Drilling versus Rolling
People often ask me which one is most important: drilling or rolling.
Some people really enjoy one more than the other. Some people don’t even want to roll until they think they’ve reached some perceived level of expertise.
But let me give you a little tip about my school. I’m probably not going to be able to rank you if you’re not rolling. But you’re not going to get good at rolling without plenty of drilling.
So there’s no clear cut answer. They are both very important to your training and practice. So let me break down how I view these two things.
Drilling is about the brain. It’s when we learn new techniques. It’s when we set patterns and learn sequences.
This is the time to talk, think, and ask questions. If you’re not grasping something, we use drilling time to try and figure out where you’re struggling and how to fix it.
For newer students, more time should be spent drilling than rolling. At least starting out. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be rolling at all, but you have to learn the moves before you’re going to be successful in a roll.
But because you are thinking about what you’re doing during drills, you can’t train your instincts. When you know what to expect, which you do during drills, you can’t train your instincts. Just knowing what to do doesn’t mean your body will be able to do them quick enough to keep you from getting choked out.
That’s where rolling comes in.
Rolling is live application for what you’ve learned. This is where you take the things that you’ve been practicing, the new techniques you’ve been drilling, and seeing if you can actually use them.
Rolling is the time that you should feel things, not think things.
You’re developing your instincts and muscle memory, those neural pathways that automatically go from stimulus to spinal cord without having to travel all the way to the brain and back. You don’t have time to think. Those moves become immediate and ingrained. It also forces you to learn the proper timing and rhythm of the moves you’re learning because rolling is dynamic. It changes and you can’t plan how it will go. And dynamic movement and thought processes are important to your overall health, not just your jiu jitsu practice.
Even if a roll doesn’t go the way you hope, set it aside. If you can’t work out the problem during the roll, keep going and see what happens. When you’re done rolling, start thinking about what went wrong. Was it timing? Rhythm? Distancing? Maybe you just need to drill the technique more because you don’t have it down as well as you thought.
That’s why I’ve structured the school so that rolling is a little slower, more controlled, and smoother. Nobody wants to lose all the time. It’s frustrating and defeating. But if rolling is more controlled, it gives you the time to build and develop those instincts. And it’s easier to go back and analyze what went wrong.
When you can use what you’ve learned from drilling in a roll repeatedly, that’s when you know you’ve got it.
So which one should you be doing more?
Think about it like you would other areas of learning. You start with the concrete and move to the abstract.
For a brand new student, I could say you want to drill more. You’re still learning the basic moves, the rules, the foundation of BJJ. If you try to tackle those abstract concepts before having a concrete foundation, you’re never going to understand it.
As you build a foundation, you can start to take that knowledge and grow it into the more abstract concepts that happen in real life applications. So you start to roll more and more. You drill a little to learn something new and you roll a lot to reinforce it. For the most experienced, you might never have to drill again.
Rolling still involves learning, it’s just a more abstract form of learning. And without the foundation, you’ll always have a shaky concept of what you should be doing.
So the short answer is that you need them both. Examine where you are in your own practice and which is benefiting you more. Whichever it is, that’s what you should be doing more of until your knowledge and practice expands more. Learning is a constant cycle if you’re doing it right.