Rolling For The First Time In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Some students roll their first class, but others attend a few weeks or even months of classes before they work up the courage to start rolling for the first time.  Watching some of their counterparts jump into rolling on their first day can give them a complex.

“Maybe Jiu Jitsu just isn’t for me?”

Great news. There are a few easy steps to start rolling if you are nervous!  BJJ can be for everybody and this is designed to be a guide to rolling.

(If you were able to dive right in to rolling without hesitation, this article can still help you.  You will learn how to coax a training partner through the steps to roll.  More training partners means more improvement.)

Rolling For The First Time

Live sparring is the most important part of Brazilian Jiu jitsu training.  Without the ability to perform the techniques from class under duress, I am just learning choreography.

Everyone enjoys rolling so much (once they finally try it) that it becomes hard to empathize with someone who is hesitant to start.  After live sparring the first few times, it is hard to remember the previous version of myself that was ever nervous.

The technique portion of class is the equivalent of reading the owner’s manual or the tutorial part of a video game where you learn what the controls do.  There is a ton of great info, and a basic familiarity of what’s possible will be helpful, but application is everything.

Don’t be nervous, rolling is actually the most fun part of Jiu jitsu!

Don't be nervous, rolling is the most fun part of bjj!

Reading the owner’s manual is boring compared to using the tool.  You know how fun class is, imagine how fun rolling will be!  Expressing your own version of Jiu Jitsu is an amazing feeling.

While I am rolling, I find out so much that I don’t know.  Memorizing moves will no longer be an exercise of mental effort or retaining checklists of choreography, but will happen naturally.

Injury Prevention

A big barrier to rolling for the first time with most people is a fear of being hurt.  Injury prevention is a focus for me when I share jiu jitsu.  People who get hurt often end up quitting Jiu Jitsu, worried that the risk is too high (it isn’t!).  BJJ has some inherent dangers but many injuries are completely preventable.

Picking The Right Training Partner

If I pick the right kind of training partners, I minimize the damage my body takes.  This is important throughout your entire jiu jitsu journey, but is essential early on.  Rule of thumb for white belts is to tap early, and tap often!

Pick The Right Training Partner For BJJ
Pick The Right Training Partner
The right training partner
  • Gives me time to tap.
    • Also releases submissions if I don’t understand that I’m in danger.
  • Protects me from myself.
    • If I am doing something dumb with my body that is going to get me hurt, they help change the position so I don’t roll myself over my own ankle etc.
  • Uses the appropriate amount of intensity.
    • No medals are being awarded today folks.
  • Doesn’t wildly flail.
    • No stray elbows or knees please.
  • Reasonably close in size

If you partner with a new white belt, you will end up in a battle of ego’s.  This becomes an arms race of intensity (with minimal technique) and the chances of injury skyrocket. The best training partner for your first roll is an upper belt.

An upper belt can control the roll and keep the first time roller safe because the upper belt doesn’t worry about ego.  A brand new grappler isn’t a threat to a purple belt no matter what position they get to.  The upper belt isn’t worried about the newbie being in ANY position because the upper belt is confident in their ability to escape from anywhere they end up.

Let the upper belt know it is your first time rolling and that you are a bit nervous, and they should help you through the process.

White Belt Legion - Pick The Right Training Partner
White Belt Legion

Never roll super intense against an upper belt.  The more spazzy you move, the more the upper belt has to control you (squish) to keep the round safe.  If you are flopping unsafely all over the place the upper belt may be forced to tap you out a few times to help calm you down and remind you who is in control.

The levels of rolling

When a you are a new grappler and nervous about rolling for the first time I build it up in layers.  Each layer is designed for success, comprehension and safety.

Positional Sparring

To help make you more at ease I ask a few questions before we start.  This shows that I am controlling the situation, yet you also know that I am looking out for your best interest.

Where do you feel most comfortable?  What position do you know the most from?  Guard?  Side Control? Mount?  Lets start there.”

In my experience most people answer guard, but whatever you answer is where we go.  For example, I will then start inside your guard during our “roll.”  If I pass, I instantly reset back into your guard.  Since there is a low punishment for failure you feel more comfortable working from here.

My job is to make sure you use real techniques and don’t start to invent Jiu Jitsu.  I do this by giving them specific “looks” that I know you know the answer to and helping you be successful.

What to expect?

If we covered an armbar from guard in class, I will start the sequence off exactly like we did in class to give you a familiar set up.  I apply minimal resistance to encourage success.  If you are missing a major detail, such as controlling my posture, I will casually escape and give you a verbal reminder of what you were missing.

