Drilling is a great way to practice new moves and memorize the sequence of movements necessary to complete a technique. However, it can lack the element of “aliveness” necessary to prepare you for executing techniques in a real-life scenario. Whether it be a competition or an actual altercation you will need to be prepared for a much more chaotic environment. Free rolling, or live sparring, most closely resembles real-life scenarios, but the jump from drilling to free rolling can leave a gap—this is where positional sparring can be very helpful.
I’m sure most people reading this are familiar with positional sparring, but just in case there is someone new to jiu jitsu who is not: Positional sparring most commonly starts with two teammates in a static starting position like full guard. The student on top is challenged to pass the guard while the student on bottom is challenged to sweep or submit. Once one student accomplishes their goal they reset back to the starting position.
Here are a few suggestions, based on my own experience that may help you get more out of positional sparring. Keep in mind that these suggestions are in the context of learning and refining technique. There may be other reasons for positional sparring and other strategies may be more suited at those times.
Try the technique that was taught in class. Often positional sparring follows the technique portion of class and will be from the same position. It will be hard to hit the technique (after all your training partner just saw it as well) but the best time to work on a technique is when the instruction is fresh in your mind.
Focus on accomplishing your goal more than preventing the other student from accomplishing theirs. Sure, you’re more likely to be swept when attempting a pass, but that’s how flaws in your technique are revealed. If you’re training with a better grappler you will probably get passed when you open your guard—embrace it, that is the best way to see the flaws in your game.
Always be making progress towards your goals. If your training partner is passing your guard and you catch their foot in “1/4 guard” you may be able to hold them there preventing them from completing the pass—but is this the point of the exercise? Maybe it is if you’re preparing for a tournament—maybe you’ll find yourself there in a match and preventing the pass could mean the win, but you can literally spend most of a positional sparring round stuck in this position. For me, I’d rather concede the pass and re-set so I can work on my game.
Don’t automatically default to your comfort zone. If the positional sparring starting position is butterfly guard — transitioning to x-guard to a sweep, is probably a legitimate strategy. But if x-guard is part of your “A” game and you already have consistent method of getting there from butterfly guard then you are missing out on one of the main benefits of positional sparring which is to become proficient from all positions. Take advantage of this positional sparring session to work on traditional butterfly guard sweeps, arm drag to back take, or something else you can add to your game.
If your school does not include positional sparring as a regular part of class give it try on your own time. You may find it helpful. You may also find positional sparring to be a safe way to train if you are nursing a minor injury—pick a position you feel safe in and work from there.
Train hard. Train smart. Get better.
By Joe Thomas Find more articles by Joe Thomas here