Dealing with difficult opponents (with Tony Dismukes)

This article features another great post by Tony Dismukes (again, a post from! This time Tony talks about dealing with a training partner who easily dominates you in resistive training. Resistive training is any training where your partner is supposed to resist your techniques (and usually, to attempt their own techniques). This is an important part of developing skill in martial arts, but it can be frustrating when your partner is bigger, stronger, or significantly more skilled, and can easily defeat your techniques – they easily “win”.

Tony DISMUKEs’ Post:

Here’s the advice I give to students who are frustrated because they are consistently getting dominated in rolling by someone for whatever reason (physical attributes, experience level, whatever):

The trick to progressing quickly and not being discouraged by your lack of “success” in rolling is to change the game. More specifically, change the “victory conditions” of your game.

  1. In the beginning, you end up in positions where you just don’t know what to do. Literally, you’re not sure what you should even be attempting to execute. At this stage, your victory condition is to make a note of the details of where you found yourself, consult with your teacher (after the roll) as to what your best tactic should be, then come back next time and the next time you end up in that position actually remember what it is you should be trying to do.
  2. Now you end up in the position, you remember what you were supposed to try, but by the time your remember the technique and how to do it, the moment has already passed. (“Darn it. I had the chance for that double ankle sweep, but I didn’t react in time.”) Now your victory condition is to be alert and recognize the opportunity for the technique while it still exists next time.
  3. Now you know what to do, you see the opportunity in time, you go for it – and it doesn’t work, and you don’t know what you did wrong. Now your victory condition is to go back and review the details of the technique (consult with your instructor as necessary), so you can identify what you did incorrectly next time you attempt the move and it fails.
  4. Now you know the details of how the technique should work, you recognize the opportunity when it arises, you go for it – and it still fails. You realize that in the heat of the moment you only nailed about 2 of the 10 most important details for making the technique work. Now your victory condition is to get more of the details right next time you try the move. If there’s one specific detail you always miss, focus on that. Otherwise just try to get more of the details right – go from 2 to 3, 3 to 4, 4 to 5, and so on.
  5. Now you’re making improvement in your timing and technical execution. Once you’re consistently nailing 50-60% of the important details then you’ll be having some success against partners of your own size and skill level, but not so much against those who are bigger or more experienced. Now your victory condition is to roll as much as possible with those tougher opponents to expose your remaining technical mistakes and start identifying and eliminating them.
  6. Now you’re rolling, you see an opportunity, you go for it, you get the technical details right (as far as you can tell) – and it still doesn’t work. Maybe there are some details you’re still missing – in that case go back to step 5. Otherwise there a couple of possibilities. A) You executed the right technique at the right moment correctly – but your opponent performed a counter you didn’t know how to deal with. In this case your victory condition is to learn your best follow-ups to counter that counter, then go back to step 1 to start developing and polishing those moves. B) You executed the technique correctly – but it wasn’t actually the right movement for that moment. Something about your opponent’s position or momentum or his relation to your body made it so you actually needed to do use a different variation. In this case your victory condition is not just to learn the new variation, but learn to recognize the difference in the situation which requires one or the other. Now go back to step 1 again to start developing this movement.

At a certain point, after you’ve been through steps 1-6 with countless moves, your focus shifts from individual techniques to the bigger picture. You understand that your sweeps only work when you’ve disrupted your opponent’s balance. You understand that your submissions only work when you’ve disrupted your opponent’s structure. You understand that it’s easier to control your opponent’s balance and structure when you have superior grips and angles. Your rolling sessions become primarily about fighting for grips, angles, structure, and balance. You know that if you win those battles, then the “techniques” will happen. You go back to step 1 to start polishing your methods for controlling grips, angles, structure, and balance.

You’ll notice that at no point in this process is there a requirement for being able to “beat” anybody in particular. You’re focused on incremental gains which should be manageable for anyone with good coaching. If you’re on step 4 and you manage to improve your triangle choke from 30% correct to 40% correct, then you can walk off the mat with your head held high and go home feeling good, even if you didn’t tap anybody out. In fact, this approach will significantly speed up your progress in “winning” matches, but you don’t have to focus on that to get the benefit.

Gerry seymour’s follow-up:

If you are succeeding 100% of the time, you are either from another planet (compared to the people you are training with), or your partners aren’t actually trying to stop you. Nothing should work 100% of the time, no matter how much we wish it would.

I’m not talking about drilling technique – that usually is cooperative, rather than resistive. I’m talking about sparring, randori, or rolling. And you’ll have some partners who are simply much better than you, or maybe they’re just stronger or faster, and you don’t have enough technical advantage to overcome that. Make those experiences into learning experiences – “win” on your own terms so you gain from that partner.

Tony Dismukes has been training in various forms of martial arts for over 35 years. He holds a black belt in BJJ as well as a black belt in Bujinkan taijutsu and an instructor’s license in Muay Thai. His focus is on jiu-jitsu as a practical means for self-defense and as a life-long tool for self-improvement. His thoughts on training can be found at He trains and teaches under Mike ODonnell at 4 Seasons Martial Arts in Lexington, Kentucky.

Leave a Reply