Then I repeatedly give you the setup so you get to try it again.  After a handful of repetitions like this, you usually are able to execute the move of the day and I start giving you something else to work on by giving a different “look.”  I am more focused with giving you opportunities here than being successful myself.

Working With Upper Belts Who Can Control The Action (Nick Sanders)
Nick Sanders controls the action during Pans Camp

Just letting you work for guard against some minimal resistance from me for a 5 minute round is exhausting.  You have likely been holding your breath, and using excessive mental effort to fuel your technique.

Starting with positional sparring builds trust.  Just because the technique portion of class is over, doesn’t mean that I’m not looking out for you.

Early Rolling

After a session of positional rolling, we move to the next step of “early rolling.”

In early rolling I start seated to play guard with my opponent standing and looking to pass.  I make sure to clearly communicate the goals are and set the mood of having fun to alleviate the fears of a life or death altercation.

Your goals are to

  1. I want to keep my feet between us.  Get past my feet so that you can get to side control.
    1. Use real techniques you know.  Ideally you know at least one guard pass.  Try to use this.  Don’t just try to run a fast circle around me.
  2. If you get to side control and you can just hold and maintain it, that is a victory for you.
    1. Position before submission means that you have to be able to control your opponent before you will have a good chance to tap them.  Practice control first.
  3. If you want to try to advance to mount, the back, or a submission, go for it.
    1. Early on, when trying to advance your position you will probably make mistakes which allow your opponent to get to a better spot than where they started.  Learn to patch these gaps in your game and reduce their opportunities over time.  Chase failure to improve.
What to expect?

Just like the positional sparring before, I need to give you “looks” at real techniques and encourage you to go for them.  Since we are moving a notch up the reality scale, I may shut you down with basic low effort counters so you have to start thinking about timing and chaining movements together.

The goal of early rolling is simply to help you understand what your goals are.  Now you know what to focus on during the roll.  Getting over decision paralysis of “I don’t know what to do,” takes time.  Just start moving and focusing on the techniques you know.  A good upper belt will encourage the right reactions you make.

Back Take During Early Rounds Of BJJ Rolling
Stepping up the intensity

I will let you have some minor success.  My guard may confound you a little so you appreciate the difficulty that it presents at higher levels, but I will let you work.  You begin to realize that you are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

I will also allow some guard passing to happen IF YOU ARE USING A REAL TECHNIQUE.  You will even get a chance to hold me in side control for a little before I decide to escape.

At this stage, I may escape and then sweep you and get on top.  The level of punishment for mistakes is higher than positional sparring.  We aren’t just resetting to a safe spot every time the roll doesn’t go your way.

Sometimes as rolling intensifies, the person on bottom begins to experience some claustrophobia like symptoms.  There is anxiety about being held down.  If ever it is too much, tap.

Over time you will build up resistance to this fear.  Start by trying to relax in the position.  The more you are flailing and struggling to escape, the more frantic you will feel.  Relax first, just lie there and stay safe.  Once you are able to keep some calm, try to focus on using a single technique to improve your position.

As an upper belt I will sometimes do minor resets to show you about small micro battles that the new grappler needs to know.  Usually, this includes small things like setting a whizzer to counter the overhook.

I don’t try to squish or stifle the your game in the early rolling stages, but my goal is to make sure that you know that energy conservation is important.  Usually after a round of early rolling you are breathing so heavy you are worried about puking and I look as fresh as when I walked in the building for class.

Regular rolling

Now the training wheels start to come off.  Regular rolling is much like easy rolling except I don’t  reset positions during the roll to explain things to you.  My goal is make sure you put in work for the entire round non stop and use as much technique as possible.

What to expect?

In the previous levels I didn’t try to tap you (I may have tapped you if you made giant mistakes, or gave it to me, or needed a reminder).  During regular rolling I may tap you a few times and spend more effort controlling positions.

BJJ Rolling With Intensity
Rolling With Intensity

I want you to understand what rolling is all about here.  It is about staying relaxed and breathing, using real techniques, timing, reactions, and chaining together moves.  When rolling it becomes evident that it doesn’t matter what Jiu jitsu your brain knows, it matters what your body knows.


Throughout the rest of your jiu jitsu journey I continue scaling up the rolling resistance and helping you learn, until you beat me.

Rolling is just a cold swimming pool you have to get into.  Either jump in, or work your way in slowly, just do it!