Here I am, a brown belt, and I'm ***still*** confused about how hard I should be rolling.
Well, not really, But sometimes it feels like it. "How hard should I be rolling" is one of the most avoided questions in our art. When I started years ago, I distinctly remember my first-ever live roll. It was with fellow white belt who had maybe a year of experience. Former wrestler. Strong and aggressive. I was just coming off several years of running ultramarathons in mountains, and had just finished my last 100 mile race about two months prior. I had cardio for days an had the capacity to spazz for a good hour straight.
Needless to say, that first roll was six or so minutes of absolute WAR!
Well, not really. But it felt like it. In reality, that first roll consisted of us starting on our knees, my partner pulling guard, scissor sweeping me to mount, then armbarring me as I tried to frantically escape. But EVERY movement that day was executed at 100%.
I LOVED it! That initial experience probably played a pivotal role in my decision to stick with the sport for those first few frustrating months. It would take years before I really understood how you're supposed to regulate rolling intensity and really understand what is meant by a "flow roll", a "light roll", or a "hard roll."
But eventually I did, and my jiu jitsu improved immediately. And my training partners probably gave a huge, collective sigh of relief.
Over the years, I've discovered I'm not alone in this struggle. Almost everyone who starts jiu jitsu struggles with understanding how hard they should be rolling at any given time. Being a teacher, my "I'm am hammer..." tendency is to solve problems through... you guessed it - teaching! This is the system I'm implementing with my students to help alleviate this problem. It explicitly defines how you start the roll, what the goals of the roll are, and how each training partner should respond if there's a difference in ability, size, etc.
Rules of Rolling
1. Always Protect Your Partner. Our ability to train jiu jitsu is entirely dependent on having healthy training partners. Assuring our partners remain safe and injury-free is our HIGHEST priority when rolling. This means we never intentionally injure our partners, we ask our partner if they have any existing injuries before we roll, and we diligently follow the other two rules.
2. The Two Second Rule. Submissions are meant to simulate either murder (via strangulation) or breaking limbs (via joint locks.) There's an inherent danger in training this stuff. To help assure our training partners remain injury-free, it's important we give them an opportunity to tap to whatever submission we're pulling off. We do this using the two second rule. Any time we're executing a submission, we need to be in control of the position and take about two seconds to apply said submission. This is especially true of all white belts who may not have trained long enough to understand exactly when they're caught in an inescapable submission attempt.
3. The 10% Rule. Time on mat matters, and the mat never lies. The longer you train, the better you get. This means you'll eventually end up training with people who you can utterly and completely dominate. Unless we're doing a Comp Roll (discussed later), there's little value in rolls where the more experienced partner just destroys the less experienced partner. The more experienced partner should, under normal circumstances, always adjust their game to be about 10% better than the less experienced partner. As the more experienced partner, this is your chance to learn physical and emotional CONTROL, which are critical skills to learn to advance in jiu jitsu. Let them hit sweeps. Let them escape. Let them replace guard. Feed them submissions. Let them tap you on occasion, which also teaches you HUMILITY, yet another critical skill to learn to advance in this sport.
The Basic Starting Positions
Let's start with how we start. Any given roll can start on our feet (if we're working takedowns), on our knees (if space is limited), or in a specific position.
If we're starting from a specific position, we can be "loose" or "tight." If we're playing loose, neither partner gets grips and starts with their hands behind their head. The goal is to practice fighting for and establishing grips and a superior position. If we're playing tight, we start with our preferred grips and position. Usually (but not always) the person in the inferior position will establish their grips and position first.
Any given roll may serve a variety of purposes. Sometimes we will "roll to the tap", which means we're trying to win via submission. If someone taps, you reset in the original position you started from. This is our normal default rolling situation.
Sometimes we may play the "positional dominance" game. The goal here is to go from our starting position to the most advanced potion we can attain (usually back mount), then hold that position as long as we can. Our opponent's goal is the same - move up the positional hierarchy. The "winner" is the person who can maintain positional superiority the longest. We do not attempt submissions in this game.
Finally, we may have "special" goals based on the grappling games we play in class. Sometimes we might have to take off a sock our opponent is wearing and put it on our own foot. Sometimes we might have to gain control of a tennis ball. Sometimes we might have to prevent someone from passing our guard without the use of our hands. Whatever. The special goals will be explained before the roll.
Levels of Intensity
This one really hits on the issue I had in the beginning - just how hard am I supposed to roll? We use four "levels" of intensity; each one serves a specific purpose.
The first is a "feeder roll." This is a LOW INTENSITY roll where each partner takes turns "feeding" each other positions that lead to obvious submissions. The opponent executes the submission SLOWLY to the tap. The partners stay in the same approximate position, and the partner who just executed the submission feeds their partner a submission. Each partner should be landing three or four submissions per minute. The goal of this roll is to practice "seeing" openings for submissions during scrambles and transitions.
The second is a "light roll." This is what is often called "flow rolling." This is also a LOW INTENSITY roll, but the training partners do not feed each other submissions. When one partner gets a submission, reset to the starting position. There are two general rules for this type of roll - you should never have to use strength and you should never breathe hard. You should be able to have an easy conversation when rolling. If you're struggling to speak in complete sentences, you're rolling too hard. The goal of this roll is almost always to warm up before heavy training (sometimes we use this as part of our warm-ups) OR to help develop the ability to relax when rolling.
The third type of roll is a "hard roll." This kind of roll will feature VARIABLE INTENSITY, which can be high. But also may be low depending on the circumstances. This is the typical kind of roll we do toward the end of class. If we're rolling to the tap, reset after and start again. The goal of this roll is to develop the depth and breadth of our defensive and offense games against resisting opponents. While the intensity will get very high in this type of roll, the goal is to learn to regulate that intensity effectively enough to be able to do a thirty minute hard roll.
The fourth and last type of roll is a "comp roll." This is a HIGH INTENSITY roll meant to simulate a jiu jitsu competition, mma fight, or real-world self-defense scenario. This is an all-out balls-to-the-wall roll meant to simulate violence under conditions where both partners are highly motivated to win (or do damage in the case of mma or self-defense.) Both training partners should be using their best "A" games, which means they;re using their most effective offensive weapons and defense. In this type of roll, we still observe the "Always Protect Your Partner" and "Two Second Rule", but usually ignore the "10% Rule." This is the kind of roll where lower belts can expect to be completely smashed by higher belts.
"How hard do I roll" doesn't have to be a mysterious question that takes years to figure out. Using the rules and guidelines above, it's easy to teach some basic ideas that will make training significantly safer AND more effective.
What do you think? How do you organize and manage your own rolling? Leave a comment!