The Rule of 3s for New BJJ Students

The poor retention rate of jiu-jitsu is notorious at this point. We talk about it so much that we sometimes seem proud of the fact that the majority of white belts won’t make it to blue, and that the majority of those people won’t make it to purple, and so on and so on until we have a handful of weirdos left sticking it out through black belt.

Though we might puff our chests at how difficult our sport can be, in the dark lonely hours of a poorly attended open mat, while we wait against the wall for a roll, our minds might drift back through all of the faces of the people that came and went. We remember the jokes. The hard rolls. The little victories of working together to deconstruct a new technique. And we remember that they’re gone.

It’s all quite depressing.

The retention rate in our sport doesn’t need to be as bad as it is. The real problem might not be that the sport is difficult, but rather the problem may be that we are missing key opportunities to improve the experience for people in their first three years of training.

That number, three, is important. In video game design—bear with me on this comparison—some game designers talk about the rule of three. This is different from the trend of enemies needing three hits to die. Instead, the thinking goes that an experience with a video game should hit milestones that are multiples of three. Small aside: I think Cliffy B of Gears of War fame gets credit for this, but I can’t find the original interview to cite it.

The rule of three works like this:

  • The first three seconds. In a world of near unlimited entertainment choices, the first three seconds of your gameplay need to hook the player. If it takes a while for the game to get fun, players are likely to simply abandon it, so the earliest experiences matter in a big way. In jiu-jitsu, our first experiences as new students are walking in the door of a strange gym, not knowing any of the people that are suddenly sizing us up or not knowing who to approach about trying this BJJ stuff. If no one comes up to greet the student right away, the earliest impression we get is that we are not wanted.

  • The first three minutes. This is essentially the onboarding process where you learn the basic controls and are introduced to the game world. The key in game design is to get to some degree of fun as soon as possible, even if that fun is heavily scripted for the sake of a new player still learning. The jiu-jitsu parallel here is the intro and sales process, the discussions that the student has with the instructor and the kind of sales pitch he receives. Is it welcoming? Is it interesting? Does it seem fair?

  • The first thirty minutes. Now the game has progressed beyond tutorials and it’s up to the player to move the gameplay forward. At this point, the gameplay has to stand on its own. The mechanics need to be familiar and accessible without feeling too dull or repetitive. The player needs to understand on the most fundamental levels what their goals are and genuinely have fun achieving them. This part of the experience is where a lot of jiu-jitsu schools lose new students. Instead of a beginner level intro that eases the newbie grappler into the sport, they are often dropped into a normal class to sink or swim. The warm ups suck. The technique is totally without context. And all they feel the entire class is how inadequate they are. That’s not fun, so we shouldn’t be surprised when new students don’t come back when this is their first experience.

  • The first three days. It might seem odd to think about video games in terms of days, but with more games trying to engage long term competitors, it’s a big deal. The design of the gameplay needs to keep players hooked, giving them reasons to come back again and again. For new jiu-jitsu students, we should be thinking about our follow-up process. How do we get them back in the door after the first class? How are we continuing to ease them into the sport? What are we doing to engage them on a deeper level beyond their initial interest of trying out a first class? For most schools, the answer is to simply keep having classes as usual, which is not really a well-crafted experience.

  • The first three months. Now things are getting serious. Gameplay this engaging has to have depth and likely a community component as well so that players feel as if they are a part of something larger than themselves. Here the experience is a mix of gameplay mechanics and social interactions. While a game designer can’t control other players, he or she can influence the nature of these social interactions through game design, perhaps encouraging teamwork with certain game types or doubling down on encouraging skill mastery. For jiu-jitsu, this is roughly when a consistent white belt will be receiving or nearing a first stripe. If the 90% dropout rate is to be believed, a stripe is not a good indication of whether a student will stay or not. We should probably be taking the time to integrate the student into the gym community and helping them to think about long term goals. If we don’t, they will probably leave.

  • The first three years. The holy grail of video game development is to design a game that engages players well into the future. These are your Counter-Strikes, your Starcrafts, your Diablos. The game is so interesting and engaging and the social experience so rich that players invest themselves significantly into your game to the point of it becoming a part of their self-identity. That should sound familiar to jiu-jiteiros because that’s what our sport does as well. We should be mindful, however, that this is about the timeframe that we lose blue belts to the blue belt curse. We should be thinking about how we can influence the three-year experience to improve it and to reduce dropout, but again, the typical approach is to just have classes as usual.
This framework is an interesting way to think about the experience that we design for BJJ students. As you reflect on your own gym, you might recognize that much of the experience is not designed at all. It’s easier to simply run classes as normal, and those might be likely to drift toward providing the three- or four-year experience rather than all of the stages that come before, so we shouldn’t be surprised if a class designed to keep blue and purple belts interested alienates that day-one white belt.

    Jiu-jitsu is an awesome sport, but we have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to user experience. If we think on the problems a bit, we might be able to improve retention without sullying the quality of our craft.

    Photo credit to Jody McIntyre. Some rights reserved.

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