Hulk Smash…But Must You?: The Obligations of Rolling with Lower Belts

Back Attacks 2

Yesterday, one of my training partners (and brand new blue belt) asked me a “blue belt question”: do I need to roll harder now and crush people all of the time? It was a great question, and I am always honoured when anyone would take a moment to ask me my opinion on jiujitsu. Now while I am certain that many people would have much to say about this, here is my opinion after four years of training: yes AND no.

Here is the thing. It is critical that new players understand the power of Brazilian jiujitsu; if the new guy comes to class and does not feel humbled, then I truly feel like she has missed out on the magical aura that may be all that keeps her on the mats when the going gets tough. At the same time, if she is smashed and humiliated to the point where the mountain seems impossible to climb and the whole team feels like angry monsters, then she will never return. Why would she? 

Ikki IV

In education, this reference point is referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development. It is kind of like the Goldilocks area wherein the learner feels challenged, but not overwhelmed. When a learner is in the zone of proximal development, he becomes enraptured in the activity even if it is difficult. This is a concept that makes good video games great; many still remember how fun it was to play a game like Pac-Man or Space Invaders, but also how frustrating a cooler game like Dragon’s Lair was. We all put more quarters into the fun game than the one that made us feel stupid.

On the flip side to this, however, is that jiujitsu is supposed to feel impossible and frustrating to a certain degree. Giving a white belt the illusion that he is close to tapping a brown belt is not exactly healthy either. This softening of the art makes the newbie push harder in a physical, athletic way (because he has no actual skills or technique to speak of). Hence, this is why “spazzing” is a common occurrence with lower belts and blue belts who were never properly put under realistic pressure from the upper belts in the gym. One might even say that by not crushing white belts with superior physical attributes so that they realize those will only take him so far, is a disservice to the student and all those who have to then deal with him hurting others until he is ostracized by the whole tribe.

What do I do? At my gym, we have slowly been building up a team of hard-working people who adhere to our professor’s philosophy of “progression” and “position before submission”. Unlike many of the big gyms, we are not running huge classes, but we also aim to keep those people who do come to train with us. In the past two years we have gone from classes with 1-4 students to classes with about 14-20 people on the mats. These numbers mean that we have the luxury of starting all rolls from the standing position, and our social community is solid.

Ikki 3

When a new person comes to the gym, how I treat him or her depends on how that person treats me and the other students. If the student is humble and smiles when submitted repeatedly, then I know we have a keeper. Fortunately, in the past two months we have had a few cool people join the crew as white belts. They are humble, ask questions after rolling and like to be in the classes. For those students, I move lightly and work on my B Game and C Game attacks. I never use full pressure and I usually give openings for them to escape to the next position. I always make a point of commenting on what they are improving on after each roll and give one idea to watch out for, such as “Do not keep leaving your arms out there!”

For others, those who come in with something to prove, I tend to go with full pressure but not submit them. I do not want to create a situation wherein the guy feels like his ego is openly at stake. I will hold him, make him sweat a lot and breathe really heavy. I will never give a positive comment because there is really not much to say. Those guys tend to not last, and that is fine by me.

Coach Advice

How do I feel about getting smashed? Hmmm, I am okay with whatever comes my way. I think that I began at a gym where cowboys were the rule, and frankly it probably made me harder in the long run. On the flip side to that, the gym had a revolving door or new students who just quit, and there were a lot of injuries. When I switched gyms, the rolls were definitely grinding and harsh, but that was exactly what I wanted. I think that it made my defences pretty solid, but it made it very difficult for me to ever practice attacks or submissions, because I was always in a smashed position.

I guess that I should also mention that once I can tell a student is hooked, then I will slowly turn up the heat like you do when cooking a lobster. I remember the look of confusion when an especially hard-working man started coming at me after a year of training with all of his new tools. I tapped him ten times in five minute round. When he commented that I was really good that day, I assured him that is was because of two things: he was that much better and my new gi gave me super powers. I winked. He laughed, and he is now a partner for life.

Chandler and Jay


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