How Instructor Style Really Affects Your Progression in BJJ

Tom DeBlass and his instructor Ricardo Almeida.--photo by Mark Ward, Garden State Photography-courtesy of Tom DeBlass

If you have visited a number of different BJJ academies, you will have seen a variety of different styles of classes.

Some academies are informal places where there are white belts wearing every conceivable design and color of gi and rash guards with psychedelic colors, heavy metal music in the background during rolling (a little “Let The Bodies Hit The Floor”), and a relaxed approach to warmups and rolling.

At the other end of the spectrum are the more traditional schools where all students must wear a white kimono, there are many formalities such as bowing and saying “Osss!”, and the class is run with military like precision.

This why it is important for you to check out the different academies in your area to see how it fits your needs and personality. The bro who likes to blaze up with his glaucoma medication before rolling may not be down with the more structured vibe at a more traditional school.

Instructors vary not only in the school culture that they set, but in the style of instruction. Does your school emphasize competition? Are there active MMA fighters training in the school? Are most of the students recreational and there for the self defense and physical fitness aspects? Much of that depends on the focus of the head instructor.

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The majority of my jiu-jitsu from white belt to black was under 2 instructors with very different approaches.

#1
My initial 5 years were under an older instructor from Brazil. He had knee surgeries that limited his physical abilities and was no longer an active competitor. I never had the experience of rolling with my instructor. He was however a virtual encyclopedia of jiu-jitsu knowledge and also had a university degree in physical education. A true professor of jiu-jitsu who had a solid answer for any question you might have.

He ran his school in a typical relaxed Brazilian style where at the end of class he would announce “Ok, everybody can go to rolling now.” You rolled as much or as little as you wished. The serious guys would group together and beat the hell out of each other and the more recreational guys could roll or drill at their own pace.

His instruction was very detail oriented, and I developed an appreciation for how a small detail could make or break a technique. Under his instruction, I laid a solid foundation of basics that served me well 20+ years later and in many academies all over the world.

#2
After relocating to a different area of the country, I started training with a younger instructor who had just returned from living for several years in Rio de Janeiro with his black belt. He was a lighter guy who was still very much an active competitor. The specific or positional sparring was always structured and more formal than in my 1st BJJ school.

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For the 1st time in my BJJ life, I had the opportunity to roll regularly with a black belt. I felt the black belt pressure, tightness, and speed of transitions.
It was a different kind of learning than my first 5 years of BJJ.

While I certainly learned from the structured classes, I started to learn by feeling what the blackbelt would do during our rolls. I would get arm barred and ask “I tried this escape but you stopped me. What did you do?”

There is a difference between “explicit” learning where instructor #1 would directly teach you how to perform a straight arm lock and “implicit” learning where I would get armlocked and feel what made it so effective. Perhaps the instruction was not as rich in detailed explanation, but I was learning in a different way that eventually raised my level to black belt.

I experienced the methods of 2 different instructors and learned in 2 very different ways. Both helped me learn jiu-jitsu.

What is the teaching style of your instructor?

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