A Jiu-Jiteiro Amongst Mixed Martial Artists

A few years ago, I decided to move on from the jiu-jitsu school I had called home for more than 10 years. I bounced around the area, looking for a good fit, and settled on an MMA gym where many of my longtime friends were training and teaching.

Where I was teaching multiple classes a week at my previous school, I could now just be a student, and I settled into being in the background. That didn’t last long, however. The gym changed owners, the head jiu-jitsu instructor left, and I found myself sitting at a Panera Bread with the new owner—one of the longtime friends that drew me to the gym in the first place.

“I want you to run our jiu-jitsu program.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, with frozen mocha whip cream stuck in my beard.

And he was, so here I am teaching jiu-jitsu in Pittsburgh at The Academy. Where most my previous students were purely hobbyist jiu-jiteiros, interested in sport BJJ with a little bit of self-defense, my new student base is much more diverse. Because we are an MMA school, we have a healthy contingent of hobbyist grapplers—folks who train for self-fulfillment and for fun—amateur mixed martial artists, and professional mixed martial artists.

Of those professional mixed martial artists, many of them are seasoned veterans. We even have the UFC’s Adam Milstead training out of our gym (though I want it to be clear that I can’t take any credit whatsoever for his success, but it’s cool to share the facility with him nonetheless).

That means that when I teach a jiu-jitsu class, I have to account for multiple audiences at once, and a blend of skill levels makes that even more challenging. Fortunately, I have been working with MMA fighters since I was a blue belt, so I have some experience preparing fighters to grapple in exceptionally violent situations, but those were always private lessons instead of formal classes.

As a result, I have found that the academic side of my instruction has expanded out of necessity.

For example, if I teach a transition into underhook half guard, I used to be able to simply teach the mechanics of the technique and then share a few options based on how an opponent defends. I still do that, but now I have to add a few extra layers to address both the sport grapplers and the MMA fighters.

That means I have to add the following considerations to anything I teach:

  • Strategic considerations: Continuing with our half guard example, our sport grapplers can make a strategic decision to linger on the bottom if they like to play strong guard-based games. If they can establish control from half guard, they likely have time to work without being in any considerable danger. In an MMA context, however, the dictum is almost universally to get the hell off of your back, which narrows the directions of a gameplan for a position like half guard. Sure, an MMA fighter can benefit from learning all of the sport options, but if a fighter can only train with me twice a week, I want him or to spend that time developing the habits that are most applicable.

  • Tactical considerations: On top of touching on the high-level gameplan components that could come into play when a student chooses to use one technique over another based on what they want to accomplish, I always have to answer the question of “How does this position change if strikes are involved?” Some sport positions are more obviously irrelevant for MMA than others, but oftentimes discussing the challenge (or opportunity, if you are on top) of mixing in striking forces students to be more mindful of grips and positioning, which is good for everyone, regardless of their goals.

The benefit of working under these constraints has been a more thoughtful and analytical approach to my instruction. I have to keep more in mind when I teach, which means that I end up learning a lot from the process of giving a 360-degree view of nearly anything I share in class. As I reflect on my own jiu-jitsu journey, which has included more MMA work than I suspect a lot of jiu-jiteiros get in their routines, I can see how grappling with strikes has forged stronger habits. When I am on the bottom of half guard, I never forget to control the arm that would be used for strikes or for a crossface. I’ve been bopped in the nose too many times from that position to forget.

And that’s where I think anyone can benefit from sometimes considering the MMA (or self-defense) applications of jiu-jitsu. Even if MMA is not your ultimate goal, you can uncover technical gems by looking at your movements through that lens from time to time even if it’s just for yourself and not a formal class.

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