Enhance Your Privates

In my early days of training, I was a broke college student. I convinced a few friends to start training around the time that I did, and the four of us would carpool for the hour drive from campus to the closest gym, pooling together what would have otherwise been beer money to pay for gas, tolls, and the occasional post-roll pizza. Since it was a drive and money was tight, we used up our two-class-a-week plan in a single Saturday. To train during the week, we removed the only set of mats on campus—ratty gross green ones—from the dance studio under the cover of darkness after an understanding school administrator “accidently” dropped her keys.

I didn’t get to take many private lessons in those days because paying for training and gas was difficult enough, but when I did take a private, I knew that I wanted to wring as much insight from it as I possibly could. More than 10 years later, and after teaching a few hundred private lessons myself, I’ve been fortunate enough to be on both sides of a private lesson. I’ve seen how instructors I respect handle them, and I’ve seen some of the curve balls that students can inadvertently throw when they sign up to take one.

Private lessons can be a powerful tool, and whether or not you have the money to take them regularly, a few pieces of advice will help you to take your private lessons even farther:

1. Prepare specific questions. Teaching jiu-jitsu can be mentally taxing, and coming up with a private lesson itinerary on the spot is tough after a week of running classes. Try to come to your lesson with an idea of what you want to address, even if it’s as simple as “I keep getting stuck in this” or “I have been trying to do X but it never works.” If you want your instructor to decide what to teach, give him or her advanced notice so that they can watch you roll, or ask the instructor to teach something they have been working on and are excited about.

2. Embrace deviations. Coming to a lesson with specific questions helps to start the dialog between you and your instructor, but also be prepared for your lesson to take an unexpected turn. Sometimes the problem you think you have is actually related to a mistake or habit you didn’t notice. For example, a student might ask for armbar finishes, but when the instructor walks through what the student knows and is trying to do, the instructor may discover that the armbar finishes are not the problem but rather the student’s set up for the armbar is poor, leading to difficulties in finishing.

3. Less is more. Glen Cordoza, the author of probably a dozen jiu-jitsu instructionals, once told me that if you pick up a $50 book and get just one useful technique out of it, that’s a huge victory. Private lessons are the same way. Yes, you might want to cram as many techniques into one session as possible, but the long-term impact on your training will be greatest if you take the time to fully absorb a few select movements. If you take the buffet approach, you are far less likely to remember the details that make the difference.

4. Learn about your instructor. Many gyms have more than one person teaching classes, so you likely have a few options as to who you can take private lessons from. Before you book a private lesson, observe what your instructors do when they roll and pay attention to what material they teach when they run their classes (if they aren’t beholden to a curriculum). Ideally, you should try to match specialized questions with the instructor who is most likely to know that material. For example, asking me to teach berimbolos is a waste of your money. You’ll never see me doing them or willfully teaching them. It’s just not a part of my game. If you are looking for insights into basics, this point is less of a concern.

5. Drill and use what you learned. If you take the time and spend the panda bucks on a private lesson, do your part to review and practice what you learned. Get regular repetitions with basic drills, and actively try to apply what you’ve learned when you roll even if you fail. This is a natural part of the learning process, and your pulling on this thread as a student will likely uncover more material for you to explore, either independently or in your next private lesson.

I’ve never had the opportunity to regularly take private lessons. If you’re one of the lucky ones who can take a monthly or weekly private, please heed this advice. If you are like me and can only take a private lesson here or there, definitely follow this advice. You have even less time to work with than others, and with this advice you will get as much out of it as possible.