Gracefully Giving (And Receiving) A “No Thanks” On The Mats

Creative Common/Flickr: ViniciusPescador

As nice as it would be if everyone could safely and comfortably roll with everyone else in jiu-jitsu, we all know the feeling of trying to avoid eye contact with someone when it’s time to match up for a roll.

I am a staunch believer in the “right of refusal” when it comes to rolling. The whole premise of jiu-jitsu is that it’s based on consent — when we want the action to stop, we tap out, and it should stop. Sometimes, though, we tend to forget that this principle also applies before a roll. Even though we “know” that it’s ok to say no, we may feel pressure when we’re asked to roll with someone we don’t want to roll with, or maybe we feel stung when we get turned down for a roll.

I’ve been on both sides of that conversation, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel awkward at best and upsetting at worst. It sucks when someone is a great friend, but an unsafe rolling partner. It also sucks when you’re very eager to roll with someone, but they tell you ‘maybe later’ when you ask them to pair up. But understanding that you and everyone else in the gym has the right of refusal is crucial to having a safe, comfortable experience in the gym.

In general, I firmly believe that everyone should be able to turn down a roll. Some women may only feel comfortable rolling with other women, and some men may only feel comfortable rolling with other men. Maybe the issue is a size disparity, or maybe the intensity you want to train at doesn’t match the intensity of your chosen partner’s. Maybe you’re coming off an injury and only want to roll with a very select few trusted teammates until you feel comfortable again, or maybe it’s a matter of religion.

Unless the refusals seem to be motivated by something more nefarious, such as racism or homophobia (in which case, finding a rolling partner is the least pressing issue that needs to be dealt with), I don’t see anything wrong with turning down a roll with anyone, whether it’s a one-off refusal or indefinite. Jiu-jitsu is an intimate, close-contact sport, and everyone deserves to feel comfortable and safe while they train. Obviously, your training may suffer if you only have three trusted rolling partners, but if that’s a sacrifice you’re willing to make, then that should be your choice.

Still, many people in jiu-jitsu struggle with the emotional side of a one-sided rolling request. They don’t know how to politely but firmly tell a training partner ‘no thanks,’ or maybe they get personally offended when they receive a ‘no thanks.’

Making this a comfortable experience for everyone involved with minimal hurt or awkwardness requires one simple thing: communication. Not avoidance, not excuses, just clearly and respectfully speaking your feelings, regardless of which side of the conversation you’re on.

This doesn’t mean you have to rip your teammates’ jiu-jitsu to shreds when you tell them that you don’t want to roll with them. It can be as simple as saying, “I’m being picky about who I roll with today.” I’ve found that most of the time, people tend to take that just fine, understanding that you have your own personal reasons for declining a roll with them.

If the issue is likely to persist, though, it may be worth chatting with either your teammate or your coach about the issue. Many newer jiu-jitsu students, in particular, don’t realize that they have dangerous habits when they roll. They may need someone to let them know that their chaotic style is deterring people from rolling with them. Or, if your teammate is harassing you or otherwise making you uncomfortable, have a private discussion with your coach about it and let them handle the problem.

Now, if you’ve been declined a roll, it’s your job to meet your teammate in the middle and either take their polite refusal at face value or communicate to better understand why. Either way, be gracious about it, just as you’d want someone else to be gracious if you had to turn them down.

If you’re consistently turned down by the same person (or multiple different people), it’s generally okay to ask why. The important thing is that, whatever their reason may be, your response is either to accept it or offer to help solve the issue. For example, if your teammate tells you that you’re a bit too large and aggressive for them to feel safe during a roll, it’s fine to offer to flow roll. If they still say no, though, accept it and move on.

While you’re allowed to have your own feelings about being turned down for a roll, be cautious about being too pushy. Just because you don’t think you’re a clumsy training partner doesn’t mean you aren’t a clumsy training partner. Your experience doesn’t invalidate theirs. If the solution you offer isn’t enough to persuade your teammate to change their mind, accept it and move on.

A declined roll between two decent people shouldn’t feel like a middle finger; if it does (whether intentionally or unintentionally), it may be time to get your coach involved to help sort out what may be a deeper issue. The ideal situation in any jiu-jitsu gym is that everyone enjoys rolling with everyone, or at least feels safe and comfortable rolling with everyone. But when that’s not possible, the bare minimum standard should be that everyone feels safe and comfortable communicating with each other.


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