In our TESOL courses, we train teachers how to focus their students during listening. Specifically, we talk about listening for gist or listening for details. When listening for gist you are listening for an overall understanding, such as the general idea/topic, versus for key details or minutia. It is extremely difficult for students to do both at the same time. Let’s give a very practical example. As you watch this video, please keep count of how many times the team in white passes the ball:


When you focus on details, it’s easy to miss the bigger picture, and vice versa – had you been watching the video in general, you could not have told me how many times the team had passed the ball.

As I mentioned in Operation Tattered Belt, when my students are focusing on a grammar point, I suggest that they try to notice if other people use it in conversations, or to find it when they are reading. Not to the point of ignoring content, but having a heightened awareness of it. Similarly, I mentioned that when Megan and I are working on specific BJJ techniques, we will be watching out for these as we watch people spar.

Up until this point, when I would go to my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes, watching sparring had felt a bit useless to me. On the one hand I felt like I should watch people spar, but I didn’t really know what to watch for, I didn’t know what to focus on, or who to watch, so I would end up shifting who I watched, get bored, and not really learn from it. The student and teacher in me HATE wasted time! I could be learning, dang it! So I decided to ask some upper belts this general question:

How can I learn more by watching sparring? What should I do when I watch people spar?

Pippa Granger – purple belt –
Instead of just watching the whiz kid champ of the class try to watch someone with more experience but a similar body type to you (if there is someone) as their moves are far more likely to work for you. Also coach them (in your head) look for their mistakes, try to predict what they will/should do next.

Jackjitsu – brown belt –
I learn a lot by watching people spar. My approach is pretty simple. I always have a list of “issues” in my mind that I’m currently working on. For example, I want better, more efficient methods of passing Z-guard. Or maybe my chokes from mount suck.

So I have these 5 things I’m currently working to improve, so when I watch people spar, I watch for how THEY deal with the scenarios I’m currently having issues with.

It’s only a matter of time before I see someone do something I haven’t tried yet in a position I have difficulty in, and it’s always an AHA moment.

James Foster – black belt –
Many individuals underestimate the value of visual learning as well as learning through osmosis, meaning learning through immersion and exposure to a given subject. As a student of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu you can take a lot away from observing others drilling technique and rolling if you take the right approach. While watching others roll, I think it’s important to narrow your focus to a particular area of the game. I usually base this off of a particular area of my game that I’m currently working to improve or develop, whether that’s a specific move or one of a variety of different positions. In my opinion narrowing things down in this manner will help minimize the chance of confusion as you’re watching two individuals roll around like crazed Tasmanian devils!

DirtyRancher – brown belt –
What I watch (or rather helped me the most): maintaining position or advancing position. By maintaining, it could be holding side control or not getting guard passed. Advancing is of course clear… but what I mean here isn’t in the moves used, but how the position was maintained first, and what positional tricks were used to capitalize.

Actually, I’d put the ratio at watching maintaining 85% of the time.

I’m talking where their hips are, or maybe their hands, how they brought the leg around the head and to the opposite shoulder when getting passed on that shoulder’s side. How the black belt is in open guard but up on one knee and where the parts of his body are so that the guy trying to do something has nothing.

Josh Wentworth – purple belt – Watching The Class: Who, How, and What?
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 person’s technique from your own.

Armed with this information, I went to jiu jitsu class. We had too many people to all roll at the same time, so we went in shifts. When it was my turn to sit out, I was overwhelmed by the choices! Who the heck should I watch? Do I focus on someone around my level going with a lower person, that person with a higher level and focus on the higher level person? That night my choices were:

  • purple/black
  • new white/2 stripe blue
  • 4 stripe blue/1 stripe white
  • blue/purple

So I posed that scenario to a few people – along with a strongly worded HALP message!

DirtyRancher – brown belt –
I would watch mismatches in level/skill (or even in athleticism or strength) where the belt levels are both always higher than yours. ie. purple/black, big strong 4 stripe blue/small brown, athletic* purple/old black

*DirtyRancher’s note: my def of athletic doesn’t have anything to do with strength or stamina… I’m talking agile, perfect balance, can pick up any sport or activity and be proficient within days.

Always watch what the better level (usually technique) is doing. In the case of big strong 4 stripe blue/small brown, if the big blue belt is getting the better of the brown belt, I’d watch the brown, not cause of their higher belt level per se, but because for both of us, we are smaller people, so in a case of size/strength mismatches, watch the person closest to you.

Josh Wentworth – purple belt – Watching The Class: Who, How, and What?
My preferred observation subjects are brown belts and purple belts my size rolling with each other. 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.

Valerie Worthington – black belt – from New Breed
Val: I’d always watch the higher level people. I’m going to learn the most by watching how they move, when they move, what their energy is like. Let me put it back on you: What are you trying to do when you watch other people rolling? What are you trying to accomplish?

Jiu Jiu: Right now I’d most like to see how people deal with the big MMA white belts who come into our gym. The ones who have the strength and even a bit of know how but not the technique specifically, because right now I tend to just get crushed by them.

Val: Ok. And who is most likely to have effective ways to deal with those people? (Hint: It’s not the white belts.) My biased opinion is that no matter what your goal is in watching, you will be better served by watching upper belts unless you want to watch people who are not very skilled try to do things that skilled people are doing two pairs over.

A huge thank you to those who contributed to this article, especially the BJJ black belts who I know are busy running gyms! I personally found it enlightening and useful for my own jiu jitsu game. Going into my gym this week I will have much more mental focus when it comes to watching sparring, and I think this will be helpful to my jiu jitsu overall. I hope you find it useful, too! If you have advice you’d like to add, please leave it as a comment.