Coping with Contradictory Instruction

When you teach jiu-jitsu, you will routinely encounter uncomfortable situations. You might have to discretely tell someone that they need to trim their toenails. You might have to explain why pressing one’s chin into a training partner’s eye socket is in fact not a good idea. And you might have to field any number of questions about jiu-jitsu and about technique, from the benign to the bizarre.

For all the weirdness, one of the most difficult scenarios for me to navigate—both as an instructor and as a student myself—is the contradictory instruction problem. One instructor shows the technique one way, and another instructor shows it another. In isolation, the problem is less pronounced, but isolation is a rarity in jiu-jitsu.

I’ve had both of these situations happen to me as a student: I traveled to take a lesson with a black belt whom I admired, but when I returned to my home gym I was told that I was doing a technique incorrectly, even in cases where what I was doing was explicitly based on the input of the black belt I visited.

Or, and this is a true story as well, I was in a class being co-taught by two black belts. When one black belt came around, he would give advice and correct my mistakes. When the next one came around, he would say that I was doing it incorrectly and set me back to executing the move how I was before the first black belt came around. But then the first black belt would come back around and be visibly frustrated that I was back to making the same errors again.

To be entirely fair, these scenarios can be equally confusing and frustrating for an instructor. One of the hardest minefields to navigate in jiu-jitsu instruction is when a student says, “Mr. Miyagi does it this way. Why don’t you do that?” That leaves the instructor trying to maintain some semblance of expertise on the subject while at the same time avoiding any statement or action that discredits the other instructor. And even when you try your hardest to be respectful, a student will still very often go back to the original instructor with a story about how you said that he or she was wrong.

Dealing with seemingly contradictory instruction can create enough problems that it hinders progress for everyone involved. At the same time, it’s inevitable. The nature of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art is that it will be expressed differently from person to person based on a host of factors.

So, what’s a student to do? Well, try these suggestions:

1. Do as the Romans do. If you are taking a class from an instructor, do the technique the way he or she is teaching it, even if you learned it differently from someone else in another class. This is not only respectful, but it’s good for your jiu-jitsu. You might find that the new variation works better for you—or perhaps a piece of it does—and even if it does not, you will have a better understanding of what’s happening if someone uses the variation on you.

2. Weigh the pros and cons. Many technical variations are the result of careful calculations of pros and cons. For example, I once had a scissor sweep debate about whether the top knee should be parallel to the mat for the sweep or kept more vertical. For me, I like to drop the knee to parallel to get the full power of the sweep, but the other instructor preferred to keep the knee erect to lower the chances of his legs getting smashed together. One is not necessarily wrong, and no variation of a technique is without its weaknesses. Even if your teachers do not call out the specific differences in variations, you should be able to work them out through experimentation in drills and in rolling

3. Consider the context. Techniques that seem similar can often be mistaken for being the “same,” but in actuality a key difference in positioning or timing can be the differentiating factor. This problem is less common as you climb the ranks, but for newer students the nuance between why you might execute a cross collar choke with the second hand on top versus the second hand underneath can be easily overlooked.

4. Word your questions carefully. There is nothing wrong with asking an instructor to go into more detail about the technique he or she is teaching, but you can make it easier on everyone if you frame your questions thoughtfully. If you say something to the effect of “Sensei Kreese shows it this way, so why do you do it differently?” you might create a problem. If you instead say something to the effect of “Why do you like to grip the collar this way as opposed to this option or this option?” you make the conversation more about the content of the lesson and less about which instructor is right and which instructor is wrong.

5. Remember the problems of remembering. In your mind, you may believe that you perfectly recall how a technique was taught, but the possibility of your being incorrect is very real. If you have not put considerable effort into drilling a move and have not seen it taught multiple times by the same instructor, you might actually have it wrong, so tread carefully when you start thinking in terms of one instructor having it right or wrong.

The more gyms leave behind the tribal mentality of us versus them (we are right, and they are wrong), the less contradictory instruction becomes an issue. At the same time, however, we have a responsibility as students to be thoughtful about our own training and to consider how our own interactions with class material can flavor a discussion. If you are considerate about how you learn and how you ask questions, you can make the challenge of contradictory instruction easier for yourself and for your teachers.