Teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu | Dafacto

The personal website of Matt Henderson.

Teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

27 December 2011

This article reflects on my experience as a first-time teacher of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

I’ve been training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — a relatively young martial art that focuses on ground fighting — for just over a decade. Through my progression from white to black belt, I’ve been privileged to have trained under some of the world’s best instructors — beginning with Fabricio Pereira (under Alvaro Mansor), Paul Creighton (under Renzo Gracie), and the majority of my instruction with Edson Jorge and Thelmo Calmon (both under Vinicius “Draculino” Magalhães).

In competition, I’ve managed to achieve some good results, including three gold medals at the European Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championships, and I think that’s a direct reflection of the quality of these instructors.

About a month ago, an opportunity presented itself to assume the leadership of our local academy — Draculino Team Marbella — here in Marbella, Spain. I was sad to see our previous instructor return to Brazil, but at the same time, excited at the chance to try out some ideas that’d been brewing in my mind for some time.

Where can we innovate?

What I’ve always found fascinating about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, is the extent to which it relies on strategy, tactic and technique. It really is like a human form of chess. There are setups, sequences, attacks, counter-attacks, and forced transitions.

So what leads to success in BJJ? In competition, factors like physical conditioning, and experience play a part. But the most important factor is technical execution — recognizing what to do when, and knowing precisely how to do it.

The key to success is knowledge retention, in which “knowledge” extends beyond simple awareness, to execution.

  • Knowledge. You must first recognize what a particular situation calls for. Which technique leads to the highest probability of success? What are the risks in attempting that technique?

  • Understanding. Then you must understand the technique in depth. What are the steps involved? Why is each step important? What are the mechanics? Where is the force required?

  • Practice. Finally, you must have mastered the execution. You have to have developed a feeling for proper positioning, and the movements and adjustments made in response to a defending opponent.

Success in jiu-jitsu lies in knowledge retention, which comes from both instruction and practice, and this has been on my mind for several years. Are we training in a way that best leads to knowledge retention?

The traditional pattern in BJJ class structure in BJJ begins with a warmup, followed by the teacher demonstrating one or two techniques, which the students then pair off to practice, and then concludes with live sparring.

The techniques selected for teaching often come from a school-specific syllabus, and attempt to cover all the major positions during, say, the course of a year. In other schools, a written syllabus doesn’t exist, and the techniques are selected ad-hoc.

For some time, I’ve suspected there’s room for innovation in our teaching techniques, building on the success of the traditional methods. Some specific questions we can ask are:

  1. How can or should we vary the class structure?

  2. How should we go about selecting the specific techniques for instruction, and the sequence in which they are taught?

  3. What should trigger us to move from one position or technique on to the other? A calendar?

  4. How can we help students remember what they’ve been taught?

  5. Are there ways we can improve the effectiveness of live sparring, in the learning process?


At the time I began instructing the Marbella academy, we had nine weeks of time before the 2012 European Championships. I decided this would be a good test-bed period to try out some ideas.

  • Return to the fundamentals. There are five basic positions in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu — the guard, the mount, side control, the back, and the half guard. (There are many other positions, but these are the most common.) We mapped out a nine-week plan covering the basics for each of these positions — proper defense & positioning, a couple of attacks, defenses to the most common attacks, and a couple of transitions (sweeps).

    The objective here was that when we arrive in Lisbon, each of our students will be able to immediately articulate our preferred strategies and techniques from each of the basic positions. The hope is that in the competition, they’ll put these basics in practice instinctively. The best success we’ve had as a team at the European’s was the year in which we focused exclusively on the basics — an we hope to repeat that in January of 2012.

    At first glance, I thought nine-weeks might be too long to cover just the basics, but I was ever wrong! One realizes quickly that even the basics include a surprising number of details — each one critical. Getting to a point where the students know the techniques so well they react instinctively takes a lot of time!

  • Think in terms of probabilities. Even at the level of basics, we’ve tried to give priority to those positions and techniques that our students are most likely to encounter in the competition. For example, we’ve spent a lot more time in mastering side control, the mount position, and the closed guard, than, say, stand-up or the back position. And for the back position, we’re focusing on defense, rather than offense.

    The reason is that the majority of our competitors will be white and blue belts, and we’ve got limited time available to us. I think our students will likely find themselves in the guard, and if they can get to side control and/or the mount, I’m confident they’re going to win. I believe it’s less likely they’ll find themselves offensively in the back position. Again, we’re not saying getting the back isn’t important, just that it’s a less frequent position for white and blue belts to find themselves (offensively) than other positions.

  • The devil is in the details. We commonly talk about how important the details are to the proper execution of technique, yet it’s still relatively rare to see precise execution techniques. I personally believe we often lack appreciation for just how critical technique really is in BJJ.

    Perhaps one way to increase awareness is to insist on the students understanding the reason and mechanics behind the techniques. One thing is to see an attack, and another is to deeply understand why it works. And understanding why it works is a tremendous help in understanding how to defend against it!

