The covid-pandemic is in decline in most western countries. Gyms are starting to reopen around the world, most of them with restrictions. Check out our article: A Playbook for re-opening your Martial Arts school post COVID-19 to learn more about strategies for getting back on the mats.

One of the main restrictions is the amount of people on the mat and the number of different training partners that will be available. In Germany for example, gyms can open but they can only practice contact sports in groups of 10 people max. This might seem like an annoying hindrance for your student’s training progress, but it could be a blessing in disguise.

In this article we’ll look at the benefits of having a small group of training partners (or even just 1 or 2 training partners) and how to make most out of these training sessions. 

Why small groups training can skyrocket your progress

To show the value of training with a limited amount of training partners, we’ll use a case-study: European Brazilian Jiu Jitsu athletes. Brazilian jiu jitsu champions generally come from a small handful of gyms that produce dozens of high level competitors each. These gyms can be found in California, New York and Sao Paulo.

But what if you live on a continent where massive gyms with multiple world champions on the mats are not so readily available? Is becoming a high level competitor out of the question?

Recently a new trend has come up in this sport. Athletes from small European countries are reaching the highest level of the sport without training at one of the big teams.

Two of them stand out in particular: Espen and Tommy. Over the last few years they have won several big titles and have beaten some of the best in the sport. Yet they don’t have a big team behind them, and they come from a small country (Norways has a population that is equal to ⅓ of the greater LA area.) and an even tinier village. 

Of course these guys have visited some of those big competitive gyms, but most of their training time is spent with a small group of 3 to 5 like minded athletes.

Instead of using their small training group as an excuse, they have turned it into their greatest strength. Let’s see what Espen has to say about the subject in a 2017 interview with the BJJ Brick podcast. First he discusses why training at a big competitive gym is not as beneficial as you might think:

“So I know that is a big argument everybody uses. “Oh I have so many good training partners, I can train with 10 different black belts…” Of course, [it] makes a lot of sense, but then if you look at it differently… . So, if you have a lot of different training partners, they will never catch up to your game.” … “And it will take a while before people start to really understand it.” 

So how does training with a small group help with improvement?

“Now when there’s so few people, we know every move we do. So, we have two choices: either switch up the game, start doing different techniques. Or: perfectionate what we’re already doing. Make it even better. So, I feel actually, this environment is better.”

There’s a caveat though, every now and then you do need to train with people outside of your bubble to keep improving:

“Since you get a lot of the same reactions, it’s easy to stop developing. So, you have to also sometimes go and visit other gyms, do some travels, so that’s what we do.”

The covid-19 pandemic is the perfect time for you and your students to improve with a small group of training partners of a similar level (if it’s within the law of course). When the pandemic is under control and gyms can run at full capacity again, your students can go and test their skills against a larger number of training partners, and hopefully in competition.

Not only Espen and Tommy use this strategy of training with a small group of training partners supplemented with visits to larger gyms and competing on a high level. Other high level BJJ athletes like Tom Halpin (from Ireland) and Ffion Davies (from Wales) have reached the elite level through a similar path.

I trained with Tom a little while back and he explained that even when he does have a large number of training partners available to him, he will still be very picky and train only with the few he knows and trusts.

How to train in small groups

So, we now know it can be a solid strategy to train with a small group of people, and it is even possible to reach the highest level of the sport with it.  But how should we train with such a limited group of training partners?

One of the main answers is specific sparring. Free sparring has its place, but when you train with the same partner(s) every day, your sparring sessions will become very similar. That is why it’s important to force each other into positions you would otherwise not get into.

Put limitations on your sparring and work on situations and positions you don’t get into often during free sparring. By forcing each other into these positions you still get to practice them, as they can be crucial for winning tournaments and becoming a better martial artist overall. 

Added benefit: If you regularly work on certain positions, progress will come quickly. Even less experienced practitioners will start excelling in the positions that are often trained, sometimes way past the level of their skills as a whole. It’s thus a great way to create tough training partners for yourself.

After a few of these specific rounds, we usually finish with some free sparring. Not only because they are fun, but also to try and apply the skills you learned during specific sparring in a live training environment

Conclusion

Training with a small group of people is not only possible, it’s a great way to improve. Some of Europe’s top BJJ athletes have been training like this for years and are winning tournaments on the highest level.

By changing your approach and using a lot of specific sparring you can benefit most from this form of training. When gyms open back to full capacity, make sure to test your new skills against a variety of training partners. But even then, remember that training with the same people over and over can be a very useful strategy.

Published by Daniel de Groot

Daniel is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor and active competitor. Since obtaining his master degree, he splits his time between his team in the Netherlands and Brazil, where he teaches at one of Brazil's premier academies, The House FC.

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