Inverted Gear Blog / Matt Kirtley
When looking for what drives success--in BJJ or elsewhere--many traits are important: perseverance, grit, intelligence, talent, determination, and more. But which is most important?
Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest difference between the wannabes and the experts is self-discipline and focus. So what are these traits and how can you develop them?
Self-discipline is defined as “the ability to control one's feelings and overcome one's weaknesses” and “the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.”
To have focus is to be “able to direct your attention and efforts.”
Examples of self-discipline and focus:
- Showing up to practice when it would be easier to take a night off.
- Pushing yourself to do things you don’t like doing.
- Doing what’s necessary even if it’s sometimes boring.
- Not glossing over the “small” details, and refining them instead.
- Delaying instant gratification in favor of future reward.
- Refining an old skill instead of playing with a new flashy technique.
- Using your mat time to drill and train, not socialize and gossip.
To put it in the simplest terms, having self-discipline and focus means you show up, pay attention, and do the work.
My mom has been a school teacher all of my life. While visiting her recently, we talked about her experiences with “gifted” or “slow” kids. She said she wants kids to develop “backbone”--the ability to stand up to challenges and push through. She said she prefers a “slow” student with backbone over a “talented” student. The bright kid will breeze along unchallenged most of the time, usually to the praise of adults, while the slow kid plods along behind. But when they each run into a real challenge, the gifted kid often crumbles under the pressure, while the slow kid just pushes through.
This matches up to the recent research on how one’s beliefs about talent and hardwork affect success. People often either believe talent is innate and unchangeable (either you’re born with it or you’re not), or that success is the product of persistence and hardwork. Researchers call this fixed mindset versus growth mindset. These beliefs affect how people approach learning, overcome challenges and recover from failures. As you might guess, the growth mindset is associated with better outcomes in learning and problem solving.
If you have trained for any length of time, you’ve seen talented students come and go. Oddly enough, they are often the quickest to quit, maybe because it’s not a big enough challenge at the beginning stages. They could be truly gifted if they stuck to it, but it doesn’t matter how good someone “could” be if they quit too soon. Success is only for those who stick around.
So how do you develop self-discipline and focus? If I could answer that question so easily, I’d sell it for $19.95 and be a much richer man than I am today. But I will share what I can.
To be honest, I am not the most disciplined or focused person in many areas of life. During that same visit with my mom, she and I were talking about that, too. She was so thankful I found BJJ and stuck to it because I never had a passion like it before. I never liked playing sports, I didn’t do particularly well in school. I didn’t have any big ambitions. But somehow I got into BJJ and I found all the drive and purpose I lacked elsewhere.
Here’s what I can tell you:
Success is achieved by having a passion that drives you to use self-discipline and focus to achieve your goals.
Take the time to answer these questions for yourself:
What are your big picture BJJ goals?
Become a black belt, win at Worlds, be able to protect myself and my family, become a great teacher, etc.
What are your shorter term BJJ goals?
Lose 20 lbs., compete in 6 weeks, develop a new skill or technique, improve a weakness, etc.
Do your daily habits align with those goals? If not, how can you change them?
Your sleep, work and training schedule, diet and nutrition, maintaining relationships with friends and family.
- What are you willing to give up to achieve those goals?
- Partying, junk food, other hobbies, free time, etc. You still need your friends and family, so don’t think you can drop them, but you may need to help them see why your goals are important and positive for you to gain their support.
If you want to send me your answers to those questions and get my feedback, feel free to message me through Aesopian BJJ on Facebook.
If you’re interested in starting BJJ, you’ve come to the right place. This guide will arm you with the knowledge you need to pick the right BJJ school for you.
When evaluating BJJ schools, these are the key factors to consider:
- Location - What schools are closest to you and how far are you willing to travel?
- Schedule - Do they run classes at times that are convenient for you?
- Classes - Do they offer what you want to learn: gi, no-gi, MMA, judo, wrestling, etc.?
- Instructor - Are the coaches qualified and do they have good reputations?
- Culture - Are the instructors and students friendly and helpful?
- Facility - Is the school clean and does it have any amenities?
