Finding the Balance: Training With Grappling Partners of Different Genders, Sizes, Ages, and Skill Levels

7 min read
“The beautiful thing about Jiu-Jitsu is that we have choices. It’s an art that gives us confidence and power. We can choose who we roll with. We can tap. That’s powerful.” – Alison Thurston

professor and student grappling in BJJ

Finding the Balance: Training With Grappling Partners of Different Genders, Sizes, Ages, and Skill Levels

“The beautiful thing about Jiu-Jitsu is that we have choices. It’s an art that gives us confidence and power. We can choose who we roll with. We can tap. That’s powerful.” – Alison Thurston

Location: New England, U.S.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Photo by: Jordan Samuel Photography… Erin Millette and Rick Godfrey at Bazzani Martial Arts Academy

When a prospective student walks into a jiu-jitsu academy, what they witness will most likely be a bit overwhelming. And once they step on the mats, the learning curve is exceptionally steep. Learning any new skill takes time and patience, but with jiu-jitsu, the new student has to learn tolerance. They must tolerate closeness with strangers and all that comes with it, including smells, exposure to sweat, and even their own self-consciousness. They have to learn to tolerate a way of being touched and handled that is not, contrary to its nickname, the gentle art. And while they learn technique, they also have to learn to navigate a new set of manners which are integral to building trust with their new training partners. 

Jiu-Jitsu social skills

Perhaps the most important social skill that students must develop during their time on the mats is the balance in training with different partners. Everyone has a different mind and body and so no two rolls are ever exactly the same. Eventually, we find consistent, or even favorite training partners with whom we have solid back-and-forth battles with, and whom we are totally comfortable asking questions. We might even hang out in 50/50 while discussing a topic completely unrelated to jiu-jitsu, totally forgetting the intimacy of our physical positioning. 

Photo by: Ben Moore Media… Alison Thurston drills with Shelby Roy during a Liborio seminar at Dedeco Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Judgment in BJJ

We are, if lucky, also regularly challenged to roll with new training partners. Upon initial assessment, we have only our eyes to rely upon to form judgment. We can usually tell if they are male or female, estimate their weight class and age, and their rank. Quickly, and without conscious thought, we size ourselves up in comparison to them. Do I have any advantages over this person? Do they have any over me? Do I need to take it easy on them? Are they going to destroy me? Am I comfortable rolling with this person? These judgments exist for a reason, and as much as we (hopefully) try to be a non-judgmental person in the outside world, on the mat, we are faced with direct reality where truth is immediately revealed. 

When the roll begins, our assessments are challenged. Anyone who does jiu-jitsu knows that you cannot get the full measure of an opponent based on the information gathered by your eyes. You can only trust touch. In other words, never underestimate an opponent. 

A BJJ GYM Owner’s Perspective (Alison Thurston and Victor Bazzani)

In order to gain some insight and advice on the topic of finding balance with various training partners, I sat down for discussions with two experienced gym owners. Alison Thurston and Victor Bazzani, both Dedeco Black Belts, own successful schools in the New England area, which are particularly known for retaining female practitioners. Any female grappler can attest to this being a good sign; and not only for women. A school where the women are comfortable is a school where everyone is comfortable. It means the environment is healthy overall. 

Philosophy for students… Alison

Alison is the head coach of her academy and, for obvious reasons, sets the tone immediately for her students. The white belt men begin their jiu-jitsu journey under the authority of a woman. Alison believes that keeping male and female grapplers separate for rolls is safer for everyone and she attributes the success of her academy to this philosophy. There are exceptions to this rule, as there are upper belt men who she feels comfortable assigning to her female students. And in general, she prefers assigning every roll. When a student begins at her academy, they are not allowed to grapple until she gives the OK. She feels that the right to grapple with other students is something that is earned and that this is the foundation with which she builds respect on the mats. 

Philosophy for female students

Victor has a different philosophy regarding his female students. He has an optional female pod which he facilitates two nights a week. In general, women are always free to only train with women if that is their preference. But on Tuesday and Thursday nights, there is an understanding that women will at least begin their rolls with the other women in order to provide those who only want to roll with women a chance to get in some rolls. “Maybe,” he explains, “they don’t want a man they don’t know on top of them for whatever reason. If you provide a place where they can train with other women, that is better than the alternative, which is where they do not train at all.”

Like Alison, Victor believes that fostering an environment that is comfortable, begins at the top. “I have some very tough athletes who might look intimidating,” he explains, “but they really just want to teach people. This breeds a sub-culture that continues because the instructors at our school are focused on our students getting better. It’s an arrangement.” 

Trust in BJJ

Trust must also be built between training partners of different rank. When I was a white belt, I often sought out purple belts for rolls, feeling confident they would challenge me without hurting me. As a blue belt, I find that I now have regular competitive rolls with white, blue, and purple belts. And I can typically feel a strong difference between each rank. Brown and black belts really let me work, clearly not giving a full effort unless they need to escape a submission, which they most likely allowed me to access in the first place. 

Photo by: Jordan Samuel Photography…Victor Bazzani showing a position with Scott Spencer

Rolling with partners of different rank

Victor’s philosophy on training with partners of different rank and skill levels is based on what he calls timing. “If you’re going to roll with a person and you have an advantage in any category, you roll with them technically, but you dial back your timing so that you can let them see the move coming. If they are doing well, you can increase your timing. So, if you are going to hit a scissor sweep and they are new, you will not do it with the same timing as you would someone of your equal level. The same may be true if you roll with a much older grappler or a female if you are a male.” On this note, the opposite may be true. “If you underestimate them, you can adjust within the roll and increase your timing.” 

Consent within jiu-jitsu

Alison emphasized the importance of consent within jiu-jitsu, in general. “You don’t have to roll with someone. You have the right and opportunity to say ‘No, thank you.’ Maybe, because I am a black belt, I have no problem saying that I will not roll with someone on a particular day. Whereas a blue belt might have a harder time saying that. I stress this to my women. At any time, you can decline a roll… you can tap any time. It doesn’t have to be for a submission. A tap is a safe way of saying enough andisn’t necessarily a bad thing. You need to learn to tap often and for all different reasons. The beautiful thing about jiu-jitsu is that we have choices. It’s an art that gives us confidence and power. We can choose who we roll with. We can tap. That’s powerful.” 

For those who want to become trustworthy training partners, this important balance is one we each must figure out. Every roll is an opportunity for us to learn and to teach. And in order to do both, we must respect our partners. Respect their bodies as well as their feelings. Communicate openly about your needs and ask about theirs. If you have an impending competition, feel free to verbalize this before a roll. Ask your partner if you can go hard with each other. If you are nursing an injury, make it known so they can adjust their game.

In life, we are told to obey the golden rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. In jiu-jitsu, this means trying to choke your friends as you would like them to try and choke you. But it also means ensuring that everyone is well enough to roll again tomorrow. 

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