Inverted Gear Blog / Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

How to Improve Without a Black Belt Instructor

In an ideal world, we would all train at a place like Marcelo Garcia’s academy in New York City or Art of Jiu-Jitsu in California with a multiple-time world champion coach and plenty of world caliber training partners. But what if you live some place more remote, and the nearest black belt is hours away? How can you improve when your only training partners are a blue belt and a bunch of white belts? Are you destined to spend your time in a car driving for hours every time you want to train?

This situation is more common than you think. When you live in southern California or anywhere near New York City, believing that there are places in the world where black belts are scarce and purple belt instructor are commodity might be hard to imagine. Through my travels and camps, I have met plenty of people in this situation, and we have traded notes. At one point, I was a purple belt instructor at a small school in New Jersey and most of my mat time was spent with white and blue belts. I would only train with my instructor Kevin once a week.

So I am familiar with the difficulties of making this work, but the good news is that it can work.

Here is what I would recommend if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Invest in your training partners. Pick a few training partners, if they are close to your weight even better, and invest time in them. Take a few minutes after every class and show them what they can improve on. Drill with them and show them how to counter and best ways to react to whatever you are working on. If you are working on triangles, show them how to recognize and kill your angles or show them how to escape it once it’s locked in. In the long run, the better they get, the better your training will be too.

  • Travel to nearby academies, but don’t burn yourself out. I had many training partners over the years that fell into the trap of long commutes to train. Eventually they hated the commute but also started to hate jiu-jitsu by proxy. Many of my friends that chose to commute long hours to NYC to train at premiere academies, for example, no longer train, even after having success competing at lower belt levels. Traveling to different academies to train is a good thing, but like anything it should be done in moderation.

  • Find what your training partners are best at and put yourself in those situations. If one of the big guys in the room has an amazing mount or side control, let him have it and spend time there. Put yourself at a disadvantage, and get meaningful reps this way.

  • Get people to visit you. Whether you set up a seminar for a local black belt or brown belt or use your spare bedroom or couch to let a BJJ traveler crash, keeping an open door is a good way to get knowledge flowing through your academy. Extra points if you live in a somewhat touristy destination, but that’s not always necessary. Check out BJJ Globetrotters and Matsurfing.org. You never know what traveling black belt may drop by our academy. As I write this blog, I am traveling through the north coast of Australia teaching seminars and staying with the locals, and it’s a blast.

  • Change up your game regularly. If you can armbar everyone in the room, it’s time to switch it up. Spend some time getting to the back and finishing with chokes. If you can butterfly sweep everyone, work on half guard for a few weeks. And so on. This will not only give you a more balanced game, but it will expose your training partners to different games, which they can pick up and make part of theirs.

  • Use your vacations for BJJ camps. Whether you want to visit Europe and go to Globetrotter camp or come hang out with me in Costa Rica next year, BJJ camps are great ways to expand your game and your BJJ network. As you meet more people that like to travel and do BJJ, you have better chances of getting them to swing by your neck of the woods in the future.

  • Learn from instructionals in any form, from YouTube to DVDs to books to websites. My friends wrote great articles about this:

Living in an isolated area with limited training options is not a death sentence to your BJJ improvement. You can make progress. It may take longer than you would like, but BJJ is not going anywhere, and you might find that having to direct your own training could actually be a big advantage for your long term growth and development.

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My Personal Code of Ethics as an Instructor

My last post about my rules as an instructor was well received, but many of you asked for more of my ethical and moral rules, not just ones related to how I teach techniques or run warm-ups.

Treat all students equally.

Every student deserves equally opportunities for an instructor’s time and guidance.

In reality, some students will need more attention than others, but I make an effort to spend time with every student in my class and be available to help them if needed.

The point is to not play favorites or allow cliques to form. Even the clumsiest, bumbling, most clueless white belt deserves your attention.

Show up to class and pay attention the entire time.

This rule may seem obvious to the point of stupidity, but you would be surprised (or maybe not so surprised) by how many BJJ instructors fail at it.

Have you ever showed up for a scheduled class only to stand outside of a locked gym door for 20 minutes until a frantic purple belt rushes over to open up and cover class because the head instructor cannot be found?