    Consider just the side control position. We covered four basic side control variations — for each understanding whether it’s offensive or defensive, and when to transition into and away from it. Those four variations resulted in a total of about 16 important details. We insisted that each student be able to articulate the purpose of each detail — e.g. what is the purpose of keeping our hips down, or what is the purpose of a high-body position in the third variation? What do we anticipate our opponent to do in this variation? What’s the highest probability attack from here, and how to we set it up and execute it with minimum chance of getting swept?

    As another example, I’ve been insisting that when applying any choke, the focus word that comes to mind is lever. Nearly every choke in BJJ is based on the principle of the lever — a force applied at a distance from a fulcrum, resulting in a stronger force applied somewhere else. Often, when demonstrating chokes, we’ll stop to analyze where the fulcrum is, where the force being applied is, and where resulting choke force ends up. When seen from this view, it’s easier to understand why the work in the collar choke comes from the wrists, not the forearms, and why the elbows should go in, not out (which is the instinctive direction.)

    Only once the students began to understand the details enough to quickly articulate their purpose and function, did I begin to observe the students actually applying the positioning correctly when sparring.

  • Spend time on a single position. We spent one or two entire weeks on a single position, looking at all the basic technique variations — defenses, attacks and sweeps — around it. In addition, we were willing to extend that time, as necessary until we felt the basics were sufficiently assimilated. Often, the second day after presenting a set of techniques, the students would have forgotten some details. But after three or four days of doing the same things, the knowledge began to internalize.

  • Professor involvement. Generally, after a technique is demonstrated in class, the students pair off to practice. We made a slight modification to this protocol, in that before pairing off, each student applies the technique to either the professor, or one of the other high-ranking (e.g. brown belt) students. I believe this is one of the most important teaching elements we’ve introduced.

    Only a high-level practitioner can detect small problems with position, weight distribution, sequence and technique. And it’s these small details that lead to bad habits, and ultimately ineffective application of technique.

    We found this teaching modification to be tremendously beneficial! On many occasions, students had that light-bulb “Ah ha!” moment, expressing something like, “I’d never realized I was making that small weight distribution mistake.”

    Only after students had performed the techniques on the teacher (or another high-level student) were they then allowed to pair off and practice together.

  • In the long run, the house always wins. With literally thousands of technique available to teach, how does a teacher select among them? Our approach has been based on probability — probability that an technique’s execution will be successful, and probably of not losing position during its application.

    For example, for the Europeans preparation, we didn’t focus at all on dropping back from the guard into a foot lock, since if unsuccessful there’s a good risk of losing position. I don’t even want our students thinking about that during a fight. We focused instead on things like double-attacks from the guard, collar chokes from north-south, and the head-arm triangle from the mount, for example — high-probability, multi-option positions, with little risk of losing position.

  • Specific sparring. Although all students like the live sparring part of class, we insisted on spending more time in specific sparring. For example, during the weeks in which we focused on the mount, we spent a lot of time doing live fighting from the mount, in which the fight is over (and resets again) if a submission or sweep happens.

    This isn’t particular innovative, as specific sparring is a part of most academies. Perhaps what’s different in our recent experience is the increased focus on this aspect. (I understand that world champion Roger Gracie spends tremendous amounts of time in specific training.)


So far, I’m really pleased with the results. As I walk around the mat watching the students fight, I’m seeing real, objective improvement, and made at a pace that’s very exciting. As we talk about techniques and strategies, I see students gaining a real and deep understanding of the art. And the students are recognizing in themselves real progress, and from this, their enthusiasm for continued learning grows.

Resources & inspiration

It’s always good to have mentors and inspiration, and here are a couple of mine.

  • Vinicius “Draculino” Magalhães. Draculino was one of the founding fathers of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, from the Gracie-Barra lineage. From Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and today from Austin, Texas, he has probably produced as many champions in BJJ, grappling and MMA as any other teacher in the sport. I’m proud to have received my black belt from his lineage, and to carry his name at the academy.

    Something I like about Draculino, is that he’s very analytical. Trained as a lawyer, he’s always taken a systematic approach to teaching and developing techniques. In this respect, people like Draculino have inspired my own way of approaching the art.

    Draculino also happens to run one of the best online academies on the web, offering both an extensive video library of techniques (each recorded from three angles) as well as a yearly curriculum for running a school. I use this resource to help structure our curriculum, and I’m constantly referring to it to clarify technical details. It’s the best $40 I could spend each month!

  • Eddie Bravo. Although it will certainly be controversial to a lot of people reading this, for me, Eddie is the “Mozart” of modern Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He has systematically studied the best, from the best, and then innovated — notably including MMA’s most effective guard (the “rubber guard”), the twister, and a lockdown-based half-guard game — to develop his “10th Planet” system.

    Eddie is controversial because of his viewpoints on a number of issues both related and unrelated to jiu-jitsu (like the use of marijuana), but I believe it is precisely the frank openness to examine issues critically, that has led to the advancements he’s made in the sport.

    The more I follow Eddie, the more I’m impressed. A goal I have in 2012 is to travel to his school in California to meet and train with him.

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