It's eventually going to happen, the day you square off with another student to spar. Maybe you've been chomping at the bit to roll, or maybe you are terrified. Either way, after the slap and bump, most white belts fall into one of two categories: The Clinger, who grips on for dear life and tenses every muscle in their body so hard that getting out of their closed guard requires the the jaws of life, and The Spaz, who freaks out so hard they bullrush their opponent and pile them. Or they flail and kick as if tapping equates to death. For real. Straight streetfight.
No one benefits from this, not you or your teammate. All it does is burn a shitload of energy going nowhere, or it gets you swept and armbarred, wondering what the fuck just happened.
Whether you don't know what the hell to do, or you are afraid to lose, here are my tips for a successful roll as a white belt:
Don't be afraid to ask for help or tap if you're uncomfortable
The very first thing to understand is you have to relax! You're a white belt, nobody expects slick moves out of you. Nearly no one in this world has a natural aptitude for this sport, so you can drop any pressure you may put on yourself to be good right off the bat. If you are confused, or unsure how to begin, ask your partner if they could teach you how to grip fight and get things started. Or ask if you can practice a guard pass. Any person at a reputable gym should be happy to oblige.
Likewise, your opponent is not going to try to hurt you. Chokes and arm bars sound scary, but it isn't kosher to crank into them during a class sparring session. Your partner should be under control and mindful of your belt. If anything is uncomfortable, tap. You won't get hurt as long as you tap. There is virtually nothing to be afraid of or intimidated by when you know the "safe word."
Try one basic move at a time
Pick one thing and try that. Did you drill a kimura? Try a kimura. If it doesn't work, reset yourself and try it again. There have been entire classes where all I did was roll on my back and try hooking my feet or working an open shin guard. I got smashed, eventually, (such is the risk with unhooked feet and an improper shin guard), but I also got good at framing my limbs and getting my hooks in!
Keep at one thing or chain of things for a time and once you feel comfortable with the movements and applying them on a resistant opponent, move on to something else. This way, your muscle memory will learn something through repetition, instead of flying in 100 different directions and losing focus. One goal at a time will also calm your mind.
LOSE, LOSE, and LOSE AGAIN.
In Jiu-Jitsu we have a saying, "You either win or you learn." As a white belt you learn a lot. Losing, repeatedly, to the same damn submission is the best way to learn how to defend it. Defense is half of jiu jitsu. You could be the sickest foot lock dude in your academy, but if you can't even protect your neck or your arms, you're worthless.
How do you get out from side control or mount? How do you recover your arm and bust out of that triangle? If you don't learn how to feel your opponent's weight shift, you'll never know what's coming and understand how to counter. This is a really important time, so take your beatings! They are good for you.
Position before submission
Sometimes, white belts roll in after watching too many YouTube videos and think they can pull off sick lapel chokes and obscure 10th Planet submissions without the foggiest clue of how to distribute their bodyweight or get into a position of control.
If you are out of control, you do not have the submission, plain and simple. Understand that this shit takes time. As they say, everyone has to crawl before they can walk, and walk before they can dance, and dance before they can berimbolo. You are in this for the long haul, so be patient and learn the basics before trying moves above your paygrade.
MOSt importantly, don't panic
Measure your success not in successful submission attempts, but how much less often you are getting submitted and RELAX! No one wants to get scratched by your flailing arms, kicked in the head by your roundhouse defense or jacked in the ribs by your 110% bulldozer attack. This isn't Mundials.
The less muscle you use, the less muscle your opponent will use and it won't seem so intense. Generally, the higher belt rolling with you will match strength and technique to your level. If you are loose and calm, they will remain loose and calm. Then, a magical thing happens - you can actually work technique instead of being locked in a fruitless death-grip for five minutes.