Teaching Your First BJJ Class

Teaching Your First BJJ Class

The BJJ journey is filled with amazing and life changing experiences that can enrich every other area of your life.  One of the most rewarding of those experiences is to lead your first class and instruct.  There is an old saying that to teach it to learn again for the second time.  By sharing your favorite techniques with a group of people who may just be starting out on the road to their black belts will fill you with a sense of satisfaction that no submission hold or tap will ever replicate.   When you see the light bulbs going off and watch the smiles on the faces of the attendees, you will barely be able to contain the feeling of satisfaction.

It's important to note that some people are more experienced or maybe more comfortable in front of groups.  Maybe you're not.  That doesn't matter.  Like any technique that you would learn the first time, it's important to practice and drill the technique and over time, you will see yourself getting smoother and better at the execution.  The same goes with speaking in front of the class and sharing techniques.

So most likely, when it comes time to teach your first class, you will probably be nervous.  You will probably be wondering what you're going to teach and whether or not the audience will enjoy the technique.  Mark Twain once said that there are two different kinds of speakers, the nervous and the liars.  Embrace those nerves.  They are normal.  Here are some tips that will help you survive that first class and every class after that.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Let's start with the format of class.  Chances are your academy or gym has a relatively standard format that most classes follow.  You've probably taken hundreds of classes in your time and they've all worked pretty well to get you where you are, so let's not try to reinvent the wheel and make your job any more difficult.

How does your academy warm up for classes?  Do the same thing, whether it is jogging, calisthenics and BJJ-related body weight exercises or some combination of these things, simply repeat what you know.  The purpose of the warm up is not only limited to the preparation of the attendees bodies to help get them ready for the more strenuous activity to come, but it also helps prep our minds by following a standard routine.  After you've done the same warm up for dozens of classes, it can become something automatic that effectively sets the tone for the class.  If you try to do something brand new, it can cause stress and frustration that will waste crucial mental energy that can better be used during the instructional portion of the class.

In a typical one hour class, the warm up is usually no more than 15-20 minutes.  After conducting this warmup, you will begin the instructional portion of the class (which we will talk about more shortly), and then perhaps reserve the last 15-20 minutes for live positional rolling or drilling to strengthen the techniques that you will go over.

Less is more

When you're a new student, it's easy to use too much strength.  It's easy to spend most of our time breathing too hard and using too much energy executing moves, or maintaining positions.  When it comes to be a new teacher in front of your first class, "too much strength" manifests itself as "teaching too much."  Teaching too much can be one of the worst things you can do as an instructor, even if the techniques are perfectly executed and explained.  

The average one hour jiu jitsu class probably covers 2-3 techniques from a specific position.  The danger when in front of a class for the first time is that time seems to be going extremely slow in some cases and it is human nature to try to fill the space we  have in front of us with more techniques.  It's like having a one-sided conversation and trying to fill the silence with rambling.

Focusing on 2-3 techniques give people a manageable amount of moves to practice and get a fair number of reps in before class is over.  If you attempt to cram more techniques into this space, you will leave the students frustrated with spinning heads wondering what just happened.

What Should I Teach?

Your instructor may have a specific curriculum or game plan already set forth for your first class.  If that is the case, by all means, follow the lesson plan and do your best to bring your own flavor to the moves scheduled for that day.

If you have the ability to design your own game plan, my advice would be as follows.  Start with something you know and something you actually utilize in live training.  Many times, when you are given your first opportunity to lead a class, you may feel impelled to teach something 'fancy' or something you may not actually know yourself.  While it's important to constantly be adding techniques to your arsenal and expanding your own knowledge as a student and burgeoning instructor, the pressure to impress by showing something you don't know will most likely not go well.  

Instead, by sharing something that you have used in in your own game and have had some success with, no matter how simple or fundamental will lead to a much more authentic experience for your students and for you as an instructor.  By teaching something you're familiar with using, you will fortify your own knowledge of the technique and be able to address the questions that the students could possibly throw your way.

Not Knowing Is Ok

As an instructor, one of the first crucial lessons you may have to learn is that you don't have to have all of the answers.  Sometimes questions from students can open up lines of discussion that can lead to better understanding of the techniques for everyone in the room including you.  When you find yourself completely stumped by a question, simply promise that you will get an answer and follow up.  Do not try to BS your way through a question.  That's the same as using too much strength at the wrong time during a technique.  It's a kind of cheating that short changes your students and you.

 In the video below, 5 time world champion Bernardo Faria discusses the nature of teaching BJJ techniques with Stephan Kesting, owner of the GrappleArts website and one of the most popular YouTube channels out there.  They discuss the difference in methodology in teaching the same BJJ technique, the rear naked choke to practitioners of varying levels.  Check it out below.

Notice how at each level, whether it is beginner white belt level or more advanced level practitioner, the fundamental technique is always effective, but as the experience level of the practitioner increases, the more contingencies or alternative pathways can be introduced to refine and perfect the technique.  This will allow the more experienced BJJ athlete to find more success, more often with the techniques.

So just to recap, if you're about to teach your first class, or if it's something you aspire to do some day, by all means talk to your instructor and let them know, it's important to remember a few simple things that will help you throughout your teaching career.  First and foremost, model the classes that you are familiar with.  Follow the same standard template.  This will help you and it will most definitely help the students by following a familiar pattern which will serve to properly warm up the body and warm up the mind of the students.  Next don't try to teach too much.  It is much better to work 1 move for an entire instructional segment, than to work 10 moves in the same segment.  Quality is much more important than quantity.  Also, focus on teaching something you are comfortable with, something you use in your own game plan, something you believe in.  And lastly, don't feel like you have to know everything.  No matter what belt level we are, we are always students.  Ask any black belt and they will tell you this simple fact.

One of the best sources of techniques for the burgeoning instructor would be from one of the original American black belts, Chris Haueter.  His "Old School Efficient BJJ" series will have you learning techniques that many instructors have either forgotten or have never learned.  It is available here at BJJ Fanatics!