Impressionable students

I think as higher belts we seldom think about the influence that we have on the younger generation of students under us.

Last week after training, one of our instructors initiated a raw garlic eating contest. While garlic is known to be one of the healthiest foods in the world, eating a raw garlic clove right after an intense Jiu Jitsu class is a good way to make yourself gag (and we all know the smell will stick with you for a few hours).

Of course no one wanted to partake in this “challenge”, but eventually the instructor was able to “convince” a few brave souls to do it (I wasn’t one ;). At the same time one of the black belts was loudly exclaiming how “stupid” the whole affair was and how the other students didn’t need to do it.

But there were still a few students (mostly blue and purple belts) that listened to the instructor and ate the raw garlic anyway.

This really made me think about how impressionable students of BJJ can be, especially the younger, lower belts.

Positive Influence

Having the title of instructor or even being a senior student will indubitably have an effect on the character, development, and behavior of lower belt students.

While having this influence can be alluring, it also comes with shouldering a lot of responsibility. Students will constantly be looking at you to set a good example both on and off of the mats.

When my instructor first brought a well-known competitor to teach at our academy, most students only trained 3-4 times a week, even during tournament season. Our world champion instructor started training with us 5-6 times a week, often twice a day. As students, we learned very quickly that if we wanted to reach the next level and win at major tournaments like our instructor, we would also need to dedicate more time and effort to our training.

This isn’t to say that every academy’s goal is to produce tournament champions. But it will be your job as an instructor or academy owner to set the underlying mission for all of your students, thereby influencing them directly.

When I co-founded a martial arts academy, I helped teach the children’s class. I knew that my overall goal was to help them apply the lessons that we covered in class to their academic studies and ultimately, their everyday life. This meant that I had to embody the traits that I wanted my students to exhibit, namely being studious in my own academic studies, training diligently, and being balanced in both.

Being the current head instructor of a kids program, I am hyper aware of the impact that my influence will have on someone’s child, and I do not take this responsibility lightly. I make a concentrated effort to watch the words that I use and how I use them, especially because children are like sponges and pick up on every little detail of what we say and do, even when we are not aware of it.

For example, I make sure to use positive words rather than words with negative connotations such as ‘mistake’ or ‘wrong.’ I know it might seem simple, but this little action could greatly affect the way a child views themselves and his/her overall confidence in the class.

Oftentimes, an instructor is unaware or perhaps forgets how much of an influence he has over his students and potential students. I will never forget watching a fundamental class where two women came to try out the class. I know this was probably an uncomfortable moment for them given that there weren’t many women in the class at the time and instead of making these female students feel welcomed and using his influence to make the class an enjoyable experience for them, the instructor only focused on the things that they did poorly and went so far as to call them out in front of the whole class.

Can you guess if they decided to stay and sign up?

Negative Influence

This is a great illustration of how one’s influence can be missed used. In this case, the instructor did not use his ability as a teacher and a martial artist to help these two female students see the benefits of studying Jiu Jitsu for self defense, fitness, etc. They might have had such an unpleasurable experience that they completely write off taking any other martial arts classes.

Again, we can never fully understand the weight of what we say and do will have on students.

Of course, along with a positive influence an instructor can have over impressionable students, s/he could also have a negative influence.

The “rivalries” that occur in our sport and between different schools is another example of how an instructor’s influence is often misused. Being from a major competition team, it was and still is frowned upon if I go to certain non affiliated academies for an open mat, or a social activity. When there are situations where friends are not able to train with each other for no other reason than because they wear different patches on their backs, then something is going terribly wrong.

In a competitive sport such as Jiu Jitsu, performance enhancing drugs is a topic that comes up a lot and I would be interested in how many users got their start at the suggestion of an instructor or higher belt. Imagine being an up and coming competitor and your instructor expresses indirectly that an illegal drug would grant you a better chance of winning the next big tournament or becoming a world champion.

Can you imagine how difficult it would be for a very impressionable student to stand up to his professor and decline their offer.

If the instructor(s) are okay with its usage and even promote or partake in it, then students are more likely to find its use more acceptable, even those that would not normally get into it.

Of course, not all students will be totally influenced by their instructors. There are some that will be naturally less impressionable than others, but there might be even more students that don’t realize they are being influenced by their instructors into a certain habit or behavior.

As far as the instructor in my story above, he didn’t eat the raw garlic in this particular instance but has been known to do it often by the complaints of his wife. For what it’s worth, I do believe that it would have had a much larger impact if he did it along with the students as maybe more would have been inspired by him taking part.

In the world of bjj where instructors and senior students garner so much respect it is more than likely that a good percentage of their newer students will be highly impressionable. Therefore, instructors and upper-belts have an imperative or duty not to abuse their influence and more importantly, make sure they are not negatively influencing those lower ranked, younger students that look up to them.

Why do people tend to quit at blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

I’ve talked a little bit about this topic on Quora and even made a video on YouTube about the high attrition rate of blue belt students in their practice.

