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.

Build better relationships with your students

You work really hard to build your martial arts academy.

Finding the right location.

Training staff.

Teaching classes.

Marketing your programs.

It’s a lot of work. Especially in the beginning when you might have to fill in for a lot of roles.

From my own personal experience I’ve had the opportunity to be the janitor, the instructor, lead salesperson, staff manager, social media specialist, and much more.

Especially, in the beginning when you might be a one man show. Hopefully, adding more and more students to your program(s).

However, many academy owners put so much time and effort in trying to grow their academies by adding more students that they often forget about maintaining one of their biggest resources and best assets.

Their current, and loyal membership base.

Student retention

Many instructors think that by adding more students. All their financial worries will be met. To a degree, they are correct.

Your business does need students to survive. And a steady number of new prospects is a sign of a healthy academy.

But it costs a lot of time, energy, and money to find those new prospects and convert them into paying members. This is where I see a lot of academies fall short. When you need a constant influx of new students in order to replace the members that you lose each month or year. Then there is problem somewhere within your business model.

Much like an unseen hole on a boat at sea. If the problem persist then the boat might take on too much water and sink.

If your business is at risk. Don’t be a bystander or a victim. Look for solutions that will help keep your boat afloat and eventually sailing the high seas.

There’s no quick fix or hack that will increase your retention overnight. Each academy is a unique business with it’s own set of challenges.

But there are a few commonalities that I’ve found with academies that have great student retention from the rest.
Retention building factors

1 Setting Boundaries

There is a time and place for you to communicate with your students or the staff.

I was originally going to start off with communication, but in retrospect, setting healthy boundaries between yourself as an instructor and your students is what will support all the other factors in determining your student retention.

How can setting boundaries possibly help you retain more students you’re wondering?

Well, setting boundaries is the foundation of every relationship. Even the relationship between students and instructors.

By having clearly defined boundaries it will allow you to be more effective in communicating with your students, and both parties will feel more positive about the experience.

Boundaries like not dating students.

This one should be self explanatory. Don’t date your students. It almost always leads to drama and is not good for business.

Boundaries like not taking part in vices (in the presence of your students at least).

This should be self explanatory too but your interactions with students should lean more towards appropriate and safe and less toward inappropriate and dangerous.

Boundaries like having specific times and days in which your students have you full and undivided attention.

It’s easy to believe that you will have unlimited time and energy with which to teach multiple classes per day, coach, lesson plan, teach private lessons, train, and mentor.

But the reality of it is far different.

I know outside looking in it seems like an easy profession being able to train and roll all day.

But when you teach for a living, especially in the beginning when you’re always at your academy. It’s not productive for you to always be at the beck and call of your students. No matter how much you want to be.

I’m not saying that you should ignore your students but you should have a system in place for yourself and your students.

I’m really big on email and messenger whenever students have questions. Since it’s easier for me to communicate that way and I have time to think before saying something stupid.

While other instructors might set aside time either before or after class specifically to interact with students.

From Impressionable students

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 school 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.

As an instructor, your views and actions have a lot of influence over your students. So in order for your students to respect your boundaries it’s important that you are worthy of that respect.

I think this is one reason why many instructors are very disciplined. Eat healthy, train hard, and are respectful on and off the mats.
It’s very much a do as I do type of philosophy.

2 Communication

Experts always talk about communication being the key to successful relationships and at the risk of sounding cliche. I believe this is true.

How do you communicate with your students?

I don’t believe that a lot of instructors/academy owners really think about the ways in which they communicate with their students and whether or not it’s constructive communication.

It’s easy as an instructor to get so used to the hierarchy that is built in to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

You bow to your instructors.

You line up behind the more senior students.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I believe that it does instill a sense of discipline and accountability that is missing in a lot of social interactions.

But it can be taken too far, especially when off of the mats and outside of the academy.

I’ve seen many instructors abuse the authority that they had by taking advantage of their students in asking for one sided favors, getting free or below cost labor, not treating students with respect, and talking down to students because they weren’t as good at Jiu Jitsu.

This isn’t conducive to creating an environment of open communication and instead breeds more blind compliance and yes man(ing) that is more characteristic of a cult than a martial arts academy.

Equal Ground

Constructive, open communication comes from a level playing field.

In hierarchies, it’s really hard to voice one’s opinion when you’ve only been taught to defer to the more experienced, higher ranking party.

As an instructor you have to create an environment in which your students have a proper outlet in order to communicate with you. One where you are not your rank but a fellow person taking part in a fun and interactive activity.

