We hear it all the time: “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” In other words, if you don’t want to do something, you don’t need to explain why or defend your decision — simply declining is enough. The premise helps set boundaries in our personal and professional lives, but for some reason, many of us struggle to apply it to life on the mats.
For example, how many of us have rolled with a teammate a bit too clumsy for our liking? They may even move differently than what we need for our current goals. And what do we say in response? Many people will back their roll rejection with half-hearted complaints of a nagging injury, or they might say that they’re just taking a round off.
While this strategy may work once or twice, it’s not sustainable in the long term, and more importantly, it’s not fair to yourself or your teammates.
Jiu-jitsu is only legal because of consent. It’s why we sign waivers and have specially designated spaces to practice, and it’s why we can confidently expect that our teammates and opponents will let go if we tap. Of course, if you tried to choke a random person in the supermarket, you’d probably get arrested. But this concept of consent also applies to more minor situations within the gym, including being able to comfortably say “no thanks” to rolls with your teammates.
And really, that’s all you need to say when someone asks you to roll when you don’t want to. “No thanks.” “Not this round.” “I’m going to roll with someone else right now.” “I’m choosing to be picky about my training partners at the moment.”
You don’t owe anyone an explanation, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to give one if you don’t want to. That said if you do want to either soften the blow or provide feedback to your training partner, just be honest. For example, maybe you really are injured and want to roll with smaller or more experienced teammates while recovering. But if the person being denied a roll with you is the problem, it could be beneficial to chat with them after class to discuss why you wanted to avoid rolling with them.
For example, maybe they roll in a way that you feel may injure you, cranking on submissions and being reckless with their knees and elbows. While this isn’t something easily fixed, you can make them aware of the problem by emphasizing that you have to look out for your safety. Don’t feel obligated to change your mind if they suggest flow-rolling, either. Instead, tell them that you’ll let them know when you feel ready to roll with them again. Maybe that conversation will trigger a conscious effort from them to control their speed and force, and they’ll develop into a valuable training partner for you in a few weeks or months.
In some cases, that person might never turn into a safe or productive person for you to roll with at full intensity. In larger academies, you might be able to avoid rolling with them forever. Still, in smaller gyms, you may have to choose between rolling with an unpreferred partner or sitting out during a valuable round. In these cases, it may be worth specifying that you’ll flow roll with them. If they crank up the intensity mid-roll, speak up. Ask them to dial it back or request that they avoid specific (or all) submissions. Obviously, following this practice for everyone you roll with will hold you back in your progress, but applying it to a specific teammate for a particular reason may be what helps keep you safe while still allowing you to train.
What about if you’re on the receiving end of a roll rejection? While no one likes to be turned down for something they want, taking rejection in stride — both in BJJ and in other areas of life — is crucial for your mental health and others’.
Being turned down for a roll, especially if it comes with some constructive criticism (“Sorry, man, your gi is too smelly today.”), It can feel like a bit of a gut punch. Remember, though, that just as you have the right to turn down any roll request, so do your teammates. Taking it too personally or believing that rejection is inherently indicative of a flaw in the other person can hurt your relationship with that teammate and affect the dynamic within the gym itself.
You’re not entitled to roll with anyone, and no one is obligated to roll with you.
If you’re rejected for a roll, there’s nothing wrong with asking for feedback. Sometimes, the rejection is a one-off occurrence; maybe your teammate is just in the mood to roll with someone else that day. But if you continuously get turned down by the same person, or if multiple people say “no” to rolling with you, it may be worth asking why. When given feedback, remember that your teammates are trying to help you. Try to control the urge to be defensive if you’re told that you’re clumsy with your elbows and knees or if you need to develop better hygiene habits. While you can ask for alternatives (“Would you feel more comfortable rolling with me if I stayed on the bottom the whole time?”), be careful about assuming that proposing alternatives will change their mind (“It’s fine. I’ll just pull guard. Come on. Let’s go.”).
Both giving and receiving rejection can be awkward and unpleasant, even in a sport that teaches us to be comfortable in times of discomfort. If you’re a lower belt, this is a good habit to develop early on, and if you’re more experienced, this is an important example to set for those newer and less confident grapplers on the mats. Remember, though, that being able to do both with grace is crucial to creating a safe and welcoming jiu-jitsu environment for beginner students and advanced practitioners alike.
Averi is a brown belt under Nick Hughes of Trinity MMA and an ambassador for Grapple Apparel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bjjaveri.