Let The White Belts Roll

To let the white belts roll, or not to let the white belts roll?

Apparently, that is the question.

Recently, the topic of whether or not jiu-jitsu students should be allowed to roll before they get their blue belt has been coming up online more, with a surprising (to me) number of people saying that, no, they shouldn’t.

The argument, generally speaking, is that white belts are clumsy, uncoordinated, uneducated, and, um, over-enthusiastic. It’s a combination that often ends in knees to the side of the head and submissions that should’ve been applied a lot slower. White belt rolls are often a bit chaotic, and I can see why coaches and students would prefer that they stick to drilling techniques until they have proven that they can roll with grace and technique.

And, respectfully, I still disagree.

There is absolutely merit to protecting your other students while they roll, but from what I’ve seen, there’s a clear difference between students who’ve been rolling since their early days on the mats and students who didn’t start rolling until six months in. And it doesn’t paint a convincing picture for those who don’t want white belts to roll.

Rolling — and the coordination required to roll safely — is a learned skill, just like any isolated technique. If it were only meant for blue belts, there wouldn’t be white belt divisions at virtually every jiu-jitsu tournament. There will absolutely be a learning curve, regardless of at what point a student begins rolling. By putting this curve off by multiple months (or years), you’re only succeeding in leaving your students behind.

This isn’t to say that you should throw your new students into rolls without preparing them for what they’re about to experience. A lot of the more dangerous, hectic moments that take place between rolling white belts are due to a lack of a plan — they don’t understand how to get from closed guard to, well, anywhere else, so they thrash and grab random limbs and try to muscle their way out.

Just as we don’t put someone behind the wheel of a car without making sure they know basic traffic signals and vehicle parts, perhaps the best thing we can do for white belt students is to ensure that they understand at least a few of the building blocks of a roll before sending them into a tornado of chokes and joint locks. Make sure that they are at least vaguely familiar with, at a minimum, one guard pass, one escape, and one submission before they roll for the first time.

For example, demonstrate how a basic shrimp (or hip escape) can be used when they’re stuck under side control or mount. Show them how to open closed guard, move to side control with a toreando pass, and finish with an Americana. Think of the most simple techniques you can to create a pathway so that new students have some semblance of a plan before they start rolling. One of the upper belts, or even a blue belt, can help with this if they show an interest in teaching.

This isn’t to say that day-one white belts should be thrown to the wolves after seeing a tiny handful of techniques. Generally, new students should spend at least one or two classes sitting out and watching other people roll so they can understand what rolling is and what other people are doing. They may even have the new students focus on live drills for a few weeks before they start rolling freely. Normally, though, students who train at least twice a week should be rolling in some capacity before the end of their first month

If you want to stop your students from rolling until they’re blue belts, that’s your choice, and I’m sure there are many students who would choose to train with you specifically because of that decision. But in an age where many white belts are not just rolling, but also learning leg locks (and using them in super absolute divisions in tournaments), consider how long you’ll be setting your students back by not letting them engage in a crucial component of jiu-jitsu until they reach a promotion most jiu-jitsu practitioners don’t see until at least a year of training.


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