When you get to a certain point in your career, you tend to forget a lot about those first few, extremely awkward and uncoordinated months of your jiu jitsu journey. For good reason. But this poses interesting challenges for a coach, or really any upper belt helping out a brand-spanking-new white belt, because you just can't assume he or she knows how to do certain things. For example, shrimping (aka doing a "hip escape"). Seriously now... when do we ever do anything remotely like it in our everyday life? The closest thing is Tyra Banks' "booty tooch" method for posing in pictures... which is still a stretch.
What doesn't immediately come to mind, yet is probably the most frustrating and awkward thing for a newbie to learn, is sparring. How do you do it? How do you start? What is your goal?
Fear not, young padawan. Here are a few things to keep in mind, in order to make your first sparring sessions as smooth as they can possible be. Read on...
Your Starting Stance
Usually, your instructor will have you start on your knees. This is mostly to reduce the chances that you might get hurt when you are taken down, because like a wobbly little baby giraffe, you really aren't very agile yet. So you're on your knees... WRONG. On your butt? NOPE, leave that for the upper belts. My best advice is to get into combat base (one knee down, toes active, the other knee up and sitting down comfortably). Why? Because when you start on both knees, the very first thing you will do in order to go somewhere is: lift one knee off the mat. So why not just eliminate that step from the start?! That way you're in a much better position to move if your opponent makes a grab for you. If you do happen to start standing, 1) find a comfortable stance and be light on your toes, 2) when you move around, don't cross your feet (that creates a prime opportunity for takedowns), and 3) for the love of Bob, don't look at your opponent's feet. This last one not only limits your vision to just your opponent's feet, but also rounds your back and puts you in a terrible position to defend any kind of takedown or standing guillotine attack (actually one of my favorite things to do to fresh meat... muahaha).
Even in no-gi, I can tell two seconds into a match if I'm facing a brand-new white belt by his/her hands. Baby white belts do this distinctive fisting of their hands until they go to grab something, and when they do grab, they don't usually grab and hold; they grab and release, even if it's really a decent grip. Then when their training partners grab them in turn, they don't do diddly-squat about that grip. To my dear white belts reading this: be conscious of your and your opponent's grips. Grips are everything in a fight. So... 1) Relax your fists. Shake them out if you have to. If you ball your hands into fists, what's the first thing you do when you try to grab your opponent? You relax them. So, just as with your combat base, eliminate that step and start with relaxed hands. 2) When you grab something, don't release it right away. Grab and hold. That usually makes your opponent redirect his/her focus, for the moment, toward breaking your grip, rather than executing whatever terrible torment he/she had planned for you. And 3) BREAK their grips, first and foremost. When a more experienced practitioner makes a grip on you, he/she usually has something in mind. Take that half second to at least attempt a grip break. You'll never regret it.
If you haven't already noticed, jiu jitsu is a very physical, close-contact sport. If you're a freak about personal space or a little shy about touching people... well, either you have to get over that - and fast - or jiu jitsu really isn't for you. Maybe try underwater knitting. In jiu jitsu, you will be getting into really close and intimate positions with your training partners... like, face-in-the-crotch-area kind of close. That's just the way it is. Now, assuming you're okay with all that, I have one really important rule of thumb for you to follow: when you're attacking, take space away; when you're defending, create space. For example, if you've somehow - by some stroke of luck or the kind generosity of your training partner - passed the guard, "smash him/her like a pancake" (as I say to my kiddos). You're attacking, so you can't give your opponent any space to escape. On the flip side, if your partner has passed your guard - with ridiculous ease, of course - don't proceed to hug him/her to you while you're on bottom. Frame up and shrimp like your life depends on it. Try to create enough space to get your legs between you and your opponent, and then keep them there.
You're not going to have enough tools in your toolbox to do any submitting just yet, so let's just put that aside for a moment. Until you've drilled your basic submissions 100 times, at the very least, you'll be in no position to properly execute them in live sparring. And don't "just survive." I've heard many a white - and even blue belt - utter that phrase, and it's like fingernails on a chalk board to me. "Just surviving" automatically puts you in the wrong mindset to learn while you are sparring. My advice to you is: 1) Focus on getting to the positions you know - guard, side control, mount - and try to stay there. 2) If you're a few weeks into your journey, go ahead and try a couple techniques you've learned and drilled. Don't be afraid to try, even if it gets you into a bad position. And 3) Focus on what your opponent is doing to you. He/she is undoubtedly leagues ahead of you in technique, so you'll be able to pick up a few things here and there while you're sparring. Then after the roll - PLEASE DON'T DO IT DURING THE ROLL, because that's really annoying - don't be afraid to ask how he/she did something you really liked.
I hope these few pointers will help you enjoy your first sparring sessions, and allow you to use them in a constructive manner. I can't stress enough: don't be afraid to try something. Don't be afraid to move. You're going to get your butt handed to you anyway, so why not maximize your potential for growth and learning?
Train... and spar... on. Oss.