There are two types of “dangerous” grapplers: the kind who can really hurt you if they want to, and the kind who will likely hurt you whether or not they want to.
These variations of mat hazards usually fall on opposite sides of the spectrum of experience. While an accomplished black belt probably knows countless ways to break you into tiny pieces, they’ll also (hopefully) know how to keep you safe during your roll. Their version of “dangerous” is controlled.
The other version of “dangerous,” on the other hand, is most often seen at the lower levels (though it can be seen at any rank). Just about every jiu-jitsu practitioner has been the victim of a clumsy white belt, and if you haven’t been yet, it may be because you are that clumsy white belt. And that’s fine. Jiu-jitsu makes you move your body in weird ways, and if you’ve spent some time in the sport, you know better than to expect the newbies to be graceful. However, if you feel like your safety is at risk, you are absolutely within your rights to refuse to roll with a teammate.
Many jiu-jitsu practitioners are stubborn. We don’t like to appear weak or seem like we’re just chickening out of a roll in which we think we’ll get submitted. I maintained that mentality for a long time and specifically adapted my game to protect myself against ego-powered “street fighters” who wanted to prove that they wouldn’t “lose” to a 5’2″, 125-lb woman. For years, I avoided having to feel “weak” for turning down rolls against anyone, regardless of size, strength, experience, or aggression. More than that, I avoided having to feel like a jerk for making a teammate feel bad when I refused to roll with them.
That all changed one day when I was rolling with a guy who was over twice my weight and thought that the best way to escape a guillotine was to violently flip over and land directly on my head. The decision between his hurt feelings and the physical risk he presented to me was no longer a question, and the next time he asked to roll, I forced myself to say no and explain why. I’ve thankfully only had to say that “no” to a couple of other people since then, but it’s come out a lot easier since I made the agreement with myself that my safety is more important than my teammates’ egos or my own.
This “no” should be seen not only as an option, but as an important tool for athletes who are injured or significantly smaller, weaker, or older than their rolling partners. Less experienced practitioners who don’t know what to expect should also feel comfortable turning down rolling opportunities with training partners who recklessly crank on submissions. Yes, someone has to partner up with these rougher teammates, but that “someone” should feel comfortable handling someone who is large, overly aggressive, spastic, clumsy, or any combination of the above.
If you have concerns about rolling with a particular teammate, consider these tips:
- Just be honest. Claiming that you’re “just not feeling good” or avoiding eye contact with that teammate for the rest of your days just makes things awkward and doesn’t help anyone. If you feel the need to add some explanation to your “no thanks,” tell your teammate that they’re rolling too aggressively with you or that you want to wait until they learn how to control their movement a bit better before rolling with them again. They likely aren’t even aware that they’re presenting a danger to you.
- Avoid saying “no” to controlled danger. To be clear, you should be able to refuse to roll with anyone for any reason, but you’re only doing yourself a disservice if you turn down training opportunities with people just because they’re way better than you. If that one guy who always armbars you is giving you plenty of time to tap and you’re hyperextending your arm each time you roll with him, he’s not a danger to you — you’re a danger to yourself.
- Consider the middle ground. In smaller academies, eliminating one teammate from your lineup of possible rolling partners can mean eliminating a tenth of your rolling opportunities. Or sometimes, you may be the person most capable of handling a clumsy or aggressive teammate. If it’s not convenient or otherwise detrimental to turn down a training partner for a roll, consider ways you can modify your training time with them so you both stay safe. If they’re a spaz, ask them to go at 50 percent. If they’re twice your weight and crush you, ask them to start on the bottom. If they get too aggressive in the middle of a roll, pause the roll and ask them to slow down. Communication is a huge part of a constructive gym environment, and it can keep you and your teammates healthy.
In a perfect world, we’d be able to safely roll with everyone we met on the mats, but real life is full of errant knees and former wrestlers who want to Americana the life out of you. Listen to your gut and stay safe.