The most important hour of practice is the that you can get the most number rolls in, against training partners of equal or greater levels of skill than you.
In fact, I would prescribe a couple hours of open mat a week as the perfect low-time-investment training plan for your typical grappler balancing jiu-jitsu with work, school and family life.
After all, that’s just about what I did leading up to my first IBJJF tournament as a white-belt, the IBJJF Chicago Spring Open, which I ended up winning with 4 consecutive submissions.
My Story of Winning IBJJF Chicago at White-Belt
When I competed in the IBJJF Chicago Spring Open in 2015, it was the largest tournament I’d ever done up to that point. There were 24 competitors in my bracket and some of them were from schools as far as out of state (and country).
I’d been training about 1-2 times a week leading up to this for the past three months, balancing a busy course load and a job search with intermittent jiu-jitsu practices.
One of these training sessions was done with fellow students at our weekly practice for the university’s “Grappling Club” that I’d started at the beginning of the school year. It was nothing more than a few students getting together to roll and burn off academic-related steam once a week. We were all white-belts and most of us had never even trained at a real jiu-jitsu gym.
The other training session at the open mat of a gym about an hour north of where I lived, called Valko BJJ. I took the train there every Saturday morning to get a couple hours of training in at their weekly open mat.
I knew heading into the competition that I would most likely be at a disadvantage in training time compared to most of my opponents. But I wanted to win that tournament, and I wasn’t going to let something like that stop me. The question was – how was I going to do it?
The first thing I realized was that if I couldn’t beat my competition on training time, I’d have to beat them somewhere else. I’d have to beat them by training smarter. I’d have to maximize my return on mat-time that make every hour I spent at the gym count that much more.
That’s why I made sure that the two weekly hours I spent at an actual jiu-jitsu gym were at open mat. Because I knew that open mat was the practice that I could use to get the most rolls in, and thus build the strategy that I would use to win the tournament using the advantage of a specialized offense.
You see, I had a really good triangle choke as a white belt. It was my primary submission.
If I got somebody in my triangle, I’d have them tapping out in seconds. It didn’t matter if they were a higher-belt, stronger, or bigger than me – I was just so damn good at finishing with it that it was game over for them the moment I got one leg over their shoulder.
So even though my opponents would have the advantage of training time on me, I knew that if I could structure my training in a way that would allow me to build a chain of techniques that I could use to get to the triangle, every single time, even against training partners who knew it was coming and were getting better at defending against it, some poor stranger I’d face at the IBJJF wouldn’t stand a chance.
I also knew that, at least at my level of competition, no one was taking as strategic and structured approach to their training as I did.
And you can see for yourself how the tournament played out here.
The Importance of Rolling
The reason I brought up that example is because I want you to see that rolling is what improves your jiu-jitsu the most at the end of the day.
Stretching, weight training, conditioning, and technical drills are all great, but nothing will improve your technique, timing, strategy, cardio, strength, and competitive grappling ability overall than a simple roll with a training partner of similar levels of skill and athleticism to you.
There’s an idea in the world of athletics and sports called the principle of specificity.
The principle of specificity states that the best way to get good at a particular activity is to simply perform that particular activity, over and over again.
So if your goal is to get good at jiu-jitsu, the majority of your training should just be jiu-jitsu. And jiu-jitsu, at its core, is about rolling. Not lifting weights, not stretching, not conditioning drills, but rolling.
Too often grapplers forget this fact and spend valuable mat time on exercises that have less carryover to developing their jiu-jitsu skill than a plain old roll.
What This Means For You
If you only have one spare hour to train for the week, don’t spend it on regular class.
Instead, spend that hour at open mat, where you can get the most number of rolls in, and during those rolls, work on developing a specialized offense and improve your ability to finish with your primary submission.
This is another reason why having a defined plan of attack in jiu-jitsu is so important.
It gives structure to your training and a measurable benchmark to track your progress (your success rate with your primary submission), and turns each roll into a methodical execution of your strategy rather than the random tangle of limbs that defines the typical beginner’s roll.