- Cost - Can you work tuition fees into your budget?
Location and schedule have a huge impact on whether or not you train.
Location and class schedule may seem like mundane details but they can have the biggest influence on whether or not you stick to training. A new student is likely to quit if they’re always showing up late because they couldn’t get out of work in time and got stuck in traffic. If it becomes more appealing to say “Screw it; I’ll just go another day,” you’re slipping towards quitting. Everything else being equal, you’ll train more at a school you can more easily get to on time.
That said, a great instructor is worth the longer drive if you are disciplined enough to make the trip.
Does an instructor need to be a BJJ black belt?
Not necessarily, but it’s usually better if they are. A purple or brown belt with a great personality and a professional attitude can run a better school than a grumpy old black belt who doesn’t show up except to hang out with buddies and look at Facebook on his phone. But a veteran black belt, even a grumpy old one with broken English, who focuses on his or her students’ development gets my vote.
Why can’t you find prices anywhere?
You’ve likely been frustrated trying to find prices on any school’s websites, or have even contacted a gym to ask, only to be told “come in and try it out first.” School owners do this because there’s a common business practice of hiding prices until after they get prospective new students in the door.
The logic is that if they put their prices out there, people get to comparison shop, but they probably don’t know anything about martial arts, so they’ll likely just find a karate or taekwondo McDojo that’s cheaper. By getting that prospective student into the school, they can provide an exciting hands-on experience, making the face-to-face sale easier.
Whether or not you agree with that, that’s why prices are hard to find.
How much should I expect to pay?
Cost is important to you, but don’t let it rule your decision. Cheapest is rarely best. A black belt world champion with a 5,000 sq. ft. facility will charge more than a blue belt with puzzle mats in his garage. Weigh all the factors before deciding based on pricing.
BJJ tends to cost more than other martial arts. I would say around $150 per month is average, but $250 or higher is possible in places like New York City or California.
What should you expect for your first class?
You’ll get the best experience by contacting the gym first. They should have a free trial sign up form on their website or at least a Facebook page. They may tell you to come to any class or schedule you for an intro.
An intro class usually consists of learning some techniques one-on-one with an instructor, though not necessarily the head instructor or even a black belt. Afterwards, they may go straight to talking about signing up, or send you into the group class to keep training.
If you are dropped into a group class, just try to follow along. No one expects you to have any idea what’s going on, so just be willing to look to the instructor or nearby students for guidance if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing. There may be formalities like lining up in a certain order and bowing at the start of class.
A normal class usually follows this format:
- Warm ups - Jogging, push ups, jumping jacks, solo BJJ movement drills, etc.
- Technique - The instructor will teach techniques, then students pair up to drill.
- Live training - Games where you try your techniques against resisting partners.
- Sparring - One-on-one matches where you can try whatever you know.
They may not have you spar on your first day as a matter of safety, but many places have no problem with new students sparring. You can ask to sit out if you don’t feel ready yet.
What should you be looking for during this first class?
This is your chance to check out the instructor, the facility, and the culture. After class, answer these questions for yourself:
- Was the instructor attentive?
- Did the instructor clearly explain techniques?
- Did the instructor give you any direct attention?
- Did classes start and end on time?
- Were the mats clean?
- Was the bathroom clean?
- Were students friendly and willing to help you?
What gear do you need to get started?
Here’s what you need to train:
- A good BJJ gi
- A couple of rashguards
- No-gi shorts
- Athletic underwear
Not required, but recommended:
- Athletic tape
- Water bottle
- Gym bag
All of those necessities (except the underwear) are available in the Inverted Gear store. In particular, I recommend new students get the gold weave Panda Gi, one or two long or short sleeve ranked rashguards, and the RDojo shorts. That will get you through years of gi and no-gi training. You’ll just want to get more gear later to make laundry rotation easier.
White or blue are your safest colors for gis since some schools have policies about that. Check if black is fine with your school first. It’s OK to get the black rashguard as a white belt--no one will confuse you for a black belt.
Use coupon code NEWBIE to get 10% off your entire purchase as my thanks for reading all the way down to here.
I hope this guide helps you find a great school that launches you into your journey towards BJJ black belt!
