Inverted Gear Blog / Matt Kirtley

5 Years at Black Belt

Last week was the five-year anniversary of my promotion to black belt, and next month marks my thirteenth year in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on my journey through BJJ, how it has evolved, and share what training and teaching is like as a black belt.

Here are the personal projects I have worked on since earning my black belt:

Learning the modern leglock game.

Interest in leglocks, especially heelhooks, has exploded with the popularity of events like EBI with alternative rulesets. I always liked IBJJF-legal straight ankle locks, but with Nelson’s influence, I have joined Team Reap. For the past two years, I have attended Reilly Bodycomb’s 3-day RDojo winter leglock camps. Nelson is always showing me the latest tweaks, and many of my students are going out to learn leglock systems and bringing the knowledge back to the school. Heelhooks are not as dangerous as I was always warned, and they can be trained safely if everyone playing with them is educated properly.

Keeping up with the open guard vs guard passing arms race.

Sport BJJ is an eternal battle between open guard and guard passing. It has been that way as long as I can remember. Staying current on the metagame is a constant endeavor. What guard is popular this season, and what’s the counter? Is this one worth learning or will it disappear in a month?

At this point, it’s safe to say the berimbolo is real. “Old school” curmudgeons harped on it getting you killed on the streets, but it has won enough gold medals to prove itself. You need to know how to do it, if only to coach your competitors. If you cannot stop the berimobolo, a feisty purple belt will put you on your butt and leg drag/crab ride combo to your back like his lunch money depends on it.

Worm guard and similar lapel wrapping trickery is real too, but I only have so much mental bandwidth and I have spent none of it on learning that. I’ve seen it work, and it has worked against me, but I have never really got into messing with lapels like that, and I still have no plans to.

To quote Reilly, who was quoting Ryan Hall, “I’m not a vampire.” -- I’m not going to live forever and never sleep, so I have to pick what is worth my time and not worry about learning everything.

The old school is new again.

Coming up the ranks at my original school in FL, I was known as the “new technique guy.” I watched every instructional DVD I could and knew every unique technique that hit YouTube. At the school where I teach in PA, roles are reversed; I am known as the “old school basics guy.” That’s because I mainly teach fundamentals classes and my mid-2000’s style is now considered “old school.”

As much as I want to say I have kept up with the modern game, when it comes down to it, my best techniques are still basic ones I learned as a white belt: bull fighter pass, collar and sleeve open guard, tripod sweep, butterfly guard hook sweeps, etc. The good news is these all still work, and you can blend them with the new school. Despite all the leg drags I have drilled, I still dive into bull fighter passes, though I may end them with a modern twist by redirecting and rewinding to the leg drag position.

Filling the huge gap in my takedown training.

Coming from a pure sport BJJ background, my takedown game was severely underdeveloped. I have a distinct memory of being a purple belt preparing for comp. At the start of a stand up round, I decided “I’m not pulling guard today!” After a brief awkward grip fighting exchange, my coach scolded me -- “What are you doing? Pull guard already!” -- which I did and it worked. From then on, I became the typical guard puller.

After my first RDojo camp, and having Reilly in my ear all weekend, I decided to start from standing every round (without pull guard) and dedicate time every practice to takedown training. This was tough at first because, honestly, a decent high school wrestler was better than me in pure stand up. Nelson has helped me a lot with this and I am making slow but steady progress.

Developing a daily joint health routine.

You do not get to black belt without injuries. You can tell BJJ is rough on its practitioners just from the sheer volume of “hey, should I see a doctor for this?” posts across every message board. BJJ instructors rarely have sports or fitness education outside of their BJJ background. Most instructors do not know how to injury-proof their students, and most students don’t know how to do it for themselves either. Nothing is going to prevent 100% of injuries, but you can reduce the odds if you educate yourself and stick to a regular routine of joint care.

Functional Range Conditioning is the best system for this I have been able to find, in terms of comprehensiveness and scientific backing. Last November, I attended the FRC certification, and I have been working on learning and applying the whole system ever since. I have BJJ black belt Samantha Faulhaber from Move Well Philly to thank for giving me a lot of guidance.

