To Spar or Not to Spar? That is the Question

12:33 AM Moo 0 Comments

photo courtesy of:

A point of much contention in the BJJ community has always been about whether one can improve without sparring. There are many schools who say they focus on self defense and as a result do not allow their students to spar....the logic seems more than flawed. Sure we've all rolled with that brand spanking new white belt who spazzes all over the mat and is a nightmare to roll with. This is part of the journey: learning how to control the uncontrolled, starting from that point and becoming greater than you were, testing yourself with opponents of all shapes, sizes and training backgrounds.This morning BJJE posted an article about a man who earned his blue belt without ever sparring. In the article they quote Kron Gracie who has heavily criticized the system his cousins use, saying:

"It’s a shame the way the Jiu-Jitsu is being sold. I am ashamed to say that Ryron and Rener teach classes online, and that you can get a belt from a Gracie over the internet. I am sad to know that it’s happening now. Unfortunately, I can not do anything. I do not own the world, I can only control what I do. Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art. You need to put your blood in the gym, hang out with your teacher and earn the belt. It’s something you do not get with time, experience for money and friendship"

 So just what is the issue with not sparring?

1. Self defense broken down to it's most fundamental level is about being able to protect yourself during an attack. People say…"well BJJ only teaches sport self defense. I'm not going to go to the ground.” How do you know? How many videos have you seen on world star hip hop where a person is knocked down, mounted and has no idea what to do to escape? It's saddening, it's infuriating and it is ultimately avoidable.

2. How do you become better at jiu jitsu if you never test the things you learn?  
This should be a given. Drilling is fine and essential of course, but everyone who has set foot on a mat for even a small amount of time knows that there is a massive difference between drilling and the actual live scenarios/sparring time. Of course I can pull off a move while I am drilling, my partner is relaxed and allowing me to do so. In a live roll scenario I want to know that what I'm learning is transferring, so I can make adjustments, see how my partner counters, work harder and test myself.

3. How in the world can one receive a promotion with no actual sparring? This is the most heavily debated area and everyone has their own opinions, but it is an extremely valid question. When asked what made him so good, Roger Gracie once said "I built my game off a solid defense. I first made it almost impossible for anybody to tap me out.”  How would he know had he never rolled? How do we gage our level of improvement without seeing where we stand? A promotion without testing skills is like winning a medal without ever running a race.

4. Some of these "Schools" are only in it for the money. Learning your self defense strictly from the internet is becoming a growing trend. It's the fastest way to reach a large base of people who are extremely busy, but it is also the fastest way to reach those who are uncomfortable with social situations or those who are afraid of public failure. Sure we have all used youtube videos to learn techniques and improve, but then we go out into the world or onto the mat and try what we have learned. Trial and error is essential in all aspects of life where we are hoping for improvement and to better ourselves.  If you fear failure, you have missed one of the most fundamental aspects of martial arts. 
5. It send a false sense of security to those who believe their performance level matches that of the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community.  I had never considered this point, but discussed it with an upper belt at the gym. Each individual is unique and therefore performances will vary. If you take the average 4 stripe white belt that trains at a Brazilian jiu jitsu school, who averages 2 hours a day or at least 8 hours a week, half of that time being sparring time and knowledge supported by a black belt vs. someone who doesn't spar but is knowledge based without the physical performance- there is a massive difference. I've experienced it and felt the difference while rolling with those who never sparred at white belt. Most white belts have paid their dues, overcome that horrific spastic phase, been smashed, rolled- had victories and defeats and arrived at blue belt feeling prepared and at least (semi) confident in that belt. They know it has been earned through hard work, sweat and blood and through the help of their training partners.

When it comes down to it, each person's BJJ journey is their own, but don't expect this controversy to be settled anytime soon! What are you thoughts? What are the positives of no sparring schools?