My Rules as an Instructor

Over my career as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor, I have decided on a set of self-imposed rules for how I run classes and how I manage my relationship with students. If you’re not an instructor, you might slowly become one unofficially as you rise through the ranks. Sure, you might not have your own class, but you will probably mentor a few white belts in your time, and these rules can help you too. Here are the top 6:

1. Students are free to train wherever they want with whoever they want

All of my students are free to seek out the best instruction and training available to them. I don’t believe in the old school “creonte” culture. I do not rule my school with a cult-like “us vs them” mentality. BJJ schools aren’t rival gangs or warring ninja clans. They don’t need to ask my permission to cross-train or hide the fact they go to other schools.

Yes, it gets complicated when we get into which team gets repped in competition, what patches go on their gi, or if the other school is actively trying to poach students. The solutions to those problem are still not to force students to worship you as their master and ostracize students who dare betray you by dropping in to open mats across town.

When a student leaves to join a different school, I may miss them because I like seeing my students, but I don’t feel possessive over them. They are adults who can make their own decisions and go where they want to go. Instead I have to ask myself if it’s because of a problem at my school, or something mundane like the other gym being closer to their house, cheaper, offering a different vibe, etc.

Just because someone has a black belt and has a following of students does not make them morally superior to others. Adults should be free to associate with whoever they want as long as it does not harm others or the school.

2. You’re not running a strength and conditioning bootcamp so don’t pretend to

Warm-ups should not destroy your students and leave them gassed and exhausted. That’s not a warm up -- that’s a poorly designed workout. Old school instructors often believe that tough “warm ups” will make their students more technical because they will have no strength left when they spar. That is true in its own stupid way, but the research on motor learning and athletic training says your technical training and your conditioning are both better when done separately. Tough warm ups may give you tough students through Darwinian survival of the fittest, but it’s not because it’s the smartest way to run classes.

3. Show the whole technique before talking too much

This is a simple rule: when teaching a move, first just show the whole move first, then talk about it.

Many instructors (myself included) are guilty of over-teaching techniques because we want to share every detail. We need to realize those details don’t mean much if the student isn’t even sure where the move is heading. Now I will show the move, then explain its most important points, then go into greater detail only after the students have had a chance to practice it. You don’t need to frontload the drilling time with 15 minutes of small details, possible variations, counters, and re-counters.

4. Don’t forget what it’s like to be a frustrated beginner

BJJ instructors, like experts in every field, take many things for granted. That’s how mastery works: you get good enough to not have to think about every little thing you’re doing. The problem is that when working with students at a lower level, you can forget they are still struggling with those little things.

Here’s how this rule works in practice:

  • Explicitly state the names of positions and techniques where possible
  • Explain why one position is better than another (this isn’t always obvious to beginners)
  • Take a moment to explain the theories and concepts that underly the techniques
  • Have regressions a student can do instead if a technique is too hard for now

5. Don’t blame a student for not knowing something you’ve never shown them

This point relates to the last one, but it’s worth discussing in its own right. Instructors are often guilty of blaming a student for not doing a technique or knowing how to handle a strange position only to have the student say, “You never showed me that.” As instructors, we’re walking around with a billion techniques floating around in our head, and we tend to overestimate how often we show any single technique.

6. Don’t apologize for teaching the basics

As an instructor, giving in to the temptation to show the hottest, coolest moves or sneaky, next-level techniques is easy. You want to keep class interesting, maybe as much for yourself as your students, but what is really going to make the biggest difference to the most students? 99% of the time the answer is “the basics.” (The other 1% of the time is when the higher belts are hanging out and geeking out over current competition metagame tactics.)

I’ve given this advice to wrestling and judo coaches who come into BJJ schools. They often preface lessons with “I know this is basic but…” as an apology. They are so tired of seeing these drills since they have done them since childhood. They expect us to be disappointed too, but it’s honestly what we need most. The truth is that the real fun does not come from seeing fancy or novel techniques, but from a well run class with live games, situational drills, etc. that put those simple skills to use.

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Those are the main rules I gave myself that relate to how I run classes. Of course more exist, like ethical codes like “don’t bang your students” (a lesson a lot of instructors seem to have trouble with) but we’ll save those for another day!


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Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Preston says...

    Great points, sound advice.

    February 21, 2017

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