Have you ever had an instructor who would just show a move, then walk away to check his phone or chat on the side with a clique of higher belts?

These are common occurrences in the BJJ world, but they should not be. If I cannot get to class, I make sure it is covered or I make sure the students get enough warning to change their plans. Nothing is worse than getting ready to train and driving all the way to the gym just to turn around and drive home. That cannot happen as long as people are paying to train at your school.

Do not get into relationships with students.

In my previous post, I briefly mentioned “don’t bang your students” as an obvious rule, but many readers wanted to hear more on that, which is partly why we are getting this second post.

Let’s look to what the code of ethics for Olympic coaches says about this:

Coaches do not engage in sexual intimacies with current athletes.

The code even goes one step further to ban sexual relations between coaches and former athletes for two years after the coach-athlete relationship ends, explaining it like this:

Because sexual intimacies with a former athlete are so frequently harmful to the athlete, and because such intimacies undermine public confidence in the coaching profession and thereby deter the public's use of needed services, coaches do not engage in sexual intimacies with former athletes even after a two-year interval except in the most unusual circumstances.The coach who engages in such activity after the two years following cessation or termination of the coach-athlete relationship bears the burden of demonstrating that there has been no exploitation, in light of all relevant factors, including:
(1) the amount of time that has passed since the coach-athlete relationship terminated,
(2) the circumstances of termination,
(3) the athlete's personal history.
(4) the athlete's current mental status,
(5) the likelihood of adverse impact on the athlete and others, and
(6) any statements or actions made by the coach during the course of the athlete-coach relationship suggesting or inviting the possibility of a post-termination sexual or romantic relationship with the athlete or coach.

A BJJ gym is not held to the same standard as an Olympic training center, but it is still a bad idea for instructors to sleep with students for the same reasons. The teacher-student dynamic -- like any with one person having more authority, control, and influence over the other -- has too much potential for abuse. Students (especially women) should not need to worry that their coach has other intentions than to teach them what they signed up to learn.

I will admit I know of a few times where a BJJ black belt dated a student and they ended up happily married, but I have many more stories about nasty break-ups, rifts breaking up the gym, jealousy, angry wives, and all the drama you would expect from a Brazilian soap opera. It’s better to just keep it in your pants.

Prepare your students for the physical demands you will place on them.

This is a newer rule for me, but one I wish was more common as I was coming up the ranks. As I said in my other post, I do not turn my BJJ classes into strength and conditioning workouts, and I am not a fan of long warm-ups, but I have come to believe it is an BJJ instructor’s duty to prepare students (especially beginners) to handle the positions and stresses we will put them through. To do otherwise is to set them up for injuries and chronic pain. My training in Functional Range Conditioning has driven this point home, and now I feel that I have the tools to do the right movement prep without turning warm-ups into touch butt.

Share everything you know and keep no secrets.

Just as I do not believe in the old school “creonte” mindset, I do not believe in keeping “secret techniques” from my students. Nevermind that it is nearly impossible to have a true secret technique these days, because the minute it is used in tournament, it will be up on ShowtheART, reddit, and get 4000 shares on Facebook.

Keeping no secrets does not mean that you have to teach literally everything any time you are asked. Students have a limit on how much they can absorb, and they need to learn the basics before you show them advanced techniques. You can still tell a student “I would show you that but I don’t think it’s the most important thing for you to learn right now. Here’s something better.” The point is that you do not place “tests of loyalty” or other nonsense between your students and what you are willing to show them.

Keep politics and drama off the mats.

Do not abuse the fact your students have to listen to you to preach to them beyond your beliefs about BJJ. Religion, politics, and gossip are best kept off the mats. (That’s what Facebook is for.)

Be direct with your students if there is a problem.

That stinky white belt with claws for nails and funk growing behind his ears? The girl who did not realize she had her period in her white gi pants? The creepy new guy who keeps trying to slink over to partner up with the girls? The newly minted blue belt who tries to run mini-seminars for the white belts when everyone else is rolling? Those are all your problems as an instructor. Those will require an awkward conversation to handle, but you just need to step up and do it -- being as tactful as possible, of course.

Remember, being a black belt does not make you a better person.