10th Planet Chicago after 3 hours of crucifix shenanigans.
I owe a big thanks to Javi and Dan for organizing this trip after meeting them back at the Rdojo camp, and thanks to Barry from CMA and Josh at 10PJJC for hosting me. Everyone was welcoming and friendly and eager to train jiu-jitsu.
After both seminars, I was happy to get very positive feedback from students, first in person and later through Facebook messages. The most common praise was that they felt they really “got” the material and felt they would retain it. That was fantastic to hear because I know I hate when a seminar isn’t good for much more than getting a new profile pic with a famous black belt. I really want people to learn something that will make a big difference in their game.
The Chicago Martial Arts crew (some more
disappointed than others about lack of DnD).
I was especially honored that the head instructors at each school attended my seminars and afterwards complimented me on my teaching style. They said they liked how I had designed my instruction around retention, with logical progressions that tied everything together.
That was validating to hear, since I have given a lot of thought to my teaching methods. With this article, I want to lay out the principles that guide my teaching style. I hope these tips help you refine your own.
Here is my advice on teaching a good class or seminar:
Fold the reps into the bigger recipe.
We all know repetition is the key to learning. But we also know that endless repping gets boring. And modern research on how to practice for real world learning shows that the classic “do 10,000 reps” method isn’t as good as we thought it was. So how do we get students to put it reps without mindlessly putting in reps?
My answer has been to spend less time on each individual “technique” (meaning what the last thing I stopped class to demonstrate), but I teach chains of techniques that contain the skills I want the student to repeat the most. They may be entering into a position several different ways, but they keep arriving at the same point, then perhaps going on to different finishes.
Build around your core concepts.
The best seminars I have attended were built around core concepts, not just a bunch of assorted “hey, this is a cool move” techniques. Cool moves are, well, cool, but they are often quickly forgotten unless they fill a niche you needed filled.
You can still show cool moves, but when they are built into a larger conceptual framework, the students have a better chance of retaining what they learn. They may forget certain techniques, but through the drilling and games you had them do, they “know” it in their bones. Students love when you have a system where every piece fits into place and they can see the unifying logic for each position and technique variation.
Rdojo Shorts Squad (P.S. Rdojo shorts are back in stock in the Inverted Gear shop)
Show what you’re teaching before talking too much.
A pet peeve of mine is when an instructor, in an admirable but misguided desire to share as many details as possible, talks and talks and talks before even showing a single rep. Of course I appreciate detailed instruction, but I don’t need a 10 minute lecture about every possibility and counter and re-counter for a technique I haven’t even seen completed once. Show the move then let’s talk about it.
When introducing a new technique, I show it in its simplest form, without much (or any) explanation in the first few reps. Then I’ll demonstrate it again, sharing more details, focusing on the major points. Then I may just send people off to drill, even if I plan to go into more detail later. Fine details are built on gross motor movements, and not the other way around. I like showing “the same” technique a few times, but with each pass we go another layer further into the finer details and deeper understanding.
Don’t overcoach or overcorrect in the beginning.
I have a personal rule to not correct a student on their first rep. If they ask for help right away, I’ll still make them attempt it unaided while I watch. I want them to try to figure it out first, even if they ultimately fail. This does two major things:
First, it gives them a frame of reference for when I give corrections. An instructor can kill a valuable learning moment by rushing in to prevent a student from even doing a single rep poorly. The student may need to feel what it’s like to do a bad rep to appreciate what a good one feels like (assuming no risk of injury).
Second, the frustration a student feels when struggling spurs the brain to work overtime to resolve the problem. Your role as an instructor is not to eliminate all difficulties or confusions, but to guide the student so these “negative” experiences lead to growth and learning.
This also has a broader applications. When you teach too many counters to counters too early, your time is often wasted because the student needs a chance to both succeed and fail in live training. The success will give them a desire to succeed again, and the failure will give them a reason to dig deeper and ask better questions.
Javi, the Panda Hunter, insisted on a Panda Gi Club group photo.
Use regressions to prepare students.
