6 Plateau-Busting Reasons To Roll With a Novice

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You could say I’ve been at my current belt for an embarrassingly long amount of time. So much so my belt has become a pathetic frayed freak show that gets more and more frail with every washing. I’m hoping to have at least some shred of it left (along with my dignity) to hang on the wall when I get to the next level. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna look like dental floss by then.

An interesting thing happened tonight. A student (two belts lower than me) came up and asked me to teach him some triangle choke details. Afterwards I used the opportunity to ask him to roll a bit.  I figured I could use the roll as a warm up before I went against the higher belts. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this ‘warm up roll’ was going to bring some of the most important realizations and breakthroughs into my awareness.

Suddenly everything was working for me. Techniques that I never pull off with the higher belts were finally landing. Submissions came out of nowhere and my timing began to improve. Even Youtube techniques were working! 🙂 I believe I was experiencing what black belts must feel when rolling, that they can experiment/learn during the rolls and not just struggle to survive the whole time.

(Since most people just scroll down till they see a list with bold letters, here ya go!)

Here’s why rolling with a novice practitioner helped me and why I believe it’s going to be a big part of my open gym training from now on:

  1. You can finally relax while rolling. Of course you can do that even with black belts but you’ll probably get crushed and/tapped very quickly. With lower belts you don’t feel as much pressure so you can slow your breathing down and calmly make your moves. It might surprise you how slick your movement can be when you don’t have to constantly struggle.
  2. You can chain moves together. Tonight I went from side control to mount to high mount to cross choke to armbar to triangle and got the tap. It was amazing to feel such control and flow for once. You may ask, “But what good is a chain if higher belts can break them?” Well, how can you improve your chains if you have no starting point of reference? Let’s say you can pull off a cross choke to armbar chain on a lower belt. Well next time you might have a little more trouble with a tougher opponent but because you know it works at one level you can make little adjustments from there. If not, you’re trying to already adapt something that’s doesn’t exist at a basic level. Imagine if you never threw a front kick because high-level kickboxers always block them. You’d have one less tool in the arsenal and you’d never have a base technique in which to tweak. Since I have a snappy front kick, I use it on lower belts all the time. However, if I fail with a front kick I’ve learned how to turn it over for a question mark kick or even a switch kick. The basic techniques become the foundation for your building blocks and though you can still use them you are also able to jump up levels when needed.
  3. You can sharpen your reaction times. After a while I decided to let him go on the offensive so I could work my defense. Since I knew what he wanted to do, I was able to easily escape BEFORE anything became a real threat. The idea of ‘putting out little fires before they grew’ seemed to finally make sense. I now had time, and space, to be one step ahead of my opponent and I know that’s an important concept that I can build on.
  4. You can experiment. I felt a little mean going for Twisters and inverted guard tricks but hey I finally felt free while grappling. I wasn’t constantly fighting for my life worrying about getting passed or choked so why not try a few things? Isn’t this how you develop your own style after all? Chances are you’re not going to experiment with new moves against a 200 pound black belt. So how do you know if it will ever work for you at all? Use this time to take a few chances and you may discover which techniques really resonate with you.
  5. You can let submissions go and study how opponents escape. One time I had side control and reached back to grab his collar. He turned in so I flipped around getting his back while still having the collar grip. I knew I could just tighten the choke and he’d tap but I just held it, right on the edge. Eventually he began to wiggle and as he went for the escape I easily took mount. The segments became crystal clear and opened my eyes on why the high belts make this a big part of their training. Marcelo Garcia explained this in one of his videos as well.
  6. You can finally use their movements against them. When a higher belt pushes you off you can bet they’re going to put a knee between you and escape. However a lower belt usually just pushes and pushes. God it felt so mean but I simply let this guy push me into better and better positions. The reason I felt bad is because I knew exactly how it feels to be in his place. From side control he pushed my chest so I rotated my body and scooped up his arm. Then he pushed me right back and I took mount. Out of frustration he pushed my knee and I took technical mount, and this went on and on. He was doing ALL the work!

Part of me wondered if all this rolling with a less-skilled opponent would affect my game against the higher belts. So at the end of class I went back to the deep end and rolled with two guys who were my rank. What I discovered was that I brought with me a sense of confidence and flow. Since I knew my techniques worked at one level, it gave me reassurance that I would eventually feel that sense of ease in more and more situations, maybe not today or next month but someday soon. I’ll keep you updated on my progress but for now thanks for visiting. -Mike

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Need Motivation? Embarrass Yourself.

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(Please excuse me while I throw a little pity party up in here.)

Up comes an ambitious-looking lad, one full belt rank below mine. “Hey guys!, anyone feel like rolling with me?” He was practically bursting at the seams of his double-weaved gi to get at the upper belts and I knew he was looking to test his best skills against us. “Go get him!” my friend said half-joking. Right away I could feel that this guy was thirsty for blood. He started on his feet attempting to pass my guard when I mistakenly left my foot out too far. He grabbed it and fell back -I should have had at least one grip on him- and the footlock war was on. I brought my free foot into the party hoping to pry the other out but he grabbed both and somehow crossed them on me. Next thing I knew I felt tremendous pressure on one of my shins so I sat up in a last ditch effort to escape. It was too late, he had it locked in tight. I swear I could sense my belt turning white as I tapped.

What went wrong? First off, I want to say that the kid did everything right and he deserves all the credit for this. His skill was impressive and he moved aggressively yet skillfully, but at the same time I was very upset with my own performance. I know I’m going to tap (a million more times in life) but in my heart I knew that I didn’t do my best in that moment. I also realized that not being in top physical condition was keeping me from going all out when I had to. This became apparent during my next few rolls.

My new rolling partner was the same rank as me but he was flowing and moving without breaking a sweat. He got me twice and I was able to catch him once, but from the physical side you’d think I had just run a marathon and he had just been on the beach sippin’ a mojito. My body felt drained of all energy so it began rebelling. “MOVE LEG!” I would scream in my mind, but it disobeyed me. “GET ON TOP!” but I stayed on bottom. This results in getting dominated a lot and when I do get submissions they’re often what I refer to as “lazy subs” such as heel hooks and footlocks.

The drive home was a mess of self-talk, near tears, and sore legs. Questions often haunt a BJJ practitioner: “Will I ever get great or will it always be a struggle?” “How can I look to get my next belt if I’m getting submitted by lower belts?” “Should I just take up Tai Chi?” Giving up always sounds appealing minutes after you’ve had a bad day at the gym but for us “BJJ lifers” it’s never an option. I hate to admit it but getting embarrassed is quite the motivator for me. Does it work for you too? Let me know. As for now I’ll be ramping up my conditioning, eating better, and spending more time tweaking my technique so this happens less and less. Thanks for checking in. 🙂 -Mike