Being a better person makes you a better person. Maybe BJJ helps you do that, or maybe it doesn’t. I have known my fair share of crappy people who happen to be good at BJJ.

We like to do this weird thing where we wear cotton pajamas styled after feudal Japanese clothing and throw each other around on rubber padding. We give each other colored strips of fabric to wrap around our waists so we can show how good we are at this odd activity. We make up hashtags like #jiujitsulifestyle and #bjjsavedmylife and we post on reddit about how our boyfriends and girlfriends just don’t get us.

These are all fun to do but they do not make you a good person. They just make you a person with an unusual hobby.

Here are things that make you a good person:

  • Loving and caring for your family and friends
  • Treating people with fairness
  • Showing kindness and compassion
  • Helping a stranger in need

Things that do not make you a better person:

  • Being good at armbars
  • Having a strong sprawl
  • Throwing people on their heads
  • Lower belts bowing to you

I am not saying this to diminish the positive changes many people experiences through doing BJJ. Anything that requires dedication, commitment and social interaction with others can lead to personal growth. The point I am making is: you need to stay humble. Between me as a BJJ black belt and a white belt who is a plumber, society needs him far more than it needs me.

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Does that code of ethics square with what you believe? Would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments below.

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Non-Conformity and Jiu-Jitsu

As Hillary and I were headed to Australia to meet our friend Chad and teach a few seminars, Winter Storm Stella was scheduled to hit the east coast. Our flight out of Philly was cancelled, which made us scramble to get new a flight. We decided our best option was driving to Pittsburgh, staying with friends, and flying out of there the following morning.

24 hours later, we returned our one-way rental and headed to the gate. Along the way, this book caught my attention. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. A few flights, layovers, and whiskey and sodas later I am about halfway through the book, and I can’t help but start to draw comparisons to jiu-jitsu.

I never thought about it before, but BJJ counts large numbers of non-conformists among its ranks. And some of them really have changed the way we look at BJJ. If we take a historical approach, we can identify quite a few people that had a huge impact on how the game is played today, by either coming up with new positions entirely or changing how we look at old positions.

Half Guard

We can start by looking at half guard, which these days is as diverse and dynamic as any jiu-jitsu position. At one point, however, half guard was seen as a “stalling position” because many players would only go there to get lockdown and slow things down as they caught their breath. Gordo and Gordinho Correa completely changed that by adopting the position as their main sweeping tool. They changed the way the game was played.

By being able to re-guard to half and start attacking right away, it gave them a huge advantage since they didn't have to recompose all the way to a “full guard.” Even as Gordo and his brother succeeded, it took a few years before other people bought into it. Nowadays, the position has continued to evolve, and deep half guard and Lucas Leite style half guard are part of most competitive players’ arsenals.

Inverted Guard

Inversions were not always part of the BJJ game, either. Roleta was one of the first players to use this position in order to re-guard and use his patented “Roleta sweep” (mostly known as Tornado sweep these days since Cyborg Abreu has popularized it again). Many old school players were not fans of Roleta's style, and some didn’t even consider it “real” jiu-jitsu—he wasn't playing a normal guard after all.

His style was nicknamed esqui-jitsu (short from esquisito which means weird in Portuguese). After Roleta. it wouldn't be until a pair of blue belts started going inverted and triangling everyone that the inversion game gain popularity. Ryan Hall and my old training partner from Alliance NYC had much success catching triangles from inverted guard. At the time, many people, especially at the blue and purple belt level, didn’t even know how to pass the inverted guard which gave them a huge advantage in competition. Dave won blue belt worlds and Ryan, well, he became Ryan, accomplishing a great deal in BJJ and in MMA.

50/50

Ryan would later develop another position, the 50/50, which he would get to when opponent stood up to pass his inverted guard to avoid triangles. He would shoot his legs through his opponent’s legs and arrive at the 50/50, which was technically not a new position, but it had been regarded just as a stalling position until that point. Ryan Hall 50/50 heel hooking his way into ADCC gave the position notoriety, but it wasn’t until Bruno Frazatto and the Mendes brothers from team Atos started using the position to contain Cobrinha that the position gained popularity in the gi as well. The positioned that once frowned upon exploded as everyone started to come up with ways to pass and enter it.

