Training With Less Skilled Partners

I was having a brief conversation with one of my training partners the other day about training with lower level guys.  He’s got 4 stripes on his white belt, and he’s always ready to roll.  He expressed some disappointment about how he wasn’t getting much out of rolling with the lower level guys; they were too easy.

I pointed out that I’m almost always the highest ranked belt in open mat, and I get a lot out of every roll, even with the low ranked white belts.  I don’t have any choice if I want to get better.  Obviously I roll with higher level guys whenever I can, but open mat requires an open mind and a certain amount of creativity.  So I decided to write this post to help explain how I work with less skilled training partners.

Working With Minnows

First, I want to explain how I approach a roll with a brand new guy or gal.  These are minnows on the mat, and it’s an intimidating and scary place filled with apparent aggression and challenge.  It’s completely pointless for me to submit them every five to ten seconds.  There’s no challenge for me, they are getting discouraged, and nothing is being accomplished other then them not wanting to come back.  We both lose.

So my first responsibility with someone brand new is to give them a goal.  I explain and show what side control is, then  start with my customary butterfly guard and tell them to obtain side control.  If they are hyper aggressive, I sweep them and go to mount to control them, then reset.  If they are hesitant, I tell them to grab my ankles or my knees and throw them out of the way to get to side control, where I then escape and put them in my guard.  We can reset from there or play around a bit.  The end result is the brand new person now has a goal for any roll, a basic mechanism to get there, and familiarity with what someone is likely to do once they get there.  If they are aggressive, they learn very quickly that it does nothing for them.  If they are passive, they learn how they can potentially control someone.

As important as it is to give the minnows a chance to swim without getting eaten, it’s also good practice for me to teach the basics and see how people respond to the way I explain the things that I don’t think about unless I’m teaching.  Learning to teach jiu-jitsu is a skill that must be developed along with the submissions and escapes.  The minnows give me a chance to work with a blank slate and make sure that I am explaining the most important things in a way the keeps the listener engaged and interested in more.  I must be a good ambassador, and this is part of the reason that I try to work with the brand new people when I am in class.  I want them to have a good experience and feel like they have a good environment to learn in.

Working With Piranhas

Let’s say I’m rolling with someone who’s been at the academy for a few months and knows mount from side control, and knows how to armbar and americana the minnows.  Now we have a predator on our hands, and they are going to test the waters, even if they don’t realize they aren’t sharks yet.  With piranhas, I can be a bit more aggressive about sweeping them and baiting them.  They still get submitted every 30 seconds if I want to do so.  Piranhas need to learn how to escape the bad situations they put themselves in, as well as show them the stunts they pull with the minnows will never work on someone disciplined and knowledgeable.

My goal for the piranha is to help them realize they must use technique to escape the bad positions I put them in, and they must use proper technique to finish submissions.  I routinely allow them to finish submissions that they start badly and just need some guidance to execute it properly.  The fulcrum placement on an armbar might be off.  The americana is attempted without pulling the elbow towards the waist.  The choke isn’t set deep enough.  Sometimes I let them gas themselves out trying to finish a submission that will tap a minnow, then when they give up and I escape I explain what they did wrong.  This is a golden opportunity to show them the submission they thought they understood depends on a larger number of sub-elements than they realize.  They can be shown that the positioning of body parts in a certain way constrains the range of motion or limits strength.

I can also explain to them that I key off of certain triggers, and what they can do to avoid those triggers.  Diving into my guard is a bad idea.  Leaving one arm in and one arm out of my guard will buy you a triangle or omoplata.  Laying passively on your back while I’m attacking from mount is a teaching moment for a good upa.  The list goes on and on, and they have five or six light bulbs go on at every open mat.  One or two stay on for the next open mat.  Progress.

