What Most Jiu-Jitsu Schools Are Doing Wrong

OK–if you’ve read our previous blogs, or maybe you’ve had grappling experience outside of the standard Brazilian jiu-jitsu curriculum–you might already appreciate my earlier points on the problems with this art. For starters, training in the gi and the emphasis on fighting from one’s back–to the point where a combatant/athlete’s takedown and control abilities suffer–are critically problematic and are causing BJJ to self-destruct as a true combative system.

But here I will argue that it’s not just the tactical components of modern BJJ that need reconstruction. Jiu-jitsu also needs a complete facelift vis-a-vis the way in which it’s taught!

From my pretty extensive experience in training and coaching jiu-jitsu, I’ve realized that the typical class structure follows this triad–

  1. calisthenic-type warmups (including ‘line drills’ of shrimping, forward and backward rolls, ‘Ricksons’, etc.)
  2. the instructor teaching/explicating a few moves with students replicating said moves on an unresisting partner
  3. live training, i.e., what jiu-jiteiros love to call ‘rolling’. (sidenote, I loathe that term…)

Here’s the problem, though, with this type of pedagogy–it typically doesn’t produce effective or efficient movement skills in grappling!

If you’d like to read one such scholarly articulate that supports this conclusion, check this out: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6851042/#CR68. It’s a little dense, and focused more on MMA, but I’d still highly recommend reviewing it and considering its implications.

But forthwith is a quick distillation, at least the way I see it, and one which follows the tenants of ‘ecological psychology’ (in case you’d like to do further reading, Google that term, too!), which should be foundational to the way in which we all teach grappling.

The main point–skill development is not built by ‘knowledge transfer’ from an instructor to a student. Me, or any other coach, yammering away about the intricacies of the half-nelson salto (look it up if you don’t know what that is!) or any other throwing technique, for instance,, and then demonstrating it over and over on a willing partner, will not make anyone better at dropping another human being on their head during a realistic scenario.

(An anecdote to this–one proven with empirical research–is that having your kids dribble balls around static cones will not make them any better at soccer. Seriously, look it up!)

Instead, we should envision skill acquisition as an adaptation to environmental stress. This means that grappling skills will best be developed in sufficiently representative practice scenarios and/or environments. This really implicates the first two points–at least–in the triad above as being whole-scale ineffective in grappling skill development. Calisthenics–even if they look kinda like wrestling–and technique drilling on a non-resistant (or even semi-resistant) opponent do not create environments representative of true, full-scale grappling. As a result, skills will not pervade as an outcome.

How do we create better learning environments then? Consider this analogy–progressive loading in weightlifting. To get a stronger deadlift, and hence stronger pulling mechanics, we don’t begin trainees with max loads in their working sets. Instead, we create a program with ‘progressive loading’, i.e., heavier weights as the athlete becomes stronger and more skilled in the lift, with assistance exercises that strengthen weaker areas. The key point, though, is they’re still pulling heavier and heavier weights and with the correct technique!!!

For our sport, instead of progressively loading weight, we load scenarios with gradual complexity, in order to continually challenge a learner’s perceptual systems. Check out this image from the afore-referenced article, which lays out the inter-relations of two combatants–or grapplers, if you will–and the ways in which behaviors and learning emerge.

A key term in the above figure is ‘constraints’. I have another post specifically about the ‘constraints-led approach’, which we do our best to implement at HHGC. This is the ‘progressive-loading’ variable, if you will, that allows coaches to tweak the representative learning environment’s complexity. The better the athletes’ perception-action coupling (i.e., the more advanced ‘flow’ they exhibit), the less constraints we’ll resultantly offer.

Moreover, while using this approach, we shouldn’t be explaining a discrete solution to the student/learner. That’s a tough pill for any coach to swallow! Aren’t we the ‘experts’??? Instead, this ecological approach tells us that coaches should be drawing attention to cues and where the information is that will help a student find his or her own solutions. That’s what drives the perception-action coupling.

Again, the implications here fly in the face of most contemporary BJJ class structures. Note that the first two sections of a typical jiu-jitsu class structure offer no affordances or interpersonal synergies, meaning that resultant skill development in athletes is not maximized during that two-thirds of the class.

And as for BJJ’s love of ‘rolling’, i.e., the third and final section of most classes, it usually offers little if any constraints. Without clearly enforced constraints in rolling, most jiu-jiteiros revert back to skills they acquired long ago, which immediately shunts learning and emergent behaviors.

That’s a lot to absorb, and if you’re not very familiar with these concepts, you might be yelling at your screen now about practical examples regarding how to best structure classes. Regarding the latter, look for our future posts about how we try to design our learning environments here at HHGC to maximize perception-action coupling and resultant skill development, both for our young and not-so-young grapplers.

Meantime, drop us a line if you have immediate questions. Hope to see you on the mats soon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: