GB Student Question: On Rolling Attitude

A GB student writes in and asks how should a white belt student look at rolling with higher belts?
“I have been training a little less than a year. I do ok learning the techniques but I get smashed when I roll with blue belts and bigger guys. Sometimes I can make it through the round without tapping. What should I do?”
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It’s perfectly normal to be on the defensive most of the time in that critical first year of jiu-jitsu. After all, nearly everyone has more experience and technique than you have. And nobody likes getting tapped or being stuck under side control all of the time.
So it’s completely normal to go through this stage of BJJ training. The important thing is not to feel like you aren’t getting any better and become discouraged and stop coming to class.
The good news is that as you keep training and accumulate more time in jiu-jitsu, things will start to make more sense. You WILL get better and start to be able to hang with your training partners and get some submissions of your own. That said, there will always be training partners who are better than you in your Gracie Barra school, so jiu-jitsu students must have the right attitude on how to approach rolling with higher-level opponents.
The student mentioned that they can sometimes “make it through the round without tapping”. This is one way of measuring your improvement and when you are a newer student you are looking for any positive signs that you are improving.
However, this “rolling not to tap” thinking can have a negative effect on your training progress. Why? Nobody WANTS to get tapped in rolling.
Because rolling with a “just don’t get tapped” mindset can lead you to some unproductive rolling behaviors.
Let’s look at an example. If I’m rolling with a higher-level opponent and my goal is primarily not to tap, my thinking will be defense first. I will ball up tightly and play a negative game – just trying to stop what the opponent is trying to do.
I will use as much strength, and explosive movements as I need to power out of positions so I won’t tap out. I won’t try many of the techniques that I’ve learned recently because if they fail, I will end up getting my guard passed and probably get tapped. I will hold on as tightly as possible and ask “how much time is left?” to just make it to the end of the round without getting tapped…
Is that training success?
You can probably see where this is all headed. Training just not to tap – while is one measure of improvement – also can lead you to close down your jiu-jitsu and not try the techniques that you are trying to add to your game. If you are rolling just not to “lose”, you will limit your game and become stiff and tight.
This applies not only to white belts. I’ve seen higher, colored belts tighten up and abandon technique and resort to exploding out of positions just to survive the round. But while it might seem like a small victory to say “Yes! I made it through the round without getting tapped!”, it isn’t the most productive (or enjoyable) way to roll in jiu-jitsu.
When you watch a competition, how do you like it when one of the competitors is just defensive, playing a stalling game and trying to get through the match without giving up any points? Right. It’s not what jiu-jitsu is all about.
So how do you approach rolling with higher-level belts? I recommend reminding yourself of 1 thing: try to use the proper technique at all times without resorting to survival instinct and just powering or thrashing your way out of positions.
There will always be someone who is at a higher level than you and you will always find yourself getting submitted by some training partners. Even if you are a purple, brown, and black belt. So train using your technique even under fire.
There is an often heard saying “there is no losing in jiu-jitsu, only learning”. As this applies to today’s question, it means don’t focus only on if you tapped or not. Instead, focus on the positions that gave you trouble and ask your Instructor or rolling partner what you may have done wrong and what can you do to deal with that training situation next time.
Make the focus of your rolling technical improvement and not merely try not to get tapped.
See also on GB Blog: GB Student Question: “What do I look for in choosing a jiu-jitsu school?”
Writer: Mark Mullen, Gracie Barra Black Belt