BJJ isn’t for the faint of heart. It is one of the more challenging ways to spend your free time. This is, of course, why we love it! However, one area that can feel particularly frustrating is sparring. Full disclosure: I am only a purple belt; I have very limited competition experience; and since becoming a parent my training is more like 2 times a week rather than 6. That said, I have 20 years of martial arts experience, including 14 years on the mats. So, I have picked up a few things both through my personal struggles and working with folks at different stages of their journies. With this in mind, I hope these BJJ sparring tips can help you to develop your sparring game.
BJJ Sparring Tips: Physical
When mulling over my BJJ sparring tips, I realised they fell into two main categories: physical and conceptual. On the one hand, are more physical or practical considerations. On the other hand, are more conceptual or mind-set considerations that can underpin your physical practice. Let’s start with the physical.
1. Drill Beautifully
The starting point for improving your sparring is drilling. Only through consistent repetition of your techniques will you develop the tool-set and muscle memory to improve your sparring. That said, there’s drilling and there’s drilling. You want to do the latter.
That is, inattentive reps won’t get you very far. You need to drill beautifully. In practice, to me, that means:
- Methodical: do your best to practice each step exactly in the manner and order demonstrated by your instructor
- Elegant: seek to move with fluidity and grace applying each piece of the drill mindfully
- Smooth: focus on smooth movement as this will develop into speed faster than rushed, staccato drilling
- Attentive: keep your mind on the task at hand. While there is value to exploring the potential vulnerabilities of a technique, when drilling use your time to drill the scenario provided by your instructor. Know that there’s always a response to and/or vulnerabilities to a given technique. However, your job right now is to drill the technique and ‘bad guy’ indicators provided by your instructor. As you progress, you’ll learn more techniques and nuances. So, do yourself a favour and stay on task rather than chatting about the whys and wherefores – you’ll get there in time!
- Relentless: don’t stop until your instructor calls time. If you’ve got a question, get an instructor’s attention. Camaraderie is a big part of our practice, no doubt, and we needn’t be dour. However, it is more important to get those reps than have a chat/give yourself a breather. Be dogged in your pursuit of drilling excellence.
In short, number 1 on my list of BJJ sparring tips is: approach your drilling with mindful precision. Discipline and precision in this area of your practice will pay off when the ‘water gets deep’ in sparring.
2. Positional Sparring
This list of BJJ sparring tips assumes that ‘free-rolling’ is the kind of ‘sparring’ you are looking to improve. Many readers will be aware of multiple sparring types such as positional sparring, flow-rolling and free-rolling. Each of these tools suits a different job and, ultimately, training a variety of sparring methods will improve your free-rolling.
So, positional sparring is sparring from a set starting-point often to a set end-point. For example, one person in full guard with the goal to pass; the other person seeking to sweep or submit. When either player meets their goal, the positions are re-set. This form of sparring can help you to apply techniques that you don’t yet ‘own’ under a bit more pressure than in straight drilling, but without the full chaos of a live roll.
Clearly, the beauty with which you applied your technique in drills will degrade in this and all other sparring scenarios. That’s exactly why you worked so precisely in drills! Now that your implementation is getting a bit messier in sparring, it is still pretty tight.
If my BJJ sparring tips includes positional sparring, it is only logical to highlight the value of flow-rolling. Flow-rolling is another kind of ‘transitional sparring’ that sits somewhere between drilling and free-rolling. However, it is more free-form than positional sparring, as there’s no set start or end points. This style of sparring is generally at a slower and more relaxed pace than free-rolling and partners are encouraged to: 1) ‘catch and release’ rather than to apply submissions; 2) keep moving by not holding positions for more than a few beats. While flow-rolling can feel really awkward at first, with consistent practice it can help you to develop your timing and your application of techniques that are not yet fully integrated into your game.
BJJ Sparring Tips: Conceptual
To re-cap, some ‘physical BJJ sparring tips’ include precise drilling and including variety in your sparring forms in order to improve your free-rolling. However, there’s more to sparring than the right grip or accurate positioning of the hips, it is as much in the mind as in the body.
1. Goals, Have ‘Em
Sparring with a mission can help you to consolidate and evolve your game. Know what you’re working on and stick at it until you’ve got it working. A gauge I use to determine if I can do a new thing is if I get it consistently on lower belts of all sizes and proportionally less successfully as the skill gap closes. For example, when I was focusing on basic scissor sweeps from the guard as a blue belt, I felt it was ‘mine’ when I could get the sweep on white belts of all sizes on the regular and occasionally with people of my own experience level. By the time I had some ownership of this sweep, my team mates started to have answers to my sweep. In response, I then focussed on a kimora attempt if the sweep failed and they based out with a hand or transitioning to a variation to remove a supporting leg if they based out with a knee.
This is the arms race. Through this escalation, you and your clubmates strengthen and expand your skill-sets. By setting and pursuing clearly defined goals, you can gradually build your toolkit, timing and judgement.
2. Build From a Solid Foundation
Goal-oriented sparring practice is a great way to develop your skill-set and make consistent – if sometimes agonisingly slow – progress. So, how do you choose your goal? Simple, start at the beginning.
