It is undeniable that the most entertaining aspect of training BJJ is rolling. Most people that show up to class either slack through or try to avoid the warm-up. That is a given. While class is interesting and engaging to some, it is very rare for an instructor to have the utmost attention of everyone present. Even in competition, often times lots of the fun is taken away by anxiety and adrenaline. For everyone training BJJ rolling is the best time of class. This is why open mat is usually just another way to say let’s roll all day.
BJJ rolling, however, should not be taken for granted. Whenever we roll with someone it means that we both willingly put our bodies in as collateral. That means that we need to respect the fact that our partner has entrusted us with the most valuable material position one has. Going even further, in BJJ rolling is seldom done by just a pair of grapplers. That means that while in a roll, we’re surrounded by others doing the same. Everyone who has rolled knows how much concentration and focus a roll demands, which often leads to complete lack of spatial awareness. This is one of the top reasons why people end up with black eyes, twisted fingers or even serious injuries.
Developing Mat Awareness For Jiu-Jitsu
Being aware of our surroundings is a trait that slowly gets lost in modern times. The digital age has us looking at screens even as we walk, which means we have the attention span of a peanut. Now imagine how that translates to BJJ rolling when we’re engaged in the proverbial fight to the death. Mat awareness is crucial for every grappler to learn.
Having mat awareness means being able to recognize that you are in a physical proximity to other people or things. A highly developed mat awareness can protect you from the danger that unaware grapplers present. In an ideal Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy, pairs of grapplers would train in their own isolated areas. Honestly, never running into other grappling pairs with errant feet and elbows sounds enticing. It is, however, virtually impossible. As most of us know from painful experience, grapplers rolling are like human billiard balls, rolling and smacking into each other and the walls.
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As such, mat awareness during rolling needs to be addressed as the important subject that it is. Instructors need to make it a point to convey the message repeatedly and clearly until people start to take it in. It is crucial to understand that this benefits everyone since a safe rolling environment is one where you could experiment with new techniques without worrying. It is encouraging to know that you won’t get a heel to your face if you attempt a rolling back take.
Unwritten Rules Of BJJ Rolling Etiquette
By developing mat awareness, grapplers tend to create more than just a safe environment. Primarily, it leads to better adjustment when we infringe on someone else’s space. Across BJJ schools, training etiquette dictates that when two pairs of grapplers get too close, the higher-ranking pair stays put. Conversely, the lower-ranking pair needs to move and make space. For example, a brown and purple belt occupying the same space as a couple of purple belts during BJJ rolling, means the two purple belts need to stop and move.
Next to consider is positional complexity. Imagine that two people rolling are deeply entwined in, let’s say, a leg-locking battle. There is imminent danger of another pair, which is in an open guard battle, bumping into them, The open guard is a much simpler position to restart than a 4/11 or truck position. Another situation that arguably merits advantages are scrambles. Scrambles are both extremely difficult to restart and it’s impossible to predict their outcome. The conflict here is what to do when two pairs are in the same or very similar position. If rank is equal who makes space for whom?
Contrary to the respectful behavior that marks the Gentle Art, there are those who refuse to. While this is unacceptable and stupid behavior due to many reasons, a major one is the potential for danger. Ego can be a dangerous thing in grappling martial arts, and this is a clear example of how and why. Whenever you find yourself in a situation like this ask yourself what is on the line. The likely outcome of stubbornness is an injury to yourself or a partner. Across the scale is losing position or a submission attempt in a roll. For most this is a simple solution, provide that ego is not a factor.
The Experience Factor
When we train BJJ, our technical knowledge of the sport grows exponentially the more time we spend training. While training age has a huge impact on our game, the ability to recognize situations and adapt during a roll, it is not the case in terms of awareness.
To be honest, there seems to be a reverse correlation between the two. Experienced grapplers tend to be more careless during rolling opposed to less experienced ones. This is probably due to the rank factor, with older grapplers expecting others to move out of their way. While this is all fine, it doesn’t apply to the complex position situation. A black belt that is in closed guard should have the decency to move away from a purple belt that has a blue belt in a reverse triangle. It is just common sense an courtesy.
This solidifies the importance of competition experience for the well-rounded grappler. Competitors in the heat of battle must learn which stimuli to ignore and which to attend to. Competition experience largely aids grapplers to identify what areas need attention and how to focus on multiple important things at once.
All in all, mat awareness is an integral part of BJJ rolling and training in general. The challenge is in the delivery system. How do we make grapplers conscious of the potential dangers of disregarding the importance of awareness? Should it be taught independently of other Jiu-Jitsu aspects? Whatever the case, for the safety of everyone on the mat, awareness needs to be a regular subject of BJJ academy talks.