How to Roll During BJJ Sparring: Five Principles

Mat time is the best time. You should — and almost always will — feel better about everything after a solid night of training. In order to get the most out of mat time, it helps to think about your approach.

One of the rarest but smartest questions I get from newer people is, phrased one way or another, “How do I roll?” Sometimes people are looking for a technique to start a sparring session with, just to get the game going. Sometimes people don’t want to be jerk people complain about having to roll with. Often, people want to know how to maximize the value they get from rolling sessions.

All of these are great reasons, and they hint at an important meta-principle about jiujitsu: don’t be afraid to ask questions! People want to help you progress. Besides, we’ve all seen problems created when someone erroneously assumes they know the rolling culture of their gym without having to ask.

Here are five principles that should help, especially for newer people.

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Go Slower Than You Need To At First: I’ve never heard anyone complain about sparring with that calm guy. No one likes getting elbowed in the face or poked in the eye when someone’s movements outpace their ability to control those movements. That’s how injuries happen, and how people learn bad habits. If you don’t know the proper move in a given position, but you’re fast and explosive, a lot of times you wind up moving really swiftly and strongly into terrible spots. This teaches your body movements that might not be correct, and inspires upper belts to hold you down and not let you move. That’s not good for either of you.

Pedro Sauer, one of the best ever and one of our favorite podcast guests, told me when training with him last week that you should usually use 20 percent of your strength in a roll. If you use 20 percent of your attributes, your results will improve, he says — because if you get the technique right without using force, imagine what you can do later, when you know technique and can use strength well.

So advance position slowly. Get to a position you can hold. If you get put in a bad position, think about how you’ve been taught to improve the spot you’re in. If you feel you’re in danger from a submission, take the moment to think out the most technical escape. Will this cause you to “win” fewer rolls? No: no one wins a roll.

And if you beast out of a submission that you don’t know how to escape from correctly, it’s a great way to injure yourself. Most of the injuries I’ve seen from new people rolling have occurred when the white belt got caught in a submission, and while the upper belt was slowly and carefully applying pressure, the newer person used all their strength to move in the wrong direction. Trust that the upper belts aren’t going crank submissions, and tap when you feel in danger without knowing how to escape. It’s never a huge error to tap early. It’s often a huge error not to.

 

Focus on Technique: A lot of people will tell you this, and that’s because it’s true. But I want to take a moment to define what “technique” means in the context of sparring. Here’s what I mean: be sure that every movement choice you make is correct, or at least as close to correct as possible. Be less concerned with the outcome of a move sequence and more about whether you made the right decision.

We have a really good purple belt at my gym who has been training forever, at least 8 years. He knows a thing or two. Once, he rolled with an NCAA division one athlete who outweighed him by a good 60 pounds of fast-twitch muscle. Our purple belt took the guy down gently, passed and mounted. The new guy bench-pressed him and basically threw the purple belt off of mount. Instead of armbarring the guy fast and hard, because that would be dangerous, the upper belt rolled to his back and accepted guard. The roll continued.

After the round ended, our purple belt suggested that the new guy not do that again, and offered to show him a legitimate escape. The guy snorted: “It worked, didn’t it?” he said.

This is exactly the wrong attitude, for a lot of reasons. I’ve made a ton of terrible decisions in my life that have worked out. I’ve also made a few good choices that I still consider good choices even though I didn’t get the outcome I wanted. Results-oriented thinking is a great way to feel good in the short term and fail in the long term. When we’re rolling, we’re not competing for medals: we’re building habits. We can choose to build good habits or bad habits. Choose wisely.

 

Find Safe Spots First: Life is about expectations. So is jiujitsu. If you go into it expecting to tap everybody, you’re going to be disappointed. You have to grow in the art, and like human growth, sometimes there are spurts — but more often, it’s a slow process.

When I teach, I try to teach in a pyramid structure. You build the base of a series first, then you stack the more advanced techniques on top of that. One common mistake I see is, when I teach a series — let’s say it’s a traditional stack guard pass that ends up leading to a butcher choke submission — some students’ eyes get all big and they want to drill the submission most. This is an error, because if you can’t solidify the passing position, the choke won’t even present itself. I always try to emphasize the fundamental movements and grips that lead to a stable position. If you can leap around the guard, great — but not everyone can, and you won’t always be able to, so drill the basics first. Then the other steps in the sequences become much easier.

We all start from a different position, and hence with different expectations. Brand new people rolling with upper belts should find spots they can stabilize, which is why having a good closed guard is so important. If you’re training with someone better than you, that’s great — they’ll teach you a lot. Sure, they will probably open and pass your guard. This gives you the chance to work on getting back to that safe, stable guard position. If and when they take a dominant position, this gives you a chance to work on survival. The last thing people should be doing early on is looking for gimmicky home-run moves that will work once or twice. Instead, work those fundamentals — which means finding safe and stable positions within a roll.

There’s a moment from the 1947 noir film “Out of the Past” where this exchange happens:

“That’s not the way to win.”

“Is there a way to win?”

“There’s a way to lose more slowly.”

First, lose. Then set a goal of losing slower. This is the way to win in the long run.

 

Don’t Get Frustrated When Bad Things Happen — Figure Out Why Bad Things Happened: Jiujitsu is complicated, and sparring is an intense physical experience. It’s normal for frustration to happen if things go bad.

But a lot of things that are normal are also bad and should be minimized. So minimize your frustration.

Instead, if you get choked, analyze in your mind where things went bad. Chances are if you got rear naked choked, there are several points at which you could have made different choices. Did you turn away from your opponent to try to escape side control, exposing your back? Are you iffy on the proper place to put your hands to defend the choke, meaning your opponent beat you to the spot with their offensive hand movements? Did you try to escape the position too early, paying too much attention to their hooks and not enough to your own neck?

These are the questions that are productive questions. Frustration is counter-productive. Acknowledge your frustration but don’t accept it.

 

There is a Time to Go Hard, and People to Go Hard With: Hard sparring is a core part of what makes jiujitsu useful and valuable. If you don’t spar hard, and if you don’t spar hard regularly, you won’t truly be prepared to deal with a fully resisting opponent — in a competition or in a self defense situation.

You don’t have to spar hard all the time, unless that’s what your life goals dictate. People who never spar hard or compete are cheating themselves, though. One of jiujitsu’s most empowering moments is surviving a tough training session against someone with major physical advantages over you when that person is trying their best to dominate you. Put simply, you know your technique works because you’ve trained it under circumstances where another adult human being was really trying to stop you.

One assumption new people often make is that the higher ranked people in a gym are the most dangerous to roll with. The opposite is usually true: the more you train, the more control and technique you have. As you train, you develop relationships with your training partners. Some of my best friends are some of the people who’ve beaten me up the worst — but as safely as possible.

Trust relationships develop over time. Just starting in jiujitsu or just starting at a new gym are not the times to spar as if the loser gets killed and eaten. Start slow. Focus on technique. Make good choices. Develop relationships with your training partners. As your technique and comfort grows, so will the opportunities to train hard and train as safely as possible.