Earn Your Black Belt from YouTube in 5 Easy Steps

Earn Your Black Belt from YouTube in 5 Easy Steps

 Just kidding about the five easy steps, so calm down.

 When you teach Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, students looking at videos outside of class for instruction can put a coach in the uncomfortable position of having to discourage a certain move or to respond to one student’s interpretation of why a move they learned from an app is better than what was covered in class.

Yes, a YouTube warrior can make for a frustrating student, but I worry that too many instructors outright discourage self-instruction and miss out on the benefits. If a student can learn how to teach themselves—fully recognizing that self-instruction is a supplement to their core training and not a replacement for it—the student, the coach, and the team as a whole will benefit.

Here’s a quick overview of the benefits of self-instruction:

  • A student can troubleshoot specific problems she is facing when the solution may not appear in the curriculum for some time
  • A student can expand on a position or technique that she finds particularly interesting and therefore has more fun in training
  • A student can learn techniques that the instructor may not know, which therefore adds more available knowledge to the team
  • A student experimenting with new ideas will force other students to learn how to defend and react to those techniques 

Ego is one of the primary obstacles to these benefits. No instructor knows all technique. It’s impossible, and we have dozens of videos of high-level black belts swapping techniques to prove that. At the same time, however, admitting that you are human to your students can be challenging for a teacher, especially in a sport as competitive as jiu-jitsu. “I don’t know” is often the truth, but it can be difficult to say without embarrassment. 

When an instructor is aware of where they may lack knowledge and is willing to admit it, their students can be one of the most effective ways to fill and expand on those gaps. Students who are actively engaged in their own learning and are pursuing their own ideas outside of class time can transform a jiu-jitsu program into a team of researchers. In this model, the instructor is like the lead researcher, serving as mentor and facilitator. 

Admittedly, this is an optimistic view of self-instruction because it is a very real possibility that students can end up watching suspect instruction from a homebrew catch wrestler and come to class trying to execute a frog splash from the bottom of guard.

There are lots of ways that self-instruction can go wrong, but if you want it to go right, here’s what students should do: 

  • Look for credible instructors. A black belt is a good start, but dig into the instructor’s lineage and reputation. Are other respectable publications or instructors sharing this instructor’s videos? How is the community reacting to the material? Have they collaborated with any respectable folks in the sport? These are not always easy questions to answer, but when anyone can start a YouTube channel you should be critical of who you trust for technique.

  • Dig deep into a system. One-off techniques can be helpful, but I encourage my students to pick a position and to explore it for months at a time. If you want to learn reverse de la Riva, for example, pick up an entire instructional reverse de la Riva and drill only those techniques for half a year. This helps you to develop a specialization and a deeper understanding for a position that most grapplers won’t have.

  • Reverse engineer competition footage. Pick a competitive grappler you admire and watch mountains of video of him or her competing. What do they typically look for? How do they react in certain scenarios? What are they doing that you aren’t? Even if your chosen competitor does not have an instructional available on the exact positions you are interested in, experimenting with a new technique and trying to break it down based on competition footage is good for your jiu-jitsu brain.

  • Balance skepticism with patience. When you wade into the waters of self-instruction, you will encounter a number of techniques that are not worthwhile. As you pick the material you plan to work on, ask yourself if the technique is practical for you. Is the instructor relying on intense athleticism? Is the instructor relying on a unique physical gift like exceptional size or flexibility? Is the instructor expecting your opponent to make an absurd mistake? Be critical, and try to temper that criticism with the recognition that you just might not understand a technique at first. That’s a tricky balance to strike, but still try.

  • Take notes and take your time. Teaching yourself jiu-jitsu is difficult because you will not have the immediate feedback of instructor to correct your mistakes and to provide suggestions. You have to play the part for a technique you do not fully understand. I’ve found the best way to do this is to take notes on specific points of a video (whether the instructor pauses to emphasize a detail or if I notice a particular foot position that seems important) to help guide my drilling and to give me more comparison points. This can mean going back and forth between the mat and video after training sessions, but it’s helpful.

Self-instruction will almost always be controversial in jiu-jitsu. Even as I advocate for it, I know that I will encounter a YouTube special on the mat at some point soon, and I’ll have to gently explain to a student why their time might be better spent on another technique. The reality, however, is that those few moments of frustration are well worth the potential rewards of students taking ownership of their training in this way. In my mind, the best way to stamp out these frustrations is not to discourage self-instruction but to teach our students how to do it effectively. 

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