Do yourself a favor and find a FRC/FR trained coach or physical therapist. Finding FRC was the best thing I’ve done for my joints since starting BJJ.

There’s always something else to work on.

That sums up the major projects I have embarked upon as a black belt, at least in terms of my personal approach to BJJ. If you found something I said interesting, please leave a comment because I love to hear from readers!

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5 Hard Truths About Training You Need to Hear

We are constantly talking about optimizing our learning. We want to squeeze out every ounce of progress from every moment on the mats. The Inverted Gear blog is full of articles about doing just that, and I have written many of them. What can be lost in that conversation is a realistic, healthy perspective on the detours and setbacks that are unavoidable (and maybe even necessary).

Your progress will not be a smooth, straight line upwards.

We may like to think someone who has trained twice as long is also twice as good, but that’s not how real life works. Different people learn at different speeds. The longer you train, the slower you improve. Some skills come fast, others come slow. You will make breakthroughs, and you will hit plateaus. This was the first point I made in 5 Tips to Keep You on the Long Road to Black Belt and Beyond. Goals are good and keep you moving forward, but accept that they may change before you reach them, and that is okay. Just keep trying to be better than you were yesterday, and even if you fail, there’s always tomorrow.

When you measure your progress against your teammates, realize they are improving too.

Beginners are especially guilty of overestimating how well they can gauge their progress by how well they do against their teammates. This is normal since you test yourself against them every time you spar, and we all do it to some degree. But do not forget that your teammates are getting better all the time too. They are a moving mile-marker and they do not give you a clear measurement.

When you started, everyone smashed you. Six months later, everyone is still smashing you. You do not feel like you have changed much. But one day a new person walks in the door and you get to smash them. That’s when it really hits you how much you were learning all those days where you were getting smeared across the mats.

Much of the learning process happens outside your conscious mind.

Your body and mind take time to process and incorporate new experiences. Most of the work your brain is doing is largely beyond your awareness. Totally unconscious processes like sleep are vitally important to learning new skills. Those days where it feels like you are just showing up to go through the motions still contribute to the sum total of your experiences, and they all matter in the end. I explored this more and talked about the science behind it in You Learn Even on the Bad Days.

A new technique or position may not “click” until you develop another aspect of your game.

Techniques do not exist in isolation. They need to fit into your game. We can lose sight of this fact when we learn a cool new technique but have trouble making it work in sparring. In addition to the learning curve for any new material, there is also the issue of whether or not it complements your existing game. You could learn an amazing technique that a world champion used to win gold, but if it happens in a position you never use, then what good does it do you? Coaches talk about the importance of training transitions or even “micro-transitions,” which is to say, you need to figure out the connections -- not just the endpoints -- of your game plan.

Life will get in the way of training.

Life is full of surprises, both good and bad, and unfortunately many of them can knock you out of training, at least temporarily. Accepting this as inevitable will spare you from unnecessary frustration. Sometimes you need to skip class. Sometimes you need to skip many classes. Maybe you even need to take months off. BJJ is important to us, otherwise I would not be writing this and you would not be reading it, but you need to balance it with all the other aspects of your life.

My purpose for writing this was to help you see that your path through jiu-jitsu will not be as simple and straightforward as you may like, but that by being aware of the hangups we all face, you can feel less frustrated and keep working toward your goals, whatever they might be.

Speaking of goals, I would love to hear what you are working on right now in your training. Please leave a comment below!

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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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10 Steps to Adding Unorthodox Techniques to Your Game

Grappling trends come and go, and new techniques pop up every season. When I started training, everyone was trying to figure out x-guard and arm drags. Now it is leglocks and heel hooks. Eventually, the best elements of these techniques get folded into “standard” jiu-jitsu but not before the initial rush of grapplers scrambling to learn the secrets of the new hotness.

This guide will help you be one of those early adopters. Here are my 10 tips for adding new or unorthodox techniques to your game:

  1. Do your homework. Before you launch into learning that cool technique you saw in a GIF on Reddit, let’s make sure it is worth the effort. Gather up the answers to these questions:
  • Who is good at this technique or position, and at what level do they compete?
  • Do they have instructionals available? If not, does someone else?
  • Can you find tournament footage of it in action?
  • Has anyone done a competition footage analysis?

