I’ve been doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) for about a year and a half now, and, like many people do, I’ve fallen in love with the sport/art. It’s elegant, technical, and a great workout. But, I’ve noticed that even though BJJ is very advanced as a grappling art, its teaching traditions and orthodoxies have not advanced beyond Helio’s heyday. As such, I thought I’d write this essay to give an idea of how to advance the art of teaching BJJ, and hopefully give something back to the sport that’s given so much to me.
First, a bit about my credentials. I don’t believe I am qualified to write this article because I’m excellent at BJJ. I’m pretty good for my experience level, but that’s not saying much. I am, however, very qualified to write this as an educator. In my professional life, I work both as a private tutor and private teacher. As a tutor, I prepare adults for some of the most difficult exams that exist (the GMAT, the GRE, and the LSAT), and I have been very successful at it. As a teacher, I teach philosophy classes over the Internet to Chinese students in massive online courses. These courses can contain anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand students.
The difficult thing about my professional life is that I sell my teaching ability entirely on its effectiveness. I give out no grades, the subject matter I teach isn’t fun, and there’s really no strong sense of community over the Internet. Moreover, as I teach adults, students are paying me themselves. If they aren’t getting value out of what I teach, then there’s no point to them paying me. Then they leave and stop paying me. As such, I’ve had to devote a lot of time, research, and experimentation towards becoming an engaging educator. I constantly have to make sure my students are learning, and I constantly have to make sure that they continue showing up. If I don’t, then it won’t be much time before I have nobody left to teach at all.
This is different from a BJJ class. A BJJ class has other draws to keep people coming besides just learning how to grapple effectively, like exercise, community, competition, and the desire to achieve a higher belt. These are all good things, and I don’t want to eliminate them from a BJJ class. However, it has allowed for antiquated teaching methods to continue. Or, to put it frankly, people often don’t leave BJJ gyms even if the teaching sucks, so the teaching has no reason to get better.
In my home gym, which I think is representative of gyms in general, classes are an hour long and usually follow this structure: 20 minutes of warmup using BJJ-ish moves (like shrimps or forward rolls), 25 minutes of drills based on whatever the coach feels like teaching that day, 15 minutes of free rolling with whomever. This is not an effective way of learning. Frankly, if I didn’t spend my free time looking up stuff on reddit and Youtube, I would not have a solid foundation for my jiu jitsu.
Now, given the state of BJJ’s teaching, and my credentials as a teacher, I’d like to state my recommendations for improving teaching in BJJ.
Creating a structure for learning
1. Explicit hierarchical structure and progress tracking
For any big subject, students need to have a mental model of what the overall field looks like, and how what they’re learning right now fits into the big picture. BJJ is no exception. Students should be made aware from the very beginning the positions of BJJ: full guard, half guard, etc. The general concepts of each position need to be made explicit, like staying on your side in half guard. Then, when specific techniques are taught, each student should be aware of that technique’s place in the BJJ hierarchy.
Here’s a visual example of what I mean.
In classes, this structure should be referred to explicitly and repeatedly. Every student should understand why
they are learning a certain technique, and what its its purpose is in the BJJ hierarchy. To the greatest extent possible, students should never be confused about the options for a position or, even worse, be unfamiliar with a position entirely.
This explicit structure also allows for progress tracking. Ideally, students have a variety of options from every position (like using a kimura from bottom half guard if the underhook is shut down). Being familiar with all the options from a position is a crucial step towards mastering it. Progress tracking is: a motivational tool for students, as they can see what they’ve learned and feel happy about it, an analytical tool for students, as the weaknesses or holes in their game are apparent, and a planning tool for students, as they can see what they should learn next.
2. Goals (short, intermediate, long)
BJJ has a huge problem with attrition. One of the biggest reasons for that is that there’s not a clear sense of structure to the learning. While that’s somewhat addressed in 1, it’s also important to have clear, universal goals set by the instructor. These goals need to be universal in the sense of “here’s what any person should learn in sequence”.
I prefer setting goals by sequences to setting goals by belt level, as awarding belts is a subjective decision by instructors. This is especially problematic when it comes to blue belts, who have an incredibly wide range of skill sets and knowledge bases. It is almost impossible to generalize “what a blue belt should know”, but it’s easy to generalize “what someone who’s done two years of BJJ should know”.
