Learning Through Failure-The Importance of Sparring

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Learning Through Failure-The Importance of Sparring

One of the most fun and exciting aspects of training Jiu-jitsu is live sparring-testing out your techniques in the crucible of live training with a resisting opponent.  Live sparring can be very challenging & rewarding, but it can also be intimidating, frustrating, and dangerous.  How can we make the best of this crucial aspect of training, and make sure that it is beneficial & not detrimental to our development?  Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for.

Sparring Too Early
Sparring is a critical part of training.  It is the best way to develop reflex & timing, understand the fail points in your technique, and teach you how to maintain your composure & deal calmly with adversity.  But, you need to develop a foundation first.  Jumping into live sparring too early, after only a few classes, usually only leads to frustration, confusion, and potentially injury. Until you learn the basic positions, techniques, & concepts of Jiu-jitsu, stick with just drilling the basic techniques without resistance.  New students haven't developed the technical proficiency to know what to do in most situation, so they resort to using brute strength.  This leads not only to technical mistakes which, if they are lucky, only result in a quick tap.  But, their overzealousness combined with lack of technique often can lead to an unnecessary injury.  In the best case, they end up just being physically dominated and tapped repeatedly with no understanding of what transpired.  It is not a learning environment, it just leads to a lot of frustration.

Avoiding Sparring Sessions
While jumping into live sparring sessions too early can be detrimental, avoiding live sparring once you've started to build a solid foundation is also a problem.  One of the things that makes Jiu-jitsu one of the most effective martial arts in the world is live training with a resisting opponent.  There is a huge difference in drilling your techniques with a cooperative partner, and trying to apply those same techniques when your partner is resisting.  Yes, you will get tired....yes, your technique will fail...yes, you will end up in bad positions....yes, you will tap.  But, you will survive!  All of these things are good for you and will hep make your Jiu-jitsu better!  Your best bet when you start sparring is to seek out more experienced students who can help to guide you along the path & help point out your mistakes without just trying to beat you up.  Start slowly.  Let your partner know you are new to live sparring. A good strategy is to focus on specific positional sparring drills at first, for example, just passing the guard, or escaping the mount, while your opponent provides a moderate level of resistance.  Don't get frustrated.  There is a saying in Jiu-jitsu that "before you can be the hammer, you have to be the nail".  Trust me, all of the "hammers" in your academy have all done their time as the "nail".  We learn & grow through failure.  Don't let your ego get too involved.  View the "tap", not as a loss, but as an opportunity to learn.  But, don't skip out on sparring.  Don't be that guy/girl that always has somewhere else to be when its time to roll.  You don't have to spar every class, and if you're injured or feeling beat up, it's ok to skip out once in a while.  If you get tired, sit a round out & then get back on the mat.  But, try to do some type of live training at least a few times/week.

Going too Hard
This is probably the most common pitfall that students make, especially in the beginning stages of Jiu-jitsu.  Because of the fact that beginners haven't developed their technique yet to a comfortable level, they tend to rely on their natural instincts, which usually means an over-reliance on strength, speed, and physicality.  This is a recipe for disaster, and will inevitably lead to injuring yourself or your training partners.  Jiu-jitsu isn't about using brute force to impose your will on your opponents.  It is about utilizing positioning & leverage to capitalize on your opponent's weaknesses.  Of course, this takes time to develop, and as your technique gets better, it will become easier.  Learning how to relax and stay calm under pressure is one of the hardest things to do in the early stages of training Jiu-jitsu.  But it is important to train safely & help you to develop your skills faster!  If you find yourself accidentally head butting, falling on, elbow/knee striking your opponent, grabbing skin when you grip the gi, and completely out of breath at the end of the round, chances are you have fallen victim to this mistake. SLOW DOWN!!!

Avoiding the "Tough Guys"
Everyone has their nemesis....that one opponent that you always dread sparring with.  They completely dominate you and you feel you have no chance of ever making anything work when training with that person.  The person that always makes you tap...a lot.  The person whom you feel that slight sense of panic & dread every time you get paired up with them.  Don't avoid that person.  They are very important to your development.  We have to learn how to deal with pressure and adversity, how to avoid panic and stay calm under pressure.  And, they can be a good measuring stick for you as your technique develops.  You'll be able to start to survive longer, tap less, and maybe even pull off something once in a while.  They will help you develop your defense & survival strategy & mindset.  You don't have to roll with that guy every single class, but you should seek them out periodically.  The suffering that you experience in the short term will pay off great dividends in the long run.

Competing in the Academy
We've probably all dealt with the guy/girl that views every single sparring round as the finals of the World Championships.  They must win at all costs, disregarding their training partners safety, and never taking any risks.  Don't be that guy/girl.  We learn through failure.  The academy is your laboratory and your sparring sessions are where you can experiment and try new things!  Take chances, play with new positions, try moves you aren't entirely comfortable or confident with.  There are no gold medals being handed out at the end of the class, and I promise you aren't going to be kicked out of the gym, looked down on, or shunned if you get caught and have to tap!  If your main focus is on "winning" every roll, you will tend to only rely on the techniques that you are already good at, and never address your weak areas that you actually need to work on.

