Q: At our gym, we frequently let some of the older, more advanced teens into the advanced
adult class. Our gym focuses primarily on MMA, so most of the guys that
train there are huge. As a result, I am one of the smallest people at 5’5″,
140, so I frequently get paired with the kids.

Now, this isn’t really a problem, except that some of the kids are way
smaller than me (100 lbs vs 140). I’m inexperienced in rolling with people
that are smaller than me (I’m used to being the smallest), and VERY
inexperienced in rolling with people MUCH smaller than me.

Any tips? I don’t want to be the passive partner or the “sits on you and
squashes you the whole time” partner (I’ve experienced that too much!) and
I would like both of us to come out of the experience with something.

A: Starting jiu-jitsu as a featherweight, I’ve had similar experiences to yours. If a teenager or a smaller woman needed a safe training partner, they got me. As an instructor, I’ve run teenage and young adult classes. It can be tricky to make the experience valuable to yourself and your much smaller training partners.

I’ve trained with women who complained about someone going too hard on them, then turned around and complained that someone else goes too light. So which is it? They can’t have it both ways, so what can you do?

Like Goldilocks, my answer is “not too hard, not too soft.”

No one wants you to lay there like a dead fish. Don’t be “that guy” by coaching them through doing everything to you. That’s condescending and doesn’t teach them much. They want to be feel respected and to not be treated like a lost puppy. There is a place for little bits of advice if they are clueless, by try to save talk for outside of sparring.

Give them a chance to set the tone of the match, see how hard they want to go, then act accordingly. Since they are lighter than you, the risk of injury is much lower, assuming they don’t bust out surprise heelhooks.

The way you can both benefit from training together is if you make clean, crisp technique your priority—and I’m talking about both yours and theirs. Use training with smaller partners to improve your sensitivity, precision, finesse—any trait associated with “being technical.” Training with smaller, lighter partners, you’ll have to be honest with yourself about if your technique was correct. Don’t allow yourself to succeed if you did it wrong.

You’ll also have to learn to evaluate their technique, since you don’t want to give them anything if they’re doing it flat out wrong. A good practice is to pick a certain point you want them to improve and keep setting it up to happen, ratcheting up the difficulty as they succeed.

Here’s a trick. If you think they’re up to it, go fast and push the pace without getting too aggressive or determined to get submissions. People feel satisfied with a roll if there was a lot of action, even if no one got tapped or crushed. Just make sure you don’t go so fast that it turns into a spazzfest.

When you roll, don’t hold on to any one position too tightly. Allow more transitions and escapes, but only if they do the techniques correctly. Apply purposeful pressure when you gain dominant positions to show them the consequences, but don’t force it. They need to develop some toughness too.

While you should probably go easy on the submissions, don’t be afraid to submit them if they make real mistakes, because it doesn’t help them to learn bad habits. But if they realize their mistake and try to defend properly, let it play out rather than tapping them immediately. You can learn from this too.

Don’t go so light that you allow bad habits, and don’t go so hard that you needlessly discourage them. Use this as an opportunity to refine your technique and theirs.