The Self-Taught Dimension of BJJ

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has grown immensely in the last decade, and the speed of technical innovation has accelerated exponentially. A major driver of both of these has been the internet. Gone are the days of sharing bootleg competition VHS tapes and swapping ragged copies of grappling magazines to find new techniques. We have YouTube and dozens of instructional sites delivering hours of footage a day to jiu-jiteiros worldwide.

Working directly with an instructor in a formal academy setting is still the best way to learn jiu-jitsu. There is no escaping the value of direct feedback and in-person instruction.

At this stage in the sport, however, supplementing in-person instruction with online self-instruction is semi-mandatory. I say semi-mandatory because the casual hobbyist can become a respectable, proficient grappler simply by coming to class consistently, and there is nothing wrong with experiencing and enjoying jiu-jitsu this way.

For the serious hobbyist up through the professional grappler, online jiu-jitsu instruction is the best way to fill in the gaps in your training (perhaps you are struggling with side control and would rather not wait for that to come up in a class) and to learn the wide-ranging perspectives on jiu-jitsu technique (your instructor is unlikely to be a master of a recent jiu-jitsu idea like squid guard).

I say that this aspect of jiu-jitsu learning is semi-mandatory because learning technique this way has become so ubiquitous that you are almost at a disadvantage if you are not looking outside of your academy for new jiu-jitsu ideas. Pretty much everyone else is. Yes, it’s possible to go overboard on YouTube instruction, especially if you are not learning from credible instructors, but the power of the opportunity is so great that your jiu-jitsu can actually suffer—relative to the development of your training partners who capitalize on it—if you don’t utilize it at least a little bit.

Here’s why I encourage my own students to look beyond our formal classes for jiu-jitsu technique:

  • I don’t know every jiu-jitsu technique and never will. Leg drags are awesome, but they are not a part of my game. If you want to go down a deep dive on something I don’t know, please do, then come back and show me and your training partners what you learned.
  • Class rotations can mean that I won’t solve your specific challenge for some time (though you are welcome to ask me). If you get to mount and have no idea what to do next, going online to find some ideas can keep you moving forward even if we don’t go over mount attacks for another month.
  • Learning to troubleshoot is a valuable skill in itself. When you can’t ask the instructor for help—like when you learn from a DVD—you have to work through obstacles on your own. You have to take apart the technique and figure it out. This skill alone can elevate all of your training as it makes even your formal instruction more productive.
  • The bleeding edge of technique is always moving forward. Most professional jiu-jitsu instructors are good about making themselves generally aware of major techniques, even if they themselves don’t use all of them in their own games, but even the best instructors can’t keep up with everything that is happening in the sport. With so much content being released on a weekly basis, if you want to learn the newest stuff you often have no choice but to teach it to yourself.
  • I want to learn from you, too. It takes a lot of time and effort to master a new position. If one of my students gets good at something, I have to get better at defending it, and they can also teach me what they have learned. In this way, a jiu-jitsu team is a small army of researchers meeting up regularly to share their findings so that everyone can grow.

If you are not currently using online instructionals, the pure volume of what is available can be intimidating. Here’s my suggestion for getting started:

  • Look for credible instructors. Anyone can start a YouTube channel, so before you start taking an instructor’s advice, do some research. What is their lineage? What makes them credible? Are they active competitors? Do they have a reputation in the sport? There is not an exact science here as there are hundreds of excellent instructors you will never hear about, but there are also enough bad teachers out there that you should tread carefully.
  • Balance general viewing with specific exploration. Taking a sample of the new stuff being released is good for developing a broad awareness of jiu-jitsu, but if you want to really develop your game, you need to narrow your focus and devote your attention to a small set of techniques or ideas.
  • Watching jiu-jitsu is not learning jiu-jitsu. If you want your online instruction to be fruitful, you need to devote time to drilling new techniques. Without meaningful repetition and application, your self-instruction will not be productive. Consider taking a full month to regularly drill one to three techniques before adding new material to your schedule.
  • Remain open to your instructor’s feedback. Your instructor may not be a worm guard master, but if he or she suggests that you look at something else instead, keep an open mind. Many times, an instructor has a good perspective on what you need most to develop and will try to gently steer you away from techniques you are not yet ready for and guide you into the material that will help you most.

The online jiu-jitsu world is ever-evolving, and it can be an excellent way to supplement your journey.

Do you use online instructionals already? What are your tips for getting the most of them?

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