For me, I can focus on perfect technique without getting the flaws in my technique thrown up in my face.  I can execute armbars from knee on belly without worrying about an effective escape.  I can practice setting a deep choke without the person tapping to light pressure.  I can focus my sweep technique on transferring and playing with their body weight, and study the timing against a resistant, and only lightly skilled opponent.  It’s like class time, except the person is actively trying to prevent me from executing my technique, and they rarely see what’s coming.  So for piranhas, the goal is perfecting my go-to techniques

Another area that I use piranhas for is to experiment with new stuff.  So help me, as much as I don’t think I have any use for a berimbolo, I am going to hit it perfectly on one of these piranhas at some point.  Another big thing I do with piranhas is I experiment with things that often have no business ever being repeated, yet it gets a tap.  Maybe ten percent of the time I discover something interesting and I file it away for working with the next level of student.

Watch Out For The Crocodiles

They might be fun to feed, but lose respect for them for an instant and you pay for it.  These are the students that are around blue belt level.  They don’t usually fall for the simple bait and switch and some of their attacks are still unrefined.  In general, they undeniably know what they are doing, and sometimes they just got done watching a video, or they’ve been practicing their americanas from day one, and they will find a weak spot in the armor.  For these training partners, I am focused on forcing them to execute their submissions perfectly.  I am also working on preventing them from getting an upper hand.  There is a lot more trade and challenge involved in these rolls.  My goal when working with crocodiles is to help them refine their submissions and sweeps, while I am doing pretty much the same.  I test the waters with techniques I drilled with the piranhas, and I look to counter the more aware and refined escapes.

Swimming With Sharks

These are the sparring partners that are competition worthy, and very often the sparring session ends in a draw.  Everything is hard, and there is constant movement and establishing and preventing angles.  When I submit one of these beasts, I give them a one liner of why I thought I was able to do it.  When they submit me, I ask them to do the same.  Oddly, you’d think that these are the partners I would learn the most from, but we often have a similar knowledge base and it’s often a grind with infrequent victories on either side.  With sharks I’m not so concerned with helping them.  We both have our own set of goals and the occasional exchange over an unexpected result serves to reinforce the family of jiu-jitsu.

Alternate Scenarios

Another important area that is closely related to working with less skilled partners is working with equally skilled partners that don’t have the physical advantages you do.  In these cases, I take another approach.  I will use my advantages until it’s clear that it is unfair competition.  If I am much stronger or bigger than my equally skilled opponent, then I use that as an opportunity to work on transitions or to see what happens when I allow bad scenarios such as mount to happen.  Getting out of bad situations where the person is skilled but unequally matched gives me an opportunity to escape with proper technique, while still allowing my physical advantages to be a bit of a crutch.  If I get the technique wrong, I can count on paying for it.  Otherwise I practice technique that I can apply to more fair fights.  My opponent is put in a situation where they are challenged more than they might be used to, and they find the areas that their technique isn’t as perfect as they thought it was.


In the end, it’s important to realize that our goals for ourselves have to be matched appropriately with every single training partner.  When I roll with a much higher skilled practitioner, I am measuring my success in how long I survive.  I expect that those below me are also doing the same thing when they roll with me.  The lower belts teach me because I am forcing the issue by adjusting my goals according to their ability to respond to either my instruction or my technique.

Another important aspect of working with less skilled sparring partners is that I get an opportunity to really think about why what I am doing is working, and I have to have a clear explanation of why I do what I do.  Sometimes I find out that the things I do by intuition can be backed up by a simple explanation of how the angles need to be just so.  Once I am forced to realize the principles behind the intuition, I can turn that knowledge into an effective weapon.

Jiu-jitsu is a lot more fun when I have the goal of taking any situation and turning it into an opportunity to learn.  I need to learn properly refined technique, as well as how to be a good coach.  It is never too early to start developing these skills.  In fact, this line of thinking is exactly why I am forcing myself to do more jiu-jitsu writing, even though I’m just a purple belt, and no doubt will at some point end up scolded for some boneheaded piece of advice.  I may not be perfect yet, and obviously never will be, but the earlier I start to strive towards being a perfect instructor, competitor, and training partner, the better I will be both for myself and for others.

Time for sleep.  It’s 1:30 in the morning, and my wife and I have a no-gi class to attend in the morning at 11.  The crocodiles are going to have fun tomorrow.

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