There is an old saying that we are an average of the 5 people we spend the most time with, which I believe is true.
When you embark on your martial arts journey, you will meet many wonderful characters, but also challenging ones. You can read about some of these great characters here.
While the article referenced above is a humorous one, it does reflect the fact that interacting with people will inevitably create some degree of friction at some point or another. Learning how to deal with this friction, or conflict, is indeed one of the wonderful benefits of training.
Today I’d like to look at a different side of training with partners. What I am about to say here is nothing new; however, hopefully sharing my perspective can help you think a bit more critically on who you spend your training time with in order to better your results.
So whom should you train with, and how much time should you spend training with them?
I have broken this into 5 groups. Each one has pros and cons:
- Your Sensei (your instructor) – Some instructors never spar with their students; I have written extensively about why I believe that you should spar with your Sensei here (or whatever the equivalent for sparring is in your system). This is a great way of getting feedback on the fly straight from the source. No one should know how you train better than your teacher. When you train with them directly (either sparring or doing a one-on-one), you should get specific, timely and relevant feedback about your performance against a high benchmark. This is a quick way of finding things to work on, as well as how to work on them.
- Your Senpai (your seniors)– training with your seniors can be very challenging. Many a time I got an adrenaline dump before a training session with advanced practitioners or pro fighters. The main thought that crossed my mind (right before someone’s fist did) was ‘this is going to suck.’ Yet I find that once I get past the initial fear and accept the fact that I am likely to lose often in this session, I always have an amazing time. Simply put, being challenged is imperative to growth.Training with more experienced practitioners teaches humility and respect. It also highlights areas that need improvement and allows you to benchmark your performance against a variety of tough opponents. Improvement, at least to start with, is often measured by how decisively you lose. This teaches us to savour the small victories.
Often when I roll with BJJ practitioners who are very experienced, I set small goals for myself. I know they are likely to tap me out a hundred times in a round, so my goal against a particularly tough opponent will be to get one sweep during the round. If I can get that, no matter how many times I tap out, I see myself as victorious. As I learn my weaknesses and work on them diligently, small losses turn into small victories, and then into not so small ones.
- Same rank – often you will start your training along with others at roughly the same time. Maybe you joined the dojo at the same time, or a few weeks apart. These are often the people you will make the strongest connections with. You will learn lessons and make discoveries together. You are also likely to face the same hurdles and challenges. Some people can be embarrassed to ask questions. With these friends, you will have someone who will help you identify common areas of concern, and seek help together, which is often less confronting. It also gives you another great benchmark. As you share a start line, you will be able to measure your own progress by benchmarking against someone with similar experience.
- Your Kohai (your juniors) – training with people who are less experienced than you is absolutely crucial to improvement. This is a staple of martial arts tradition, yet often people hate to be paired up with ‘the new guy.’ You have to go slow, they don’t know how to hold pads, go too soft or too hard, etc. I think this is some of the best training you can get! Firstly, it teaches you to be more patient and tolerant. Secondly, it teaches you to deal with unpredictable opponents. Indeed, I often see beginners give advanced students a hard time in self-defence scenarios because their responses are not ‘correct.’Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when you are paired with beginners, you teach. And when you are teaching, you learn a huge amount. Having to explain a concept means having to assess your own understanding of that concept. It forces you to verbalize and demonstrate your own understanding of technique, principle and application, and often highlights which areas need more improvement. Furthermore, it often forces you to problem-solve on the spot; ‘what if’ questions, or a Kohai not understanding why something is done in a particular way forces you to identify the problem and find a solution. You can then use those solutions yourself.
- Cross-training – every system and every school have their own way of doing things, their own strengths and weaknesses. Another great way of benchmarking your progress is to train and spar with students from other disciplines and other schools. While some instructors or schools discourage, or even forbid this, I think it’s a great way of finding holes in your game and getting fresh insights into your own training. Adopting the mentality of ‘use whatever works,’ cross-training gives us new challenges and helps us develop creative solutions – ones we may not find without it. It’s also a great way of dealing with nerves and ego, as training with people you don’t know can be both scary and humbling. Lastly, it’s a great way of finding new like-minded martial artists and making new friends.
I feel there is something very important to highlight at this point. I tried very hard to avoid using the word ‘compare’ throughout this piece. You should never compare your own journey to someone else’s.
We are all inherently different – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Our experiences are all unique. Your journey is your own, and someone else’s progress should not affect how you view your own in any way. The only benchmark that matters is your own progress and the meaning that you give it.
Thus interacting with these 5 groups of people is a way for you to look and reflect inward, not outward. It helps you to see what you are good at, and where you need more work. It helps you understand where to spend your time, and with who.
This brings me to another important point. Each of us has a finite amount of time to spend training. That being the case, we should be spending our time wisely. The most valuable training tools we have are our training partners. Each of the 5 groups of training partners offers slightly different benefits. We should, therefore, consider how we choose our training partners on a regular basis, so we can grow and also help others to grow.
If we are an average of the 5 people we spend the most time with, let’s try and get the most out of each of these 5 groups. The wisdom and experience of your Sensei; the ability to push through difficulty when training with your Senpai; the camaraderie and excitement of sharing experiences with your peers; the patience and experimentation of training with your Kohai; and the open-mindedness and ability to absorb from training with people other than your normal training group.
On a personal note, I find that my progress tends to go in spurts. I’ll see vast improvement in a short amount of time, followed by a period of little or any growth. Training with different partners often makes a big difference on how long my growth spurts last, but also on when and for how long I plateau. During periods of fast growth, I often find myself spending more time with my senpai and sensei. This helps me push forward even faster and helps maintain the momentum. During periods of stagnation or slow growth, I often spend more time with my peers and kohai as it helps me reconnect and go back to basics. Throughout all of this, I always try to spend some time training with people outside of my regular training group in order to keep things sharp and fresh. That’s the balance that works for me, and it took me a long time to figure this out.
But that doesn’t mean that it will be the same for you.
You need to experiment and change, and be aware and reflect on the results.
Only by critical reflection will you be able to spend more time training with the right people. This will help you get better quicker, build better relationships and make more friends on your journey.
Stay safe, stay tuned
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