Proper positioning of your head controls the distance, improves posture, and minimizes attack vectors.
“Use your head for more than a hat rack.” — Sean Price
Head position is a critical component of alignment in Jiu-Jitsu because it’s directly related to posture. Any time you can break your opponent’s posture, you gain a huge advantage over them. However, there are many ways to use your head positioning to achieve numerous goals. Your arms and legs serve as levers to the shoulders and hips respectively, but it is important to see your opponent’s head as a lever to the torso or spine. Likewise, your head can be used as a placeholder, post, frame, or lever. Proper head positioning is crucial for your success in all aspects of grappling.
Observe the following examples of head positioning in Jiu-Jitsu.
Head position during takedowns & sweeps
The head is a lever to the spine, and where the head goes, the body will follow. If your opponent can redirect your head away or stuff it towards the ground, you will be momentarily vulnerable.
In the example of a single leg takedown, your head position can make or break the takedown attempt. Poor head positioning can result in devastating counter-attacks in this scenario (sumi gaeshi and uchi mata). Never allow your opponent to redirect your head away from good posture, or your alignment will be compromised. A good way to remember having good posture when wrestling is maintaining wrinkles on the back of your neck.
Keeping strong posture and tight head position is also very important when sweeping and wrestling up from the bottom position. This is very evident when sweeping from the “dogfight” position, or just coming up on a single leg.
Head position during top pins
While utilizing top pins and pressure guard passes, head position has an important relationship with the tightness of the position. Take the mount position for example: If your head is high and postured up, there is a good chance your opponent will be able to establish frames with their arms and begin escaping. Basing out wide with your hands and head on the mat can take away much desired space from your opponent, and create a suffocating chest to face pin (denying your opponent the space needed to frame). This applies to side control as well; having your head low on your opponent’s chest is a very frustrating and demoralizing experience for the athlete on the bottom. This makes it very difficult to create frames on your opponent’s head and shoulders (leading edge) and re-establish guard.
Head position as a placeholder
You can use your head as a placeholder to block and trap your opponent’s levers. This is a great strategy because it leaves you with two free hands to perform other tasks.
For example, this occurs during the Americana/Kimura/straight armbar attack sequence from side control, when you are trying to isolate and pin your opponent’s wrist to the mat (with your head).
Pinching your head and shoulder together as a placeholder also happens during the technical stand sweep from x-guard (controlling the ankle), and during the shoulder crunch hook sweep from butterfly guard (controlling the shoulder). This makes effective lever control possible by clamping together head and shoulder, instead of directly controlling levers with your hands.
Head position as a frame
You can also use your head as a frame or obstruction when using pressure passing. By pinning your head to your opponent’s chest under the chin (“PEZ dispenser”) you can use your head as a frame and effectively maintain a close distance, making it very difficult for your opponent to establish their frames and make space. It is important to pin your opponent’s head and shoulders once achieving chest to chest positioning from the top, and this can be done with low head positioning.
Head position during rear mount
Utilizing the seatbelt control in the rear mount position, your head and shoulder act as frames on both sides of your opponent’s head. This prevents your opponent from achieving a very important goal while trying to escape; get their head (and shoulders) to the mat.
Strong head position will dictate if an athlete can control or escape the rear mount position. When using the seatbelt on the “weak side”, a common rule is to keep your head between your opponent’s head and the mat. This is because there needs to be a frame next to your opponent’s head, denying them a path to get their shoulders flat to the mat and greatly increasing their chances of escape.
Head position and chokes
When it comes to attacking chokes from the rear mount or crucifix positions, you must have a frame behind your opponent’s head to break posture, and to prevent them from escaping the hold. When trying to perform a rear naked choke, your head must block your opponent’s head from bridging onto the mat. Failure to do so will likely result in escape.
Head position and center of gravity
When standing in the open guard, your head position correlates to your center of gravity and your ability to maintain the top position. If you are bent over at the hips (looking down), you will be easily off-balanced and susceptible to sweeps. If your head is aligned over your hips, you will most likely be well aligned against sweeps due to the vertical positioning of the spine.
Another example of improving your center of gravity with head position is during the leg drag pass; bringing your head across your opponent’s center line to the side of the dragged leg will greatly improve your base, making you feel much heavier.
Height advantage is the idea of trying to get your head above your opponent’s head. Have you ever attacked the turtle position, only to fall off and land in the bottom position? You must try to keep your head above (and behind) your opponent’s head to avoid falling off and losing the top position.
Height advantage is also a great way to create predictable responses from the seated guard when trying to sweep a kneeling opponent. By constantly threatening snap-downs and technical stands from this position, your opponent will be forced to either posture up or pressure down; both actions create predictable responses that can be used to sweep or create other attacks. There is an important concept to remember with sweeps and takedowns: You can only finish a sweep or takedown once height advantage is achieved.