Should I focus on submissions when rolling with higher belts?

Reader Question from Facebook:  As a white belt, should I even try to focus on submissions when rolling with a higher belt, or should I just take the opportunity to soak up knowledge?


One main formula for growth in training is referred to as Plus, Minus, Equal.  The concept is that in order to improve we need to have contact with someone better than us (Plus), someone worse than us (Minus), and someone at our level (Equal).  The question focuses on how we deal with a Plus.

One way we can take charge of our own training is to make sure we have a “+”,”-“, and “=” nearby.


When I am training with a Minus I am focused on working on new parts of my game.  The move I saw in a seminar two weeks ago that I haven’t had a chance to rep much live fits perfectly into my rolls with someone with less experience.

Sometimes I also let that person get deeper into a position and then work my way back out.  For example, if I’m working on the knee cut guard pass, I may let the person get all the way to quarter guard then recover.  Organically they probably couldn’t have cleared my barriers and gotten there on their own.  In this way, the Minus gets to work from a more advantageous spot, and I get harder live repetitions.

Working with a Minus is where I work on attacking.

Brian Stuebner beating up kids


When training with my Equal I know that I have a dogfight on my hands.  I am going to have to fight for every inch and scrap of opportunity.  They are coming after me, and I have to stay sharp defensively as well.  The buddy system helps maximize improvement using an Equal.

The Equal battle is a mix of attack and defense.  Largely it seems these battles are decided on a combination of growth and mental training.  Whoever wants it more has a good chance of coming out victorious.  Focusing growth on specific counters to someone else’s game also has oversized results here.

Working with an Equal is where I am testing my game for strengths and weaknesses.


This is what the reader question is really about, the Plus.  Working with the Plus is typically where we are losing and get to hone our defense.  Sometimes they treat us like a Minus and let us progress to a certain level then try to fight their way back out like an Equal.  Training with a Plus makes me tougher.

Working with a Plus is where I improve my defense.

Long Hair Lucas On Bottom

When training with people better than me, should I try to tap them?

Yes, you should try to tap the upper belts when you roll with them.  Will you?  Probably not.  If you aren’t prepared to seize an opportunity, why are you rolling though?

Depending on the gap there is a decent chance you won’t even come close.  As Zig Ziglar says, “Aim for nothing, and you’ll hit it every time.” another popular quote is “If you shoot for the stars and hit the moon it’s OK, but you’ve got to shoot for something.  A lot of people don’t even shoot.”

With that in mind though, there is a good chance a white belt won’t get much of a chance to make the decision to try to tap an upper belt out anyways.  What to do then?

The white belt’s job is to survive and pay attention.  Try to figure out what happened to you before the submissions happened to you, before you were swept, etc.  Jiu Jitsu happens in your head, not your body.  Pay attention to every time you roll with a higher belt, because that is your chance to see things done right and more importantly FEEL them.

Most of all, have fun.  If you aren’t having fun with it, what is the point?  It’s a life long journey.  Best to enjoy it.”

-Ronnie Page (Brown Belt)

There is so much gold in this quote.  Learning from mistakes is important, but at the core having fun is what Jiu Jitsu should be all about.

The Jiu Jitsu Hierarchy

In his book Jiu Jitsu University Saulo Ribeiro drops some gems.  One of which is the idea that there is a hierarchy in Jiu Jitsu advancement.

Saulo Ribeiro’s Jiu Jitsu Hierarchy
  1. Survive – Don’t get submitted
  2. Escape – Get out of a bad spot
  3. Guard Work – Retain position and work sweeps
  4. Guard Passing – Bypass opponent’s barriers
  5. Submission – Finish Him!

The great point that Ronnie makes in the quote above is that the first step is surviving.  Tapping 20 times in a round because I was reckless won’t teach me much.  Also, the problem is rarely that my rear naked choke defense wasn’t good enough.  The problem is probably that I got my guard passed, then couldn’t establish frames in side control, then gave up my back, then didn’t block the choking arms.

Mike Leake teaching

Being mentally present in the moment, I can rewind what happened and next time make corrections and pursue solutions.  The key is focusing on small parts of improvement at a time, and being engaged to the rest.

Fire At Will.  Who is Will?…

Each roll is different and depending on the skill gap and what the upper belt is working, different opportunities can present themselves.  If I see a chance to attack, will I?  You bet.

However, there is a difference between recklessly attacking mirages that aren’t real opportunities and closing the deal on a sure thing.  Diving for loose submissions on an upper belt will rarely work.  Only pursue the submission when it seems certain.

Personally, I learn best from trying something and failing then trying again.  Learn from your mistakes and correct them. Just remember, position before submission.  No sense in going for subs when you’re in someone’s guard or mounted or any other bad positions.”

– Mike Gerlach (Brown Belt)

Playing gargoyle Jiu Jitsu was a huge limiting factor in my growth which I am sometimes guilty of still.  While rolling I move until I enter an unsure position and turn to stone.  No one will sweep or submit me in this locked position, but not much Jiu Jitsu is happening either.  Being confident and moving past my comfort zone is essential.

I usually learn much more by going for broke and getting punished.  Over time I build my “hot stove” reactions.  As opposed to fearing all grips, now I know specifically that when I allow that particular grip that deep, I’m getting choked.

This try and fail strategy has worked best against people one belt or less above me.  Also remember that every 15 pounds difference in weight equals about a belt rank.  So if my opponent was a few belts above me or had 30 pounds on me, chances are I’m going to end up in total survival mode unless they decide they want to open up my lanes of attack for me.

Whole gym full of training partners
Gym full of training partners doing “Blue Steel”

The Matchup Factor

Sometimes improving my standing in the Matchup Factor can level the playing field.  There is a part of my game that is my strongest, and a part of my opponent’s game that is their strongest.  If I am just running right into their strongest segment, my chances of winning is greatly reduced.  Smart gameplanning can go a long way.

Pursuing advantageous battles is part of the underlying strategy of Jiu Jitsu success.  Don’t know what to do in their strong spot?  Take a private lesson, or watch them roll with other high ranks and see how the other high ranks handle those positions.  How do they avoid them?  How do they negate them once they get there?  This is one time copying your friend’s answer is smart!

Go get ’em!