Once again, it’s important that these goals are explicit. They don’t need to be super specific, as in “learn a kimura by class 3”. They can be general, like “learn two sweeps from closed guard, then learn one submission from mount”. But the goals do need to be explicit, and there needs to be doubts or ambiguity about their content or when students should tackle them.
If it’s not feasible for the instructor to state the goals in class, the goals should be written, displayed, and made known among every student. Every student should be able to immediately answer two questions: what they’ve learned, and what they should learn next. This prevents the “White Belt Overwhelm” and the “Blue Belt Blues”.
No student should be made to feel discouraged or ashamed about being slow to progress in sequence. People have different skills and engagement in the sport, and progressing slowly (or even regressing in extreme circumstances) is better than quitting. However, going to class night after night and not knowing what to learn is not a good thing.
Improving the in-class experience
Along with structure and goals, repetition is a key part of learning. Each lesson should be structured in the beginning as “This is what we are going to learn”. In the middle: “this is what we are learning”. In the end: “this is what we have learned”.
From an instructor’s perspective, the repetition seems unnecessary and boring. But that is because the instructor doesn’t have to get over the shock of unfamiliarity. To a student, BJJ is like a new language, and the movements are like hearing the words of a new language. Even after hearing them, it’s very difficult to say them.
Repetition also helps orient the students as to where they are in the structure. If students understand the movements well enough to tune out the instructor’s repetition, then they are able to think more deeply about the move, and situate it logically.
This repetition includes repeating over a period of weeks or months. Calling back to earlier lessons helps students understand the deeper connections of BJJ (like all the uses of a kimura), and is both satisfying and allows for a deeper understanding of the move learned previously and the move being learned currently.
4. Takeaways from lesson
Even if a lesson is well taught in the moment, it is too easy to forget it as soon as you go home and the distractions of everyday life come roaring back. Takeaways from the lesson give something for people to hold onto once the lesson is over.
If you want to give someone a takeaway to remember, keep it to one sentence. The idea isn’t to give them all the details you gave in the lesson, but instead to give them a trigger for recalling. If you want to give them all the details, provide it in video or document format. Once they remember their trigger, they can use the video or document to remember the details (see 9. Supplementary Material for more information).
5. During lesson, vary levels of guidedness
During a lesson, it’s up to the teacher how best to teach a technique or movement. If it’s something that’s very technical and being taught for the first time, the teacher should be precise and detail exactly how each body part should move. If it’s more of a concept or feeling, the teacher should give goals, and the student should move according to the teacher’s goals or guidelines. If the teacher is testing a reflex, the student should move without any guidelines from the teacher.
Many BJJ teachers have trouble with intermediate levels of guidedness. When they teach technique, they want to dictate exactly how the student should move. When they let the students do it on their own, they give them zero guidance. However, this is a very hard gap for a student to bridge on their own. There’s a big difference between seeing someone do something (or being told to act in a certain way), and doing it yourself, especially against a resisting opponent.
To give a concrete example, when first teaching the kimura from halfguard, the teacher should show the move directly, and give step by step instructions. Then, when students break out to do it on their own, the teacher should repeat the step by step instructions as the students copy the movement. Once the students are comfortable with that, the teacher should start the students in the correct position, then ask them to finish the kimura themselves. Finally, the student should complete the entire kimura sequence by themselves.
The idea here is to reduce the cognitive load of the students. Remembering an entire move sequence and performing it correctly is hard. Transition from being instructed to doing it on their own needs to be gradual. What ends up happening is that students don’t quite do the moves correctly, then proceed to practice them incorrectly. This either results in them not remembering what’s taught, or, even worse, remembering it incorrectly, giving them problems down the road.
6. Give your students a chance to fail in controlled ways
Going along with teacher guidedness is the idea of giving students a chance to fail. This might either sound ridiculous or obvious, depending on your view of teaching, but first I need to clarify what I mean by this. Failure is when you try, and your try obviously doesn’t work.
So, misremembering a move and being corrected is a failure. Compromising your base in guard and getting swept is a failure. Getting caught in an unfamiliar submission is not a failure, because it’s unclear where your error was, or what you should have done to correct it.
