“How soon should a new student to jiu-jitsu start free training / rolling?” is a common topic of debate among BJJ practitioners.
“The first day! Just jump right in the deep end of the pool and start swimming. Sink or swim!”
“It is up to the student when they feel that they are ready.”
“After several months of technical drilling and some positional sparring is the safest way to go.”
The Gracie Barra Method introduces new students in the Fundamentals program to live training through “Positional” or “Specific” sparring. That is live sparring that is confined to a specific position with a simple set of objectives. Ex. pass the guard / defend the guard and sweep or submit.
When new students begin learning jiu-jitsu, they simply do not have sufficient knowledge of all of the ground positions. If they attempt free rolling before they have enough understanding of all of the positions, they will soon find themselves in a position where they have zero idea of what they should be doing or what their opponent is trying to do to them. Under attack, the new student has no tool to deal with the situation and must reply on the ONLY thing they have: survival instinct and strength. This is not an ideal way to train from a safety or productive learning standpoint!
I recently visited a MMA gym where they allowed very new students to free roll without any supervision by the head instructor. The students had only 1 or 2 techniques and the roll soon devolved into a 100% full strength thrashing about on the mats with each trying to grab and twist the other’s limbs in some attempt to force a submission. Predictably, one of the students was grasping their leg in pain afterwards apparently some sort of injury. That student was absent from the next class and a potentially valuable training partner was needlessly lost.
The experience of Gracie Barra instructors decided that the best and safest way for students to begin rolling is after they have completed several months of Fundamentals classes and have graduated to the 3rd stripe on their belt.
There is no question that live rolling against an uncooperative partner is the foundation of developing your jiu-jitsu skills and ability to apply the techniques in a real situation. But this must be approached in both a safe and intelligent manner. Positional sparring is the best bridge between the cooperative technique drilling and the full, live rolling.
A student can not achieve a high level of skill by ONLY performing cooperative drilling. They will not be prepared to deal with the energy and intensity of an aggressive opponent.
I can not imagine that a new boxing or muay thai student would be put into the ring to spar their first class without any technical knowledge? Lacking any technical skills, the only way for them to spar is to swing wildly while absorbing strikes from the more experienced partner. Discouragement is very likely to result and even worse, a training injury.
The best way for new students to start their sparring in jiu-jitsu is to begin with positional training and then on to full rolling once the head instructor sees that they are ready.
Safe training to you all!
Credits: Mark Mullen
Gracie Barra Black belt based in Saigon, Vietnam