You learn lots of cool drills in class. Sometimes these techniques are further along the journey than where you may be. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to be exposed to these techniques and you should try them in positional sparring, flow-rolling and free-rolling. However, when defining your sparring goals, start basic and progress from there.
In other words, if you don’t yet ‘own’ a decent elbow escape from mount, putting energy into spider-guard sweeps is putting the cart before the horse. Therefore, map your goals logically and trace a route from more basic and high percentage defensive and offensive techniques towards more advanced variations. This approach can help you to create a solid foundation of fundamentals while giving you the skills and timing to move towards more ‘advanced’ variations as and when you’re ready. Again, to be clear, yes – don’t be afraid to try stuff! Nevertheless, when identifying your goals, start with the basics and build from there.
3. Defence First
Moreover, when defining your sparring goals, think ‘defence first’. This has multiple advantages. Firstly, from a self-defence perspective, focussing on keeping yourself safe has merit. Likewise, from an injury-prevention point-of-view, working from a defence-first mindset can pay great dividends. Secondly, from an improving-your-sparring vantage point, confidence in your defence can help you to move towards opening up to mount your attacks. In other words, once you’re an excellent nail, you can find yourself getting a share of the hammer-time. Similarly, an excellent understanding of defence, augments your offensive powers. That is, fully understanding how one defends a position, can help you to better develop attacks-by-combination and the subtlety that great offence requires.
4. Fight Fire with Water
From a defence-first practice naturally flows patience and resilience to goading. You know what is really easy for this lightweight 42-year-old woman? Dealing with strength. ‘Cuz guess what, I already know that you are stronger than me; if you take a break from proving that to yourself, you’ll have a much better chance of getting the better of me. Want to know why? I fight fire with water.
I have zero interest in playing the strength game. While I take care of my body including strength and conditioning for BJJ, I lost the absolute strength battle when I got on the mat. Pretty much all of you are bigger and younger than I am. That’s cool, I’m patient and more annoying. Through defence-first training and a focus on ‘not losing’ rather than ‘winning’, I’m able to ride out a storm and pick my timing. Attacks telegraphed with brute force are relatively easy – if exhausting and repetitive – to deal with. And I’m obnoxiously persistent. However, smooth, sneaky, elegant traps blind-side me and are much more likely to get me ruffled.
So, the moral of the story is, stay cool. Work your goals, built on a broad foundation of basics, with an eye towards defence and you’ll find comfort where there is none. In that place, you can chill, find your opening and ply your offence. It might not be today, or tomorrow and it may well be 5 years down the track, but that’s kinda what you signed up for when you walked onto those mats. That in itself took guts, so the ability to remain composed in chaos and weather the storm is in there. Find it. Harness it. Nurture it.
5. Tap Early, Tap Often
No set of BJJ sparring tips is complete without mentioning the importance of tapping. If you’ve spent any time on the mats you’ve doubtless heard common tapping tropes: ‘if you’re not tapping, you’re not learning’, ‘leave your ego at the door’ and so on. Cliche as they might be, these adages are worth keeping close to heart and mind. A willingness to tap is vital to your BJJ sparring. Why?
First of all, safety. Yours and your partner’s. The tap is sacrosanct, and with good reason. What we do is really quite dangerous! Respecting the tap is essential to keeping everyone in one piece and fully functional. Moreover, this cuts both ways. If your partner has you, tap! It isn’t fair to them if you allow ego to take control and put them in a spot where they injure you. Likewise, if you feel or hear a tap – STOP! Not sure if that was your partner or not? Stop anyhow and reset if you erred on the side of caution. You already know this, however it bears repeating.
Next, learning. If you are the smartest person in the room, you need to find a new room. If you are uncomfortable with not being the smartest person in the room, address that right now. Vulnerability to learning is the only way you are going to get better at BJJ sparring. That includes tapping early and often. Feel like you could power out of a sub? Go for it. Congratulations, you just learnt nothing. Forgo the saccharine pleasure of ‘escaping’ through speed/power/force. Pull your big-kid pants on and tap. Well done, you and your body now know where there’s a hole in your boat. See steps 1-4 above, and repeat. Now, you’re really getting somewhere.
Finally, as a bonus, resist the urge to tell someone ‘that wasn’t a real submission’ after you just tapped to it. I get it, perhaps it wasn’t very well applied, or it was some sort of strengthy bend-you-into-a-pretzel move. That’s on them. Your job is to work with your instructor to develop great responses to their attacks, even if they don’t seem to be proper. Help them address their offensive technique with superior defensive technique. Keep the snarky ego-driven sour-grapes for the ‘inside voice’.
Of course, no purple belt’s humble BJJ sparring tips can prepare you for the gruelling self-examination that walks hand-in-hand with levelling up in jiu jitsu. All I can promise is that this formula has been at the heart of my practice and improvement from day 1. My understanding and application of these concepts has advanced and, I can only hope, will continue to do so. Perhaps, there’s helpful BJJ sparring tips here for you too. Because this beautiful thing we do, man, it is tough.
Oh, one more thing, keep those arms tight #trex
If any wisdom is to be found here, it has been repurposed from my instructors past and present, including, but not limited to Dave Birkett, Marc Walder, John Ingallina and Greg Walsh as well as great practitioners whose seminars have pushed me along, notably, Royce Gracie, Ryron Gracie and Frank Cucci.