Say, Say, Say: Talk It Out

Even after all the time I have spent in the jiu-jitsu world, I still find myself surprised sometimes at the things we do and do not say to our instructors and training partners. Often, we say things that can be unhelpful and do not say things that would be helpful. There are probably numerous reasons for this, including: the inherent status hierarchy, such that people who are lower ranked do not always feel comfortable making their needs known; the fact that so much of our communication in the jiu-jitsu world is non-verbal; and even the fact that effective verbal communication is difficult in any circumstance. Read on for some common areas where we might hit communication snags, as well as suggestions for navigating the waters.


At every school I have ever trained at, it is taboo to ask your instructor when you are likely to be promoted; in fact, instructors are likely to delay promoting anyone who does this. And yet, every now and then you hear about students doing just this and not understanding why everyone else recoils. In fairness, perhaps not every instructor makes it explicit that this question sends the message that the asker is more focused on status than on improving at jiu-jitsu. This in turn suggests that perhaps instructors would do well to articulate this expectation. That being said, a far better way for the student to frame any such discussion involves focusing on how s/he can improve. Questions like, “Can you help me create a game plan for strengthening my weaknesses?” or “How can I be strategic about improving?” are more effective and more likely to be treated with enthusiasm than, “Hey, when do I get to rock a <insert color here> belt?”

Energy Between Training Partners

A student at Princeton Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, where I train and teach, is a master of communication with his training partners. He is a smaller, middle-aged man, and before he trains with anyone new, he introduces himself and stresses that he looks forward to having a good roll. He mentions that he will tap if necessary and simply asks for the opportunity to do so. I have no scientific evidence that it improves the nature of his interactions with his partners, but I like that it sets the stage for ongoing communication if need be. And this is a super scrappy, super talented guy, so he is not looking to be treated with kid gloves.

It helps that he is a brown belt, and, knowing that, he has inspired me to stress to all students in the classes I teach that it is okay for them to ask their partners to tone it down, turn it up, or otherwise modulate. So, if you do not feel comfortable speaking up about wanting to change the energy of a training session, ask your instructor about the appropriate protocol. Having the conversation may not fix the issue, but not having the conversation definitely won’t.

Jokes & Teasing

The other day, I took down a comment I made about a photo a male friend and training partner of mine posted on Facebook. He and I have a rapport that allows us to make slightly off-color jokes about each other, but upon re-reading the comment online, I realized that other people might not find the joke appropriate, and I apologized to him for that. As someone who makes a lot of jokes, both because I naturally assume a humorous perspective on the world and because over the years I have found it to be a good way to get men to feel comfortable training with me, I recognize that there is no hard and fast rule about what is appropriate and what is not. As a result, I am ever vigilant about whether I may be going too far with my jokes, particularly since I am frequently in positions of leadership.

The point is, I would want to know if I were violating a boundary or making someone feel uncomfortable with my jokes, and I would like to think the students I work with would be willing to approach me about it. They are students, but they are also people. So, it is important for me to set that expectation and for students to feel comfortable acting on it if need be.


In the past I have gotten some pushback on my opinion about this, but I cringe a little when I hear a lower belt telling a higher belt “good job” after a roll, with the intensity of the cringe directly proportional to the amount of skill difference between the complimentor and the complimentee. It sounds presumptuous to me for a lower belt to say anything evaluative about an upper belt unless specifically asked to. For instance, perhaps two training partners of different ranks evaluate each other’s progress on specific techniques or debrief competition-style rounds in preparation for a tournament. But when I was coming up through the ranks, I never would have dreamed of saying anything to my black belt instructor that implied I knew what I was talking about, even if I was impressed. To my ears, it is far better to thank the person who outranks you for the roll and say how fun it was.

I have argued elsewhere that grapplers get to know each other in reverse. First, we get all up in each other’s personal bubbles, then over time we learn each other’s names, and still later we may become friends. With this structure, we probably spend less time actually talking to each other at first than people do in other contexts. I hope this does not set a precedent that precludes us from communicating when we need to, which is probably early and often.

Got a story about how communication on or near the mat helped or hindered your training and relationships? Post your lessons learned in the comments.