Should You Roll With Higher or Lower Belts in BJJ? (And Why It Matters)

This article is to help answer the question: should you roll with higher or lower belts in BJJ?

Now you may not have a choice…

But if you do? 

The answers below might help you choose:

Who you ask to roll with

Where you train, and

How often you visit other clubs.

Let’s get started:

80-90% of Your Training Should be With People of Significantly Lower Skill Level

John Danaher is regarded as one of the best Jiu Jitsu coaches in the world. 

In an interview for Verbal Tap MMA Comedy Podcast, Raf Esparza asked the question about should you roll with higher or lower belts: 

You don’t want to train with someone whom is not going to push you or not submit you, right?

John Danaher’s answer might come as a surprise:

Here’s a transcript:

People have a mistaken impression that you should always be training with the toughest guys, that’s not true at all:

I believe about 80 to 90 percent of your training should be with people who are significantly lower in skill level than you are…

…and then as you get into competition mode, you start training with guys who are your own skill level or better

The idea of having some competition-specific preparation makes sense:

But I do believe that it’s a common misunderstanding that you should always be training with people better than yourself.

It’s very very hard to develop your technical skills on people that are better than you. All you develop is your defensive skills.

But ultimately the point of Jiu Jitsu is to defeat people and not to become difficult to submit. 

That’s a good point… I’ve had some rolls where I’ve been in survival mode for 5 minutes! 

These sessions have been valuable in teaching me where I’m making mistakes and leaving openings… 

…but I didn’t have much of a chance to work on passing, sweeps, or submissions

So there’s this common misunderstanding: “To be the best, I’ve got to train with the best.”

Yes to some degree I do believe it’s important in your early days in training to feel what quality Jiu Jitsu feels like, you need to roll with someone good

But as you progress beyond blue belt I always believed that around 80% of your training should be with significantly lower level people than yourself so you can practice new techniques and you can expand your repertoire.

You cant do these things when youre going tooth and nail with someone of your own skill level.

I completely get that. Whenever I’m trying to work on something new, I’ve practiced it until I’ve had success with someone of a lower skill level.

Once I’ve gotten the knack for it, then I’d try it on someone more my experience

Drill. Drill With Resistance. Then Practice on People With Limited Proficiency

Joe Rogan has a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu… and has spent a LOT of time picking the minds of some of martial arts’ greats. There’s a great video that’s been put together by Stuart Cooper Films:

Like one of the things about Jiu Jitsu, this is a very important lesson for anybody who knows jiu jitsu because a lot of people don’t like this aspect of Jiu Jitsu:

Some people have this meathead idea that the way to get good at jiu jitsu is to go against the hardest guys, get your ass kicked, and that’s how you learn

Actually, it’s the wrong way to learn:

The best way to get good at Jiu Jitsu is to strangle blue belts

You go, and you find people that are just learning, but they’re not as good as you, and you choke the f@#! out of them

Sounds like he’s on the same page as John Danaher. It’s explained a little more colourfully… but it’s the same point!

That’s how you get really good at your technique

And people say “well that’s bullying”

Well it is important for the blue belt too, at some point, spar with black belts. It is important.

…because you need to know that there’s a higher level of proficiency, there’s a higher level of skill.

And then there’s a shorter distance in between points that these guys are hitting. They’re cutting the chase, they’re capitalising on very small openings… and they clamp down.

And when they capitalise on these small openings, they get submissions quicker. So you have to know that there are guys that are better. That’s important, but to drill. 

Again, sounds like the majority of your time should be spent practicing in a situation where you can get the technique to work, and get those repetitions in…

… but every now and again you need a reality check.

My thoughts on this is that this is important, especially if you take the time to reflect on where you went wrong, then put it back into practice when you’re rolling with someone of lower skill.

The most important thing is drilling. And when you drill, you drill with like someone of your level, and you just practice on each other. You choke me, and you know, you’ll do it like twice, and then I’ll choke you, and then I’ll do it twice, and it’s just practice. 

And maybe you resist like 50%, like sometimes where when you’re doing a drill and I’ll pretend to be resisting, Ill resist just a little bit, and you’re strangling each other, because that simulates real life. It simulates how it’s supposed to be, and you’re supposed to be building your muscle memory.

But the real way to do it, after you do that, to get it really sharp is to practice on people with a limited amount of proficiency, just to choke the $h!t out of them.

So that’s like the way you ultimately get better, is to practice on people that aren’t quite as good as you. 

Then you eventually develop, and you get to a point where, you know, that seems kinda impractical.

This is a very common sense way of approaching skill development:

1. Learn the basics of the skill until you know how it works

2. Practice against simulated resistance so you know what adjustments you need to make

3. Gradually increase the resistance, continually refining it, until you’re 100% proficient

If you’re in a school, and say you’re the only white belt, and everyone else is a brown belt, or a black belt, and you’re training with them… f@#! man, you might not ever get good. You might just get wrecked all the time.

This reinforces the same idea:

If you only practice against people who are better than you, you might only ever get good at defence. 

From the original version:

Will You Roll With Higher or Lower Belts Next Time You Train Jiu Jitsu?

I can’t get to class as much as I’d like. 

So when I do:

I need to make the most of it.

These are answers I came across when I was researching whether you should roll with higher or lower belts for another article…

Read: BJJ Rolling Tips: How to Make the Most Out of Every Class

Your turn!

Comment below: what do you think? Should you roll with higher or lower belts in BJJ?

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