Becoming a Better BJJ Instructor
"When I first started teaching BJJ" seemed like a great place to begin this article, but I'd be disingenuous if I didn't start back considerably earlier. Both of my parents were school teachers, so from a very early age, the ability and desire to help other people to understand whatever it was that they were learning was ingrained in me. From early high school on, I was tutoring people in math, although I really wasn't great at math (just a little better than the people I was helping). When I started wrestling at the end of my 9th grade year, I was a total fish out of water, and yet there were always people newer than me coming in to get started (after that first day, anyway). I don't think I was much of a sideline coach, but I was able to help my training partner to figure out the move as I learned it, and I think that's a big part of teaching.
I started training in judo in January of 1997, and given that I had some wrestling experience, some of the ne waza and some of the throws came naturally for me (although in many cases, I was a complete fish out of water). As a consequence, and coupled with the fact that every semester brought a fresh group of newbies into the judo club at VCU (where i was training), I was often asked to help a newer student learn how to fall, or learn basic concepts of pinning or throwing. During this time frame, the judo club saw a BJJ invasion of sorts, blue belts looking for a place to supplement the training they were already getting, or else just some place to train while passing through. The judo club ended up being a hotspot of sorts for local martial arts, and stayed that way for nearly a decade. When my friend Eric Burdo opened his gym in 2002, I was certainly a mere white belt in BJJ, but I had five years of off-and-on judo experience by then (I took most of a year off to drink and become fat, and play an awful lot of Civilization 2), and the aforementioned high school wrestling experience. As such, I was among a small handful of folks who were fairly competent with takedowns, so I'd naturally help folks out when figuring these things out.
I mention all of this not to pad my ego, but rather to explain that I had virtually every advantage when it comes to teaching BJJ when first starting out.
Or so I thought.
While it was absolutely easier for me to get started teaching than it was for many of my fellow purple belts in BJJ (and brown belts in judo), I eventually was to discover that certain things were being taken for granted. Some of these things took me a few months or a year or two to figure out, while others took me the better part of a decade. In short, while I felt initially I had every advantage in how to convey information, I also had a wealth of unfortunate preconceived notions based on my own personal learning style that needed to be first recognized as what they were, and then, eventually, overcome.
Concept 1: Results Are the Only Things that Matter
It's not the "purple belt's curse" (EG, seeing how smart you can sound, or showing off how many details you know to the other students), but only the end result that matters: how well the students pick up the techniques. I was no exception to this rule, at least at first. I loved pointing out minute details that really do make a difference in how a technique performs or whether it works or not. The only problem is an old axiom I first heard Bill "Superfoot" Wallace say while commentating UFC 1: "The best way to show someone nothing, is to show them everything." So true, Superfoot, so true.
When a student is first learning a technique, I've long known that the best approach is to point out an overall sketch of the technique. It's similar to literal sketching: if you spend your allotted hour's time on someone's nose, that nose might have great detail, but the rest of their face is going to be all out of proportion with the size of the features, juxtaposition, and other elements that far outweigh minute detail on one spot. It doesn't matter how perfect your finger position is on a bow and arrow choke if you don't know that you're constraining blood flow to the brain, or that you have to stop the person from turning, or other fundamental details.
Further, you have to consider what other preconceived notions you might have about class structure. If they prove wrong based on what your students are going to be able to learn and how much they enjoy class, then you need to get rid of your previous approach and update it. Evolve or perish. Adapt. Overcome. Consider only the results of your educational approaches, and take a hard, scientific, unbiased look at whether what you're doing now is working better or worse than what you were doing before.
Half Educator, Half Entertainer
The second huge realization came to me gradually, over time, as I started to track student retention. I came to realize that showing the students the very best stuff, in the ideal order in which you'd want to learn it, isn't the best way to keep people on board. If we were all robots, I'm sure lesson one, day one, could involve 30 minutes of theory and discussion about body positioning, followed by 30 more minutes of learning how to stand in base properly. A couple days later, you could continue working on standing in base properly, then start to learn how to shrimp properly, and so forth. By week six, you might be ready to learn your very first submission.
Except we're not robots. This isn't a perfect world, and there are many other activities that are going to tempt and engage students besides our beloved jiu jitsu. It turns out that it's how well they are engaged, and how much fun they're having, that are going to determine whether people stay with you, and, ultimately, how much they are capable of learning in the long run. There will be time for the fundamental material to be learned, but in the meantime, it might be nice to do something that's just plain fun and far less practical (at least, in the short term).
Consider yourself one part educator and one part entertainer. If you ignore either of these attributes of your job description, you do so at your peril. Keep your classes engaging and exciting. Don't get caught up talking about minute details if the students' eyes are starting to glaze over. Instead, figure out a way to keep people having fun during class.
Athletes vs Non-Athletes
Finally, and just as important as the other two key concepts, there are two types of students: athletes and non-athletes. Athletic students have certain inherent advantages over non-athletic students that extend far beyond the very obvious strength, speed, or flexibility advantages you'd immediately assume. For instance, someone who played tennis, a sport about as far away from the physical roughness of BJJ, still understands basic concepts like physical awareness (where their hands, knees, ankles, and hips are at any given moment), balance, and pivoting correctly. Athletes know where their body parts are at all times, and they tend to have a much better idea of how to get their parts to do things than a non-athlete. While on the one hand, athletes can be incredibly rewarding to coach through tournaments, winning virtually all of their matches during lower belt levels due to raw athleticism and the ability to pick up techniques quickly, they often come with a set of baggage that non-athletes don't have (like quickly becoming bored with presumed mastery because they can execute techniques against lower level competition). Less athletic students struggle to learn the fundamentals and to start having success, and often value the successes they have on the mat far more because of it. Remember: most of your students are likely to fall into the less athletic category; plan your lessons accordingly.
Think Long Term
One last thing that should always govern your decision making process: think long term. While teaching classes is about imparting information and (as mentioned) entertainment, it's also about having a larger strategic vision, and seeing the "long game" for everyone. It's less about what they get out of one class, but more what they get out of one year, or five years, or ten. I can't really give any secret shortcuts to figuring this one out, other than to try to remember that what benefits your students in the short term might not be the same as what's best for them ten years from now. On the flip side, you likely have a business to run as well (if you don't, congratulations on being liberated from this aspect of thinking! Really!), so you probably need to worry as much about keeping your bills paid and keeping students in the gym. You might consider whether having a bigger gym is really better for you as an instructor (the conclusion I came to here was yes). This is a crucial distinction for an instructor to make, and being a gym owner is a lot different than just being an instructor.
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