Inverted Gear Blog / Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
After I had been teaching jiu-jitsu for a while, a twenty-something man started coming to my classes. He had never trained before, but he had somehow decided he knew a lot already—shades of the Dunning-Kruger effect plus, I’m guessing, YouTube. From the get-go, he had a habit of telling his training partners how to do techniques (usually incorrectly) and asking questions that seemed less about clarification and more about proving what he knew and what I did not. I tried to be patient with him, letting him know I was happy to work with him but asking him to stop being disruptive in class. He would either laugh or stare at me, and then during the next class he would shout out again.
One time he must have hit my last nerve, because I changed the way I responded. He called me over to say that his partner was not doing the technique sequence correctly, and could I help. When I started walking the partner through the sequence, he interrupted repeatedly and “corrected” me (e.g., “Don’t you mean X?” I didn’t. “Why wouldn’t he do Y there?” Because he would lose position). I finally said, “All right. Your turn.” I made him run through the technique sequence, and every time he messed up, which was often, I said, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong.” He started to get flustered, and I made him complete the sequence. Then I said, “You need to think more about your own training and less about everyone else’s. Got it?” He did not respond, but I could see from his face that my message had started to sink in.
When it was time for open training, I pointed at him and said, “Let’s go.” Then I tapped him with the same mounted Americana 5 or 6 times in a row. This required that I get to the mount each time from a neutral face-off, which I had no problem doing.
After I tapped him repeatedly, there was a little time left, and I decided to let him sweep me. He said, “Oh, you gave me that.” Progress? I chose to think so.
I responded with “Yup.” Usually I would tell a student that he got the sweep because he had gotten all the details right, but this guy got no quarter.
After that, he continued to come to my class, but he was noticeably quieter and less brash. I did my best to let him know he was still welcome, and to indicate that the change in his behavior was much appreciated.
I did not like doing that to him. I do not even like describing how easy it was for me to do it. However, I had to weigh his need to feel like he knew more than he did with my need to provide an effective learning experience for the entire class, because the two needs were mutually exclusive, my need took precedence, and my subtler attempts to send the message had not registered. If I had it to do over, I would probably come out and tell him the same point I am making here: I do not like to pull rank, but I will if I must.
To me, pulling rank refers to those times when I must remind one or more other people that there is a pecking order, and that the person or people I am reminding are lower on it than I am. Usually the behavior that prompts me to pull rank involves some disruption of class or some transgression against another student, though there are many other reasons.
I am not alone. I know many people—friends, colleagues, and mentors—who have worked hard to earn their rank in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and continue to work hard to live up to it. Like me, these people see their rank as an important part of who they are. But also like me, based on my observations of them, at least, most of the black belts I know and respect do not enjoy lording that over others.
I do not like pulling rank because it forces me to highlight power and authority differentials, when I much prefer that students and instructors alike recognize and respect our different roles because we respect each other as people. When I am teaching, it is my job to lead class, and it is the students’ job to learn and, I hope, enjoy. Sometimes I am the student, too, and when that is the case, I act appropriately. Ideally, all of us recognize our roles and commit to fulfilling them. In situations where I feel I must pull rank, it is because some among us have decided they need not adhere to the group’s shared agreement of what constitutes appropriate behavior in the training context. It is as if all of us are all reduced to the color of our belts, and that way lies danger.
Sure, it can be difficult to suss out what constitutes appropriate behavior in a jiu-jitsu context, and I daresay that jiu-jitsu academies as a group do not have the best track record for establishing expectations up front. Academies are getting better at this, though, and if you do not know, there are ways to figure it out: observation, asking your drilling partner, and asking the instructor, for instance. When we are new to jiu-jitsu or a specific school, we can commit to learning how to enhance the learning environment instead of acting in a way that forces the instructor to protect it—and to rely on something other than mutual respect for keeping order.
Instructors and coaches, what are your thoughts on pulling rank? Students and teammates, what questions do you have about how to make sure you are not the person your instructor has to pull rank on? Post your ideas to comments.
I was going back through the Inverted Gear blog archives looking at some of the more popular posts, and I came across Nelson’s “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu goals that do not involve becoming a world champion.” I think part of why this article resonates with so many people is that it speaks to an unspoken fear in a sport that heaps admiration onto competitors: By not competing (or not competing well) we are somehow not doing “it” right.
Competition is an important facet of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but it’s not the only facet. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, but I can understand how the intensity and prowess of fulltime competitors can leave your own jiu-jitsu journey feeling unimpressive and inconsequential. I can understand because I’ve been there (and might be there presently, depending on when you read this).
Based on a recent Reddit thread where a brown belt whom I respect very much admitted to tapping to a highly competitive blue belt, I suspect that this feeling is far more pervasive than many would admit.
My theory is that our community equates championships and big competition victories with impact. It’s an easy and clear way to identify the people who are pushing the technical envelope and taking the sport to new and even more nuanced heights. Deep down, I know that my own desire to be competitive—despite my inability to do so—is driven by a passion for making a difference. A gold medal can signify a meaningful contribution to the sport we care so much about, but what if that gold medal is out of reach for any number of reasons?