Video link:

But I think it’s worth examining again. Especially for a lot of my readers that are not familiar this fact. Most practitioners will not progress to blue belt and even less move on from blue belt.

Jiu Jitsu is not easy

Jiu Jitsu is not an easy art or sport. It takes a lot of time, dedication, and humility to progress in the ranks.

In the past, there was this running joke online and on many of the major grappling/mma chat rooms and forums that a Bjj blue belt was all that was needed in order to beat Mike Tyson in his prime.

I’m not sure where it originated but it shows just how much influence and notoriety that Jiu Jitsu gained in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

During that time period in the U.S. there was this hunger for Jiu Jitsu even though there were not enough instructors or higher belts to fill that demand.

Being a blue belt was rare.

They were looked upon as demi-gods among men.

Fast forward to today, and blue belts and all other belts have become significantly more common place.

Yet, I’m sure the trials and tribulations from white to blue are still the same.

Going from unconscious incompetence or wrong intuition to conscious incompetence or wrong analysis.

Blue belt is the stage where you realize that you really don’t know Jiu Jitsu.

You know some Jiu Jitsu techniques and even a few concepts but not how everything fits together and flows.

At white belt you’re ignorant of this fact. Every day you train. You learn something new and get better without trying. Just being able to recall a few moves is a big accomplishment when you first start out.

But starting at blue belt, you have to put more effort into your training and studying techniques. That feeling of leveling up after every session is quickly replaced with plateaus and working toward developing your own style of Jiu Jitsu.

As a blue belt you will need more awareness of your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Of course, your instructor will be there to guide you by showing you techniques and giving you advice. But as you progress, your instructor’s guidance will be less hands on so you will have to be more proactive in training.

That could mean taking private lessons, studying competition videos, competing, etc.

Expectations

As a white belt there’s no expectation on you to do well in training or competition. Just by showing up consistently most white belts will see exponential progress.

I’m happy when my beginner students can remember past techniques and have the fundamental techniques such as shrimping, rolling (backwards and forwards), and can tie their belt properly. I could care less how they roll in sparring or how many times they get tapped out.

So they actually end up doing better because there is no pressure on them to do well or to have the techniques down one hundred percent.

But at blue belt, you have more experience under your belt. You’re no longer an innocent white belt. Your instructor has higher expectations on you to learn and demonstrate your technique(s) as well as you being able to effectively transmit that technique to newer students.

Many times during my classes, I will pair a newer student with a blue belt (or more advanced belt) with the hope and expectation that they will be able to guide the student in our fundamental techniques or to help them along with more advanced movements.

You represent your academy

Newer guys coming in to your academy are going to look towards you as a representative of your school as well as a target so you will want to do well against them, and higher belts are going to use more advanced techniques and attributes on you like strength and timing as you become more proficient and a tougher training partner.

Or as I like to say. They’re going to take your lunch money but there’s nothing you can do about it but just learn.

The experiential belt

As a blue belt, you will have a few go to techniques but no overall developed game. That’s why many blue belt students spend most of their time experimenting.

Experimenting with different types of guards, passing styles, and submissions. It’s no surprise that many blue belts will go through a phase when they will only use a single technique or style of Jiu Jitsu like berimbolo or wormguard.

Slave to trends

The most experiential belt is also the one that most follows the trends in the sport of Jiu Jitsu.

I remember when I was a blue belt and Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard was popular at the time. Of course, like any fan boy I added it to my game and relied heavily upon it for the majority of my time as a blue belt.

There’s nothing wrong with following the trends in Jiu Jitsu. It’s very important to keep you skills and knowledge updated but many blue belts fall into the trap of building their entire game around that one technique that they saw online.

There will always be this cycle of new techniques or strategies that become popular but then they are replaced by an older move or a technique that was “forgotten” but then rediscovered.

I think a lot of people’s time and energy would be better used by continually developing their fundamental techniques in addition to experimenting with the new guards and passing styles.

You should aim to be well rounded in all the major areas of Jiu Jitsu including: self defense, sport techniques, takedowns, leg locks, escapes, attacks, etc.

You’ve achieved the desired skill level

One argument that I haven’t fully explored in my writing or videos is the fact that many practitioners are happy with the skill level that they’ve developed at blue belt and decide to pursue other goals.

Again, Jiu Jitsu takes a lot of time and study commitment in order to progress. I can see how an blue belt could feel like they’re good enough. If you train at a good academy, then the average blue belt should be able to handle themselves both in a self defense situation against most untrained individuals.

Blue belt blues

If I think about it, being a blue belt is very much like being the unpopular kid in high school. You just have to put in your time and work until your skill level rises and you begin to develop confidence in your game.

My advice to you is that if your practice of Jiu Jitsu is meaningful to you. Then keep at it.

But if you don’t feel that training has any value on your life. Find something that does bring meaning and value. Then pursue that wholeheartedly.

You have to decide.

Developing your guard to the next level

Playing guard for a beginning student isn’t easy.

In fact, starting a new activity or study comes with a lot of trial and error. In Jiu Jitsu, that means a lot of tapping.