Students often need more basic versions of techniques to get a feel for a new movement. You can use regressions to accomplish this. A regression would be a simplified version of the technique or certain aspects of a technique.
For example, if I know I will be teaching a complex sequence that is unfamiliar to the students, I may start with a simplified version that doesn’t demand as much from them. Once they start getting the feel for it, we can look at it again go “okay, now here’s how you really do it.”
You can also “regress” a technique during your warm-up by seeing if students can perform its basic movements in solo or partnered drills. This allows you to check if any students lack the flexibility or coordination that will be required later, and gives them a chance to prepare their motor skills for later.
Do warm-ups that complement the lesson plan.
When I attend seminars or visit other schools, I love collecting new solo and partnered warm-ups and drills, so I share my favorite ones when I can.
My warm-up drills tend to resemble motions that will be needed in the techniques that will be taught. I dislike when warm-ups turn into a grueling conditioning routine. That said, I do believe there can be a place for traditional bodyweight exercises like push ups, squats, etc. in some warm-ups, but I won’t make seminar attendees spend time on that. No one is paying me to come out and make them run laps and do jumping jacks.
Here is what I want my students to get out of warm-ups:
- Literally warm up the body--increase the heart rate, raise body temperature, limber up the big joints.
- Develop coordination, body control, and “mat awareness”, usually through ground-based movements.
- Prepare the students to perform what will be taught later with simplified movements that mimic components of the techniques.
- Compensate for anything that may be over-trained, like doing back extensions if I know we will do a lot of flexion.
Make students see, hear, do, feel, and even teach.
You’ve probably heard the popular idea that people can be divided up into learning styles: visual, tactile, auditory, etc. While this may just be a persistent myth, I do believe people learn best when they experience material in many different ways and through as many senses as possible. Here is how we can engage those senses:
- See it performed.
- Hear it explained.
- Do it themselves.
- Feel it done to them.
- Teach it to someone else.
- Read it (if possible, like in an Artechoke instructional).
People will usually say they learn best when they’re taught a certain way (“I just need to feel it first then I get it”), and that may be true, but don’t use it as an excuse to not learn any way you can. As a student, try to develop your ability to learn through any means possible.
Demand active recall.
Throughout the seminar, usually when I’m about to move on to a new topic or take a water break, I will ask students to recall and practice techniques from earlier in the day. I may ask to see a specific technique, or I’ll leave it up to them to pick one. This simple activity will greatly boost retention, especially when you go around asking the students to teach the techniques back to you.
To summarize my teaching philosophy:
- Have a progression that starts in the warm-ups and runs through the entire lesson.
- Present a logical system built around core concepts, not just assorted cool moves.
- Talk less at the start and get the students doing the moves sooner, then regroup to go into greater detail as their familiarity increases.
- Get the students thinking about the material for themselves and even struggling with it if that means they will ultimately retain it better.
- Keep the energy and interest high by showing variations or adding to the combo chain, but use that to get them doing more reps of the core techniques.
After-seminar Korean stir fry party (check out my party face).
Over those days, I shared an Airbnb rental with Nelson and Hillary as well as Reilly Bodycomb and his grappling Pokémon Elliott Hill. We ran several Magic drafts and debated late into the night about medieval battle tactics, but I’ll write about that another time.
The Rdojo camp had a major focus on leglocks (big surprise!) but also went into wrestling offense and defense, kneeride and top game, and a widely varied open-ended Q&A session. The entire camp was filmed by Jason Scully for the Grapplers Guide so it’s available if you want to see it. (I’m a dummy in a few techniques, so you could say I’m pretty famous.)
Each day of camp was divided into blocks where we’d be focusing on a certain topic, like reaping ankle locks, Reilly’s top rock series, defending and attacking heelhooks, etc. It was clear the Reilly had given a lot of thought to the progression of techniques and positions so that each would build the on last, and no one would be confused by needing to know too much about something that hadn’t been taught yet.
At the camp, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Brian McLaughlin, who I remember from his blue belt days, back when he put up photo instructionals on BJJFighter.com. It’s both fun and awkward to meet someone after only seeing them online for a decade. Brian was great to train with and very eager to ask questions to milk the camp for everything it’s got, and we all benefited from it.
