A White Belt Walks into an Open Mat… What Should You Do?
Updated: Nov 7
So, you’ve been training for a little while now and you’re starting to understand this BJJ thing. You go to every class (or at least you try to. Life has to be lived), learn all the techniques, drill with your favorite training partner, and do your positional sparring at the end of class. You shake hands with everyone after the class ends and then the coach yells “Ok, now open mat!”. You just did positional sparring, does this mean you have to roll again? What if you’re tired? Also, what happens when there’s no class and open mat is scheduled? What do you do then?
For those of you who might not be sure about what to do during an open mat, all these questions are completely valid. It can be really daunting when you see people going 1000% after a class when you don’t have all the tools prepared in your “jiu-jitsu toolbox”. I also know that most people don’t want to just sit around twiddling their thumbs while the rest of your teammates work to improve themselves.
I’ve been there, sometimes even now, where you have no idea who to talk to or what to do during an open mat. This especially happens to me when I go travel to new gyms and just want to get some training in. People who know me might find this surprising, but I do tend to be shy around new people and when I go to a new gym to an open mat, I don’t know who to talk to or who to ask to roll.
Taking all that into consideration, I wanted to talk about how you can go into an open mat, be it in your own gym or somewhere else you’re visiting. I hope that these tips can help you feel more comfortable when you’re training.
1. Drill class stuff
If it’s after class and you want to train more but you don’t feel like getting smashed, what better way to remember what you just did in class by drilling everything you did in class? It’s good to solidify what you learned in your mind and really get a true understanding of what you did. If the professor or coach is still available, you can ask more detailed questions about what was learned in class. And if they’re the type of coach that might get annoyed when you ask long extensive questions during class, this is a perfect time to get more details you didn’t get to ask about during class.
2. Hard sparring
BJJ wouldn’t be BJJ if there wasn’t any sparring, right? If you feel energized, then there’s nothing wrong with grabbing someone and getting into a roll. You can combine what you learned in class, the skills you learned in another class, or just see how you can mentally combine everything together. Most gyms, at least the gyms. I’ve trained at has a class curriculum, with a plan for each week. You can see if you can land the technique or a sequence from the class and then use that to build up your game. Even though sparring is great for not only improving your BJJ but also getting exercise, please always make sure you’re rolling with control to avoid injuries. No one like someone who spazzes or who is always trying to win for the sake of winning.
3. Positional sparring
I have a brown belt instructor friend who says that there really is no point in free sparring when you can positionally spar. Although I respectfully disagree, positional sparring is a great way to make use of your open mat time by practicing a position that you want to work on and putting yourself in a live situation to see how you react. Positional sparring is great because if you keep getting stuck in the same positions.
It’s the best of both worlds, right in between light and thoughtful drilling, and rough and tough sparring. It’s almost like Dr. Hulk if you think about it: Using your brain to think about what to do in the situation and using your brawn to get out of it. You can even do positional sparring the whole week until the last day when you can combine all your techniques in a roll.
4. Drill instructional videos
What’s nice about BJJ is that there are so many resources to get better including videos (Free and not free), that you can use to improve your jiu-jitsu. (I need to get more into watching videos, as that is how I started to understand jiu-jitsu more). As you know, you can go on YouTube to get free videos from some of the most famous bjj athletes in both gi and no-gi. There are also places like BJJ fanatics and flo grappling to get great training videos that you need to pay for. There is also, that one guy in the gym (especially if you live in China) that has all the videos on a hard drive that you can ask. You might not know him personally, but there is THAT guy in every gym.
In terms of open mat, you can take the video of your choosing to open mat and drill with someone. Of course, watch the video before getting to open mat, but while you’re there, you can watch a part, practice it with your partner, and go onto the next part. If you want to make it more of a class, then you can add the positional sparring aspect after you’ve gone over everything.
5. Go and hang out
Sometimes, if we’re really honest, you don’t want to train at all. Not hardcore sparring, not drilling, not anything. You just kind of want to be. Sometimes, you DO wanna train, but you’re injured or just can’t train for some reason. But who says you can’t benefit from going to an open mat anyway? Going to an open mat just to hang out can be great for helping you feel more connected to your team and for working out your bjj brain by watching others roll. It’s always great to see and talk to your teammates about life and jiu-jitsu, and just let people know that you’re there. Also, if you want to make your visit somewhat active, you can utilize the time your there for stretching, flexibility, yoga, and personal drilling. You’re still making use of your time and being social. In terms of going just to watch, you can learn from what others are doing and make mental or even physical notes about what you can do if you’re caught in similar situations. Talking to the people who just rolled, especially the upper belts to get their advice can help you, even without you physically doing something.
Who can you do open mat with?
So, I’ve stated all the things you can do at an open mat. But, who can do all this good and cool training with you? I wanna give you some options of who you can work with in your gym’s open mat AND when you visit other gym’s open mats.
1. Everybody at your home gym
Use the opportunity to drill with many different training partners when you go to open mats. Drilling with some bigger than you, smaller than you, or your size can help you in all facets of your training. You can work your offensive game, defensive game, or just try everything you’ve been learning with everyone. I know that many people go into a roll with a goal, and you can see if you can achieve that goal with all people. Remember: if you want to roll with upper belts, please make sure that you ask them politely to roll with you and not “challenge them”. A nice way to do it, as I mention in my jiu-jitsu mat etiquette post, is asking if they would like to beat you up a little bit.
2. Your mat bestie
We all have a few favorite drilling partners, so why not ask them to work with you at open mat? This is a good way to keep yourself accountable for your training and keep your training partners accountable. We all feel lazy sometimes. But there’s nothing like that person to hit you up with a “Hey, you’re going to open mat, right?” when you don’t feel like training.
Your mat bestie can help you with positional sparring, after class, or you can even have instructional videos that you’re both watching and can kind of follow along and improve together. The only problem with your mat bestie is that they will start to know your game inside and out. But at least you can think of ways to mix up your game when you’re not with them.
3. Your coaches
If you’re shy, new, want an expert opinion, or just don’t feel comfortable with anyone at the gym yet (which is totally understandable, and you don’t need to justify anything by that) you can totally ask your coaches to train with you a bit. You can ask them to feel you out so you can see what you can improve in your game, roll with them, or just ask them questions about jiu-jitsu. Of course, coaches are there to help and they want to see you improve
4. Random people at a visiting gym
I know it’s completely daunting to go to a new gym, especially if you’re unsure of that gym’s specific rules or policies. Plus, you don’t want to enter a gym being too big for your britches and acting like a jerk. But 9 times out of 10 people at bjj gyms are always kind and you can ask to train or roll. The main thing is that you can’t be shy. Most people will ask you to roll but don’t be afraid to go ask a random person to roll or train with you. The worst they can say is no.
Classes are great but open mats help reinforce what you’ve learned. Everyone, white belts and all, should definitely use the time to drill what you learned in class, drill techniques you find interesting, or roll to the death. It is an essential part of your BJJ journey.
Are you a frequent open mat-er? What is your go to thing to do when you go to an open mat?