A while ago I got an email asking me how to pick sparring partners. The gentleman wrote: “I am a BJJ blue belt, and I want to know how much time I should spend sparring people of my own level, vs people who are better or not as good as I am?”
The quick answer is that most of your sparring should be with partners just a little bit better and a little bit worse than yourself.
And here’s WHY…
Sparring lower level guys can be useful if there is something specific you want to work on. Usually this is a time to refine your offensive game, but you can also work escapes and defense if you purposely start out in a bad position (click here for some suggestions on how to do this).
The potential pitfall of mostly sparring lower skill levels is that you don’t learn to deal with more advanced energies, pressures and techniques. You could potentially get really good at dominating white belts, but be unable to deal with a more advanced game.
On the other hand, some people only want to spar with higher ranked partners…
It’s true that going against someone much better than yourself can be educational. It sure forces you to work your defense. Also getting badly schooled can be a real eye-opening experience, clarifying what high level grappling looks and feels like.
But always fighting higher level guys can also be problematical! That’s because you’ll get dominated a lot, and that encourages a very defensive mindset. You’ll be unlikely to develop confidence in your offensive repertoire because your opponents will shut down most of your attacks before they ever get started.
So that’s why, in an ideal world, at least half your sparring should be against people roughly your own level.
In this way you’ll be challenged, without always getting crushed. You’ll have a fighting chance that your techniques will work, and you’ll get some honest feedback as to your ability to counter your opponents’ attacks.
When two people are close in skill and square off against each other all the time, you can get grappling arms races. Here you plot, plan and research your training partner’s weaknesses, while he kindly does the same for you. This means that both people get better FAST. (More on grappling arms races here.)
If you don’t have anyone close to your level then I encourage you to try and bring the level of your sparring partners up as fast as possible. Make it challenging for yourself!
Start by showing them the counters to all your moves, because it’s a terrible thing to be the best grappler at a club!