Confessions of a Jiu-Jitsu Instructor

At the beginning of my jiu-jitsu journey, I thought my instructors were flawless. I had enough difficulty trying to execute technique, and they could not only execute but also teach, down to the finest details. They answered questions I did not even know needed to be asked, and they had a commanding presence I would never have been able to muster. Of course, as time went on, my technique and my ability to explain both improved, and I also became better able to allow my instructors to be the complex, talented, flawed human beings they were.

Now that I am a black belt and an instructor, I hope other people do not view me the way I viewed my instructors in those early years. Knowing what is on the other side of my particular curtain, I can say that, at least in my case, you should not believe the hype. Well, you can believe some of it. I work hard to be a good instructor, but you can spy chinks in my armor if you pay enough attention. Here are just a few:

I do not like anticipating teaching jiu-jitsu. Let me clarify. I like teaching jiu-jitsu. When I am “on,” when I feel I am explaining details well, when I can tell my energy is where it needs to be, there is precious little that is more rewarding than playing a role in helping people improve at an activity they really want to improve at. It always makes me happy when I have useful answers to questions and when I can encourage students to keep trying until they finally succeed at whatever they are attempting.

Still, I experience performance anxiety good and thoroughly, before every class, seminar, open mat, or other teaching situation. Even if I am teaching something I have taught many times before, even though I believe in the techniques I share and the people who taught them to me, I am tempted before every teaching obligation to pretend I fell in a deep hole and cannot get out, so sorry. I understand that some great actors throw up due to nerves, so I guess I am in good company. I wish it did not happen, and I am sure it does not happen to all other instructors. I must be one of the lucky ones.

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about music. Many instructors will play music during class, particularly during sparring. This happens so often that when there is no music, the silence can seem deafening. I have Spotify on my phone, and it is great, though since I refuse to pay for the upgrade there are regular commercials. Then there is the question of what genre to play. Reggae is always a safe bet, but some genres have blue language, some are on playlists that feature good songs followed by duds, and some I find to be too shouty. Recently I used a playlist that was one of the search results for “funk,” and that was a goldmine. (“You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Give up the Funk,” etc.) Much as I may want to, though, I cannot play it during every class because everyone will get bored.

I am similarly challenged when it comes to social media. I am not the person who is going to remember to take a picture of her restaurant meal—until after I have eaten it. I take a perverse pride in the fact that I have never taken a mirror selfie. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have been involved in other selfies, including ones using a selfie stick, but never the mirror variety.) Still, I understand that social media is a way to get the word out about things I think are important, and I believe in the school and the art that take up so much of my time.

The challenge lies in the fact that I am not eager to feature myself in pictures or videos, and after a time, even the coolest free rolling session can look exactly like the last one I captured and shared. This
means I do what I always do: Go for the funny. I find something around the school to take a picture of and then make a joke about it. For instance, the coat hooks on the wall of the school look exactly like pugilistic octopuses. I was not the first person to point this out, but I am one of the people who is exceedingly glad somebody did. You may not find my “Still Life with Water Bottle” humorous, but I do, which means at least someone is always laughing, even if it is me.

I am always shocked when someone acts star-struck in my presence. I am not nearly as well-known as many of my friends and colleagues, and this is okay by me. I have been around the jiu-jitsu world for a long time, and I am doing my best to make a meaningful contribution to it. It still surprises me, though, when a fellow practitioner wants to take a picture with me or thanks me for something I have written. It is gratifying but also unexpected, because from my perspective, I am just me.

I have a pretty good poker face, but it is not perfect. Jiu-jitsu instructors and students are people, and people are annoying. I know I am, and I know I (usually) do not mean to be, so when students do annoying things, as they are wont to do because they are people, I have a very long fuse. I can empathize with their frustration, their need to stroke their own egos, or their distractedness. I have been there, and I still go there sometimes. I know they are usually doing the very best they can, and if that still results in me finding them annoying in some way, I can usually let it slide. Even I can reach my limit, though. Sometimes a confluence of minor annoyances from multiple students or even from life circumstances that have nothing to do with training (we *all* bring our stuff onto the mat) can create the spark that reaches the end of my fuse, and I get snippy or short or even shouty, like those playlists I hesitate to use.

I always process the situation afterward to try to identify learnable moments and will apologize if I think it is warranted. I also do my best to deal with the situation and then move on rather than dwelling on it.

I am getting worse and worse with names. Sometimes I have heard a student’s name multiple times and it just does not stick. (I am getting older, and, though some commercials would have you think otherwise, not all parts of me are getting better, including my memory.) Sometimes it is simply that my window of opportunity for learning someone’s name has closed. I should know it by now, but for whatever reason I do not, and I am embarrassed about it.

On the other hand, I am terrific at remembering details of students’ lives, and I find them truly fascinating. If I call you “bro,” please forgive me, and then rest assured that I really do want to see pictures of your hamster’s new babies. I may even do a better job of remembering their names than yours. (Plus, I will never, ever call you “bro.”) More importantly, I am paying attention to you in class. I watch your reps and suggest ways to tighten up your technique, and I watch the training when I am on the sidelines, to keep you safe and to learn more about what you like to do so I can tailor my feedback. I aim to do better about names, but whether or not that improves, I do work hard to see to the care and feeding of the entire grappler.

I am not the best instructor in the world. I have my foibles and my weaknesses. Maybe I am not as good at hiding them as I think I am, so this confessional is akin to proclaiming that water is wet. I wonder if other instructors have a secret dark side too, though, and no matter how imperfect I am, I will always share whatever knowledge I have that will help students improve, even if some of it comes with a side of snark.


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