The oft-repeated saw is that to improve, what you need is to train with people who are better than you are—to swallow your ego and accept that you’ll get beaten in sparring, you’ll have to tap a lot; because you can only learn from people who are better than you (and therefore have something to teach) and in particular, you’ll never learn to defeat skilled opponents without practicing on skilled opponents. There is of course considerable truth to this, and I’m sure it is possible to get very good indeed in a meatgrinder situation where your every training partner from day one is a brown belt and up.
Personally, though, I feel that there is plenty to gain from training with people who aren’t better. Regarded one way, it’s certainly a lot easier to learn offence, and practice new moves that I’ve yet to master, on less experienced opponents with whom I have a greater margin of error. I’ll never pull off a brand new sweep on someone with whom I struggle to keep up to begin with, but with a brand new beginner, I can perhaps get my position and get a few reps in every round. When rolling with people at approximately my own level of skill, I get to practice a more competitive sort of game, because either may credibly “win” and neither is predisposed to play a super defensive, staving-off-inevitable-disaster game—and here those new moves are put to the test. Against superior opponents, well, I certainly get plenty of opportunity to pratice defence…
This may be a psychological flaw on my part, but I will be honest and say that sometimes, I don’t feel like I gain anything at all from rolling with people who are better than me by too wide a margin. It’s one thing if I’m constantly forced to play at the edge of my capabilities; that’s fertile ground. When someone shuts down my every attempt before I can even get started, though, I don’t think that really teaches me anything because I get no useful feedback: I can’t tell the difference, then, between “that was a mistake” and “that was a good idea but this guy is just good enough to shut it down anyway”. Then it’s not a learning experience, but mere frustration. (I do my best, when rolling with very new beginners, to remind myself not to create that kind of situation.)
I also think that one should not scoff at the benefits of rolling even with very new people, or much smaller people. Yes, if I outweigh someone by 50 lbs and have 4–5 years of experience to their week and a half, I can probably sweep them in pretty much any direction I choose, but I should be able to make more intelligent use of our training time than that. For one thing, it is a good time to relax, roll without using strength or power, and isolate details, control using the feet only, and that sort of thing. For another, I find that helping people, providing hints, and talking them through those first few rolls can itself be a learning exercise for me as much as for the other person, because it forces me to analyse the situation carefully and isolate and highlight the most important essentials, which is hard to do in the rough-and-tumble of a more even match.
And, of course, it’s good to give back. The only reason I am where I am today is because other people (I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically mention Kabir’s name at least once here) helped me in this fashion, by toning their game down a few notches, give me room to try things, and help me out—and I have a long way to go still, during which I hope to receive more of the same. So of course I want to do as much as I can to provide the same encouragement, help, and guidance to others in the same community or, if you will, family. For all that you go one-on-one at the time when you’re facing a particular opponent, building grapplers is a community effort, and as in many things, the journey is to my mind more important than the destination.
Now I’m off to open mat at GBV (slightly late because I felt moved to write this post) where I will roll with people who may be any combination of better than me, worse than me, and roughly at my level, and I leave confident that either way, I’ll have room to learn.