Yesterday, a white belt reader shared with me a personal struggle they were experiencing in the gym:
“What are your thoughts and insights on emotions and rolling? I can’t seem to roll hard without getting angry. Is that normal?”
For many of us, the gym is an emotional outlet. We show up after a long day of dealing with problems at home and at work, and at least for an hour or two, we get the chance to focus on something more pleasant: choking people.
Still, even though jiu-jitsu acts as a form of therapy for a lot of us, it’s unrealistic to expect our emotions to never come into play. Problems — or triumphs — that we’re experiencing in other aspects of our lives can contribute to how we feel when we fail or succeed in jiu-jitsu as well. For example, if you’re struggling to pass a tough class, you might get even more down on yourself if you just can’t understand what your coach is trying to teach you. And of course, if you just got a big promotion at work, a gold medal at a tournament is going to make you feel like nothing can bring you down.
When you’re having a high-intensity roll as opposed to just flow-rolling during training, everything is cranked up a notch. Your heart is going to pump faster, you’re going to sweat more and likely breathe harder, and your brain is going to perceive all of this as a reason to get a bit more worked up. From the responses that your body is having, your brain might think that you’re fighting for your life and dump the hormones and chemicals it deems necessary to help you be the one to come out alive. Different people have different reactions to this — some get nervous, some get excited, and yes, some get angry.
The way you react to high-intensity rolls might also be due to something deeper that might require some introspection. Is this giving you flashbacks to a tournament where you tried your hardest and still got armbarred? Are you frustrated with yourself because you know you can submit this person, but you just can’t seem to figure out how? Are you upset because you’re giving it everything you have and it’s still not enough? Are you worried that your jiu-jitsu isn’t as good as you’ve previously thought it was?
As far as I can tell, the simple answer to this reader’s question is yes, it is normal to get frustrated or angry during an intense roll, especially at the white and even blue belt level. But learning to control those emotions so they don’t affect your technique, your jiu-jitsu experience, or your partners’ jiu-jitsu experience is crucial to your development as an athlete.
At the risk of sounding cliche, one of the most important steps to take to become a less emotional training partner is to just breathe. Slowing your breathing and focusing on your breathing will help keep you from panicking or letting your adrenaline take over, which will help you think more rationally and be a more technical grappler. My personal rule of thumb (rule of lung?) is that if I’m inhaling through my mouth, I’m breathing too hard.
It seems obvious, but you need to also remind yourself that training is just that: training. Friendly rivalries between training partners are fine and can help both of you improve, but you should never consider yourself a bad or talented grappler based on your practice rolls. These people train with you every day, and you probably know each other’s games inside and out. Even during high-intensity rolls, you should never consider yourself a great success or a great failure based on how training sessions go — just focus on improving. Center your emotions on your next competition, and worry about being technical in training so you can perform best where it counts rather than in an environment where you should be struggling because it means you’re working on your weak points.
Above all, accept that this is just another hurdle you’re going to learn to get over as you progress in your jiu-jitsu journey, and it’s one more way that your time at the gym can help you grow as a human being outside of the gym. Jiu-jitsu is frustrating, especially when you haven’t been training that long and you’re struggling to believe in yourself. While there are exceptions to the rule, most grapplers who have been training for a few years have learned to not get worked up even when they go hard with each other. Just like you’re going to get better at passing guard and maintaining back control, you’re also going to get better at staying calm and not letting your emotions get the best of you. Until then, just do your best to enjoy all the ups, downs, and upside-downs that come with pouring everything you have into a roll with someone who challenges you.