Survival Guide: Rolling with the Brand New Student
New students are the lifeblood of the sport. I believe that all white belts should be celebrated, and that gym cultures should make a deliberate effort to be welcoming and understanding of how challenging it can be to step on to the mat for the first time. Once you have been training for a year or more, you can lose sight of that feeling, and that can mean losing a healthy level of empathy for the nerves and frustration of doing jiu-jitsu as a total beginner.
That said, we also have to recognize that brand new white belts can be dangerous. Dumb injuries often occur when we roll with new students, and they usually aren’t a result of malice. Rather they come from inexperience, a lack of coordination, and the absence of any knowledge around etiquette or rules. I say this as someone who has had his nose broken by a large white belt and who has endured more than a few slams, stray elbows, and misplaced knees to the head.
In all cases, I was significantly more skilled than my partners, but I was too “playful” with my positioning. In the case of the broken nose, I swept a much bigger opponent and held off on grips and passing to let him work. Instead, he panicked and kicked me in the nose. Total accident, and he felt badly, but he thought he was going to the right place, and I thought I was being nice by giving him more freedom.
If you want to protect your new and veteran students, you need a policy for how to roll with new students. Here’s mine:
- Always assume that a new student is dangerous. Whether they are bigger, uncoordinated, overly aggressive, or sandbagging (intentionally or unintentionally), new students can hurt you. This has nothing to do with whether or not they are good people and is more about the mindset you should have entering the role. Protecting yourself is the first priority.
- Get to a safe position of control. When you don’t know the student, playing a loose open game can expose you to a sudden explosive movement. Before you play possum and let your partner start to work, get the grips and set up you need to feel in control of the roll--such as full guard with some good grips or on top in side control.
- Gradually give your new partner more freedom to work, throttling up the control when you feel them getting a bit chaotic. This approach helps you to avoid flailing scrambles and also helps to tire the new student out, which will calm them down a bit if they are going too hard from the start.
- If you have a teacher or mentorship role at your gym, offer some coaching and guidance from your position of control. For me, this is high-level direction like “Your goal is to get around my legs from this position” or some tone-management coaching like “Breathe and take your time or else you will gas out.”
To be clear, I am not advocating that you smash every new student that comes in the door. That’s not a healthy gym culture. Instead, use your skills to get to a spot where you feel safe feeling out how your partner rolls and how much strength and/or ability he or she has. From there, you can dictate the appropriate level of effort, and that’s a better experience for everyone in the long run.