We only have so much time and energy, so make sure it’s well spent. By answering these questions, you might discover that the technique is perhaps too new to justify an intense investment of your time and study or that you just don’t have the resources yet to really understand it. This step prepares you for the next steps.

  1. Understand its fundamentals. Notice I said “its fundamentals” not “the fundamentals.” We call the basic moves of jiu-jitsu “fundamentals,” but here I’m referring to the key principles, concepts, and building blocks for the new position you are trying to learn. Even strange positions--if they are good--are built on certain basic rules: body mechanics, off balancing, leverage, timing, etc. The ones that don’t have solid fundamentals are often gimmicks--maybe you get a few surprise taps, or it could be a counter to a very specific “flash in the pan” technique that caught on at your gym.  Find the answer to these questions:
  • How does it work?
  • What makes it fail?
  • What key points of control do you need to maintain to be successful with it?
  • When is the right or wrong time to go for it?
  • If you had to reduce to a few core rules, what would they be?
  1. Study your role model. Back in step one (do your homework), you should have picked out one or more competitors/instructors whose competition footage and/or instructional videos to study. With all the YouTube and BJJ video subscription sites available these days, see if you can find even more about them. Watch competition footage in slow mo and take notes. Channel your inner BJJScout. You may spot details or variations they fail to teach. Keep an eye out for seminars where you can go to learn it in person. You may be surprised how different a technique feels when done by your hero compared to what you could cobble together from Instagram clips.
  1. Find a partner in crime. Having a training partner who is learning the same material can boost progress for both of you. You gain the benefit of their experiences, and they may spot details you missed (and vice versa). Having a trusty partner who shares your goals greatly increases learning speed.
  1. Practice outside group class. Get together with your loyal training partner outside of regular class hours to do the extra work. Teachers often get annoyed when students sit off to the side during regular class hours and do their own thing instead of doing what the rest of the class is doing. Either show up earlier or stay later, and use open mat time to work on your new material.
  1. Put in the reps (but mix it up). There is no getting around it: “Repetitio mater studiorum est. Repetition is the mother of all learning.” I quoted Latin so you know it’s true. Put in reps whenever you get a chance. In those extra training sessions with your buddy, mix it up by doing random practice. That means that instead of practices 3 techniques by doing 3 sets of 10 reps, do 30 reps where you mix up which technique you do at random. You can do it where your partner calls out the technique to do, or they just feed you the trigger to do it. Jason C. Brown wrote about block vs random practice on the blog here: Applying the Science of Motor Learning to Your BJJ Practice.
  1. Do positional sparring. When you get together with your buddy, set a timer and put in rounds of positional sparring. Take turns attacking and defending. Start where the target technique is most relevant and sometimes feed your partner the trigger they need to go for it. Raise the difficulty as you improve. Work up a good sweat and don’t stop to talk until you’ve put in enough rounds of trial and error.
  1. Go for it in free sparring. Try it on a few clueless white belts then work up the food chain as you have success. You will need to put your “A game” on the back burner while you develop this new material. Be mindful that old school teachers may get annoyed if you neglect the techniques they teach you in favor of your “YouTube zhoo-zhitzu,” but as long as you stay inside the agreed upon rules for your school you are probably OK.
  1. Find the connection to your existing game. Often when someone (especially intermediate level grapplers) tries to emulate someone else’s style, they run into difficulty because it doesn’t connect to anything else they are doing. Some techniques gel better with others. Your personal style may not suit a certain technique or position, at least not without experimenting.
  1. Expect to fail more than you succeed in the beginning. When you bring a new trick to your school, you will often enjoy early success (and the rush of excitement that brings) followed quickly by everyone shutting your crap down hard (and all the salty tears that brings). Do not be discouraged if you have a rough time with the new techniques. Think of yourself as a “white belt” in those moves even if you aren’t a white belt any more.

Putting those 10 steps into action will take months of hard work and mat time, but you will be rewarded for your efforts with exclamations of "What the hell was that?" from your opponents. Do me a favor and share your experiences and technical findings in a video or blog post. I’d love to see what you come up with.

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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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