From Giving feedback:

Getting feedback from training partners and instructors is an important aspect in the life of a martial artist. Feedback is how we correct holes in our games. Feedback is how we help our training partners get better. Feedback keeps us honest and humble.

I think that’s why it’s important to study instructors and competitors at high levels of mastery.

Study how it seems like they know all the possible outcomes that can occur from their guard(s).

All of the defenses.

All of the attacks.

Developing a good guard yourself is a challenging task.
Throughout your entire life, whether that included other sporting activities or just sitting at a desk studying. The movements of Jiu Jitsu on the ground are strange and foreign.

Getting down the basic movements like shrimping, rolling, and bridging will keep you preoccupied for a few months (or years).

In the beginning, you will get passed a lot. There’s just no other way. You don’t have the coordination or the experience yet.

So many beginners and intermediate students become afraid of playing on bottom.

They become afraid of having their guard passed and being crushed or being put into an even worse position.

Guard Development

Guard development usually begins in earnest at the blue belt level but I’m starting to witness more and more people putting off developing their guards until higher belt levels. Much to their own disservice. And it’s this observation that I want to focus on in this post.

I’ve been there before as well.

When I was a blue belt I didn’t have a guard. I was okay on top. Tough and athletic.

But if I was on bottom. It was only a matter of time before a decent passer would slide through my guard like a hot knife through butter.

My solution at the time?

I couldn’t get my guard passed if I turtled.

And this strategy worked for a while. At least until I went up against someone with really good back control or someone bigger that could stop me from rolling to turtle.

So I didn’t really solve my problem of not having a guard. I just kept putting it off.

Listen.

No matter how good you are on top. If you don’t have a comparatively good bottom guard. You will never be able to tap into your true potential.

It’s not a coincidence that the best guard passers in the world also have great guards.

Leandro Lo

Rafa Mendes

Lucas Lepri

Having confidence in your guard makes your passing that much better. You can commit 100% of your focus on passing and if your opponent manages to sweep you. It’s okay.

But if you don’t have that duality.

Being good on top and bottom. Then the fear of being swept or just the fear of playing on bottom will always be in that back of your head and it will cause you to hesitate. Especially when you go up against a tough guard player.

There is no right or wrong here, but I believe that if you want to be good at Jiu Jitsu. Whether or not that includes competing. You will need to develop a workable guard and the earlier you start to build that foundation up, the better off you will be in the long run.

It’s better to put in the ground work now (at lower belts) than to have to address your guard game at a higher belt. Because at that point you will be far behind your peers.

Body type

Your body type will play a major role in your guard development.

Your body type won’t limit the guard(s) you will play but it will determine which guards you will be able to do easily.

Much like an IQ test.

Your body type represents your potential to play certain guards and not your actual success in playing those guards.

EX. Short guys that play spider guards or tall guys that play butterfly.

A useful guide is to find a competitor, higher belt, or an instructor with the same or similar body type as you and study their game. Then try to add elements of their style to your own game.

Flexibility

Flexibility is an often overlooked factor in the development of a guard. A common misconception is that you have to be flexible to play guard.

While this is not the case. Being flexible does make playing guard easier.

With flexibility, you will be able to get into the right positions faster and have more strength in those positions.

Even if you’re not naturally flexible you can work on it and after a few sessions it will payoff.

Constant Study

This is more for advanced guard players.

Jiu Jitsu is constantly evolving so you will need to keep updating your toolset/guard game.

If you get to the point where the majority of your training partners cannot pass your guard. Then that is a sign that you need to start developing the other aspects of your guard.

If you have a great half guard. Maybe try working on closed guard or an open guard.

But if you find that everyone you roll with gives you a hard time when you play on bottom or everyone passes your guard. Then you will need to invest more time and effort in studying the bottom game.

Studying can mean watching competition footage of really good guard players.

Studying could be taking a private lesson.

Studying could be meeting a few times a week with a partner to positional spar.

Whatever the case, Jiu Jitsu is very democratic. You get back what you put into it.

Mindful Practice

If you want to develop an effective guard you’re going to have to put in the work.

Even if you have the best instructors and training partners in the world, and access to private lessons and online tools.

That can only take you so far.

Eventually, there will come a time when your instructor will no longer have to hold your hands through techniques and instead become more of a motivator and mentor.

When that time comes, it will be up to you to take charge of your training.

You will have to take the initiative in learning new positions.

You will have to decide what techniques you will need to improve upon.

You will have to push yourself in creating a game unique to yourself.

Very much like a role playing game (rpg), the more time and energy that you invest in your Jiu Jitsu the quicker you will be able to level up and learn other skills.

Developing your own guard game

The ultimate expression of Jiu Jitsu is the creation of your own style.

Only you will be able to master your unique body type.

From my own personal experience. I was only able start developing my own guard game when I acknowledge that my guard was a weakness of mine. Then I had to make the conscious decision to actively work on it.

Even if it meant starting on bottom or pulling guard.

Of course, I got my guard passed a lot.

But I was able to work my side mount escapes and my guard recomposing. Eventually being able to hold better guard positions and advance from there.