BJJ Schools Where the Black Belt Doesn’t Roll with their students.

Flickr/Creative Commons: Team Ironside

BJJ Schools Where the Black Belt Doesn’t Roll with their students.

By William Murphy, Ph.D.,IBJJF Black Belt 3rd Degree, USJA San Dan Judo

One of my former BJJ students, Professor Pat McDonald (who is now an accomplished BJJ black belt in his own right) and I have had a running dialog for years.

Pat believes that it is very suspicious and a great disservice to the students, when the BJJ black belt instructor of a school does not roll with their students.

My position on the matter always considers a couple scenarios for possible reasonable exceptions (injury, age, is there a team of black belt coaches serving as the rolling partners under the supervision of the most senior black belt coach, etc).

But both Prof Pat and I agree that in practice denying BJJ purple and brown belts with good BJJ black belts to regularly roll with generally means that they will spend an extra ten years developing the skills to be a solid BJJ black belt.

It’s not all about rolling, but sometimes you really improve by getting the feel of technique executed, and explained, by someone that is several planes beyond where you are at in understanding.

When you have a BJJ “black belt” that doesn’t roll with his students (and isn’t recovering from a truly serious injury), then at the very least this is a sign of severe burn out with Jiu-Jitsu.

There are sometimes other problems besides instructor burn out or injury that cause this lack of rolling, however.

Following the initial UFCs, there were a wave of instructors that came over from Brazil, chasing “hot money”, some of whom received “airplane” promotions. They were blue, purple, or sometimes marginal brown belts in BJJ that got promoted to black belt to help spread BJJ to the United States. The problem is, their students quickly caught up to them in skill level, and in many cases quickly surpassed them if the students had solid grappling backgrounds already from wrestling or Judo.

So, it was quite common for the “airplane” promoted black belts to stop rolling with their students after the first 3-5 years of opening a school so as to not expose their own limitations to their class. And, once they stopped practicing, they never really progressed in their own practical skill set (although they may have continued to increase their theoretical knowledge, or ability to referee, or understanding of the rules).

You will find that these schools, where the black belt does not roll with the students, also usually do not have a lot of purple, brown, or black belts in them. The upper belts in these schools end up having to migrate to other schools that have black belts who roll with the students, and thus black belts who can actually finish the upper belt’s training to become black belts themselves.

There has also been the problem (particularly in the US) with those that view the martial arts purely as a business, that have persuaded unscrupulous but otherwise credentialed BJJ instructors to promote them based on dollars and the number of students they are coaching, versus their actual personal practice in BJJ or their personal skill set in BJJ.

Even BJJ black belts with pretty severe injuries usually just find ways to train around those injuries, because they are addicted to rolling. Now, I am NOT suggesting that anybody train when their body should be recovering from an injury, or that a black belt has to roll with his students all of the time, BUT:
I’ll never forget the class when Mestre Sergio Penha had blown out his knee so completely that he really couldn’t walk. He hobbled into the gym on crutches, crawled down on to the mat, and then proceeded to kick all of our asses repeatedly for the next two hours, until the rest of us were too exhausted to move, at which time he army crawled back over to his crutches and then hobbled out the door.

BJJ black belts like Pat McDonald who have won gold medals as black belts in high level tournaments (and really won them, not won them because no one or only one person was in their bracket), are always rolling or asking to roll. Champions in BJJ almost always love to roll, all of their lives, because they became champions in part by virtue of their addiction to rolling.

You will know a BJJ Black belt, not by how many kids medals his academy has won, not by how many medals his affiliate’s academies have won, and CERTAINLY NOT by the certificates he somehow got someone to sign (although when a BJJ Black Belt who runs a school doesn’t have a certificate from the IBJJF or some other major BJJ group that vets rank carefully like Rickson, Royce, the Gracie Academy, the Valente Brothers etc, then chances are there is something screwy…)

Even if they are injured, you will usually get the opportunity to know if their BJJ skill level is black belt by watching them put themselves into terrible positions with any opponent who comes on their mat and using Jiu-Jitsu skillfully against opponents of any skill level to survive those situations (and even possibly win, despite the disadvantaged situation or their injury).

You will know them by their ability to teach on the fly and demonstrate the answers to questions deeply and widely (beyond their own favorites moves or their academy’s official curriculum) without having to refer to youtube, or a set of DVDs.

Now, we all grow old. We all forget moves. And any modern coach worth the title should use all modern instruction resources at his disposal.

But, if your BJJ teacher does not roll with you (or at least situationally drill with you, giving it his best), then to Professor Pat’s point, you may have someone that is better marketed than they are skilled.

I myself allow for more reasonable exceptions to this question than Prof Pat, but I also still have to concede that more often than not, the teacher that never rolls with his students usually never had high level skills in the first place – unless they are now in a wheelchair.


  1. Heard about some black belt don’t roll with their students at all, unless you ask them and it sucks cuz of that. I want a black belt to come up and roll with any level without having to ask to roll

  2. Don’t think this is fair every time. My best friends are both BB. They have very worn out bodies because of BJJ… They aren’t in wheelchairs but its certainly bad enough that they can’t sleep if they roll due to multiple hernias… It been like that for a couple of years now… I certainly would never expect them to roll with their spastic whitebelts that are gonna try to muscle a submission in any possible way…so I’d say it really does depend

    • This is true.
      We all either get old and crippled or die young.
      There are of course real exceptions.
      But, there are some con artists too.
      Black belts in their 30’s who never roll, and aren’t in a cast, kind of strange…

  3. I roll pretty much every single class. All the higher belts are always asking to roll so I do. However I get the same few always trying to me sure they get a roll (and I try not to say no) but that also takes away from potential rolls with other students. There may be a spaz or 2 lower belts I avoid, but other than that I roll. My body feels broken sometimes after 22 years but it’s also kept up and in great shape for training. I’m about to be 44 and I feel if I stop now it would be hard to start again in the future.

  4. I am beaten and 41 years old. I have cancer. I have taken about the last two weeks off due to personal problems that made me not have any motivation to roll. I’ve lost ten pounds, etc.
    But I usually roll about twice-three times a week, teaching six days. That’s plenty for me.

    • Professor McLeod you are a true warrior. My thoughts and prayers are with you. I wish you a speedy recovery and I hope your pain is eased. Best Regards, Bill Murphy

  5. After a slight “rolling slump”, I am again making every effort to roll with all of my students– whom I prefer to call “training partners”– because, each and every time I do, I learn more about jiujitsu. There was a time when I was quite guilty of not rolling enough, of kicking back, taking it easy, coasting and being generally lazy. I paid the price– not only do I not feel as well when I avoid rolling, but, my general mobility, mat conditioning, ability to relax and breathe properly and applicable knowledge also fade rapidly. Jiujitsu information tends to stick around intellectually for quite some time. The application of jiujitsu, however, is a highly perishable skill. In short, when I do not roll regularly, my own jiujitsu suffers grievously. I was never very good at jiujitsu, but I was always very good at teaching jiujitsu. My greatest talent is that I generally suck at rolling. I am trying to rectify that now by training as much as possible. Frankly speaking, there is no other way to get better– there never was, and there never will be. Jiujitsu makes one good at jiujitsu.

    • P.S. I should note that I have been training BJJ since late 95/early 96 and am a black belt in the Gracie Humaita lineage. One final note: the black belt is not a magical device that makes one permanently good at BJJ. Regular training– and especially training in a sophisticated way which concentrates on breathing, relaxation and avoiding injury– is the only way to stay sharp. I am grateful to all of my students/training partners for reminding me of this every time I step onto the mat.


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