What I appreciated most was the constant live training of the positions and techniques. For example, if we had all been working on the ankle locks from the reaping position (or whatever name you want to use: leg knot, saddle, game over, the reaper, etc.), Reilly would have us get into it then countdown from ten. For those ten seconds, the attacker had to wait and just control while the defender tried to escape. At zero, the attack gets to find the tap, if they still can. Similar live drills were used throughout for every position.
Running these positional games for boogeyman positions like full on reaping anklelocks, heelhooks and inverted heelhooks had the benefit of removing the fear that most IBJJF-based grapplers (such as myself) have for them. It helped that Reilly had lead with teaching heelhook defenses and escapes and making sure we all knew when to concede and just tap. But once you’ve spent three days doing all manner of leglocks and heelhooks, and no one--not even the beginners--are getting hurt, it makes you realize “okay, so maybe reaping won’t make my heart explode.”
There was also an in-house sambo tournament with Sambo Steve dropping in to coach his guys. Beforehand Reilly ran a small clinic that did a good job explaining the rules and basic tactics of sport sambo. You may remember Nelson’s post about competing in this.
The camp also marks the first time I wore a kurtka, an event that’s on record in Elliott Hill’s “John Wick” instructional video.
After the camp, Reilly asked if I would write a review and I said I would. While I’m sure he didn’t want me to take four month to do it, because I did I can give a more definitive review. If you’ve been to enough seminars, you know how often a seminar ultimately doesn’t give you more than a new Facebook profile pic. How much does the seminar actually change your mindset and future training?
In that regard, this is one of the most valuable seminars I’ve ever been to. Here are the changes I’ve made to my teaching and training since the camp:
- I added a new no-gi class to the schedule at Zombie BJJ PA (where I teach) where reaping and all leglocks are taught and practiced. We are also training for submission-only without IBJJF points.
- I now include takedowns or takedown defenses in most classes before we get to groundwork. Personally I am working on my gi and no-gi takedown game, which I had neglected for years in true BJJ fashion.
- To that end, I now start every every round of sparring from standing and have forbid myself from pulling guard. I’m encouraging all the students in my classes to do the same.
- I am still working on material from the camp, and I’m shopping for a kurtka so Nelson and I can start Sambo Saturdays when he completes his move to my corner of Pennsylvania.
If you have a chance to attend one of Reilly’s camps or seminars, you should do it, especially if you want an escape from all the rules lawyering you have to do with IBJJF-focused training. His system is well thought out and comprehensive and he will go out of his way to make sure you get the most out of it.
As a student or teacher of jiu-jitsu, it can help to break the martial art into four main contexts: gi, no-gi, self defense, and MMA. These categories let you to analyze the effectiveness of your training methods and inform how you select techniques. It can also help you understand conflicting opinions between people who may not realize they are training for different reasons.
Let’s breakdown the four contexts to their specifics:
A sport with rules
A sport with rules
A sport with rules
No “rules” but legal concerns
At its core, jiu-jitsu is a system of techniques that enables a human to defend against an attack from another human and come out victorious in hand-to-hand combat. On top of this we add further requirements and expectations, such as sport rules and real life applications.
An instructor who loves to teach sport BJJ techniques but doesn’t recognize that his students believe they are learning self defense techniques is setting those students up for a rude awakening. I believe one of the biggest confidence boosters you can give a student is to remove the fear of someone just shoving them around and swinging at their head.
The “sports” aspects of jiu-jitsu builds many skills and attributes that will be useful in a hand-to-hand fight: sparring against a resisting opponent (even without strikes), learning through constant trial-and-error, dealing with adrenaline dump, physical conditioning, etc.
How would you define “winning” in these situations?
- You are a woman being followed by a stranger as you walk alone at night.
- You are a police officer intervening to stop domestic violence.
- You are a husband getting carjacked with your wife and kid in the car.
- You are a soldier encountering enemy combatants while clearing a building.
- You are a 16th century feudal warlord charging your horse into foot soldiers.
And how much would jiu-jitsu help in those situations?