Prescriptive

One thing that I like to do whenever I teach is to set aside time right before the end of my classes. Where I invite all of the students to ask me any questions they may have. Whether it concerns any of the moves that I covered or any general Jiu Jitsu questions.

It doesn’t take much time but you will be surprised by how many questions that arise during a class or even after a hard training session.

Instructors get so caught up in their classes and trying to stay within the allotted time slot or covering a certain amount of techniques that they often hurry from one thing to the next. Until, the class is over and they have to move on to another class or they become too exhausted or busy to give the student(s) their full attention.

I know that I’ve been guilty of this. That’s why if I’m really busy or short on energy. I will suggest that a student hit me up through other means of communication when I can devote more time to them.

Being the instructor, you have to lead the way by creating (multiple) opportunities for your students to interact with you. Show your students that they can come to you, and that you’re willing to hear them out and help them out.

3 Keep bringing value

Complacency in relationships is a big problem.

When you become complacent in running your academy the same way that you’ve always ran it. You open yourself up to stagnation.

Bring value to your programs by continually updating techniques and movements.

You would be surprised by the number of academies that still show how to pass on the knees and other outdated movements that have been improved upon by modern Jiu Jitsu.

Bring value by adding classes and programs that your students want.

If your students have been pushing for a conditioning class or more no gi classes. Instead of sticking to your current schedule. Try to fit in the new class(es) even on a trial basis and see how it does. Worst case scenario, the class doesn’t do well so you move back to the regular schedule.

Revamping your curriculum is an easy, low investment way to bring new energy into your academy. Making students want to attend. Happy to attend in fact. That’s what retention is all about.

Bring value to your academy by adding small touches and amenities like changing the color scheme, adding new furniture to your reception area, free wifi, or newer mats. Even small changes will be well received.

There is no limit to what you can do. Just by showing that you are willing to continue improving your academy you demonstrate to your students that you value their support and they will reward you in turn with their loyalty.

4 Motivate

Motivate your students.

It’s as simple as that. When they’re doing well and making progress help them to reach new levels in their techniques, conditioning, etc.

When they are feeling burned out and don’t think that they’re improving. Motivate them to continue training and help them get through those tough times.

Some of the most successful academies aren’t successful just because of the techniques that they show, or because they have a really good instructor or even top notch facilities. They’re successful because the environment of the school helped pushed the students, no matter their level or ability, to reach their goals.

5 Keep it fun

Don’t take yourself nor your position too seriously.

At the end of the day, Jiu Jitsu should be fun and students should look forward to attending classes and training with their friends.

An easy way to build fun is by doing activities outside of the academy with your students. Going out to eat, movies, and other types of events.

6 Positive environment

Having a fun and positive environment is what keeps students training.

Many people see Jiu Jitsu and academies as an oasis from the burden of everyday life. One that often involves long hours at work and busy family lives.

Make the environment at your academy one that students will look forward to throughout their day. A safe space.

If your environment is off you could be unintentionally letting students fall through the cracks. The complete opposite of retention.

Signs of a bad environment
*Lots of drama
*Lots of injuries
*Fighting
*Arguments
*Exodus of students

The list goes on and on but the old saying, “where there is smoke, there is fire”, rings true. If left uncontrolled, could lead to much bigger problems.

As the instructor it is your responsibility to ensure that there is a positive environment for your students since you ultimately set the standard for your academy.

Retention, Retention, Retention

Building positive relationships and retaining students goes hand and hand.

As instructors, we like to focus on how hard we have it and all of the sacrifices that we’ve made to get to the point where we could run an entire academy, but in what way does that help your students?

When you decided to open your own academy, you made a conscious decision to put the training and progression of your students above your own.

It’s hard for many instructors to understand this, but it’s the truth.

You have to develop clear boundaries and systems so that you and your students are able to communicate effectively.

You have to make it easy and convenient for your students to interact with you. Especially, when they’re having a tough time.

You have to make the environment of the academy fun and positive. And keep bringing value.

Being an instructor isn’t easy. No one said it would be. But it is fulfilling and never boring.

Training at a high level competition academy

I’ve been fortunate enough to train at many different types of academies throughout my career.

Different in their atmosphere.

Different in their focus.

Different in training philosophies and techniques.

I just want to start off by saying that there is no one best school or academy. It all comes down to whether or not it’s a good fit for you.

You could have access to the best training partners and instructors in the world. But if the training environment is toxic, it’s no good.