You can still make a difference in the sport. And in many cases, I would argue that the impact you can have is far more important than the impact of hitting the top of a podium, even if it doesn’t come with the glitz and the fame.
Here are 5 ways that you could leave your mark on the sport without ever earning a gold medal:
1. Be an excellent teacher. I’ve lamented before about the fact that instructors don’t get a lot of press coverage, but that doesn’t mean that their impact is any less significant. Whether you are training future world champions or leading a great self-defense class, teaching is perhaps the most important and productive thing you could do to build jiu-jitsu up. You don’t have to run an academy either. You could informally mentor other students, pick up a class to help out at your gym, or start to teach on YouTube once you have the chops to do so.
2. Use the sport to do good. This is different from my suggestion to teach in the sense that you use jiu-jitsu as a conduit to address a problem or to serve an underserved population. Tap Cancer Out is a great example of this idea executed to the extreme, and Groundswell Grappling Concepts is an example of this idea executed with a balance of business and social responsibility. You don’t have to start your own organization, though, to do good with BJJ. You could help fundraise as part of a Tap Cancer Out event, or perhaps you could volunteer for youth programs, maybe mobilizing your training partners to join you in the process. There are also roll-a-thons and whatnot. With some thinking, I bet you could channel your BJJ into something positive.
3. Be a positive voice on the mat. Again, there is not a lot of glamor to this suggestion, but there is always a need for people who are outgoing, welcoming, and supportive on the mat. You might not end up in the jiu-jitsu history books for being the first person at your gym to welcome a new student or to be the one that doesn’t let someone else experience the awkwardness of “last picked” when people pair off to train, but I promise you the person you help will remember and will be thankful. Taking on this role is actually more difficult than it sounds to do consistently, but it’s powerful in its own way.
4. Contribute to the discussion. Jiu-jitsu is always in need of more thoughtful people contributing to the growing discussions around the problems and opportunities in our art. Start a blog. Start a podcast. Be an active and constructive contributor in online discussions. Film some videos. The media scene around BJJ is busy and disorganized, but there are still openings for people to do new and interesting things. Your audience won’t be massive, especially when you first start, but if you stick with it your voice can help to guide at least part of the sport. Pro tips: Consider starting local, covering your immediate jiu-jitsu scene and the people in it, and also go easy on yourself as far as production value is concerned. I got my start with a hand-me-down laptop, a bootleg of MSWord, and a $100 BestBuy camera (before smartphones).
5. You don’t have to run a BJJ business. Making an impact is hard, and sometimes our passions can get the better of us, leading us into commitments that we aren’t ready for. I’ve seen a lot of people start t-shirt companies or open gyms long before they were really ready (guilty on this front, myself), so try starting small with one of the previous suggestions before you empty out your savings on a new project. It’s okay if BJJ is your passionate hobby and not your entire life. In many respects, those people are the most important parts of BJJ even if their names never end up in lights.
I hope that eases some of the pressure you put on yourself as far as competition goes, and at best I hope to see your contributions making a difference in the future.
While at the BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp in Maine this past weekend, I talked with a brown belt who was anxious about teaching at a school he was going to visit as he continued his trip through America. He had only taught a handful of classes before, so he was not sure what he would do yet. Should you find yourself in a similar predicament, here is the same advice I gave him:
Stick to the basics.
You do not need to impress students with how many cool or strange techniques you know. You just need to make them better at grappling. The basics will get you far. Even the advanced students who may be tired of practicing the fundamentals will still benefit.
Speak loudly and confidently.
Students respond to instructors who are engaging and seem to know what they are talking about. If you mumble and act uncomfortable in the spotlight, students will zone out or not take you seriously. Develop a convincing “I know what I’m talking about” voice. Even if you’re not that confident, fake it til you make it.
Do not over-explain or show too much.
Similar to not teaching anything too fancy, do not try to be “too smart” when explaining your techniques. Of course you should be detailed, but most students reach information saturation. It’s better to show the move briefly and highlight the key points first, then come back to it in more depth after your students have had a chance to practice it.
Copy lessons by your favorite instructors.
You can get overwhelmed by the prospect of coming up with a good class if you have not had to make one from scratch before. Instead of stressing over how to be entirely original, just recall your favorite lessons by your instructors and copy those. There is no shame in copying a good thing here.
End with live training and people will forget your minor mistakes.
As long as you make people break a sweat and put in some good rounds of rolling, most students will forgive minor mistakes. Keep an eye on who is partnered with who if you have any concerns about safety.
As you can probably tell, the trick to starting as a new instructor is the same as it is with anything: start simple, don’t overcomplicate it, and copy someone who knows better when you’re unsure what to do.
When I started BJJ I was 185 pounds. I have drifted upward since then (I don’t regret a single taco), and for the most part I have been considered one of the big guys in the room. As someone that has spent most of his BJJ career on the 200+ pounds range, these are some of the rules I follow in order to train in a way I can both develop my game and keep my training partners happy.
