Most folks will tell you that to make real progress in the martial arts, you need to train with other people - that you can't train martial arts solo and be a truly "great" martial artist.
If you've read this blog for a while, you know that I totally agree with this point of view. While solo training definitely has a place (and is necessary), I don't agree with folks who think you can only train by yourself and "learn" martial arts.
However, the benefits of training with other people vary, depending on the experience level of yourself and of person or people you're training with. You run across all levels of experience in martial arts classes, training groups, meetups, and seminars.
Basically, you can train with people who are less experienced than you are, people who are equally experienced as you are, and people who are more experienced than you are. You get something different from each.
TRAINING WITH THE LESS EXPERIENCED
When you train with people who are less experienced than you are, you end up being in "teacher mode", even if you're a relatively low rank yourself. The benefit to you while you are doing this is that you end up having to think hard about what you do know, and discover ways to communicate that information that may be different than the way you think about it.
After all, if you really want to understand something, explain it to somebody else who doesn't think like you do.
This often happens to us in martial arts classes where we may not be instructor rank but the teacher trusts us enough to take newbies under our wing to work on basic techniques. Or we get paired up with a newbie at a seminar. Or it could be a way to help us grow if we are studying long-distance and can only see our teacher once in a while (this is common in my style, actually).
TRAINING WITH THE EQUALLY EXPERIENCED
This is your peer group, the people at the same level of understanding as you are.
What's great about training with peers is that you get to relax a bit and just "nerd out" a little. That is, you and your friend(s) can settle in and just work hard, without having to slow down to explain to anybody else (or on the flip side, having to assimilate new information from someone more experienced).
I call this "play time", where you can just work hard and have fun. I think it's less challenging than working with newbies (as you don't have to work as hard mentally to explain things) and also less stressful than working with higher ranks (as you aren't worrying about how you look to them, or trying to understand what they are doing).
Play time is important, and you should make it part of your training every chance you get.
TRAINING WITH THE MORE EXPERIENCED
For continued growth, training with more experienced people is required. There is always - ALWAYS - someone better than you are, either in time in the art or in skill or in talent. I believe we have to be challenged in order to keep developing. We have to be challenged.
You sharpen your knife on something hard and gritty, not something pliable and soft, right? The same thing goes for your martial arts skills - you have to have someone better than you challenging them in order to keep them sharp.
There are many big-time famous top-ranked martial artists strapping on white belts in other arts and getting back in student mode. If they can do it, so can you, even if you reach the pinnacle of what you do. There's always a way to keep growing.
I think that any chance you get (in a seminar, in a camp, in a class, and in an informal training situation) to train with experts, you should take it. Failing to do so hurts you.
So there you go - the reasons why, in my opinion, you have to train with newbies/lower ranks, peers, and experts in order to have a well-rounded and growing martial arts education.
What opportunities do you take in your training to study with people who are less experienced than you are? More experienced than you are? When do you get "play time"? Let me know in the comments!