In this post we’re going to look at the benefits (or upsides) of training at a well known, competition oriented Jiu Jitsu academy and in the following weeks I hope to examine some of the downsides as well.

High Level Academy

Most regular people aren’t looking for the most competitive academy.

Gold medals and championship wins have no meaning to them.

That’s something that I try to drive home to any martial arts business owners or future academy owners.

Your average student is looking for a fun, safe, and decently located place to workout.

Being a world class facility only has sway over students who are: (1) into competitive Jiu Jitsu, (2) understand your accolades, (3) want to train hard.

There are lots of reasons for training at a competitive Jiu Jitsu academy but they all boil down to pushing your comfort zone.

Of course, not every student is going to compete. But there will be this culture of doing tournaments or atleast training hard that will permeat through all the programs within that academy.

During the late 2000’s early 2010’s, the academy that I trained at was one of the best academies in America and arguably one of the best in the world.

In addition to myself, we had numerous pans champions, world champions at the lower belts, and ADCC vets.

We were the quintessential competition academy. Of course, we still had a strong foundation in self defense and the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu. But we were mostly known through our success in tournaments.

And because of this we were able to attract many like minded students from all over the U.S.A. in addition to developing our own home grown students.

1 High level training partners

The biggest reason for training at a high level academy is because you’ll have access to high level training partners.

No matter how naturally talented you are. You can only go so far watching competition video, drilling, and visualizing. Eventually, you get to a point where you will need the help of good training partners to help push you past your limits.

It wasn’t uncommon to have athletes decide to completely uproot their lives, quit their jobs, and move down to train at my academy. Some guys wanted to be world champions. While others wanted to dedicate themselves more to their practice by surrounding themselves with those who wanted to become world champions.

Everyone had their reasons.

Having access to a large stable of tough training partners. All with different body types and skill sets. Is the fastest way to improve your Jiu Jitsu.

A popular saying in Jiu Jitsu is that, “iron sharpens iron”.

And this is very true for the best academies in the world like Atos/Art of Jiu Jitsu, Alliance, and all of the other top academies. They attract the best talent which in turn helps them to do bettter in competitions.

Outside of the training aspects. High level training partners allow you to immerse yourself completely into the Jiu Jitsu lifestyle.

Not only are you be able to train hard, but you’re also able to have in depth discussion about techniques, mindset, and training.

You’re surrounded by like minded individuals that have similar goals and can help motivate you.

You also become more accountable in your training. So if you’re slacking off or taking too much time off. You have someone that can and will call you out on it.

I won’t lie and say that this is always the most fun or inviting environment.

It’s not.

But if you have dreams of reaching a new level in your Jiu Jitsu and doing well nationally or internationally. It makes a big difference training at a high level academy versus a lesser skilled academy.

2 Knowledgeable instructors

High level academies tend to have very knowledgeable instructors.

As important as it is to have good training partners. Having the right instructor(s) is the cornerstone of a great competitor and on the larger scale, a competitive academy.

Examples such as Fernando Terere and the offshoots of the old TT academy such as cobrinha, Andre Galvao, Lucas Lepri, and Michael Langhi.

We see this even more recently with Romulo Barral and his students Edwin Najimi and Gabriel Arges.

Great instructors make great students.

It’s no wonder that the top academies tend to stay on top for years. They are able to take students with potential and mold them in to champions.

Your instructor influences everything from developing your foundational knowledge as an athlete to helping you overcome the highs and lows of our sport.

High level academies are able to develop inhouse or attract many of the best instructors because of their great training environment.

I’ve written about this before, but if you’re a lower belt and you are beating the majority of your training partners (and even the instructor) then there is a good chance that academy might not be the best place for you to pursue a competive career.

I know this advice sounds harsh and it is.

3 Competitive environment

Combine high level training partners with really great instructors and you get the perfect competitive environment.

It’s hard to explain if you haven’t had the chance to experience it yet. The feeling of training hard everyday and knowing that your training is often harder than the actual competition.

The feeling of having close teammates doing well in big tournaments and having the confidence that you will do well too.

Or being able to get an invite to an exclusive tournament, or increased exposure on social media and Jiu Jitsu news sites because you train with so and so.

There are so many benefits to training at a high level academy that it’s not possible for me to list them all.

If you have plans of competing in Jiu Jitsu and want to do well at the bigest tournaments. Then training at a high level academy or moving to one could be the deciding factor.

Over the years I have met many talented grapplers. They had all the attributes of a great competitor but without the proper training environment to help you develop and grow. That potential can easily be wasted or not fully tapped into.