Playing against weaker players is good for you
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John Danaher is a high-level Brazilian Jiu Jitsu coach who excels at describing the conceptual side of grappling. In an interview a couple years ago, he said some really interesting things about skill levels in his sparring opponents:
People have a mistaken impression that you should always be training with the toughest guys which is not true at all I believe. About 80 to 90 percent of your training should be people who are significantly of a lower level skill level than you are, and as you get into competition mode, you start rolling with guys who are your own skill level or a little better, but I do believe that it is a common misunderstanding that you should always be training with people better than yourself.
It’s very, very hard to develop your technical skills on people that are better than you. You will develop your defensive skills, but ultimately the point of Jiu-Jitsu is to defeat people, and not to become difficult to submit. So there is this common misunderstanding: “To be the best, you have to train with the best.”
Yes, to some degree I do believe it’s important in your early days in training to feel what quality Jiu-Jitsu feels like, so you need to roll with someone good, but as you progress I always believed that around 80% of your training should be with significantly lower level people than yourself, so you can practice new techniques, and you can expand your repertoire you can do these things when you go in to the nail with someone of your own skill level.
BJJ is basically a fighting game that uses your whole body, and Danaher is a smart person, so I found that bit interesting because in fighting games we also talk up the importance of playing against stronger players, and that means the time spent playing weaker players can be undervalued.
I stream Guilty Gear four days a week. On each of these days, I open up a netplay lobby that anyone can join. We’ve got a lovely bunch of regulars that come through to form a real supportive community, and most of them are not that good at Guilty Gear, which means that I spend a lot of time playing people who aren’t that good. (You should join us!) Occasionally people will apologize for being bad, which is kind of silly, but I get it — people worry that they’re wasting their partner’s time.
Most dedicated fighting game players know that playing against stronger opponents is important for your own growth. Stronger opponents will put pressure on every aspect of your game, exposing the holes in your defense and the weaknesses in your mixups. This is good for you because you need to get perspective on what is “real” in your game and what isn’t. Your game is plant that you are carefully tending to, and a stronger player will show you where you must trim and prune so that the plant may grow stronger.
However: Do not confuse the pain and frustration of losing a lot with the feeling of growth. The two often come hand in hand, but losing a lot doesn’t necessarily mean you’re growing. If you’re getting whooped and not taking the time to experiment and refine between whoopings, you probably aren’t learning much. And weaker players give you ample opportunity to experiment and refine your post-whooping ideas.
Back in the arcade days, everyone who played fighting games generally had to learn how to get something useful out of playing against weaker players. We didn’t have skill-based matchmaking, and the player pools were generally pretty small, so you might drive out to the arcade and find that you were the best player there. And most of the time if you bodied someone too hard they might not keep playing, which means you just spent gas money to play against the CPU for an hour. So if you were going to stick with fighting games in the old days, you probably had to learn how to use those matches to practice stuff, which often had the happy side effect of keeping them close enough that the weaker players would stay longer.
From my perspective, learning to play differently against weaker players is an important skill to have, even in a game with skill-based matchmaking. See, one of the hallmarks of a strong player in any game is their ability to quickly adapt their play based on what they see coming from their opponent. Great players can do this mid-match; good players can do this in-between games; for others it might take several games, or even several days to go from thinking about an adaptation to actually executing that adaptation in-game.
People often think you can only practice this adaptation skill by playing against strong players, who will neatly expose all the situations you need to adapt your stuff to. But the thing is, when you learn to experiment against weaker players, you’re actually practicing adaptation — turning off your autopilot and reprogramming it to try different things in order to create different situations — which is the same brain muscle, just in a different context.
For example, if you’re playing against a weaker player and you want to practice your air tech traps, you’re going to have to use combo routes that put them in air tech states — something you might not necessarily have planned out in advance. If you want to practice your neutral, you’re going to have to ease up on your knockdown setplay, which is likely drilled into your muscle memory several times over. If you want to practice your defense, you’re going to have to give them chances to attack you, which means turning off some of your habits in neutral. And when you see that your opponent isn’t adapting to some of the tools you are using, you’ll rotate them out in order to find something new to experiment with. You’re using the same adaptation and pattern recognition skills you’d be using against a stronger player, just under much less stress — which is pretty great for learning, as it turns out.
So yeah, playing weaker players can be a waste of time, but it’s because you’re the one wasting time, not the weaker player.
If you’re weaker than the person you’re playing, do not apologize to them for being weak; they were weak once too, and they’ve probably played with lots of people who make them feel as weak as you are feeling now. They may wish you were better, but it’s on them to either find someone they’d rather play or make the most of what they’ve got. And if you’re good enough at whatever game you play that you routinely find yourself playing against weaker players, be thankful for those games and use them to grow both of you. It’s a lot more fun than sitting around wishing you had someone better to play against.
Thanks for reading!