How to Teach Brazilian JiuJitsu (or anything else)

“This is how you do a guillotine”

I’ve been an English teacher and a martial arts teacher for a long time. Early on, I realised the similarities between my two modes of instruction, despite the fact that one of my subjects was entirely cerebral and the other intensely physical. Recently, having learnt a little about the cognitive science that underpins evidence informed teaching in the classroom, I have found myself thinking about how these teaching theories apply in the martial arts academy. I think it might be useful for some of my fellow instructors to learn a little bit about the teaching theory I have learnt. These days, I mainly teach Brazilian JiuJitsu so I will focus my explanation on this art. I know a number of BJJ instructors who instinctively teach in the ways I will outline below – for such instructors, it will be illuminating to understand why such teaching methods are effective. Perhaps some readers might reconsider the ways they teach BJJ. I’m offering my insight and my thoughts. Nothing more.


Chunking explanations

Imagine you are teaching a new technique to a class. The guillotine (my favourite submission) will serve as an adequate example. How should you do it? Well, the first thing you need to do is introduce this new information to the class in small chunks. It is absolutely no good showing the whole guillotine sequence, including head control, gripping position, body position, leg position and finishing details all in one go. Such an approach to instruction would result in cognitive overload. So… time for a bit of theory. According to the working memory model, every human being has a limited capacity for working memory (sometimes called short term memory). Some people have a better working memory and these people are more able to cope with lots of information in one go. In my teaching career, these are the ‘brighter’ or ‘more able’ students. When learning complex processes like a BJJ submission, working memory can become quickly overloaded: at this point, students can’t follow the explanation any further. They get lost.

BJJ instructors should break down techniques into simpler movements and introduce these in a step by step way. The small steps, with shorter explanations and demonstrations, allow students to cope better because the cognitive load is optimised. At the same time, instructors should try to avoid extraneous load. Essentially, this is any information that is superfluous to the technique (or part of the technique) being taught. BJJ instructors can sometimes get excited about all of the other options available from a particular position. Showing all of these other variations and options adds to cognitive load and makes it more difficult to focus on the target learning – the core technique. Furthermore, as instructors, we can sometimes talk too much. Long explanations also increase cognitive load, making it harder for students to retain the information. With this in mind, we should make our explanations as concise as possible. And one last thing. Don’t let students talk when you are teaching. I don’t care if it’s an adults’ class or a children’s class. Hearing other voices adds irrelevant extraneous load and it’s simply not respectful.

Check for Understanding

Now let’s imagine you’ve taught students the first ‘chunk’ of the guillotine. You’ve shown students how to control the head without overreaching and how to use the shoulder roll to pop the head deep under the opposite armpit. You’ve sent them off to practise drilling this small chunk of the technique. Now it’s time to circulate. The instructor should walk around the room and watch intently, checking understanding and the fidelity of each student’s application. This is an opportunity to praise the students who are getting it right. If you notice a single student making a mistake, you can correct it on the spot. If you notice this mistake more than once (three or more students making the same mistake) it’s time to pause the class and reteach to address the common misconception. When you are happy that the students all have the ‘chunk’ and can drill it, it’s time to continue building today’s technique by adding the next chunk. In the case of the guillotine, this will be the grip and the position of both arms. Once all of the chunks have been added, students should drill the whole technique from beginning to end. Brilliant! They’ve got the technique, right? Wrong.

Retrieval Practice (or drilling)

If you’ve taught a lesson on the guillotine today, and the students have successfully demonstrated it at the end of the class, all you’ve done is help them put on a one off performance. They haven’t learnt anything. This is because learning only takes place when there is a change in long term memory. When we learn new information, we start to forget it straight away. That means your JiuJitsu students start forgetting the guillotine as soon as they get into the car to go home. The model of the forgetting curve helps to demonstrate this process – and how retrieval practice can help to overcome the forgetting process. If you want your students to remember a technique, they need to repeat it. They need to undertake the effort of remembering what you taught them (retrieving it from long term memory) and therefore reinforcing the neural pathways that serve that technique. When students do the work of remembering how to perform the guillotine, the act of retrieval strengthens the memory and slows the rate of forgetting. BJJ instructors should take this into account by planning retrieval practice across sequences of lessons. A great place to do this is in the warm up. Instead of endless shrimps and animal movements, set a retrieval task as the warm up: “Okay guys, start off by drilling the guillotine details we covered last week”. Now the teacher can circulate and check the details of the technique. The main lesson may be on a related technique or on something entirely unrelated. The main point is this: students need the chance to drill techniques if they are ever going to truly learn them and embed their knowledge in long term memory.

