Jiu-Jitsu Letter

Sparring, Part 1

It’s true that we don’t want white belts sparring too soon. And I’m aware that many people disagree with it, and believe that it’s bad for the students to not spar.

They believe that it’s not enough to watch the lesson and practice the technique. But that’s short-sighted. We have to think about the long game. The goal is to train forever.

It may be helpful to spar right away. But I don’t think that’s true for most people. For the tough guys (and girls), it could be true. But most new students have no idea what they’re in for. Unless he or she was a wrestler or very athletic, sparring on the first day is going to be hard and frustrating. And it could be that student’s first and last day.

(And I understand there are some that may say, “Well, it’s a way of filtering out those who aren’t suited for jiu-jitsu.” That’s wrong. Jiu-Jitsu is for everyone.)

Even if the first day student does OK, whatever, “OK” means, there’s not a lot of benefit. The student still doesn’t know anything.

In the Gracie University beginner program, there is zero sparring. There is what’s called RD (reflex development) class, where the students string together a handful of techniques with a cooperative partner. It’s like a basketball team practicing a play. The defense may or may not be there, but the play is allowed to develop. Imagine five new basketball players trying to learn the triangle on day one, with the defense playing actual defense. It’s a ridiculous idea. The new guys would turn the ball over immediately and get so frustrated they’d probably quit. It’s the same with jiu-jitsu.

How many “tough guys” that do well early last? And how many non-sparring white belts last? I’d bet the non-sparring group is larger than the other. Those that spar early, and do “well,” are going to eventually have their bad days. Blues, purples, browns, and even blacks have their bad days, but they’re better prepared for it. An overconfident (and it’s easy to get overconfident) white or blue belt will have a hard time recovering when someone with less experience taps them. Their “good” days were based on toughness, not skill. Anyway, it means very little to be a good white belt. Actually, it means very little to be good, period. What’s really important is being an active student. There’s a saying, “It’s not who’s good, it’s who’s left.”

Don’t be the one who says, “I used to do jiu-jitsu.” Always keep training forever as the goal. Commit to a lifelong practice of jiu-jitsu. You may not get to spar right away, and for six, eight, twelve months, you only drill and do RD. But that’s OK, because that’s setting you up for a lifetime of training. Look at a timeline of 20, 30 years, depending on how old you are now. Helio trained until he passed. He was on the mats in his 90s. When you look at a timeline of 20 years, then 6 months is nothing but a speck. Compare that to someone who trains three years. For that student, yes, it’s important to spar right away, because those six months are a bigger percentage of the total time in jiu-jitsu. Do you want to train for three years, or thirty years?

What’re the benefits of not sparring during the first six months?

  1. Self-defense mindset. Early on, you are learning jiu-jitsu vs. street, not jiu-jitsu vs. jiu-jitsu. Unless you’re doing “street sparring” with strikes allowed, going jiu-jitsu vs jiu-jitsu will train you to forget about distance management. This will make your jiu-jitsu much less effective once punches and kicks are introduced. And in a street fight, your opponent will very likely be trying to punch or kick you.
  2. Lower risk of injury to yourself and your partners. I’ve heard of a few people who suffered injuries (including a broken rib) on their first day of call. People are looking for reasons to quit. An injury is a perfect reason to stop.
  3. Prioritization of good technique. Again, it’s the basketball analogy. We can apply it to other martial arts, like boxing. If a new student was learning the Philly shell, would it make sense for his trainer to try punching his student at full force and speed?

Yes, you do learn something as a sparring white belt. But if you learn these lessons six months later, it’s OK. Remember, we want to think about a timeline of 20 or 30 or more years.

Of course, there are downsides to not sparring early. And that is getting dominated when you finally do start sparring. When you’re a fresh Combatives or blue belt, you’re starting with very little experience against a resistant opponent. You will struggle. It can suck. And new blue belts from other schools will be much better. That should be expected anyway. They have more experience sparring.

That’s the only problem though. And it’s worth suffering through that, because it’ll take just 6-12 months to catch up. And when you’re caught up, you’ll also have the advantage of being better prepared for a fight with strikes. You’ll have invested time in building a self-defense based foundation. You’ll have a better sense of distance-management and punch awareness and safety.

There are stories of upper belts losing street fights to untrained opponents all the time. Sacrificing sparring for 6-8 months to become street safe is all you need to avoid adding your own story.

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