At some point in our jiu-jitsu journeys, we’ve all gone through a phase of being That White Belt. “Crazy.” “Clumsy.” Or, if you live in the U.S., “spazzy.” As you move your way up through the ranks and gain experience, you’ve probably come across newer BJJ practitioners who made you understand exactly why people would get frustrated while rolling with you or simply avoid eye contact when it came time to choose a rolling partner. For those who are still new to the game, though, it may be unclear as to what all the upper belts mean when they groan as they talk about their newer teammates.
If you’ve ever been called a spazzy white belt, try not to take it personally. Your teammates don’t hate you, they just want you to tone it down a bit when you roll so you don’t end up hurting them or yourself. Chances are, like a baby trying to get the hang of walking, you’re just a bit clumsy and in a hurry to get from A to B. If you were, say, just learning to walk, you might fall down and scrape your knees. In jiu-jitsu, however, you’re in very close contact with another human being as you try to submit each other.
Do you see how this might become a problem?
Even adults who have been walking, running, and jumping for decades still manage to trip or roll their ankles while walking through their own home. Similarly, upper belts are still prone to accidentally kneeing their partners in the head or locking a submission on too quickly. But beginners in BJJ usually haven’t developed the muscle memory or technique of their more advanced counterparts, and when you combine that with the nervousness and ego that many white belts have during their first year of training, it’s the perfect recipe for a lot of additional bumps and bruises during training.
If you’re not sure if you’re your academy’s resident clumsy white belt, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I try to “muscle” my way into submissions rather than relying on technique?
- Do I grab onto my teammates’ limbs for submissions even if I don’t know what I’m going for?
- Do I always roll at 100%, regardless of my partner’s age, size, or build?
- Do I regularly — not occasionally — hit my partner with my knees, elbows, or feet by accident?
- Do I view everyday training sessions as competition? Am I frustrated when someone weaker or smaller than me submits me? Do I feel like I have to “win” by any means necessary?
- Do I try to submit my teammates as fast as I can, even if it means not giving them time to tap?
- Have I been injured or put to sleep (especially multiple times) because I was too stubborn to tap out in training?
If you answered “yes” to more than one or two of these questions, it may be time to reexamine your rolling style. While a lot of “clumsy white belt” habits start to disappear with time as you become, well, less clumsy, there are some strategies you can implement immediately to make yourself a better, safer rolling partner for yourself and your teammates.
Slow down. Plenty, if not most white belt accidents could be avoided by just not rushing through rolls. If you stick with training, you’ll have all the time in the world to learn to be more aggressive in your rolling. For now, focus on applying the techniques you’ve learned and gaining control of your breathing. When you find yourself in a position you can identify — side control, closed or half-guard, back control, etc. — pause for a couple of seconds, take a deep breath, and continue. Even if you’re not on the “winning” side of the position, pausing for just a moment will help you stay in the moment and keep you in control of your body and mind.
Only go for submissions you know. You don’t need to be an expert on the submissions you’re going for, but at least be familiar with them. Trying to wrench an Americana while inside your teammate’s closed guard isn’t doing you or your teammate any favors, and the more you push and pull, the more frustrated both you and your teammate are going to become. Have goals in mind while you roll — focus on getting to the back or securing armbars from mount. If you’re missing a few steps from the start to end of a technique, ask your rolling partner what to do next. A good teammate will want to see you improve, and they won’t mind taking thirty seconds in the middle or at the end of the roll to answer your question.
Remember who you’re rolling with. Jiu-jitsu is helpful for smaller, weaker people to gain dominance over larger, stronger opponents, but unless your teammate specifically requests it, it isn’t your job to give your rolling partner a real-life simulation of what would happen if they were attacked by someone twice their size. Work on adjusting your weight and strength distribution when rolling with people who aren’t built like you. Training time is learning time, and no one is learning if you’re a 25-year-old, four-day-a-week athlete muscling a kimura onto a 50-year-old dad who trains once a week. Similarly, there’s no need to try to squash your 110-lb training partner just because you have them in side control. It’ll take a while before you can perfectly control your body, but at the very least, roll with the intention of matching your training partners’ strength and intensity.
Tap and submit with safety in mind. Everyone in the gym wants to go home uninjured and return for their next BJJ class in one piece. Including you. So if your teammate has a submission locked on, tap early rather than late. It doesn’t matter if they’re smaller than you, if they capitalized on your dumb mistake, or even if they just muscled their way into it — tap. Your pride isn’t worth the pain of a hyperextended elbow, trust me. If you’re on the giving end of a submission, give your partner time to tap. It’s easy to get excited when you finally get to be the hammer instead of the nail, but you must still remember to apply your submissions carefully and slowly. A “win” might feel good momentarily, but you won’t progress in jiu-jitsu if you develop a reputation as “that person who will try to hurt you if you roll with them.”
In time, most jiu-jitsu practitioners grow out of these bad habits and evolve into technical, skilled athletes. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re still finding your jiu-jitsu legs. Every one of your upper belt teammates has been where you are now, and they’ll forgive you if you’re trying your hardest to be graceful and mess it up a few times. The sooner you work on being a better training partner, though, the faster you’ll be on your way to achieving your BJJ goals.
Featured Image by Trinity SP Photography