Teaching Grapplers to Teach

If you train jiu-jitsu for long enough, you will likely be called upon to teach jiu-jitsu. Maybe your instructor needs to take a call just as class is starting and asks you to run the warmup. Maybe she or he is unexpectedly detained and calls upon you to cover. Maybe you have a particularly effective take on a given technical sequence and some of your teammates ask you to show it. Or maybe you want to teach on a regular basis but do not yet have much experience.

Learning to teach jiu-jitsu is like learning to do jiu-jitsu: When you start, you will not be nearly as good as you will become over time, and your skill improves directly as the amount of time and effort you put in. In other words, time and experience will help you become a better jiu-jitsu instructor.

While you are developing your teaching skill, or even if you are a seasoned instructor, here are 10 things to consider that may help you create or enhance a productive learning environment for students in your jiu-jitsu academy when you are instructing.

  • You can learn a lot about how to teach by observing your teachers. If you are interested in teaching, watch your instructors from the perspective of someone who wants to teach. Pay attention to the language and analogies, the breakdown of the available time, how the instructor interacts with students in the large group and one on one. You do not have to copy your instructor’s style completely, but you can emulate some of the basics as you develop your own teaching personality.

  • It is useful to give some thought to time management. How long is the class? What are the usual components of a class at your academy (e.g., warmup, technique/drilling, live rolling)? How many techniques do you want to show, and how long do you plan to allow students to drill each one? Less seasoned instructors may sometimes find it challenging to partition a class session effectively, and in this case, the clock is your friend, as is a bit of advance estimation. Time management is also a good thing to keep in mind as you observe your own instructors.

  • Good instructors do more than show technique. Technique is important, of course, and is the reason people are coming to class in the first place. However, good instructors see to the care and feeding of the whole grappler. They create an environment conducive to learning by setting expectations, being present and attentive, even playing appropriate music. They put the students’ needs before their own, which may mean not training to give students their chance. They always remember they are representing their school and their colleagues and instructors, and they become comfortable with asserting authority in times of emergency or uncertainty.

  • The target audience, the time of day, and even the season may have an influence on the class. The expectations placed on students in a fundamentals class will differ greatly from those in an advanced or competition class. If you are teaching a fundamentals class, less is more, while an advanced class will require more intensity. I teach early in the morning, so I usually run a gentle warmup. And if people are coming in from 20-degree weather, they may need a bit more time to get the blood moving than if it is summertime.

  • It is a good idea to plan more than you think you will have time for. Sometimes even experienced instructors find that what they have planned takes less time than anticipated. Those instructors are good at modifying on the fly, adding drills or situational sparring to support learning. Newer instructors may not have mastered this skill yet, so it is a good idea to plan more than we think we will need. If we do have too much, we can cut the presentation short as necessary. That can even seed anticipation for the next class. (I.e., “Next time we’ll cover how to counter the sequence we’ve been working on today.”)

  • Repetition is a good thing. Sometimes when I prepare to teach something I have taught before, I get concerned that students will find it boring. As a student, however, I know that I need to revisit techniques time and time again, and there have been many occasions when I have been happy to discover that the class will be focusing on a technique I think I know well, because I also know there is always more to learn.

  • We become better teachers with time and practice, just as we do as practitioners. I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating, especially after a particularly challenging class Revisiting techniques is what helps students encode them into muscle memory. Similarly, teaching the same techniques repeatedly helps us become better at teaching them. The same goes for classroom management and our comfort with assuming a leadership role in general.

  • It is helpful to practice out loud. Before you are scheduled to teach, talk aloud through the different sections of your class. Find a time and place where you can talk to yourself without evoking stares or, better still, find a few people to act as your class so you can run through the details physically and verbally. If I am planning to teach something I am not as comfortable with, I will talk to myself on the drive to the academy. As anyone who gives presentations knows, it makes a huge difference if you practice first. Even if you stumble over your words, better to do it in private than in front of the group—and it will make your performance that much better when it is show time.

  • If you get stage fright, you can teach to your friends. Or the wall. Particularly if you are teaching a big fundamentals class, it can be overwhelming at first to have all those eyes on you. The old trick of imagining everyone in their underwear has never worked for me, but teaching to friends has. Chances are there will be a few people in your class whom you like, and who like you, and you can make eye contact with them. If that is not the case, ask a ringer or two to attend, so you have friendly faces to anchor you. If all else fails, find a spot on the wall just above the heads of the students, and direct your words to it.

  • For the most part, nobody will remember your mistakes. People may not even realize you have made what you consider to be a mistake, depending on how you play it. If you apologize all over the place, that sends one message. If instead you say something like, “You know what? Scratch that. Let’s do something different,” that sends a completely different message. In other words, fake it till you make it, and act as if everything you do is correct—not obnoxiously, but in a way that inspires confidence in your leadership. Eventually you, too, will feel the same confidence. Even if you do make a big, honking mistake, you will survive, and it does not mean you are worthless as an instructor or a practitioner. It means you are in the same club as the rest of us.

What other advice would you give to your teammates and students who want to teach jiu-jitsu? Post your suggestions to comments.

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.