Rolls - You need Confidence! by Bill Mioch

Forward and backward rolls are an essential skill to learn if throwing techniques are going to be taught during classes. But to someone who has never done a roll in their life, they can look quite daunting.

When teaching rolls to beginners, I find there are three categories that students fall into.
  1. The student is a natural. They can either already do rolls, or they pick it up so naturally it's as easy as walking.
  2. The student is a worker. They learn at a steady pace and improve through practice until they become competent and confident at their rolls.
  3. The student is a worrier. They see the rolls, and immediately think "I can't do that." This is often linked with a perceived (or actual) physical impediment. As a result, they are afraid to practice and often lack motivation.
Just to clarify, the "physical impediment" may be as simple as being overweight or just feeling unco-ordinated. Actual physical impediment will have the same effect, reducing confident and motivation.

So how do we get this student to the point where they are making progress? Increasing their motivation is a big factor. Some things that we can do as instructors:
  • Learning as a group: Seeing other people learning and enjoying themselves make people want to do the same.*
  • Positive feedback: Make sure they know when they have successfully achieved a goal.
  • Training environment: People will feel physically safer with extra or thicker mats.
  • Physical support: They will feel safer if they know that there is a physical "net" to reduce injury potential.
Eventually the student will reach a point where they realize they can do it, and their performance and confidence will improve instantly.

Some of these points come down to general instruction principles, but I feel they are worth re-enforcing with rolls. The perceived daunting nature of rolls, the physical risks if a roll is not confidently learned and their fundamental importance as ukemi-waza (receiving techniques) makes them a "hump" for some students.


*NB: But be careful not to single them out! Three ways you might single them out unknowingly:
  1. Putting them in a group of people who already know how to roll.
  2. Making them perform their roll while everyone else waits or watches.
  3. Coaching them to the point that they feel "special."

Related Links
Forward and Backward Rolls off Mokuren Dojo


Colin Wee said…
Rolls are really important. Especially so for hard stylists who might forget that fighting can be a very disorganized affair, and that the floor is a likely place to end up. Last thing you want is to break your elbow or neck landing wrongly.

There are two essential rolls we teach at HRGB. Where we extend our lead hand, the rolls crests the lead shoulder, crossing over the spine and then down to the opposite hip. The other, more suitable for hard surfaces, starts closer to the head and neck, crosses the back and goes quickly to the opposite point of the small of the back. This second roll prevents your shoulder or hip from painfully connecting a harder surface.

The analogy I use for rolls is that of a rocking chair. The base of the rocking chair is rigid and static, but rolls smoothly because the speed and curvature are just right for each other. The forward roll in our style similarly holds the body fairly rigid to go the distance, or deal with being thrown over the shoulder.

I'll compare this roll with the analogy and look at possible problems encountered. The first problem is that the beginner will not jump far enough. This first problem means the curvature of the body starting from the lead hand will accelerate too fast causing the legs to spin too quickly around a horizontal axis. The feet will hit the ground hard.

The second problem, which is less likely for beginners is jumping too far. In this case, the shoulder hits the ground hard and compressed the upper body. The fit land lightly.

The rule of thumb is to have a jump starting about 45 degrees extending downwards from the lead shoulder. To get to that distance, the beginner should push off with the back foot and look to cover sufficient distance.

Again, the body should be held rigid, and the student should look at 'tuning' distance before changing form.

[Mat] said…

In aikido and Judo, for the little time I was there, we practiced a lot of rolls. While I was like a fish in water, others weren't.

All rolls started with us on our backs. Then on the knees, and then standing. (over a month or so). So that you gradually built confidence.

I thought it was a very neat way to teach!

[Mat] said…
I also meant : Great article!
Patrick Parker said…
Hey, Colin, I enjoyed your article on rolling and falling. I agree that it is really important - especially for kickers. I poted a video of a rolling form that I'd sure like your comment on. It's near the top of the page at

I have also linked to your blog in my most recent Promote Three blog...

Keep it up!
Colin Wee said…
Thanks for all the positive comments. The initial post was actually done by William Mioch, HRGB's External Associate Black Belt in the Eastern States.

I'm happy that Mokuren Dojo has visited our humble blog, and even more happy that Patrick likes a post done by hard stylists on breakfalling! Too amazing.

Now, here are my comments on the mae and ushiro ukemi that you have pointed to off youtube.

As my training in this department is predominantly from an Aikido school (I think I'm in that photo too), the rolls that I have learned are very similar to those that are featured on the video.

There are differences however, and which I think may be beneficial to the students from the perspective of how and what we teach.

The Mae or forward roll is done with lead hand extended and not pulled back when starting the roll. I used the rocking chair analogy previously, and I think that this analogy helps beginners troubleshoot rolling problems. But it only works if the lead hand connects with the ground and stays 'unbreakable'. Pulling the hand towards the feet while starting the roll may also encourage some acceleration in circumferential movement. This might mean that there's increasing pressure on the mid to lower back and the feet hit the ground much harder. But this is not too relevant to intermediate or upper belts, and indeed the example is a beautiful roll done nicely.

What I like about the mae ukemi is that the reverse or the back hand crosses and is held in front of the face. This acts as a cover for strikes and is a great habit to pick up. In fact the hand position adopted by the demonstrator is excellent from a kumite perspective.

Re: Ushiro Ukemi

There is greater difference in this ukemi. Our ukemi is performed with opposite hand reaching over the shoulder and the lead leg connects with the ground on the knee and on the ball of the foot. This one demonstration bypasses the knee and goes directly to the foot - splendid. But too difficult for beginners. It's easier to get beginners to roll onto the knee and pull the back leg through.

Hand position also does not help from a kumite perspective, the back/left hand connects with the ground a little away from the right hand. In the way I learned the backward roll, the lead hand is extended downwards and away from the body and the opposite arm covers the upper chest and reaches over the lead shoulder.

Again, thanks for visiting Patrick.


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