What To Focus On While Rolling

A huge piece of the puzzle in Jiu Jitsu improvement is what to focus on while rolling.  In a previous post I briefly discussed the differences between performance mode and learning mode, and this post is going to go more in depth in how to apply these concepts to improve.

The majority of training partners have the same number of days per week available to train.  Most make it in somewhere between 2 – 5 sessions.

What exactly can someone do to have a chance to start beating the partner who started before them and is better?

Working Out Of Half Guard

Establishing The Baseline (What everyone should be doing)

I’ve done posts on the basics of improving at Jiu Jitsu, but I find many training partners execute a majority of these reasonably well.  These areas tend to be a baseline foundation.  If a partner isn’t doing these things, they are making a mistake.  Step 1, avoid mistakes.

Do the following:

Focus – Work Smarter AND Harder

Andre "Tim" Montiero - Work Smarter Not Harder

Jiu Jitsu is mostly a factor of time on the mats, but on a certain level training smart can be the difference.  Many grapplers are focused only sometimes in class, and other times are just going with the flow.

By being more focused more often, we can get ahead.  On days our competition just shows, up going through the motions, we can make up ground.

Focusing our efforts while on the mat includes prioritizing the best  techniques while rolling, and staying strategically sharp.  Basically working on picking the best move at the best time, and constantly improving this process.

Remember there are two basic modes in training.  We can either focus on performance or focus on learning while rolling.

(By the way, if you haven’t started rolling yet, you may want to start here to get ready to roll for the first time.)

Performance Mode

Competitions Are The Time For Performance

Only the last month or two before a tournament should you settle into “performance mode.” During this time focus on executing only the parts of your Jiu Jitsu that fit your gameplan. Keep track of points and focus on your strategy and tactics every single round.

Your goal isn’t to get better at Jiu Jitsu right now, it is to get better at competing.

What pathways allow you to continually advance, while your opponent has to retreat?

How can you get ahead on the scorecard to put desperation in your opponent’s reactions?

 Learning Mode

Remember, when competing against an upper belt, we are almost always in learning mode. Trying to “win” as opposed to focusing on getting better and doing good, safe Jiu Jitsu doesn’t help with progress.

When I am rolling, I am pretty much NEVER focused on “winning.” First of all, I don’t think there is such a thing during rolling.  Winning is for competitions. Rolling to me is much more along the lines of “collaborative drilling.”

Having Fun At Open Mat No GiSo, the secret sauce to getting better at Jiu Jitsu is not trying to “win”.  What is it then?

The secret is focusing on improving every time you roll. That sounds stupid, I know, but hear me out.

When I roll, I ALWAYS focus on getting better. This almost always means being specific and not just a generalist. I am going to focus on a move or two during rolls and collect as many responses to those moves as possible. Getting tapped, swept, or passed in the process is actually a good thing. Now I know what areas of the move I have insufficient understanding and can improve and rework them.

The worst rolls I’ve ever had…

There are few worse rolls in Jiu Jitsu than the ones where someone won’t approach to try to pass my guard and they just keep backing away. Or when they just freeze and go rigid in spots avoiding doing all Jiu Jitsu.  During these scenarios I didn’t get a chance to get any better at Jiu Jitsu (and neither did they!).  They would actually get better by getting tapped.

There are times when we have to think our way through spots and sometimes, buying some pause time helps, I get it.  But just because we stifled someone else’s game by not playing, isn’t a huge achievement.

It is the equivalent of the baseball pitcher intentionally walking someone. There is a time and a place for it strategically, but neither party is any better once the dust settles.

Incrementally Building Instinct

Choking BJJ Training Partners Is So Much Fun

My goal is to get at least 1% better every session. You may be concerned that would be hard to measure. Trust me, it’s not. Added knowledge in positions will instantly reinforce how far you’ve come.

That small detail of angle or grips that you left out sometimes in drilling, becomes a gaping weakness during live execution that must be patched.

Having a solid response to deal with Reaction A, and Reaction B may be enough. But what happens when training partners start implementing unorthodox reactions purely for the purpose of stifling your move?

Get the repetitions in trying to pass someone’s guard. The better that person, the better the reactions. Now you have a clear project to work on.

How can I finish my pass, when my opponent does “X” ?

Sometimes, you are letting the grips and other areas of attack advance too deep to work your way back out, and you are wrong about the problem. The problem isn’t that counter, it is that you gave up grips and posture 4 moves before. Working through these solutions though is the key to improvement.


Make yourself death proof. Maybe intentionally go right at that guy at the gym with the amazing guard and get tapped a few hundred times. Now anyone else’s guard won’t feel near as solid.

Play the footlock game with the footlock expert. Feel what their best transitions are like. Work on countering them. It won’t be easy. You’ll lose a lot, but you will learn things in your body that can’t be taken away. Your instincts will be honed (it’s what your body knows), and without thinking, your ability to recognize the micropositions and microtransitions will keep you safer and safer.

Improve reactions, and timing, and get in resistance training. That is the pathway to improvement. Maximize the time on the mat, by using those treadmills we call training partners. Turn the pace up, keep it safe, and see where you are weak.

I’ve shared this before, in my explanation of how Jeff Glover helped me remember how fun BJJ is, but maybe it will inspire you to become more death-proof.