Sparring is one of the vital training components that contributes to the effectiveness of BJJ. It is the best way to pressure test the techniques against a resisting opponent with relative safety. But sparring is not always easy, and many find it a difficult exercise to deal with. Here is my story…

For the first few years of my BJJ journey I was petrified when it came to sparring time. No matter how hard I tried to chill and stay relaxed, I suffered from awful butterflies in my stomach as I stood there waiting to be paired up. I sometimes felt I was about to throw up [I never did thankfully!] Consequently my rolls were terrible and I would either go too hard or capitulate too easily. Often I would just tap out of frustration and ineptitude. I learned very little and found it hugely difficult to connect the techniques I had drilled into a live situation. Worse still, I would reason with myself that it was because I was small and light and everyone was too big and heavy. Excuses, excuses!

But one day, something just clicked. I was by then a blue belt and three or four years into my journey. It was a normal regular gi class and nothing untoward was different about the session yet when we lined up, I no longer had the butterflies. We paired up and my rolling was different. I ceased to spar as if my life depended on it. Instead, I began to explore spaces – spaces that were always there, but I was too scared in the past to go in to. When I realized that against a better player, I was going to get my guard passed, or I was going to have to endure heavy pressure under side control or mount, I just let it happen and try to problem solve my way out using technique. And this has been the way that I roll ever since.

The highly renowned BJJ coach and author John Danaher once wrote (link:

“ learn the difference between training and fighting. When you train, focus only upon increasing your skill set. Play around with new moves and positions and learn the subtle details that make them work well. Do not overly concern yourself with who wins and who loses – that is only important when you compete, not when you train. Learn to play jiu jitsu, rather than fight jiu jitsu in the training room”

It is a quote that resonates with my personal experience. My own sparring epiphany occurred when I changed (without me realizing it) from ‘fighting’ into ‘playing’ jiu jitsu while sparring. Don’t get me wrong, when I say ‘playing’ it does not mean I am mucking around and not really trying. By ‘playing’ I mean I am choosing to spar on my own terms. In the past, I would ‘fight’ which to me, meant I am reacting to whatever was being thrown at me. These days, I will try to choose the terms of my movement, not the other way around. Simply put – when sparring I pre-select in my mind the things I want to work on and aim to put myself in those positions. It might not even be a specific position or technique, sometimes I’ll just grip in a certain way, or put my leg in a certain position, just to see how my opponent reacts and learning as I go along. In other times, I will aim for specific techniques, mentally evaluating the mistakes and errors as I go along. A bit like having a live stream commentary going on in my own head.

So by ‘playing’ jiu jitsu in class, what I’m really doing is allowing myself to have a much more control over what I am doing, instead of the emphasis on what the other person is doing. Of course every roll is different and every person you spar with offers their own set of problems for you to deal with. But even with much better and more skilled opponents, you can still aim to set the agenda and play during the roll on your own terms.

I now no longer have butterflies in my stomach anymore prior to sparring and I guess it means I don’t view the sessions as a ‘fighter’ would. Instead however, I see them as opportunities to explore and create something fresh each and every time. As Rickson Gracie once said “I flow with the go”.

Tips for novices
Sparring is not meant to be easy but equally it isn’t meant to be a fight to the death. It’s simply a training exercise to test what you know against someone who is also doing the same. Play it like a game, rather than a fight. Select a position to play from and test your ability to attack or defend from there. If something is consistently not working for you, ask a higher grade to have a look and see if they can suggest improvements. Experiment a little, but always remember the basics and fundamental concepts. Over time, these will become instinct and you can experiment further away from ‘textbook’ techniques. Most important of all, learn to tap if you are clearly in a position unable to escape or defend, and equally, on the other side, don’t snap on submissions like you wish that person to die a horrible death – control is the key here. Most important of all…have fun!!!

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