Teaching or Natural Selection?

Over the years I’ve visited a lot of BJJ schools. One of the most common methods of structuring a class seems to go like this:

Warm-ups
Demonstrate and drill one or two random techniques
Free-rolling/grappling for the rest of the class period. This will take up at least half the class time and frequently much more. Sometimes the instruction is skipped entirely in favor of just rolling.

One defense of this approach is that it seems to work. Lots of the schools that practice this way are filled with tough, skilled jiu-jitsu practitioners. What more could you ask?

This type of class definitely does have its time and place. However, I would argue that it is far from ideal for the people who need jiu-jitsu the most.

What happens when a new BJJ student arrives to his or her first class if it is taught in the manner described above? They learn a couple of techniques devoid of context and then they are tossed into the shark tank for the more experienced grapplers to play with. Hopefully it’s a friendly school and the sharks won’t fold, spindle and mutilate them too badly. Even so, if the new student doesn’t have any prior grappling background he or she will likely be lost and confused and will end up very sore the next day.

After an introduction like that, who is likely to come back for another class and stick around long term for training? The folks who are athletically gifted. The ones who are mentally tough as nails. The ones who are absolutely determined. The ones who have previous background of some sort that prepared them for the experience. In other words, the school is engaging in Darwinian selection to keep the people who would naturally excel in any martial art or fighting sport and weed out the people who need self-defense training the most.

This approach is totally valid if your goal is just to build a winning competition team. In that case it makes sense to start out with the most talented and determined athletes. To my mind, however, BJJ is a martial art which enables the weak to protect themselves from the strong and a lifestyle that can be practiced for health at any age. From this standpoint, the mark of a great teacher is not necessarily a top competition team. Instead, a great teacher would be the person who can take a small, unconfident, non-athletic beginner and encourage them and guide them through the process of self-transformation which will allow them to step on the mat with the sharks and not be intimidated.

When I teach beginners, I try to give them a technical foundation which covers the most common positions presented in a meaningful context, and then take them through an incrementally progressive series of exercises, from static repetitions to pattern recognition drills to positional drills to focus sparring to full out free rolling. In future posts I will address some of these methods in more detail.

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