1. As someone blessed with extra gravitational powers, you can apply more pressure than most of your training partners. This does not mean you need to roll like a maniacal steamroller, flattening anything in your path. If there is a big weight or skill discrepancy between you and opponent, you don’t have to apply all of your pressure. Sure, use enough pressure to finish whatever pass you are working on or to hold a top position, but try to move, improve your position, go for subs, and be mindful of the build and frame of the person beneath you.
2. Ask yourself the question, “Did I get that sweep/submission/escape because my technique was right or because I am a giant panda?” I often encounter big guys that grow accustomed to being the only big guy in their gym and develop bad habits because of it. These habits become apparent when they meet someone of similar size or an equal or higher skill level. It’s an eye-opening experience when a big part of your game is suddenly nullified because you are no longer the larger grappler.
3. Don’t neglect your bottom game. While as a larger guy passing and takedowns can become your comfort zone, you will find yourself on the bottom eventually, and having a guard game that can handle a bigger opponent is important. Yet again don’t fall into bad habits here. Develop a game with an opponent your size in mind. Look at guys like Pe de Pano or Bernardo Faria for guys with great guards. While guard is important, make sure you work on your escapes as well. While rolling with a 260 pound black belt recently, I was painfully reminded that I had been neglecting to work on my mount escapes, and it is now something I will be working on for the next few months by starting my rolls from there as often as I can.
4. Work on your mobility and flexibility. Newcomers to BJJ are often stiff as a board, and this is especially true for bigger guys, even more so if they spent years in a less than ideal strength training routine. Pay attention next time Americanas are taught. It is very easy to spot the big bench pressers in the room. Tight hips, legs, and back muscles may keep you from performing certain things like triangles, inversions, or dynamic movements, but if you keep training and working on your flexibility, you will be able to do them down the road. When I started BJJ, my hips were so tight I had a really hard time getting triangles. I even injured my knee once adjusting one on a bad angle.
There is nothing wrong with being one of the bigger guys in the room. It’s not like you have much of a choice in most cases. What you can choose is how you approach your training and how you think about your body and your training partners. If you are diligent about being technical and develop self-awareness as to your habits and your own weaknesses, you can refine your technique to the point that you can both take care of smaller training partners and handle the challenges that a larger opponent presents. Hopefully this can help some big guys starting out in BJJ.
Injuries big and small have been a consistent theme in my jiu-jitsu writing because for some reason I am a lot like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Unbreakable—minus the acts of mass terrorism (spoiler alert). As frustrating and as depressing injuries can be, they can also benefit your training. Granted, these benefits probably are not as good as the benefits of just staying healthy in the first place, but there are a few upsides that might make you feel just a wee little bit better about that injury.
An injury can force you to do two primary things: Get your jiu-jitsu game up to speed after a layoff and adapt your game to work around a vulnerable body part.
Returning from a Layoff
When you sit out for a prolonged period of time, you will probably feel slow and rusty when you get back to that mat, and the challenge is more than just a subpar cardio. Your reaction times are dulled, and your problem solving is foggy. For many, this triggers a self-review. You think back on what your A game used to be, and you start drilling, working your way through reps of the fundamentals up through your favorite set ups and counters.
When we are perfectly healthy, drilling the techniques that we do every session anyway will probably never happen, but when an injury forces you to, you might actually find that your A game is better in the long run. Those extra focused reps help you to dial-in the core of your game, bringing details and tactics that might have been subconscious (or overlooked) to the top of your mind.
For me, I feel as if my A game actually steps up a level each time I go through the process of re-drilling my go-to escapes and my go-to attacks, and I attribute that to simply taking the time to take the engine apart, clean all the pieces, and carefully reassemble everything with some updates and modifications along the way.
Adapting to Injury
Whether you do it out of necessity or out of fear of re-injury, babying an injured body part adds an entirely new priority structure to how you roll. You will probably become extra wary of certain grips or attacks, and you may have to omit specific movements or positions from your repertoire because of how they aggravate your injury. The result: You have to adapt and re-adapt your technique, making you hyper-aware of what’s happening and what options are and are not available to you at any given time.
Because of my Mr. Glass mat experience, I have a lot of examples of how this process impacted my own training. To start, my knees are bad enough that I don’t do triangle chokes, which completely transformed my guard. Where I used to insist on climbing into a high closed guard, I now play butterfly hooks almost exclusively because that guard style takes me as far away from triangle chokes as one can reasonable get from guard. When I do find myself in a triangle-esque position, I have to force the omoplata.
Before my knees went bad, I very rarely worked butterfly sweeps and only barely explored omoplatas. Now I’ve gone deep into learning and applying them.
The Opportunity in Pain
As frustrating as injuries can be, try to look on the bright-side. They can be opportunities to transform your training. Getting hurt and sitting out will never not be terrible, but if you can find some joy in the intellectual challenge of rebuilding your game or adapting your technique around your personal obstacles, your jiu-jitsu will benefit. You might still be hurt or not at your best, but you at least have the comfort of knowing your jiu-jitsu is improving.