Thursday, June 2, 2011

My Thoughts on BJJ Training

One of my students and my assistant, Rizan asked me last night on my thoughts on teaching BJJ and why I teach the way I teach, and seeing that I haven't blogged for a long time, perhaps its a good time to actually share my thoughts on why I teach the way I teach

First and foremost, my instructor John Will always from day 1 knew I was coming back to Malaysia, and was going to teach. That is why I was always taught so many different variations, so many combinations, so many options. Well, to be honest, I was also the irritating student asking way too many questions, but being the great guy he is, he answered all of them, rather than giving the typical "don't get there" answers.

Competition Training

Before I go on, I would like to express the fact that I KNOW how generally competition gyms are run, how they train. The fact that I don't teach that way, just means that I do not agree with it.

The usual style for most competition gyms would be an intensive workout, anywhere between 1/2 to an hour, then perhaps one or two techniques and lastly 15 mins to half an hour of rolling time.

Now, thats all good and well, if you have the time and resources to train every day, maybe even more than one class a day. However, learning merely 1 or 2 moves a class, and taking only 1-3 classes a week, you will take ages to build up sufficient moves to develop a game. To me, seeing that the constraints are time (I don't believe many students train BJJ full time in Malaysia) this is not be best use of training time.

Heavy workouts are great, if you are still a teenager. Otherwise IMO you are wasting your student's time and money doing situps and pushups and all kinds of stretches. To me, I am being thought to teach BJJ, not fitness, not conditioning nor am I anyone's "life coach".

BJJ to me has always been honest. No bullshit about moves being too deadly. You lose, you tap. Doesn't matter if its to a day 1 white belt.

Similarly BJJ instruction should not be as inefficient in instruction like traditional martial arts. One should not be squatting in the horse stance for several years before your instructor is willing to teach you the "good stuff"

Intense Warmups

I know there are many BJJ students who accept and think that intense warmups are an essential part of BJJ. Many even like it and loves boasting on how tough their warmups are. There are some who somehow need a drill sergeant to yell at them, and they'll be happy.

However, by and large these are not smart people. Many years from now, if you ask them what they learned, somehow all they will be able to tell you about is their intense workouts. Thats what they remember from learning BJJ, and thats a shame

Ultimately BJJ is a mental art just as much as it is physical. It is insane to believe that when you are exhausted after a intense workout that your mind will be able to absorb techniques better. Every single research on learning has shown that you learn best when you are fresh, not when you are exhausted. BJJ is no exception

Another question to ask yourself is this:

If your training is geared towards physical attributes like strength, endurance and explosiveness, will you quit when you eventually lose your strength, endurance and explosiveness?

IMO BJJ is something you should be able to do your whole life, like Helio up to 90+ even. If you too believe thus, then the physical aspect of BJJ should not be the main focus of your training.

Training like a madman for competition is all well and good if you are in your 20s and still want to prove you are the baddest man around.

However, training like a teenager past 30, and you'll end up injured for life. Elite athletes in all sports retire on average at 35. It is unrealistic to think that you can "train like a champion" past 30+ and not get injured, sometimes severely

When the BJJ legends that we all follow and try to emulate suddenly say that they now do not believe in rolling hard, but rather just drill, you know something is wrong.

Besides that, a simple google search will show you, not only BJJ, but intense physical activity that goes seems to go together with BJJ training like crossfit, kettlebells etc, they all have a disproportionately high injury rate, even among their "certified" instructors.

My personal evolution

Anyway, back to my student's question. To be honest, my instruction style has changed throughout the years, and the changes seem to reflect my change in belt color. My students throughout the years may recognize this progression, and perhaps understand where I was at what stage they were training with me.

As a white belt, I was accumulating techniques. I read bloody everything I could get my hands on. I learned from as many sources as I could find, and studied my training partners and mentors, the way they made techniques work for them

When I got my blue belt, and when I started teaching after coming back to Malaysia, I went from just accumulating techniques to working on combinations. The way I taught was similar. One position, maybe 6-10 techniques a night. Or one move, say a submission like an armbar, but from every conceivable position. I thought in groups of techniques.

As a purple belt, I started working on flow drills. How moves flow together, movement drills, movement between positions, limiting yourself in grapples so that you moved differently etc.

As a brown belt, I looked for the universality of position and moves. I thought and taught in universal concepts that apply by and large in all positions. So even though you have never learnt a particular escape, or move, by knowing universally what the goal is and where you want to be, with the understanding of these concepts you can create your own solutions to your problems.

So ultimately, how do I teach my class?

My Current Class Structure and Methods

My classes are one and a half hours long and I still do generally follow the traditional warmup-technique-rolling structure of roughly half an hour each.

However, instead of warmups, my first half hour are normally filled with movement drills, flow drills. I can be anything from basic to complex combination training, everything from takedowns to submissions, submissions flow from in different positions, to currently we are doing MMA takedowns to submissions.

The whole purpose is rather than mastering pushups and situps, it is better to program into muscle memory moves you would actually use in BJJ. I used to teach animal walks etc in this first half hour, but like pushups and situps, you are never going to gorilla walk in a live roll, thus no point in programming those into muscle memory.

Ok I have to admit, this is pretty tiring training.

Then I move on to the instruction part of the class. Here I do have a mix of all my previous ways of thinking about BJJ, as I have students of different levels.

Sometimes I teach groups of techniques. Sometimes I do other flow and movement drills, sometimes I teach universal concepts and how to apply them. It all depends on the plan for those months I am teaching, as well as the students who turn up to class

Teaching purely concepts will help the more advanced students, as the newer students may not have the technique base, nor understand the context of this instruction. On the other hand, sometimes the concepts are so universal and so simple that beginners get a jump start in their BJJ understanding

Teaching techniques is good as well, and although it is good for the beginners as they build their technique base, the advance guys get to revise and refine what they have learnt before, or even classes they might have missed

Lastly, the rolling. I do try to mix this up a bit to ensure the rolling is not always a fight.

Sometimes it is a good thing to be able to go hard and competitive, as long as no one gets hurt. But doing this all the time will cause injuries in the long term, and seriously, one shouldn't start feeling you have mortal enemies in your own gym.

We do slow rolls, time controlled turn rolls, handicap roles. The purpose of all of these is to get my students comfortable on the ground, experiment, get in bad positions, try different submissions etc. There should be a atmosphere of fun, that this is the part the student is looking forward to the most. And so far, I believe it is.

The goal ultimately is threefold.

The movement drills etc is primarily to program muscle memory. These are drills that eventually the student should be able to do with their eyes closed, automatically.

The instruction part is to appeal to the mental faculties of the student. From learning techniques or group of techniques, to understanding overall concepts in BJJ especially in terms of leverage, space and even basic anatomy

The last part, the rolling, personally is not only a training of physical strength, endurance, explosiveness as well as finding out what works for you in a real time resisting spar with your opponent.

To me it is just as important to view it as a training of emotion.

Rolling with bigger,stronger and better opponents gives you courage. Being crushed and smothered teaches you to overcome your fear. Controlling and dominating an opponent in a controlled manner teaches you to be calm.

Ultimately, BJJ is something that you should want to be able to do the rest of your life. Hopefully by these methods, you will get there with the required physical skills, wealth of knowledge and without injuries.

To conclude, the objective in BJJ is to be at all times as technical and efficient as possible. So too should our BJJ training be as technical and efficient as possible.

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