BJJ Rookie Mistakes: "Rolling"

In BJJ classes and lessons, we usually refer to live training or sparring as “rolling”. This term caught on many years ago to distinguish the sparring we do, which is primarily non-contact, non-striking, from the kind of sparring you might see in karate or kickboxing. As a BJJ rookie, when your classmates and training partners ask you to roll, live training is what they are referring to.

In addition, as a BJJ rookie, there are a lot of very common mistakes you will make as you start rolling. These mistakes are understandable; in fact we see BJJ rookies make these mistakes over and over again, It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, young or old, large or small. If you’re a BJJ rookie, you will make these mistakes. The quicker that you can identify them, the quicker you will stop making them:

Specific physical mistakes:

  • Reaching your arms out to defend yourself. Rookies do this in a variety of situations – from inside the closed guard, from the bottom of mount, or the bottom of side control. It makes sense, you want to push the danger away from yourself. However, when you extend your arms, you’re setting yourself up for armbar attacks, joint locks applied to the elbow joint. As a BJJ rookie, you’ll have far more success if you keep your arms in close to your torso. I like to joke with students that they should keep their enemies close, and their elbows closer.
  • Turning over onto your belly. This is another common defensive mistake that BJJ rookies make. Rookies do ti to avoid many different situations, but it’s basically always a no-no. Don’t turn your back to your opponent, and don’t go belly-down on the mat. Your opponent will take your back, locking onto you from behind. This position is very, very difficult to defend or escape from. You will likely get submitted very quickly. In general, you always want to stay facing your opponent.
  • Attempting to submit people from inside their closed guard. This is a position where your only option is to get out. Trying to finish people from inside their closed guard will result in you getting submitted or swept. Instead, focus your energy on first defending submission attempts your opponent may throw at you. Secondly, work on escaping from his closed guard.
  • Leaving your neck exposed. There are so many chokes possible in BJJ that rookies cannot possibly expect to know them all. However, the common factor to all of them is that your opponent has to be able to access your neck. Therefore, a simple way BJJ rookies can improve their defence is to keep their neck protected. Keep your chin down, even more so when your opponent is on the attack.. When you feel your opponent trying to wrap an arm or a part of the kimono around your neck, block it! Don’t let your opponent set up anything with your neck. Always keep your chin down and your neck protected.
  • “Leaning” on your opponent. It’s tempting to lean forward when you’re trying to pass the guard, or lean into them when you’re trying to hold them down in side control. But when you lean on the other guy or gal, you’re setting yourself up to get swept, knocked over, or rolled over. Always keep yourself in base – weight evenly distributed on the floor, anchored down, with good balance.
  • One arm in, one arm out when in the closed guard. When you are in your opponent’s closed guard, reaching an arm under his leg, or allowing him to push your arm under his leg is an invitation to the triangle choke.

Mental Mistakes

These mistakes are the “bigger picture” of BJJ. These mental mistakes will lead to committing the physical mistakes. Always keep your mind on these.

  • Not figuring out what went wrong. If you just had an outcome that was now what you wanted – you got submitted, your move didn’t work, you couldn’t escape, etc – the real mistake isn’t whatever you physically did wrong. It’s not figuring out where you screwed up. The way to do this is to ask. if you’re training with an upper belt, ask them immediately, so you don’t forget. They can more than likely explain it to you. If not, find someone who can. Improving at BJJ is a matter of creative problem solving. If you don’t bother to solve the problem of what you did wrong, you won’t improve.
  • Losing your temper. There is nothing more destructive to the general training environment than pissed off people. It’s also very destructive to your learning, because losing your temper and figuring out how to solve the problem are never the same thing. Keep in mind that you learn more from losing than you do from winning. Stay as calm as you can, and you will improve.
  • Panicking. The live training that we do is interesting in that it simulates, very accurately, a real life-or-death situation. This can cause people to panic, and then spazz out. This causes you to stop thinking, stop doing what you know, and just wildly grab on to any old opportunity you think is available. The thing to remember is that its not really life-or-death. It’s a safe place to be, even if your partner is attempting to choke you unconscious. Since it’s safe, there is no need to panic. Take it down a peg, and re-engage your logical mind. Figure out what you need to do to get where you want.
  • Setting your intensity too high. I always tell my BJJ rookies that 70% is the magic number for intensity. Any lower than that, and you can be pushed around too easily. Any higher, and you are spazzing out, not learning, and likely getting exhausted. 70% power/intensity is the sweet spot for both learning and performance.

The important thing here is that you are not alone in these mistakes. Everyone makes them when they start and everyone eventually learns to stop making them. They’re nearly universal to all BJJ rookies. Take a breath, slow down, and figure out how to get past them.


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