It’s a natural tendency, to go hard and fast. Nobody likes losing, and rolling Jiu-Jitsu awakens something primal inside us that loves to fight. Easing up and slowing down your rolls is a conscious effort that I’ve been working on lately and am enjoying doing so. I find it allows me to get more out of my practice and overall as an activity. Today I’ll be sharing the reasons why I recommend you ease up and slow down your rolls, especially if you are a white belt.
It’s tempting to rely on speed and power because it gets immediate results, if you’re quick enough you can pass guard and get the feeling of “yay I’m doing good.” The problem with speed and power is they’re unreliable; there’s always going to be someone faster or tougher. It may work now, but it won’t work forever, what if your fitness or strength goes down over time? Nobody is getting younger, and what if you get injured and are forced to go light but now nothing works so you feel worthless?
Focusing on technique avoids these problems. It’s far more scalable, dependable across different opponents and with more incremental improvements. Your technique can change every night you train and learn something new, but how long does it take to grow your fitness, speed and power? Despite an initial slump and lack of results, your BJJ game will get better faster if you rely more on proper technique. I also find the technique emphasis is way more fun! What feels better, gracefully escaping through precision or winning a shoving match?
Quality over quantity is how the saying goes, but what if you could have both? When I first started BJJ, I would sit out 2–3 rolls each night due to being utterly exhausted. My physical fitness has undoubtedly improved since then, but now I never miss a roll thanks to pacing myself and going light. Sometimes I even stay around for more after class. Slowing down and focusing on technique improves the quality of rolls, and it gets multiplied by more training. You’re less likely to need to take a break from injury or soreness, but even with either you can still get on the mats if you go gentle.
Another side effect is if you’re focusing on technique people are going to enjoy rolling with you more, so you won’t have trouble finding partners. I certainly have a preference for who I roll with, and that’s based around who I learn the most from and who I’m unlikely to get injured with. Those are both a consequence of the same thing, training partners who ease up and slow down.
So long as we’re humble and tap early we don’t have to worry too much about getting injured, right? It’s always possible to get injured so be mindful and careful with your rolls, but injuries from overdone submissions hardly seem like the main thing to look out for. If you rely on speed to run past someone’s guard and lunge down onto them, what happens if they swing around with their knees? How many near misses have you had, of elbows knocking the jaw or accidental head bumps? I’ve had heaps, and I always think “wow, if we were going just a little bit harder one of us could have got hurt here.” Sure, you can wear a mouth guard and even a cup, but what about the finger that gets caught inside someone’s shorts? What about the elbow to the forehead? What about the awkward break-fall? Skilled BJJ fighters have the finesse to avoid or mitigate these grazes, but I sure don’t, and neither do the other white belts. I don’t want to roll the dice going home with an injury, and that’s why I’d rather slow down and ease up my rolls. Injuries aside, carpet burn from the mats sucks!
Losing sucks, as a white belt I am very familiar with this. The good news is slowing down and easing up your rolls should reframe your view of what success in BJJ is. Being forced to tap out feels out very different when you exhausted all of your energy and power to avoid doing so. It feels more personal as if YOU failed. Being forced to tap when you’re going gentle is a different experience; it makes you feel more detached and objective. It’s more about the position vs position or technique vs technique as opposed to you vs them. I can tap out against someone brand new and it doesn’t bother me if they’re going hard and fast while I’m not. There’s also an element of thinking to myself “If only I was exerting as much as they were I wouldn’t have needed to tap.” Whether that’s true or if I’m deluding myself is beside the point.
From the other perspective, the beginner will have a much better time that you’re letting them have some success instead of just running into a brick wall over and over. What I’m describing isn’t deliberately giving the beginner things for free, it’s trying your hardest through good technique despite the disparity in speed and power. While there is value in giving a beginner things for free to keep them engaged and avoid discouragement, it may not be very enjoyable for you and they may not also learn much. For that reason, if you want to go easy with a beginner, I think you’re better off just starting in a position like side control rather than giving them a free guard pass. Otherwise, they might learn bad habits and get confused and frustrated when they’re later stuck against the next person they train with. If you ease up and slow down with a beginner, even when they go hard and fast, you’ll get valuable practise and they’ll enjoy it more too. Beginner’s getting nothing but crushed isn’t fun, but also being given stuff for free can get old.