Depth over Breadth

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realise that I’m suggesting you need to spend a lot of time teaching even a single technique. The average technique will be broken down into three or more discrete chunks in order to manage cognitive load effectively. This takes up lesson time, and it means you can’t squeeze five different BJJ techniques into one lesson. On top of that, I suggest you devote a significant portion of your lesson to retrieval practice (remembering and drilling techniques that have already been taught). You may only have time to teach one technique, perhaps with some variation. Sometimes, instructors want to show off all of their knowledge, or they want to keep students interested and motivated by showing new and diverse techniques every week. I understand this mindset. Academy owners need to pay the bills and perhaps the best way of keeping students in class is by teaching them something new and exciting every week. In my opinion though, you shouldn’t treat BJJ techniques like Pokémon. You don’t need to Catch ‘em all.

Teaching such a broad curriculum of BJJ  techniques only creates the illusion of knowledge. Students have sufficient familiarity with the techniques to be able to say “Oh yeah, we covered that De La Riva sweep last month” but they can’t actually recall and apply the technique… and they wouldn’t even think of trying it in sparring. To quote Bruce Lee:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

That really does sum it up, doesn’t it? If your goal is to make your students good at jiujitsu, instead of simply keeping them entertained with a non-stop flow of fancy techniques, you are going to need to teach them fewer techniques, in greater depth, with more retrieval and repetition. You need to plan when you will circle back and repeat each technique over the course of the year. On top of this, because your teaching time is limited, you need to decide what you are going to include and what you are going to leave out of your BJJ curriculum. This can be a very difficult thing to do. The total sum of BJJ techniques is probably bigger than the repertoire of any other martial art – and it is still growing. How are you going to decide what to teach and what to leave out? Wouldn’t it be cool to teach that new fancy buggy choke thing? But is that the right thing to do when your white belts still don’t know how to set up a basic single leg takedown? I can’t answer this for you. You know your students. I don’t. You need to decide what curriculum will work best for them. This much I can promise you: if you teach new techniques every week with no planned repetition or structure, your students will learn next to nothing.

The Web of Knowledge

Understanding the concept of schema can help us decide how to structure our curriculum. Essentially, a schema is like a web of related knowledge on a particular topic in my brain. The brain seems to work by categorising knowledge into topics. When new information is learnt, it ‘sticks’ to the existing schema of relevant knowledge. So, in my schema for ‘cars’ I have some knowledge about ‘the exhaust’, ‘the steering wheel’ ‘the gearstick’ and so on. Any new information that I learn about cars will be added to this schema – the logical connections to the existing knowledge will make it easier for me to remember the new knowledge. When you have a brand new white belt in your class, they are creating a brand new schema called ‘BJJ’ and it is completely empty. There is nowhere for the new knowledge to stick, because they don’t have any relevant existing knowledge (unless they are a wrestler or a judoka). In contrast, an experienced black belt has multiple schemata under the general schema of BJJ: a schema for closed guard, a schema for armbars, a schema for back control, a schema for gi chokes… and so on. A black belt has an easier time learning new techniques because they have so much existing knowledge there is bound to be somewhere for the new knowledge to ‘stick’ within their existing schema. Overall, this means that our goal in teaching JiuJitsu is to build our students’ schemata – their interrelated webs of BJJ knowledge.

This is all getting a bit theoretical. So, what exactly does an effective BJJ curriculum look like in practice? In teaching my no-gi classes, I approached this problem by aiming for the following outcome: every student will have an effective competition game plan. If I could achieve this aim, then I would ensure that every student has a sufficiently sophisticated BJJ schema to compete intelligently in every part of the game. On top of this, they would have a solid baseline of understanding in all areas of BJJ. So my curriculum was sequenced according to the probable progression of a competition match. I started by teaching stand up techniques, including some takedowns and some attacks. From here, I assumed a likely progression to be the closed guard following a take down and I taught students how to open and pass the guard. At the same time, students would drill the takedowns they had already learnt in the warm up (retrieval practice). After that, we would focus some lessons on passing half guard, with the retrieval in the warm up focused on both the takedowns and the guard opening from the preceding months. In each area of instruction, I would make sure I point out how new knowledge builds on existing techniques, helping my students to explicitly understand the links between techniques. So, for example, I would point out the common principles involved in different butterfly sweeps, or the commonalities between an armbar from top and an armbar from bottom. It’s all about making explicit connections to existing knowledge.

You may find the following summary of my ideas useful:

  1. Introduce new techniques in small chunks
  2. Keep your explanations short and focused
  3. Circulate to check understanding and make corrections
  4. Use warm ups for retrieval practice (drilling)
  5. Don’t try to teach multiple techniques in a single lesson
  6. Accept that you don’t have time to teach everything – decide what your students really need to learn and exclude the rest
  7. Remember deep understanding of one technique is better than shallow understanding of 1000 techniques
  8. You should plan your curriculum so that you are deliberately building the students’ web of BJJ knowledge
  9. New knowledge sticks to existing knowledge – so point out the connections in your explanations

That’s it, really. If you’ve taken the time to read my thoughts – thank you. This is the first time I’ve formally written about the crossover between my academic teaching and my BJJ instruction. I hope you’ve found it interesting and I’d love to read your comments and feedback below.



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