Learning BJJ in Layers

I often encounter well-meaning students at the upper white belt levels and beyond trying to help new students, and they struggle to gauge how much information to share. New instructors, whether they are helpful mentors teaching informally or advanced belts running classes, have a tendency to over-teach. They want students to improve, so they give them as much information as they can about what to do and cover all of the intricate details of a technique that pop up along the way.

It’s been my experience, and most theories on learning back this up, that giving new students less material is actually more productive.

It feels counterintuitive because you can look at their technique and see all of the things they could fix or improve, but that’s not the point, at least not early on.

In my mind, I look at jiu-jitsu students as artists. If you take a toddler and hand her crayons, you likely won’t see distinguishable shapes and likenesses in their drawings. You get big swooping scribbles of color as they hold their crayons like a knife in a Hitchcock film.

But if you’ve ever babysat these children or have kids of your own, you get really pumped if they manage to keep all of the crayon on the paper and off your table, floors, and walls. That first step is actually a big victory for a child—even if they don’t realize it—because they are starting to understand the most basic idea of what it means to draw. Step 1 is aiming at and hitting the paper.

And then they move on to drawing dogs and cats and houses and “people.” Objectively from an artistic point of view, they are still awful at drawing. The proportions are wrong and there’s no perspective and let’s not even get started on composition or the lack of shading. In the grand scheme of things, it’s terrible art, but the goal from a development perspective is not about whether the art is good or not good. Rather, we are aiming for improvement.

Our young artist started by scribbling frantically on the walls like some possessed vandal, and now she is sitting down to put thought and care into trying to build on paper the vision she has in her mind.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is like this as well.

If a new white belt is first learning an armbar, you can’t dive right into the intricate details of strategy and pressure and control. Let them get the first layer of the process down first, which might be as basic as cutting the angle for the submission and getting their legs in mostly the right places. From there, you can nudge them a little bit farther down the path, perhaps correcting really big mistakes or addressing major obstacles, but if you push too far, you drift beyond their level of understanding and instead start to create confusion and frustration.

This is hard for a lot of instructors, myself included, but sometimes the best thing you can do for a white belt is to sit back and let them draw a crappy stick figure dog for a few drafts. Once they are comfortable with the stick figure version of their technique, then you can gradually layer on more refinement and detail.

In doing this, you may have to watch a student struggle or watch them execute techniques that are much less than perfect. That can be a tough prospect when you genuinely want the best for the person you’re helping, but the reality is that sometimes what is best is not a detailed lecture about how to draw but rather some simple ideas of how to draw and then stepping back, leaving your student to experiment and play with a big ol’ box of crayons for a bit before you intervene again.

Remember, we are not chasing perfection at the beginning. Instead, we want progress, so don’t look down on stick figure dogs if they are better than the ones your student drew yesterday.