Sparring, rolling, randori – whatever you want to call it, it’s a lynchpin of BJJ training. No matter how many repetitions you perform of a technique, you haven’t mastered it until you can execute it in a free-form setting against a resisting opponent.
Unfortunately, one of the most common forms of rolling in many BJJ schools is the old “start from your knees, shake hands, and grapple” approach. This is common because BJJ is an art that specializes in the ground game. By starting from the knees, practitioners can get right to the ground without doing all the hard work or risking the injuries that can come with the takedown game.
I have three primary objections to this approach to rolling:
Specific: having both combatants starting from the knees is a completely unrealistic scenario for either competition or self-defense. In real life, if you were to somehow find both yourself and your opponent on your knees – stand up! Don’t waste time working for a takedown from the knees.
Stategic: Leaving aside the question of whether you start from your knees or not, this approach to sparring encourages a “dueling” mentality. A duel is a situation where two individuals agree to test their skills against each other in a fair fight under agreed rules. This is totally appropriate for competition training, but not so good as preparation for self-defense. In self-defense the fight is not fair and the objectives of the individuals involved are likely to be asymmetric.
Pedagogical: Typically we start out a class learning or rehearsing specific techniques for a specific position. When we jump from that into a totally open-ended free-form rolling session it’s very common that we never end up in position for the techniques we just learned. By the time we do encounter the opportunity to apply one of those techniques, it’s two weeks later and we’ve forgotten half the details.
Here are some alternatives that I think are preferable to the standard “start from the knees” approach to rolling.
Pattern recognition/reflex development drills: I use these frequently with my beginning students, but I think they have value for intermediate students as well. Let’s say we’ve been exploring a specific position and have been practicing a certain number of “what-ifs.” For example, we’re looking at how to maintain the mounted position and have looked at how to counter four different kinds of escapes and how to recognize two different openings for a submission that the person on the bottom might offer. For the pattern-recognition drill, we’ll start one person already in the mount. The person on the bottom will “try” to escape, but they are only allowed to use the movements that we have been learning to counter. The person on top has to recognize the trigger being offered and respond with the appropriate technique that we have been practicing. If the person on top fails to respond promptly with the appropriate technique, then the person on bottom gets to escape. This drill can be practiced at various levels of intensity. If the person on top is a brand new student, then the person on bottom might make each escape attempt slowly and in isolation. If the person on top is more experiences, then the person on bottom might make the escape attempts quickly and in combination. Obviously, this isn’t full fledged sparring. It’s more akin to what a boxing coach does while holding the focus mitts – giving the other person something to respond to and develop good reflexes.
Positional drills: These are simple – just start in a specific position and have each training partner work to improve their position. If that happens, restart in the same position. Examples: starting in side mount with one partner trying to escape, start in guard working for a pass or sweep, etc. If you have a particular position you hate to get stuck in, then you will get benefit from drilling that position in isolation this way.
Starting from the takedown: Most of us BJJers, unless we come from a strong judo or wrestling background, could stand to spend more time practicing our takedowns. Still, sometimes there isn’t room on the mat for everybody to do standup randori at once. Other times we just want to focus on our groundwork. Even so, you can still start from a takedown. The trick is to make the takedown cooperative. Decide which partner will be uke and which will be tori. Allow tori to execute the takedown without resistance. The actual match begins the instant uke hits the ground. This approach has several advantages. It connects the standup to domain to the groundwork domain. It emphasizes the importance for tori to transition to control immediately upon executing a takedown. It emphasizes the importance for uke to start defending immediately before being controlled. It allows the groundwork to begin in the most realistic starting positions. The person who gets to start with the takedown has a starting advantage, making this form of training less of a “fair fight.” I consider that a feature not a bug.
Scenario training with asymmetric goals: One partner puts on boxing gloves and gets to strike, the other person only gets to grapple. One partner starts on top and tries to hold his partner down while his partner tries to get back to the feet. One partner starts in a dominant position but must be ready to bail out and run when his opponent’s “friends” arrive to kick his head in. The partners start in a grappling position, but one of them secretly has a hidden rubber training knife that he will pull out if he starts losing. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. This form of training will help break the students out of the “fair fight” mentality which could get them killed in a real self-defense scenario.
These are just a few of the possible alternatives to the old “start grappling from the knees” approach. Do you have more suggestions? Leave them in the comments.