My personal opinion is that hand-to-hand combat is one of the least important aspects of most self defense situations that don’t resemble a street fight. A fully realized self defense system would include developing verbal skills, de-escalation, threat assessment, situational awareness, using the environment, practicing escaping rather than engaging in combat, etc.
Let’s talk about street fights for a minute. They are often held up as the best example of how jiu-jitsu is used in self defense. There is some truth to that since it’s two apes jumping on each other in the wild, but I’d argue that it’s closer to a form of “mutual combat.” Most street fights can be avoided if you stay away from 1) groups of aggressive young men, 2) groups of drunk people, and 3) people competing to get laid.
(Interesting aside: Someone did a reddit AMA about being in prison. He had a BJJ blue belt so he was asked if it helped. He said it didn’t because if he clinched and took it to the ground, other inmates would separate them and stand them back up to “fight like real men.”)
The more you specialize in any one of these four areas, the more likely you are to practice techniques and tactics that aren’t practical in the other areas. This is how we get double guard pulls and winning by advantages after 10 minutes stuck in 50/50 in the sport, but self defense can get just as weird. What starts as blocking haymakers and escaping bear hugs can evolve into LARPing and 5-on-1 taser knive fights (but to be honest that sounds pretty sweet).
A useful definition of “the basics” is to look for the techniques and positions that have the greatest crossover between all four areas. This gives you the list of common fundamentals: mount, rear mount, side control, closed guard, bridging, shrimping, armbar, guillotine, rear naked choke, etc.
We can also understand the conflicting opinions between jiu-jiteiros by where they place themselves across these four corners. Someone whose primary reason for learning jiu-jitsu is self defense won’t be concerned with learning modern sports techniques or keeping track of points while rolling. Their sports-oriented training partners will wonder why they don’t seem concerned to learn berimbolo defenses or check out cool techniques from YouTube. But why would they?
Likewise, if you don’t care about self defense, but enjoy sports and competition, you’ll get bored drilling headlock escapes and wish you were repping out the hot new tech you liked on Instagram. Given how many of the classic “self defense” techniques are taught, without any resistance or sparring, I can see why. These techniques need to be trained like real skills with live drills, not just dusted off when the instructor feels guilty he hasn’t shown Helio’s “defense against arm’s length overhand karate chop” since the 90's.
In last year’s US BJJ Globetrotters camp, Chris Haueter entertainingly rants about the struggle between the old school and new, street versus sport, and his golden rules for jiu-jitsu. Watch it now if you missed it:
Back in 2014, Philly-based Josh Vogel ran a 30 Day Punch Challenge with these Cato-vs-Clouseau rules:
Grab a friend. Tell them to throw 10 punches or slaps at you every day. Avoid, block, parry or clinch when those punches are thrown. You can have them hit you hard, or light, slow or fast. I suggest doing this from standing, but you can do this from ground positions. You can ask your friend to do this all in one shot, or randomly throughout the day (I'm going to ask my wife to randomly attack me throughout the day, for example).
On the Show the ART podcast, another Philly grappler, the kettlebell juggling Jason C. Brown talked about putting on boxing gloves and doing takedowns versus punches in the old school days training with Steve Maxwell. This was a common practice when I was a white belt, but I haven’t seen it in a long time (and I’m partly to blame). To borrow from Philly one more time, I’m going to be copying the Migliarese brother’s practice of having a monthly “street week”.
A martial art only consists of the things its practitioners regularly do. Judo may supposedly have strikes in its kata, but that’s like karate claiming it has grappling hidden in its katas too. Your training is only what you actually do, not what some Gracie did 70 years ago.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Which of the four contexts do you want to train for? You can pick more than one, but think about how important each one is to you.
- Does your school’s curriculum and training actually prepare you for that?
- If it doesn’t, how can you change your own training to align with your real goals?
- Would you benefit from exploring a neglected context?
My purpose for this article was not to spark yet another tiresome street versus sport debate (it will do that no matter what), but to help you see the bigger picture and place yourself and your training on the greater map of jiu-jitsu. I don’t believe training for self defense is better or worse than training for sport, but that you should be truthful with yourself and your students about what you’re really training for.