As you might imagine, much like guidedness, failure lie on a spectrum from 100% teacher controlled (like misremembering a technique) to 0% teacher controlled (like getting swept during a free roll with another student). The intermediate levels of teacher-controlled failure(like getting swept while doing positional drilling) are likewise lacking in BJJ education.
Failure should be regular in any class. If students do not fail, they will not learn. And so the BJJ class must be a place where failure is welcomed and encouraged. This is difficult for students, because failure is not as fun as succeeding. The instructor must strive to create an atmosphere where students are, if not happy to fail, then not unhappy to fail.
Improvements in Communication
During class itself, the easiest way to teach is by a narrative structure. Not in the sense of creating a complex story, but in the sense of creating clear reasons why we are performing moves in a certain way. This allows for deeper understanding of the move, and aids with retention.
For example, when teaching the kimura from half guard, the teacher could explain that the person on bottom wants to control the wrist of his opponent. The opponent does not want his wrist controlled. It’s a simple wording change from simply “control the wrist of your opponent”, but it transforms the action from a static movement to a dynamic one, in which wrist control is actively fought for. Furthermore, it leads the student to useful questions: “why should I control the wrist?” “How do I control the wrist?” “How will my opponent prevent me from controlling his wrist?”
These can be answered by the instructor. Of course, the instructor can share these details without the questions being asked, but it’s easier for the student to remember and understand an answer when the student is motivated to know the answer. People like motivations.
8. Compliment liberally, criticize gently
One of the easiest ways to motivate a student, create a welcoming learning environment, and just make people like learning is to compliment them. Compliments are key to a healthy learning environment, but it is amazing how seldom teachers use them.
For example, one of BJJ’s biggest problems is keeping around the bottom 25% of the class in terms of ability. Women who are small, for instance, have a tough time staying motivated in BJJ. Once they begin rolling, they learn that size and strength play unfortunately big parts in rolling, and they rarely can get legitimate taps, even from people less experienced than them. This leads to discouragement, and even a belief that size and strength are the only things that matter in BJJ.
Compliments help keep people around, and working on what the teacher thinks is appropriate. Criticisms are also useful (like for letting people know they’ve failed), but they’re dangerous when used casually. It’s easy to discourage or anger people with criticisms, which leads to unproductive learning environments. Criticisms should be obvious but gentle. So, if someone performs a technique incorrectly, the teacher can say, “Not quite. Try doing this.” It’s obvious that it’s a criticism, and that the student failed, but it’s not framed in a discouraging manner.
9. Supplementary material and long term memory retention
It’s easy for a teacher to fall into the trap of thinking that, if they point students towards supplementary material, the students will stop taking the teacher seriously, or even stop coming altogether. This is far from the case. The enemies of teaching are forgetfulness and apathy. Students will not quit BJJ (or a BJJ gym) because they learn too much. They will quit because they forget too much, and they don’t want to put in the effort to remember again.
So supplementary material is crucial. There are many videos and breakdowns available online for every position, but most students will not seek these out on their own. They need explicit instruction to seek them out, and they need to be tested on the material. This testing should, of course, be friendly. As before, failure must be a welcome part of the BJJ learning environment.
Supplementary material is perhaps the only way that students can assist their long term memory and their progress tracking. If a move is used regularly, it remains in short term memory, and is easily recalled. But, if a move is not used regularly, then it is unlikely a student will remember it again months later, unless they have been reviewing it through supplementary material.
BJJ is a wonderful sport and a wonderful art. It is one of the few athletic activities in the word that’s universal and timeless. Our ancestors from thousands of years ago would be able to understand an ankle lock or a rear naked choke, and, as can be seen in old carvings and writings, used them themselves.
But, just as modern BJJ has gone far beyond the techniques of even a few decades ago, so too should the teaching of BJJ advance beyond the teaching of a few decades ago. Advancing teaching is not just about fancy tools or even the Internet, but about using proven techniques that incorporate the tools and encompass them in a broader philosophy.
The 9 recommendations outlined above will make any BJJ class more pleasant, more productive, and ultimately allow any BJJ instructor to better pass on the noble art. And, in turn, this will lead to greater retention of students, more rapid advancement of students, and a benefit to the art as a whole.