Don’t Let the Tap Get in the Way

I got a chance to roll last night with a really good purple belt. It was a very pleasurable experience. Sometimes when you are rolling with someone it’s an uncomfortable fight. Sometimes it’s just plain fun. To those who don’t train it would seem counter intuitive to think that you could be engaged in a battle with someone where the goal is to painfully twist a limb or choke your partner unconscious and be laughing and smiling the whole time. It is possible though. I was lucky enough to have that experience last night. I talked with the guy after to try to figure out just what it was that made that roll more fun. It’s not just that the roll was more fun. I was more creative in it. I felt like my body was able to play and discover some new pathways in movement. It was simply a better learning experience than what I usually get.

Don’t focus too much on the end game. I found that neither of us was too interested in the tap. We were both focusing on position, transition, and the opportunities in the given moment. I was rolling without much thought or need to go for a sub. I did attempt some subs but only when they were so painfully obvious and available that it would have been awkward to not go for them. I didn’t force it. In turn, my partner was able to do the same. When you roll with someone you have to be playing the same game. I couldn’t play a creative experimental type of game if my partner was playing a balls to the wall submission game. It just wouldn’t work. Thankfully my partner has been around as was able to feel my energy intuitively. His body knew that we were playing a different game.

He did almost get a couple of subs. It was the same deal though. They were just there. They found themselves and it would have been almost insulting or not cool if he didn’t try them. He let them go when I stuffed them sufficiently. I think what we both found was that focusing on the energy, position and flow of the roll instead of the end game was very rewarding.

The Relationship

IMGP6587In BJJ subs are very boring to me. I don’t get much of a kick out of them frankly. I much prefer a sweep, a reversal, a great frame or escape. Those things are amazingly fun and rewarding. Why? Because BJJ is a relationship. You enter into a short term relationship with the other guy. You set some relationship ground rules and trust that your partner will follow them. You feel each other out initially to determine how the relationship will play out. You give and take. You combine your intent with that of the other person and make something new from it. You engage in creative play together. Like all relationships it’s best when you are attending to both people. You have to notice what you intend along with your partner’s intent. It’s not always about imposing your own intention on your partner. If you roll like that then nobody is going to want to roll with you. If you are only trying to impose your own game and not attending to mine then I either have to do the same and meet your game with mine and hope mine is better, or I have to only yield and accept your game and hope I can make something with it. Either choice is tough. Neither is fun. Both make learning hard.

BJJ is fighting with someone else and not against them. Fighting against someone else is reserved for tournaments and self defense. It’s not for the gym. We may push to that level on occasion just for the experience of performing under that kind of pressure, but it’s not where BJJ is learned. The only thing you learn in that kind of pressure is how to perform when being subjected to it.

Relax and enjoy the ride

This subtle distinction is something that new student’s don’t understand. We often don’t do a good job of describing it or teaching to it. We tell students to “relax.” When we say relax that’s what we mean. We mean don’t force things. Don’t simply try to will your way through techniques. Learn to read your opponents energy and combine it with yours. Notice what the other guy is doing.

The three key elements to this relationship are timing, energy, and motion. We are constantly communicating and exchanging these as we roll. These are, in fact, our key communication  devices in BJJ. Techniques come from these 3 key elements. All 3 are necessary for a healthy relationship.


Timing means doing the right thing at the right time. In order to do this you have to be attending to both your own game and your partner’s. You have to have an understanding of posture and how to pressure from posture. You have to understand how to receive what your partner is giving you and apply it to some new creative act. To create a sweep, a sub, a reversal, an escape from a combination of his intent and yours.IMGP6606


Energy is applying force in a direction with a specific purpose. In BJJ energy is a finite resource. Conserving it and using it wisely is key. In order to do that we apply force using leverage. We use frames and levers. We apply those frames and levers to our partner in a way that makes them most advantageous to us and least advantageous to them. This means applying them with the right angle, space, and location.


The right energy at the right time with the right frames and levers creates motion. The best BJJ happens in transition. It’s taking a movement in flight and changing it’s arc slightly to make something else from it. A push from your opponent becomes a sweep. Every movement becomes an opportunity to combine an intent with yours to create something new.