How To Train With Everyone: A Methodology For Sparring

I have a poster hanging in the changing room at Hurricane that reads "Every Partner Can Teach You." I didn't hang it up in an effort to be ultra-inclusive or patronizing. I hung it up because the quote is absolutely true. In fact, a more accurate version of the quote would read "Every partner can be an essential training tool." Yes, I'm comparing your training partner to a piece of simple machinery. But we don't have weights or machines at our school. We have mats and bodies.

During sparring, have you ever gotten paired up with someone who is well below your skill level, or smaller than you, and thought something like "this is a wasted round"? I will be the first to admit that I've had this thought. Thinking this way is unproductive, uncreative, and completely inaccurate. Over the past several months I've developed a very simple training methodology for getting the most out of sparring with ANY partner. As a general rule, you will encounter three types of sparring partners. While there are shades in between, you will typically find those with:

  • Inferior technical and physical capabilities 
  • Comparable technical and physical capabilities
  • Superior technical and physical capabilities

How can you get the most out of training with these three different types? Follow the guidelines below, and I guarantee that your BJJ skills will improve drastically in the months following.

- Sparring with partners who have INFERIOR technical and physical capabilities -

Don't be the training partner who coasts through the round with the less technical/physically capable practitioner. If you do, you will be missing an imperative part of the puzzle when it comes to improving your game. 

"So, you want me to crush the new guy?" Nope, that's not the message at all. "Okay, so maybe put myself in defensive positions the entire round?" That is also relatively unproductive. "You're confusing me man." Hang with me. The payoff is just around the corner. Sparring with someone who has inferior physical/technical capabilities gives you an opportunity to accumulate your ATTACK REPS. 

"Hey John hold up a sec. What do you mean "reps?" Like doing 10 curls at the gym? Reps like that?"

Yes, reps just like that. Think about it. You don't go to the gym, slide an arbitrary amount of weight onto the bar, and hoist it with no idea of how many reps you're going to do. You would normally have a training methodology in place. A set amount of weight on the bar, a set amount of reps. A goal oriented activity. You can translate this analogy directly to sparring. Here's what you do:

1. Evaluate your partner. How far behind are they in terms of skill? How much smaller are they than you, if at all?
2. Cross reference your evaluation with the time on the clock. 5 minutes? 7 minutes? More?
3. Considering the above factors, set a reasonable amount of submissions that you can get for the round. USE COURTESY AND COMMON SENSE. If your partner weighs 30lbs less than you, is two belt ranks under you, and you set the number of submissions as 15 in a 5 minute round, YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE.

Here's a reasonable scenario. I'm a black belt. I go up against a purple belt who is my weight, and the clock time is 5 minutes. I will go for 2 submissions. And I will work hard for those subs. After that, I go casual. Flow roll, defensive positions, whatever I want. But I get my 2 submission reps first. If you aren't getting your attack reps against a resisting partner, YOUR LIVE ATTACKS WILL NOT IMPROVE.

- Sparring with partners who have COMPARABLE technical and physical capabilities -

Everyone has that sparring partner in the room. Sometimes you win, sometimes they win. You improve together, and the rolls always stay competitive. This person is so important to your development in BJJ. They will help you accumulate your HEART REPS. I sounds like the Legend of Zelda, but it's a real thing. This sparring partner will make you very familiar with this painful scenario: One minute left on the clock. Each of you has scored a sweep and a pass. Both of you have escaped submissions. Your lungs are on fire. Your grips are numb and curled permanently inward. Both of you are pushing for the final score, waiting for the other to show a sign of cracking. Neither side gives in, and seconds seem like minutes. You won't find this feeling with partners who are inferior for obvious reasons. Surprisingly, you won't necessarily get this from a partner who is superior either. Sometimes, it is easier to get destroyed than to fight an even battle.

- Sparring with partners who have SUPERIOR technical and physical capabilities -

There's a famous jiu jitsu quote that reads "To become a lion, you have to train with lions." The problem with this ideology is, against a superior grappler, you will accumulate very few attack reps. So you will become a lion with no teeth. We need the inferior and comparable sparring partners to facilitate our growth in many areas. But there is great value in sparring with higher level grapplers. This is the partner that will help you accumulate your DEFENSE REPS.  

Sparring with someone who's physical and technical skills are superior to yours is relatively simple. I use the word 'simple' because you will likely have very little choice concerning what happens during the match. You will likely be countering, defending, and tapping out. Your attack reps will be few and far between. And sometimes this partner is so far ahead of us technically, we are beaten without effort, and subsequently do not accumulate heart reps either.

So, every partner really can teach you. If you're serious about improving your development in BJJ, this methodology should be followed at almost every practice.

If you'd like to try a class at Hurricane Jiu Jitsu, email me at, or visit www.hurricanejj.comfor more info. See you on the mats!