Why Rolling is Important for Self Defense

In a previous post I discussed the 5 self defense moves I would teach a friend who doesn’t know any jiu jitsu.  Learning techniques is important but I believe rolling can be just as beneficial for learning how to defend oneself.

For example, say Betsy learns a self defense move in a seminar.  She practices it 20 times with an non-resisting partner during the seminar then shows it to a friend when she gets home.  Is Betsy likely going to be able to use that technique in a self defense situation in 6 months?  What about even the next day?  When I’m rolling I usually try to use the move taught in class that day but I’m not usually successful with it right away.

Here are three reasons I think rolling is helpful for self defense.


  • Although the moves used during rolling are not exactly the moves you would use for self defense, some are similar.  Grip breaks and head lock escapes are important in both situations.
  • You gain experience using moves against a resisting opponent.  When you are drilling a move your partner is intentionally cooperating so you can learn the movements.  When trying a move during a roll, your partner may react in unexpected ways.  This will allow you to anticipate how people will counter your techniques and teach you to adapt.
  • You get to learn what works for you.  Every body is different; learn what works for you based on your size, strength, and flexibility.  I like triangles and my husband likes guillotines.  New set ups for the triangle tend to come a lot easier for me than new set ups for the guillotine.  This doesn’t mean I don’t work on improving my guillotines but I do know that if I am in a self defense situation I should go for the triangle, not the guillotine.

Learn to Relax

  • There are certain positions in jiu jitsu that can cause people to panic.  I have seen many new people panic when on the bottom of mount, try to bench press their partner off or roll to their belly and expose their back.  Calming down and remembering to breathe increases your chances of escaping the mount more than panicking and thrashing around wildly.  It is better to learn these lessons while rolling in class than in a self defense situation.
  • On the other hand I have known people who freeze or shut down in uncomfortable positions.  Gaining experience being in these positions in a safe environment with teammates you trust may help you overcome these reactions and fears.
  • You learn how to think under stress.  I have heard a lot of new teammates express that their mind goes blank when rolling.  They can’t even remember what move to do, much less how to do it.  As they gain more experience this happens less often.  Learning how to think while rolling and gaining the reflexes in certain situations will be helpful in self defense situations which are scarier and more stressful than rolling with your teammates.
  • Learn to improvise.  Sometimes when I allow a new teammate to play from the top position, they stop trying anything and admit they don’t know what to do from the top.  In the gym its better to try something rather than do nothing because that’s how to learn and there’s nothing to lose.  In a self defense situation, chances are you won’t know exactly what to do either because you can’t prepare for everything.  But its better to do something than to give up.

Learn Defense Against a Larger Person

  • Successfully defending yourself against a larger person means dealing with the weight they put on you.  Frames are used in many jiu jitsu moves to make space and they can be used to deal with the pressure of a larger partner.  Maybe you can’t hold their entire body weight but you can learn to frame to make space for an escape or to prevent them from putting you in a worse position.
  • Learn to use leverage.  I would probably lose arm wrestling against anyone in my school but very few of my teammates could bicep curl out of my armbar once I’m in position.  It is likely that in a self defense situation, your opponent will be larger than you.  If you use you structure and your larger muscles against their joints and smaller muscles, you can defend yourself against a larger attacker.
  • Learn to use the guard to avoid pressure, hold a larger person, and attack from the bottom.  The guard is a powerful self defense position, particularly for women.  The guard is a very powerful position, but it is one that is also somewhat awkward and requires dynamism.  Practicing using your guard in rolls lets you develop your skills more thoroughly than learning dozens of techniques.

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