Inverted Gear Blog / Matt Kirtley

5 Tips for New Instructors

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.

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The Balancing of Opposites

In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we are in a constant struggle to balance opposites. For example, you need to train hard enough to get better, but not so hard you get burnt out and injured. We’re constantly told to leave our egos at the door (whatever that means) but we should also take pride in our progress. We each need to seek the right balance to get the most we can out of our training.

Below are some of the main “opposites” I feel most of us could benefit from striking a balance between:

Focus on using technique over strength…

…but don’t let that be an excuse for being weak.

In BJJ, we love the idea that us weaklings can defeat those big, dumb meatheads without breaking a sweat. That’s what the Gracie marketing teaches us. That is what got me into BJJ, so I’m not one to knock that fantasy too hard, but it’s not the complete truth.

Strength matters. The purpose of BJJ is to try to make it matter less, but you can never get away from it entirely. When solving BJJ problems, the best answers come from pretending you have minimal physical attributes (i.e. strength, speed, power, flexibility, weight, etc.) and finding a solution that works because it is smarter.

My main reason for saying you should get stronger is because injuries are the biggest reason most of us have to take time off training, and strength is the main attribute associated with lowered risk of injury. You do not need to become a powerlifter but a basic fitness program that aims for general strengthening and healthy joints will keep you in the game longer.

Learn to stay calm under pressure…

...but don’t let that make you lazy.

As an instructor, I want beginners to think about what they are doing so they can try doing real techniques instead of some untrained, instinctual reaction. At the same time, I do not want them to get paralysed by overthinking it. In the end, they will find the right balance after going too far in both directions and ending up somewhere in the middle.

Where I think many of us go wrong in BJJ is going too far in making ourselves and our students too chill while rolling. You run the risk of killing a beginner’s survival instinct by making them too relaxed. Sometimes the best thing you can do is decide you don’t like what’s going on and just get the hell out.

Dedicate yourself to mastering what your teacher shows you…

...but also explore what other teachers have to offer.

Every day, the options for outside instructional material expand: YouTube, DVDs, membership sites, apps, and more. Access to detailed instruction by world champions has never been easier to get.

The problem with having access to so much information is that you can take your everyday teacher for granted. That is unfortunate because the most important learning you will do is still done the old fashioned way: on the mats, with your instructor, one class at a time.

Appreciate the instructor you have and focus on the lesson of the day. Then, in your free time, pick a topic to research and study instructionals on it to work on at open mat or after class.

Develop a gameplan around your signature techniques…

...but don’t become a one trick pony.

More techniques exist than any one person can master. For most of us mere mortals, we need to pick those techniques that come naturally and devote ourselves to mastering those. Every successful grappler I have ever met has developed “their game” and they have a distinct style.

Where this goes wrong is when your game becomes stale and you fail to evolve and adapt to new strategies. Especially at the lower belts (though it remains true even at black belt) your game is still developing too much to be able to confidently say you’ll never need a certain technique. You need to experiment and sometimes return to old material to see if it has a place in your game now.

If you plan to teach, you need to at least be able to demonstrate a much greater amount of techniques than you necessarily need to have built into your “A game”. For example, I can teach a complete leg lasso guard game but I do not use almost any of it personally (because I don’t like how the grip wrecks my fingers).

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When we are faced with two seemingly opposite but equally valid arguments, the truth usually lies somewhere in between. We each have to find out how to strike that right balance and hit the sweet spot for us. Accepting that not every question has a single correct answer may be uncomfortable at first, but by examining each possibility, you will get closer to the answer that is right for you.

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The 4 Stages of Learning

Over the last decade of writing about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, much of my work has been dedicated to understanding how students can learn faster and how instructors can teach better. We all only have so much time to spend on the mats and we want to make the biggest strides we can.

That trend continues today because I want to talk about an idea from psychology that will help you at any stage in your BJJ journey. It is called the four stages of competence.

Per this learning model, you pass through these stages as you learn a skill:

  1. Unconscious incompetence

  2. Conscious incompetence

  3. Conscious competence

  4. Unconscious competence

Put another way, the stages of competence are:

  1. You do not know the skill exists, or if you do, you do not see the value of it.

  2. You knowing the skill exists, but you are bad at it. You see its value but are struggling to learn it. You could also know the skill exists but refuse to learn it.

  3. You know what you are doing but still having to concentrate to do it. You can perform the skill but need to focus.

  4. You know what you are doing so well that it comes naturally without much thought.

This model can be applied to any skill, but seeing as you are reading the Inverted Gear blog, we are going to use it to better understand what we go through as we learn BJJ.

For many old school grapplers, the original UFCs forced them out of stage 1 (unconscious incompetence) and into stage 2 (conscious incompetence). This was the first time the public saw ground fighting was real and could beat most of the martial arts world. They were faced with the choice of either seeking out grappling instruction or remaining willfully ignorant, like many traditional martial artists chose to do.

Many self-trained garage grapplers live in the bizarro zone between stages 1 and 2, wanting to know how to grapple but not being competent enough to see how bad they are, especially if they got “good” enough to beat up their untrained buddies. The Dunning–Kruger effect kicks in here, which is where someone feels a false sense of confidence because they are too incompetent to know how bad they really are.

The first time we roll is where many of us are shocked out of stage 1 and forced into stage 2. Some new students need this experience or they won’t see the value of BJJ. The job of the “gym enforcer” can be seen as smashing cocky new guys who are stage 1 until they become humble enough to enter stage 2 where the real learning can start. I’m not saying all noobies need to be smashed, but some guys are really asking for it, like those garage grapplers we just talked about.

As a beginner, you will spend your time in stage 2, feeling confused and overwhelmed. Accept this sense of frustration as normal and try not to stress out too much. This stage is about learning from mistakes. You need to try many wrong things so you can see why not to repeat them in the future. The struggle to get out of stages 1 and 2 into stage 3 is where most people quit (not counting all the people who do one class and never return). What’s funny is the white belts who look up to the blue belts do not realize those blue belts are struggling to climb out of stage 2 themselves.

Stage 3 is where things start to get fun. You know what you are doing, even if it takes some effort. This is where you can work to refine your skills. Getting to stage 4 is mostly about dedication, experience, and repetition. It just takes time.

Realize that these 4 stages can apply to specific skills. Even black belts will need to work through them again on neglected skills like takedowns, leg locks, or a newly developed guard. Leaving the comfort zone of your stage 4 skills can be hard but it is how new skills are acquired.

One of the valuable uses of this model to you as a student is that it gives you a way to put your experiences into perspective. Feeling frustrated and clumsy is a normal part of the learning process. Just keep working on it and you will get through it and into the next stage.

As a teacher, we can use this model to evaluate where our students are, both broadly, or in specific skill sets. Students may not take to learning a skill until its value is really demonstrated to them. This is where rolling with your students and using techniques from your curriculum on them can “sell” them on the need to practice what you teach -- or put another way, show them they were in stage 1 and push them into stage 2.

The 4 stages model gives us a clear picture of what it takes to improve any skill. If this was a new idea to you, I hope it helps you make sense of your journey. I would love to hear about any insights you gained from reading this in the comments below.

Graphic uses graph by Wikipedia user Kokcharov. Used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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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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