Last night I stayed late after class working with two women on their ground grappling skills. After a little submission technique review, we took turns grappling with each other. One of my students thanked me after class, saying that she found it really educational to grapple with me because it helps her to learn because I move in a way that makes sense to her. This is an important thing to remember when it comes to martial arts training and teaching.
Being a self-defense oriented instructor, we often emphasize the merits of training with people who are bigger than us. After all, we are much more likely to be attacked by someone bigger than ourselves on the streets, especially if you’re a woman. That being said, there are a number of benefits to training with people that are the same size as us too. Here are a few I came up with:
1. It develops foundation skills. When students first learn a new technique in the martial arts, especially if they’re a beginner, you are still learning the very basic elements that make the techniques easier, like body mechanics, stance & structure, balance breaking, etc. You haven’t developed the body sense to understand what adjustments you need to make to get things to work. If you’re working with someone much bigger than you, it is harder to “feel” those elements and develop your sense for them. You may have to have those elements spot on to get even a semblance of a working sense of them. When you working with someone closer to your own size or smaller than you, as you slip in and out of proper form, you’ll start to see when the technique works and when it doesn’t helping you to improve through trial and error. This is a concept I covered in my blog post Why Small People Have More Trouble When Starting a Martial Art.
2. It helps instil confidence. If newer students only work with people who are much bigger than them, they usually find that they have to struggle more to get techniques to work, particularly before they have developed a good sense of foundation skills. Sometimes this causes frustration that leads them to believe that their chosen martial art just doesn’t work for them or that they’re just not good enough to make it work. Working with people the same size can help keep them from getting overly frustrated, which in term may keep them training long enough to get the foundation skills they need to be more successful working with larger partners.
3. It helps students learn by example. Bigger people move very differently from smaller people. This is most apparent when you watch people do live training, like sparring or grappling. Smaller people often use speed, agility, and/or flexibility to greater advantage than larger people. But when a smaller student only trains with bigger people, lacking experience or know-how of how to best use their own attributes, they often end up trying to fight their battles with the same kind of tactics their partners use because that’s what they see and experience more. When you grapple or spar with someone closer to your own size, particularly if they’re more experienced than you, you’ll be exposed to styles of movement that you can learn to emulate by osmosis. You can also ask pointed questions about the way they approach various situations to help improve your own understanding of what you can do with your body type.
Of course, martial artists shouldn’t ONLY work with partners that are their own size, unless you’re focused primarily on competition and won’t ever be facing people outside your weight category. If you’re training in a martial art for the purpose of self-defense, you should work with a variety of people of all shapes and sizes, as you never know what kind of attacker you’ll face. So if you always avoid working with the 230-lb behemoth at your dojo, you’re missing out on the opportunity to figure out what sorts of tactics you would have to employ to fight someone like him off.
What are things like at your own dojo? Do students tend to only work with people their own size or does everyone work with everyone? I’m always curious what things are like at other schools.