When you’re pacing you have energy in reserve waiting to be deployed at the perfect time. You can try different things and see what works with little to no commitment. “Can I attack this? Nope. How about this? Yeah that kind of worked. Let’s try again.” If you’re going hard you’re always burning energy and making yourself vulnerable through tunnel vision and over-committing. When you’re probing your opponent’s defenses and find success with something ,what do you think will happen if you suddenly dial up the intensity? They’ll be caught off guard, not ready and your move will probably have great results. What I’m describing isn’t just suddenly increasing intensity for the sake of it, it’s increasing intensity after trying a few different things then finding something that works and capitalizing upon it. If you’re going hard all the time, your opponent will reciprocate and be better braced.
The caveat is as I described earlier, you have to be careful when and how you suddenly increase your speed and power. I could try to come up with some universal rule but ultimately you need to use your judgement. Suddenly increasing your speed and power when escaping from side control is fine, but doing so for sweeping, guard passes or submissions is a bad idea. If you’re new and have no idea, just go slow all the time. You’ll work out what kind of things can lead to accidental bumps or grazes and which others generally don’t.
Easing up and slowing down your rolls benefits you and your training partners, but it goes further than that! If you’ve been doing BJJ for a while, you may take for granted just how intimidating and challenging it is for someone new to take up. How do you think the newbie feels at open mats when they look out and they see a bunch of tough guys brutalizing each other? Are they likely to go out and ask for a roll, or how will they feel about getting invited to roll? They might be thinking “But I don’t want to get injured. I don’t have a mouth guard. I’m not fit enough to keep up. These guys are too big for me.” I certainly felt out of place when I first started, and no doubt I wasn’t the only one. How do you think it would feel to be starting out as a teenager in a class of adults, overweight when everyone else is fit, or a woman in a class of men? I can’t imagine training at a better club, yet our beginner retention isn’t that high. All the time we get new people show up for a free lesson or two then never return. I’m sure high dropoff is inevitable given the nature of the sport and not unique to our club, but could we be doing more?
How would the perception change for a beginner if they instead looked out on the mats and saw people wrestling gently, slowly and gracefully? They’ll be better able to breakdown what’s happening and likely be thinking “Oh that looks fun, I could do that.” Concerns over getting injured may diminish. How does it feel to finish a roll after going easy compared to going hard? If you’re not pacing yourself, you’ll end with utter exhaustion, heavily sweaty and puffing. You won’t be able to or want to have a conversation with your peers while you recover, and maybe you’re embarrassed by how out of shape you feel. Going light with your rolls will leave you in a state where you’re better able to chat to and make a connection with the new person, and likewise for them. Most women tend to be less competitive than men, and the more intense a roll is, the more competitive and less collaborative it feels. Creating a culture of “ease up and slow down” could especially have a side effect of making women feel more comfortable and help our club become more diverse.
Whose responsibility is it for the club to be more accessible and approachable? Surely it’s the instructor’s and not yours, you’re just a regular white belt there to train, right? I think it’s the responsibility of everyone who wants better for the club, in their own self-interest. Would it be better for you if you had a wider variety of people to train with? Do you wish there were more people at your weight bracket and skill level? Do you want to connect with cool new people? Do you want your mates or partner to come try out the class sometime and not get overwhelmed and feel intimidated? I’m not trying to discourage people who enjoy rolling hard and fast, and if you’re practicing for a competition you want to be conditioned for a higher intensity. My point is, going light and slow should be the default, at least for low ranks, and doing so will make the club more approachable for beginners. We could also do more to reframe how we interact with beginners, a roll with them shouldn’t be a fight, but instead an opportunity to learn, practice, experiment and have fun. Are we explaining this to a new person before we roll with them? “Let’s go easy” tends to get lost half way through a scramble.
There’s something meditative about showing restraint and taking the time to think instead and be present instead of automatically responding with overwhelming force. I always feel great after a slow roll, even if my partner was going harder. How do you respond to the angry customer at work, or when in an argument with your spouse? Matching their energy and aggression isn’t going to end well, it’s more productive and pleasant to take the lighter approach. BJJ is full of life analogies; acting with restraint, precision and minimal force necessary instead of automated responses is an excellent skill to cultivate. “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”
It’s natural to rely on speed and power in your BJJ, and it delivers short-term results, but there are many benefits to easing up and slowing down. Focusing on technique is more scalable, dependable and with better incremental growth. Through better pacing, you’ll have the energy to get more practice which compounds your improvements and makes people enjoy rolling with you more, especially as you’ll be much less likely to cause or suffer injuries. With less intensity, you can reframe what success in BJJ means, detaching yourself and making losses less discouraging. Creating a culture of “ease up and slow down” will make your club more approachable for new members and could help increase beginner retention. With better pacing, you can try different moves with little cost and have energy in reserve to deploy at keys moments when you find success. Lastly, the philosophy of responding with the least amount of required force is a valuable practice to apply to life outside of BJJ.
See you on the mats,