As with most of my best content this was inspired by a conversation and a question from Julia over at JiuJiuBJJ regarding who I felt was the best combination of rolling partners to observe out of these options:
Watching sparring question:Here were the sets of people sparring:
-purple and black (my instructor)
-new white + 2 stripe blue
-4 stripe blue + 1 stripe white
-blue and purple
And because of the way my brain works, that spawned a massive wall of text well beyond the scope of the original question, so here is that wall of text and for the more concise article with perspectives from Black and Brown belts as well head over to JiuJiuBJJ and take a look at her article as well.
When I was a white belt I watched other people roll with a sense of wonder and confusion. Mostly my thoughts were dedicated to wondering what the heck was going on midst the sea of tangled limbs on the mat. People would tap for apparently no reason, and other people wouldn't tap to things I was certain were going to disconnect limbs from torsos. I had no idea what I was watching.
As I gained experience the tangle sorted itself out slowly until I could distinguish discrete sequences and individual techniques from the chaos. By the time I was an experienced white belt I was watching the blue belts to try to figure out what they were doing so that I could emulate it. That theme continued when I got my own blue belt and I started watching the purple belts to absorb tips from them. Now as a purple belt I watch brown and black belts and try to figure out what they are doing that is different from what I' m doing. But, I realized no one ever told me HOW to watch other people rolling, or even who to pay attention to.
As a white belt should I be watching white belts rolling against blue belts and examining how the white belts and the blue belts interacted or would I benefit more from watching two black belts rolling? Or a purple belt and a white belt? I had no idea. I just watched the blue belts because that was the next belt. The one I wanted to get to. What was I even watching for? Again I had no idea. I kept track of what techniques the blues used, but they were all the same techniques I already knew performed at a higher level. I wasn't really getting the most out of my observations because I had never really talked to anyone with experience about what I should be looking at.
Now as a purple belt with almost six years of training under my belt (Check that out, 100% appropriate use of that phrase.) I have a much better idea of who to watch, how to watch them, and what to look for.
Who: My preferred observation subjects are brown belts and purple belts my size rolling with each other. Just as I did when I was a white belt (I had the right idea!) I can watch the more experienced person work against someone of my own rank and see how they counter techniques, how they attack, how they defend, and so on. To generalize this I believe you are always best off watching someone of the rank just above yours roll with someone of your rank. You can extract the most knowledge from those rolls because the level of execution behind the techniques will be closer to your own and so more accessible and understandable. Watching a black belt perform a basic scissor sweep as a white belt just doesn't let you extract that much information because the technique is so smooth that you actually can't see many of the steps involved.
How: How do you watch two people rolling in a way that lets you extract information? You can't watch them the way you would watch a competitive match for entertainment. You want to choose a specific area and concentrate on that area. Watch how a blue belt plays guard against another white belt, or how a purple belt uses grips against another blue belt. Stay focused on one area.
What: And of course, WHAT do you watch for? Well, when you're watching a single area you want to look for subtle differences between the higher ranking persons technique and your own. If you see a purple belt scissor sweep a blue belt effortlessly, and it's a blue belt you can never manage to sweep then you watch for the small details. Look for foot placement, hand placement, hip location in relation to the opponent. You don't care about the macro level, what technique was used, you care about the micro level, what minuscule detail separates that higher ranking persons technique from your own.
Whenever possible try to get some video footage of those higher ranking people rolling with you as well. That can really give you insight into the technique in a way that other observations can't. And it lets you direct the roll in ways that you are most interested in. REALLY want to get detail on that scissor sweep? Put yourself in a position to be swept and fight it to see what happens, then you can review it on video later. When you review your own video you have a much better sense of where your weight was, or how you were balanced when something happens. You know what grips you had or didn't have in a much deeper way than when you are watching someone else.
Observation can be a powerful tool in accelerating your jiujitsu progress and you should make use of it whenever possible. Especially when injured or doing times when you can't train, but can review video. You will also come to class more focused and with a better idea of how to guide your training which just makes everything easier mentally.