The Bigger Picture of Non-Conformity

The inverted guard saw another Renaissance with the rise of the berimbolo, and there has been a whole lot of other BJJ innovation that was once against the grain but is now accepted as legitimate effective technique (or for the most part at least; looking at you leglock haters). Nowadays we have guys like Keenan who seem to come up with a different position every time he makes a taco run, changing the way we look at open guard again and again, especially when lapels are involved.

Benefiting from non-conformity doesn’t have to mean innovating on the level of Ryan Hall or Rafa Mendes. Simply being willing to try something outside of the box or to take the road less traveled can make you more likely to grow.

If you ask my mom, I have been in trouble for not conforming for a long time. I used to carry notes from my teacher almost daily during my early school years. As an adult, non-conformity is a part of my life that is evident in my grappling style and in my career path. The whole reason Inverted Gear was created was that I was not happy with the way the gi industry was heading (thank God the Affliction years have passed) and wanted to do something different

As you develop your game and go through your BJJ journey, don't be afraid to develop your own game. Maybe you are interested in a position that is not popular at the time, but don’t let that be a deterrent to creating your own game or investing time in any given position. Maybe you like passing to the right like some of us degenerates or attacking ankle locks across the body instead of the regular side. One of my friends had a knee injury and stopped playing the whole guard thing and sets up all his attacks and sweeps from side control.

The way things are done now should not dictate how they will be done in the future. Learn from the best practices of the day—fundamentals will always be valuable—but just because there is not a road already on your map doesn’t mean that you can’t make one yourself.

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Jiu-Jitsu Should Change as You Change

The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world likes to throw around the word “lifestyle.” Live the jiu-jitsu lifestyle, man. Wear flip flops everywhere. Eat some acai. Wear some jiu-jitsu t-shirts that no one but fellow jiu-jiteiros understand. Maybe hit up a camp or two. And that’s about where our thinking about the jiu-jitsu lifestyle tends to stop.

Here’s the thing: We assume that jiu-jitsu will be a lifelong pursuit. That’s the nature of the art, but very few people talk about how your jiu-jitsu lifestyle will need to evolve and adapt to the rest of your life as you add year after year of training. A lot can happen in a year—You could get a new job, you could start a family, you could move, you could get hurt, you could have a family emergency. But, as a community, we don’t seem to put much thought into our jiu-jitsu lifestyle changing. We put it in this little vacuum and hope that our oasis will always be just as it was when we started.

Your jiu-jitsu lifestyle must change as your life changes.

That’s the only way you will enjoy the sport for the long run. If you create this idyllic idea of what it means to be a part of jiu-jitsu, you lock yourself into a set of life circumstances that will inevitably change, and after a few years you will find yourself hating the sport because you can’t train as much as you used to, or your body isn’t holding up, or all your favorite training partners packed their things and moved to another gym. The jiu-jitsu lifestyle should not be some static idea. It should grow with you as you, as a person, grow as well.

This means being willing to reevaluate what the “jiu-jitsu lifestyle” actually means for you. For me, after a series of injuries and a decade of working behind the scenes in the sport, I know I can’t train the way I did when I was 21, so I am learning to adjust my own expectations. Training everyday isn’t in the cards, physically or logistically, so my own expression of the jiu-jitsu lifestyle is rolling a few times a week and getting to that mental place where I am just totally focused on jiu-jitsu. That’s my bliss.

As an instructor and as a longtime student, other life events could trigger a jiu-jitsu lifestyle adjustment. Here is what I’ve seen and how I’ve seen jiu-jiteiros change positively as a result:

  • A new baby. For the normal person with a fulltime job and a marriage they care about, adding a baby to the mix almost completely destroys your schedule. Training three days a week may not be in the cards for the first few months, but with some open communication with your spouse and a healthy management of priorities, you can spend some time on the mat and still be present for your family. It just might not be at the volume of training you’d prefer.

  • A new job. Moving into a new professional role can come with a lot of stress. Your routine changes, your commute might get longer, and your responsibilities might grow. Like the baby scenario, maybe expect to dial back the training a bit for the first few months, but don’t stop training. Insist on making it to the gym at least once a week and consider adapting your training schedule to your work schedule, perhaps jumping into more morning schedules.