Don't Be a Mat Bully
Regardless of what you may think, your role is not to be the "enforcer" in the academy.  Particularly if you are more experienced than your training partner, don't be a bully.  You should let the lower belt set the pace.  There's no need to completely dominate them and keep them from being able to move.  In order to control your partner, you only need to stay a little bit ahead of them.  You don't need to overwhelm them to a point where they feel helpless & frustrated.  Tapping your partner 57 times in a 5 minute round does nothing but inflate your own ego.  It is not really helping you or your training partner.  Your job, as an upper belt, is to help the less experienced students get better.  Turn them into someone who, in a few years, will legitimately be able to challenge you and in turn push you to get better!  It doesn't mean don't submit them.  The tap is important for the lower belt to recognize their mistakes.  But, do it in moderation, and give them some space to work too!

Don't Avoid Lower Belts
The opposite of the person who avoids rolling with the toughest people in the room is the person who avoids rolling with people that they feel doesn't present them with a sufficient challenge.  They avoid rolling with white belts, kids, smaller people, women, etc. This attitude is very selfish! Yes, you need to challenge yourself, but help the rest of your team to learn also.  It is arrogant to think that you can't get any benefit from rolling with these people.  If you can't challenge yourself while training with someone smaller or less experienced, that is YOUR problem, not theirs.  Work in inferior positions, work on your weak side, handicap yourself by only using one arm, etc.  While you are helping to guide these newer students, this is the perfect time for you to work on your weak areas, where you know, if you screw it up, you can still recover.  And, it is important to remember, especially with kids, beginners, and people significantly smaller than you, you have to make sure to look out for their safety.  Sometimes you have to protect them from themselves and make sure that you don't slip and fall on them or accidentally injure them.

Don't Be Stubborn-Know When to Tap
If you've been in Jiu-jitsu any time at all, you've probably heard the mantra "tap early & tap often".  This is a good rule of thumb, particularly if you are fairly new to the art.  Tapping is not a sign of weakness.  It is simply an acknowledgment of the non-verbal contract we have with our training partners.  Basically, it says, "I recognize that you have caught me in a position from which I can't escape and I acknowledge that if we continue, you could seriously injure or kill me, so I willfully submit-now let's shake hands and start over"!  Everyone taps.  Nobody gets good at Jiu-jitsu without tapping A LOT! When you tap, you should view it as an opportunity to learn.  Figure out where the mistake was, and try to go back & fix it.  You don't need to hang your head in shame.  The reality is, nobody cares but you!  On the flip side, don't celebrate when you tap your partner either.  If you are seriously training and trying to improve, you SHOULD be tapping-at every level.  Obviously, as you get better, it probably happens more infrequently, but don't run from it! Seek out the person that can tap you, as they will show you where your weaknesses are.  A couple of my pet peeves on the subject of tapping:  1. Don't be stubborn.  If you're caught you're caught. It's not worth getting injured.  Don't rely on "flexibility" to avoid tapping.  The only way you really find out how flexible you are is when your joint breaks.  Trust me, you don't want to find out.  Live to fight another day.  2.  On the opposite end, don't be a "pre-tapper". If you need to tap, tap.  But don't tap before your partner even locks in the submission.  Work on your escapes.  And, please don't hover your hand in preparation to tap for 3-5 seconds before finally making the decision to succumb.  You can use that time, and that hand, to try to defend the position.  If you're going to do that, you may as well just go ahead & tap.  3.  Don't be a "ninja tapper".  The phantom tap isn't fooling anyone and it is dangerous.  Make sure your partner knows you are tapping so you don't get hurt.  If it means loudly yelling "TAP, TAP, TAP" so the entire gym hears it, that's ok.  Better than getting injured.  4.  Don't be the guy/girl that realizes you're caught and then starts "coaching" your partner to get the finish.  You made a mistake, you got caught, own it!  You don't have to be ok with the mistake, and actually, you shouldn't but own up to it and try to avoid letting it happen next time!  While we're on the subject, this notion that someone should never tap to a lower belt is nonsense!  We don't need to establish the pecking order on the mat every training session.  Just train!  That is all ego and it doesn't have any place in the academy.

Don't be the "Talky" Guy/Girl
When it's time to train, it's time to train.  Don't waste training time analyzing everything that happened every time someone taps.  Finish out the round and then discuss it.  After the tap, shake hands, and go again.  If it's an open mat format, that's a different story, but during structured sparring classes, you shouldn't be sitting around talking during the round.  It's time to train.

Don't Quit Early
Finish the round.  Your mind will quit on you long before your body will.  Even when you feel completely exhausted and feel that you have nothing left, don't let yourself quit before the round is over.  This is a mental trap that will continue to plague you if you give into it.  Even if all you can do is lay on your back & try to defend, finish the round!  The exception to this, of course, is if you take an injury.  You should stop immediately and assess any potential injury and treat it as necessary.  It's not always smart to try to just shake it off & push through.  You could aggravate it and make it worse.

Ask Questions
Especially when you're rolling with an upper belt, if you get caught, make sure you understand why.  Ask questions.  What happened?  How can I avoid that in the future?  It's ok to get caught.  It's not ok to not understand why you got caught and continue to get caught in the same position over and over again without asking.  Sparring can be one of your greatest learning tools, but only if you approach it with the right attitude.

Have Fun!
This is one of the most important parts of sparring and Jiu-jitsu in general.  Don't forget why you started in the first place....because Jiu-jitsu is awesome!  Make sure you have fun.  When you're enjoying what you're doing, all the sweat and hard work, the bumps and bruises will hardly be noticed and will definitely be worthwhile!

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