Tips for Teaching Jiu-Jitsu

I believe that learning the basics of how to teach is important for any jiu-jiteiro. Even if you have no intention of running a school or even running a class, you may be called upon to cover for a sick instructor or a white belt might grab you after a session to ask for help. Whether you are listed on the website or are just helping new students on the side, the ability to teach is invaluable and a powerful way for you to do your part to elevate the team.

But teaching is weird.

I have been teaching jiu-jitsu since I was a white belt. I wanted more time to train, so I founded a martial arts club on campus, stole some mats, and started hosting training sessions. No, I do not believe I was qualified to teach, but there I was reciting Cesar Gracie DVDs from memory.

In my non-jiu-jitsu life, I have taught college courses. I have led marketing seminars and workshops. And I have authored or co-authored a dozen or so instructionals. I am not a formally trained instructor or the best in the world by any meaningful measure, but I have taught a lot, and I have also put a great deal of time into learning how to teach so that my students—jiu-jitsu or otherwise—don’t audibly groan when I start a class.

If you are new to teaching, it’s not as difficult as you might think. These tips will help you overcome the stumbling blocks that slowed me down:

1. You will likely want to talk a lot. Don’t. When you start showing a technique, getting lost in all of the potential digressions and branching paths is tempting. Take a moment to think about the core idea you want to teach, and force yourself to get to the point and stop talking. Depth is important, but if you carry-on talking for too long your students’ focus will fade.

2. Know your audience. The technique you choose to teach should be a fit for the students in your class. With a mixed-levels class, selecting your material is an art in its own right, so aim for the average. It’s okay to challenge the white belts a bit, but if your students are all white belts, maybe save the new squid guard shenanigans for another class in favor of some worthwhile basics.

3. You do not have to deliver a technique thesis. For me, I could actually spend an hour talking about the theory and nuances of the armbar from guard and how I suggest students develop their armbar game. In a sport known for its detail, we can be tempted to tell students everything we know about a technique when we teach it, but that is just not a practical way for most people to learn. Teach the essentials of the technique, point out the most common mistake people make when they first start using it, and get to drilling. You can layer in more advanced knowledge later.

4. Imperfect technique is okay. Yes, that’s blasphemy, but depending on the student, just getting the right angle for an armbar can be a big win. When you have trained for a while, you can likely see a dozen places where a student can improve a move, but that is wholly different from their being ready for those improvements. Offer up some tweaks, and accept that a flawless technique won’t happen in the first session. If you push too hard, you can overload a student and undermine any progress you managed to make.

5. Let students fail. The first repetition of a move is almost always awful, so restrain yourself from jumping in with corrections right away. Let your students experiment and troubleshoot on their own, and encourage them to reason through a solution to their technical challenges if you can. Failure can be a powerful teaching tool if you can strike the balance between pushing their limits and frustrating them.

Teaching is a skill. It takes practice and repetition just like anything else. You will flub a class or two. You will over-teach and then under-teach and then over-teach again. Your students sometimes won’t understand what you mean. All of that is okay. The more you do it, the better teacher you will become.

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