the class carry the most significant risk. The best instructors are consistently refining their courses based on previous experience.


Asking for feedback from the students gives trainers an idea of what the students took from the session.

Photo/Tyson Kilbey

It is fair to say that not all injuries can be avoided when training in grappling or defensive tactics. However, it is also fair to say that several tactics and strategies have been proven to be successful in creating and fostering a safe training environment. When instructors create a safety culture and invite their students to participate actively in that culture, the chances of injury are reduced exponentially. This culture is a win for all of us. Train hard and be safe!

NEXT: 9 ways to improve subject control training

Tyson Kilbey has more than 25 years of experience in law enforcement, consisting of three years as a hotel security supervisor and 22 years as a deputy sheriff for the Johnson County (Kansas) Sheriff’s Office. He has worked in the detention, patrol and training divisions, SWAT and accident investigation units. He is currently a captain of the Training Unit for the Sheriff’s Office.

Tyson authored “Personal Defense Mastery,” a follow-up to his first book “Fundamental Handgun Mastery.” Tyson is a Jiu-Jitsu black belt under UFC Pioneer Royce Gracie. He has numerous defensive tactics and firearms certifications and has received multiple awards in competitive shooting and grappling. He is the Match Director for the Brandon Collins Memorial Shootout, a shooting competition named in honor of a deputy who died in the line of duty. Proceeds from the match go to charitable causes.