  • A new injury. Your body will age, and some form of injury is virtually inevitable on a long enough timeline. Follow your doctor’s advice about recovery time, and consider backing off the super intense rolling sessions if you feel your body not being able to handle it. This is one of the hardest truths to swallow—that you’re not what you used to be—but the good news is that longevity is a bigger topic now in sports medicine than ever, which means that with some smart exercises and some mature decisions about your own capacity, you can train for longer and stay healthier in the process. You might need to make some changes, though.

  • A new marriage. I’m not a fan of people bagging on their spouses not letting them train. If you’re working a full time job and training five days a week, you’re not leaving much time for your loved ones, and that can create problems. Open communication seems to be the key here—at least it was for me and my marriage—and good communication also comes with compromise. If your only solution is that you should always get to train as much as you want, you will probably lose your relationship or your jiu-jitsu.

  • A new hobby. You are allowed to have other interests that are not jiu-jitsu, and you are allowed to be happy with training a few times a week. Every black belt I respect has eased off of the “JIU-JITSU IS EVERYTHING” mentality and picked up other interests to varying degrees. Studying something intensely non-stop for years and year is just not practical. If your goal is to train for your entire life, you might actually want to do something other than jiu-jitsu now and then to stimulate your mind and to expand your personal horizons. That’s okay, and it’s probably the healthier approach.

Adapting to life changes could mean everything from training more or less, training differently, training at a different school, or rethinking what you actually enjoy in the sport. Change is difficult to resist, and with the right mindset, you can make your changes healthy. Let your jiu-jitsu grow with you as you grow.

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The Rise of Women in BJJ

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu began as a male-dominated sport. In many ways it still is. But every year, more and more women are practicing and competing in BJJ. But why? How is this even possible? Similar to other sports, there was one woman (or maybe a few) to pave the way for the future, and honestly it’s frustrating when blue and purple belts today do not know their roots.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to learn from living legends and attend the Groundswell Grappling Concepts Women’s Camp with special guest instructor Leka Vieira. The GGC is a community and resource guide for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners on and off the mat. The principal members of the GGC are Emily Kwok, Hannette Staack, and Valerie Worthington. Without the accomplishments of these pioneers, the women’s bracket would not be what it is today.

Reflecting on when I first began BJJ, there were no women’s groups, open mats or camps. At the time, it did not matter that much (or so I thought). But then I went to my first GGC women’s camp in 2013. I was already a huge fan of Emily, Hannette, and Val from just watching and reading about them. To actually meet them, learn from them, and train with them was a whole other level of awesome! Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is funny in that way where we as students can actually share the mats with the superstars of our sport. Not many amateurs can say they played catch with an MLB pitcher or shot hoops with an NBA starter. But I managed to get choked out by the first ever Women’s BJJ World Champion.

 



GGC camps are not just training camps though. This last camp added educational sessions on nutrition, self-awareness, and a round table Q&A. The first day everyone is a little nervous and excited as we introduce ourselves to new friends and reconnect with those we know from past events. But there are ice-breakers and training techniques to calm the mood followed by a nice group welcome dinner. Saturday started with no-gi, followed by a group breakfast and nutrition session, then learning about being more self-aware with Val. In the afternoon we had gi and in the evening the round table Q&A. During the morning no-gi class, the floor opened for a brief discussion on the education and training of heel hooks. It was very interesting to hear each instructor’s take on the subject and how the sport is progressing.

The round table opened up with Leka sharing her BJJ journey and what it was like for her in Brazil during the mid to late 90’s. She did not have other women to look up to. She did not have another woman to set an example. She IS the example. As we all raised our hands with questions, a wealth of knowledge and new perspective came to light.



Sunday morning we met for our last session to review the techniques and gather our thoughts. There were lots of pictures and hard goodbyes. Women come from all over the world to participate in these camps and meet other women who train.

It’s a growing network and I am honored to be a part of the GGC community. These women are not only my heroes -- they are my mentors and friends. I can’t thank them enough for everything they have taught me and for opening the door to new relationships and opportunities.

 

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