Structuring Your Rolling Sessions for Maximum Results
If your goal in jiu-jitsu is to win competitions or otherwise improve your ability as a grappler, here are some general guidelines I would prescribe when it comes to breaking down your rolling sessions:
50% of your rolls should be “Competition-Simulation” rolls (as a minimum)
During these rolls, for all intents and purposes, you’re simulating a live competition match.
You don’t have to start from the feet (though you should some of the time) and you shouldn’t try to muscle through your techniques, but during these rolls you’re trying to win, and just as importantly, using your pre-defined competition strategy (more on this in a future post) and not trying that new Berimbolo entry you found on Youtube yesterday.
For these rolls, you should pick partners that will make for a competitive match (skilled grapplers of the same belt-color or higher belts).
The goal for each of these rolls should be to finish with your primary submission. If you’re ahead on points and have side control, that’s great – but training isn’t the time to play it safe. Collect feedback on your offensive strategy by going on the offense when the opportunity is presented.
These rolls will be where you get the most real and honest feedback on your skill and ability as a competitor. You will learn whether your strategy works against opponents at your skill level, and if not, the necessary adjustments you have to make.
Use your pre-defined offensive sequence in at least 80% of all your rolls
This is what it takes to develop the specialist’s advantage necessary to break through your average opponent’s defense and to do it consistently.
Jiu-jitsu is a complex sport where multiple layers of defense are available against nearly every type of attack. To successfully execute an offense technique, you need consistent practice applying that specific technique, each time learning how to get past one layer or one specific type of defense.
It’s only by exposing your offensive strategy against a wide variety of opponents, in terms of physical attributes and skill level, that you can gain enough experience dealing with different types (and levels) of defenses to your offense to be able to consistently submit opponents in competition.
And you gain this exposure by attacking with the same chain of techniques, over and over again in your rolls.
Use rolls against beginners or lower belts as opportunities to train your ability to stay relaxed and technical in competition
Instead of seeing rolls against beginners as a chore, start getting something out of them.
Rolling with someone who is less skilled compared to you is a great opportunity to train your technical skill and reduce your reliance on strength when carrying out your offense.
You should still try to win these rolls, but don’t be that guy or girl who smashes them ruthlessly for a power trip. And while you can give some ground, don’t just let them win all the time. That teaches neither of you anything and robs you of a good opportunity to improve your technical skill.
Your technical skill is your ability to execute techniques in jiu-jitsu while applying as little strength as possible.
To train this, you want to focus on staying relaxed and using pure technique to win rather than muscle, even if your training partner has a strength or athleticism advantage on you.
Technical skill makes more of a difference than you might think in competition – the ability to execute techniques in a controlled, precise and relaxed manner conserves a massive amount of energy in a match and prevents the “forearm-burnout” that’s commonly associated with competition matches.
If you can improve your ability to execute technique effectively while staying relaxed, it will be one of the biggest advantages you can give yourself in a competition. While your opponent is busy tensing up and burning out their muscles, you’ll be relaxed, technical and ready to use your strength when you need to.
Most grapplers, even good ones, don’t have this mastered until they are high-level blue or purple belts.
Keep a Training Log
Keep a training log (this can be done on a pocket-book, word document, or some kind of note-taking software. I like OneNote) where you write down three things after each practice:
- What you did well
- What you need to work on
- What you will focus on or do better next time.
Before each practice, review your notes from last practice and show up with a plan and specific items you want to focus on. The key here is to learn to structure your training sessions and bring focus to your training sessions so you’re not trying something new each day and going nowhere.
Taking Conscious Control of the Learning Process
The concept I’ve introduced in this post will be a recurring theme on this site, which is the idea of taking conscious control of your development and improvement as a grappler by coming up with an optimal strategy for you as an athlete and creating an effective training plan to develop that strategy.
You will get nowhere training something different every day and only doing what your instructor tells you to do in practice. Because at the end of the day, you know yourself the best, and only you can define what the best and most effective way for you to fight is.
When you have defined that for yourself and created a training plan that maximizes your strengths, you will become a force to be reckoned with on the mat, because you’ve learned to take the game into your own hands.
That’s where the beauty of jiu-jitsu lies at the end of the day.
It’s a sport that has so much room for creativity and individual expression that you really can make the game your own and choose how you want to play it.
And there is no better opportunity to do that than when it comes time to roll.