I am a male blue belt, 5’10” and 165lbs. I’m not small, but I’m also not the largest person in my gym. I try to be a good training partner, and I want to keep myself safe during training too.
I’m sure you’ve heard my question before: How do you deal with people who say want to go light during live training but then come at you super hard? It gets frustrating, and I’m worried I might get injured.
“Let’s Just Go Light” guy or gal is one of the most long-standing jiu-jitsu archetypes, though not one of the most beloved. In the typical situation, one person asks a partner to “just go light,” but then comes out of the gate like he or she is in a steel-cage death match. Some people probably do this to get the jump on the other person, but I am willing to bet that most genuinely have no idea that they are doing anything other than going as gently as a summer breeze. They are like those memes that show a .gif of a high-level judoka effortlessly tossing an opponent next to a .gif of a baby elephant trying to knock down a post with the captions “What I think I look like when doing takedowns” and “What I actually look like when doing takedowns.”
Instructors may not spend as much time as we probably should explaining how to “go light” or to flow roll, so the first thing to do is establish what it means. There are tons of ways to describe what is supposed to be happening during a flow roll or a warm-up round, but let us get straight to the heart of the matter. When we go light, it is each person’s job to strategically give up position. Let me say that again: When we go light, it is each person’s job to strategically give up position.
Think about it: Does it take more energy to refuse a sweep or to allow it to happen when your partner has executed correctly? The answer is probably obvious. When we allow a sweep to happen, then, we are, by definition, going lighter than when we defend. Logically, it makes sense that we would want to let the sweep happen, at least sometimes, if we are doing right by our partners in a “go light” situation.
However, logic and ego do not necessarily work hand in hand. Grapplers as a species often neglect to connect the fact that while allowing a sweep, for instance, also results in our partner “getting the better of us” in some way, this is the goal of going light. If both people are doing it right, then both partners stand to benefit from a flow roll because both partners are allowing each other to get the better of them at different times.
Everyone gets this intellectually. When we square off and feel ourselves losing position, though, we tend to go bananas and to throw our best collaborative intentions out the window. This results in a zero-sum game rather than a joint effort toward helping both people gain ground.
The thing is, we cannot really control what our partners do, only what we do. In this situation, you are the “lucky” one, because you have been given the gift of awareness. There was probably a time in your jiu-jitsu career when you were the person you are now concerned about, because you did not have the presence of mind you do now. But with power comes responsibility, so the suggestions I have are for how you can monitor and modify your own behavior. This may not be what you were hoping for, but with patience and thoughtfulness, they can help you AND help you pay it forward to your overly energetic flow rolling partners.
The first thing to do when going light with someone else is to set your own intention to do so—you do not want to be the person in the pair who takes unfair advantage. Many people accompany the fist bump that precedes most rounds with a verbalized wish for good training. Take that moment and that wish seriously, and decide you are going to work with your partner collaboratively. Try to stay relaxed, and if you find your entire body tensing like a rubber band, take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
The second thing to do is to pay attention during the round. Often when we train, we let our bodies do the work and give our minds over to the meditative aspects of training. When we are first learning to go light, though, we may need to focus more on how we are moving, how tense we are, and how determined we are to maintain dominance. Just like we cannot relegate specific sequences to our muscle memory until our muscles remember how to do them, we cannot expect to flow roll well if we do not concentrate on doing so, at least at first. So, breathe deeply. Check the tension of your muscles. Try to be like water. If you feel yourself straining or breathing rapidly, slow down.
Another thing to try when you feel you are staying calm and relaxed but feel the force of a wind tunnel coming at you is to stop moving. Your partner will eventually notice, and sometimes that can serve as a non-verbal reminder to them that they need to relax a little. At the very least, it will make them stop and take notice for a second. If necessary, you can say something like, “I was getting a little bit tense, so I wanted to take a breath.” (I understand that you may not actually be the person who is getting tense, but this is where ego control comes in handy.) Repeat as needed. Note that this also has the added benefit of giving you something reasonable to say and do if your partner happens to outrank you; many of us at all belt levels need to work on just going light, not just beginners.
A third thing to do is tap. As with ceasing your movement, tapping can give you an opportunity to reset. Oftentimes we can escalate each other’s energy without meaning to, and if you feel your shared energy getting too animated, you can say something like, “I feel like we are a bit more intense than we want to be, so I figured we could just reset.”
In short, the best thing you can do is model appropriate behavior, react calmly when the behavior is less than appropriate (e.g., stop moving or tap to energy rather than a finish), and be supportive as your partner learns a bit more every day about how to control his/her energy. If all else fails, mentally categorize that person as someone you will go hard with for now; if they ask you go to light, find a reason to say no. You have a responsibility to help your teammates, but you also have a responsibility to keep yourself safe.
How do others help your partners get the hang of flow rolling? Post your suggestions in the comments section.
About Valerie Worthington
Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.