Sparring in BJJ: Not just rolling around

Jiu-jitsu players will tell you that a lot of things make their art special.  The leverage element that offsets weight differences.  The technical, detail oriented approach to techniques over speed and strength.  But really what makes jiu-jitsu special is that it can be practiced at nearly full intensity everyday of the week.*

This means that if you aren’t rolling (jiu-jitsu parlance for sparring) you aren’t taking advantage of what makes jiu-jitsu special.  But how do you get the most out of rolling?

Rolling is not the same as competing.

Anyone who tells you otherwise needs to have the rest of their advice taken with serious scrutiny.  In team sports the difference is really obvious: when you are playing against another team you are competing while you are only practicing when you are playing against your own team.  Jiu-jitsu is not a team sport in the traditional sense, but it is very much a team sport in that your gym-mates are not your opponents; they are your teammates.  And thus rolling with your teammates is practicing jiu-jitsu.

Winning doesn’t matter

Say it with me: rolling is not competing.  And because rolling is not competing then discussions of winning and losing is nonsensical.  Submitting or sweeping your partner might be really exciting, even enjoyable, but the reality is that it doesn’t mean you won.  In a competition setting jiu-jitsu players operate within weight classes, start from standing, have a strict time limit, and most importantly recognize that they are playing to win.  Rolling does not have these limitations and that is vital to the art, as it allows people to develop new ideas without being afraid of losing.

It is OK to tap

Actually, it is more than OK.  It is a really good idea.  The whole “winning doesn’t matter” is a bit easier to say that to believe, and sometimes this leads people to make questionable choices.  If you are in an armbar with your arm fully extended and you don’t tap because you think you can escape you’re doing it wrong.  If you fall asleep in a triangle because you think their legs will tire before the lack of blood flow to your brain causes to you to pass out, you’re doing it wrong.

Generally tapping early is better than late.  In an armbar if you tap once your arm is fully extended and beginning to hurt you’ve actually tapped too late.  If you roll like that for a couple of months you may find yourself developing a case of tendinitis.

Some submissions like heel-hooks only begin to hurt once your joint is beginning to be damaged.

This is a reason for not training with heel hooks until you have spent considerable time rolling and have more experience and control.

It is NEVER OK to hurt your partner

Remember, rolling is not about winning.  It is practice.  Your partner is your teammate, not your opponent, not your enemy.  Imagine a football team where half of the team is injured during practice, how do you think the team will perform in a game against another team without any injured players?  This is made even worse in jiu-jitsu because if you hurt your training partner that means not only have YOU lost a training partner but ALL of your gym has lost a training partner.  In one fell swoop you have reduced the knowledge pool for everyone.

Ok, so how do you not hurt people?

  • Stop when they tap.

    Even if you don’t know why they are tapping.  Just stop.

  • Anticipate the tap.

    If you are throwing on an armbar you should expect them to tap.  If you hear what sounds even vaguely like tapping you should stop applying pressure.  Yes, this means you will lose some submissions because you thought they were tapping.  But losing submissions is perfectly fine, while losing training partners is not.

  • Go slow on submissions.

    This applies to all joint locks and neck cranks (or chokes that are also neck cranks), and less to chokes.  If you throw an armbar on as fast as you can it is next to impossible to stop fast enough to not hurt your partner once they tap.  If you throw a shoulder lock or heel hook as fast as you can you will likely hurt your partner before they are even able to tap.  As the person applying the submission it is YOUR responsibility.  Even if your partner completely refuses to tap you do not finish a submission.  Talk to them or your coach about it, but don’t “teach them a lesson” or finish it anyway.

  • Keep an eye on your surroundings

    If you are about to sweep your partner off the mats or into a wall, stop, reset somewhere safe, and restart.  If a neighboring pair of people are at risk of falling onto you or your partner, stop, reset somewhere safe, and restart.  If someone is flying through the air and is about to land on your partners head protect them.  Cover them, move them, shout “watch out,” or whatever you need to do.  Don’t worry about restarting in exactly the same spot, it isn’t important as both you and your partner could probably use the practice from whatever other position you start in.

  • Maintain your hygiene

    Keep your finger and toe nails clipped short, and file them if they are particularly sharp.  No one likes toenail cuts as they always seem to end up gnarly and infected.  Wash your gi, belt*, rashguard, and any safety equipment you use after every use.


Alright, I’ve probably said this enough…but remember how winning doesn’t matter?  Well once you internalize this you’ll find relaxing while you roll that much easier.  This will let you roll longer without getting as tired, concentrate more on your technique, and even feel what your partner is preparing to do better as you’ll be less tense.

Don’t rely on strength

This is an extension of relaxing, but I’ve put it on its own because you can be relaxed and still relying on strength if the size difference is big enough.

My first BJJ instructor put it like this:

Put your strength in your back pocket, that way you can learn the technique.  Then when you need your strength can you pull out as much as you need.”

Jiu-jitsu techniques nearly always rely on timing, leverage, and small details to execute perfectly.  Strength and speed don’t necessarily make these techniques work better, and they can also mask imperfectly executed techniques.  You’ll find that as you improve at a technique you can probably use less and less effort, which comes in handy if you are ever tired and need the technique to work.

Try something new

Sometimes it might feel like you should only work on what you’re good at, or if you are just starting out to feel like you can’t do anything because you don’t know enough. Good news!  Rolling isn’t about winning!  This means you can try something new, you can improvise (always of course bearing in mind the safety of your training partner!), and you can experiment.

If a technique doesn’t work that doesn’t mean you have to discard it.  Keep on working at it.  Figure out why it isn’t working.  Spend time improving it.  Since rolling isn’t about winning it doesn’t have to work today, or tomorrow, or next belt promotion.

*Just because you can train 7 days a week doesn’t necessarily mean you should.  Four is an amount that can be pretty safely maintained for a long time if you are otherwise aware of your body’s needs and listen to what it is telling you.  Five or six can be done if you’ve got youth and experience on your side.  Seven will probably result in a repetitive use injury (tendinitis comes to mind) within a month or so.
*Your belt is not a repository of knowledge or training or skill or luck.  It mostly harbors bacteria, viruses, and old bodily fluid.  Yes, belts take awhile to dry.  Sometimes they’ll shrink if you wash them.  You know what else takes awhile to dry and sometimes shrinks?  Jiu-jitsu gis.  That is why people often times have more than one gi and belts are no exception.

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