We’ve got a great group of teachers over in our BJJ instructor Facebook group. They always have insightful questions around all things related to teaching BJJ and developing the best students possible.
Alan “Gumby” Marques was kind enough to sit down and answer some of those questions in depth.
If you don’t know Gumby, he started training BJJ under Ralph Gracie in 1996, and earned his black belt in 2006. He is also co-founder of OntheMat.com as well as owner and head instructor at Heroes Martial Arts (est. 2009).
Gumby covers a lot in this interview—ranging from class structure, to addressing individual students’ needs, to starting women’s classes to what goes into developing the culture of an academy. It’s a great interview for anyone wanting to evaluate the culture and current structure of their academy from an instructor perspective.
What are “the basics”?
How do you split more aggressive and more passive students?
How do you arrange the techniques you teach every month?
How do you address self defense?
How do you adjust your instruction in relation to student performance?
Ho do you structure your warmups?
How much sparring do you incorporate?
What’s your advice on setting up a women’s class?
What keeps students coming back?
People sometimes find this question tricky…What are “the basics”?
I don’t think of this as a tricky question. A basic is something that requires little to no knowledge beforehand. Something is advanced because it has a prerequisite of knowledge of a basic.
What constitutes a “Basic” curriculum (most instructors call them Fundamentals now I think), isn’t so much what techniques are to be shown, as much as the context you would place those techniques in. What is the core of what you are trying to show to the world, and what can your students expect to get out of what you teach?
I start by giving a definition of what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is, and then in practical terms what that means to the student. Context is EVERYTHING, and it’s important to establish that from the get go.
I know I’m in the minority of instructors, but I actually think this context is so important that I make it a point to instruct the new students myself. Once they have been grounded in solid fundamentals, once they have a good base to start from then their game can truly develop and they can begin to personalize their Jiu Jitsu.
Plus after so many years in Jiu Jitsu, I personally get a certain thrill off of the basics that I don’t necessarily off of the latest “fad technique”. I would say a large part of advancing your jiu jitsu is being able to execute your basics against a better class of opponents and situations.
How do you manage the split many academies have between students who tend to go hard during rolling, and those who are less aggressive?
In addition to a progressive level of techniques (from fundamental to advanced) I also let students know that there is a progression in the level of intensity of the training. Students are free to work in whatever category they are comfortable to work in; although the goal is to have the students be able to eventually progress to the more intense sessions.
I break things up (in order):
30 second technical drill (trying to work a specific technique with resistance),
1 minute positional drills (starting from a specific position and sparring from there)
No time limit position drills start in a specific position, then the match continues until a specific goal is met. For example—a guard passing drill where the person on the bottom has to sweep or submit, and the person on the top has to pass.
Sparring rounds (ground only, academy style)
Sparring rounds (from the feet, competition style)
I have a few other ways of breaking up drilling and sparring as well. I explain to everyone that while everyone is welcome to participate in any class, the intensity level rises substantially in the more advanced classes and while there is always a team mentality these classes are far more competitive. But there is a place for everyone and path to work up to the more intense level if one should choose (and they are encouraged to do so).
Furthermore, I make sure that every student knows HOW to train in a way that can get the maximum benefit out of every session.
I always explain to the higher level students that if you’re working with someone who is a lower skill level than you, it makes sense to try out different aspects of your game, and not bring your “competition game every single time”.
A student who only cares about “winning” really isn’t going to last in Jiu Jitsu for one reason or another. Ironically, it’s the student who is most interested in learning who winds up winning most of the time when it counts.
How many techniques do you teach per month? Do you have a particular theme (i.e., mount, the back, closed guard, or perhaps more specific, like spider guard sweeps, armbars from s mount etc), and if so for how long (week, fortnight, month, etc)?
My Fundamentals Program has two lessons per week, for 30 lessons spread out over four months (January-April, May-August, September-December). Each week or two covers a major theme (such as mount, closed guard, etc).
The Fundamental Classes themselves are pretty scripted and the material is pretty specific. In the subsequent advanced classes, I will riff on the theme of the week and pull from a larger arsenal of techniques to show based on that theme (maybe a specific technique from the mount, closed guard, etc). In this way I’ll teach the same Fundamental class every four months, but the Intermediate/Advanced classes will vary quite a bit). My advanced students can expect that both the techniques and the drills they are working on are going to based on the theme of the week. If there is time left over at the end of the four month rotation (after I get through the 30 Fundamental Classes I want to teach), I can play around a little bit before restarting the Fundamental Rotation again at the designated time
I think it’s important to enforce a rotation so students have the ability to become well rounded and not specialize in any one area (I think it’s equally important to develop a top game and bottom game for example). Also, I actually think having a structure to classes encourages more independent study, allows people to develop their own games, and diversifies the academy.
Everyone has to know the Fundamentals to begin with. But as students advance they are going to have an opportunity to personalize their game more and develop their own style. For example, you need to have a way of opening up a closed guard in your arsenal—which guard opening technique you want to specialize in however, is entirely up to you.
I never want a student to use a technique simply because I said it was the best one. They have to be able to justify their use of a technique themselves.
In this way I believe you get a stronger and more diverse academy. Sometimes in a tournament you can scout out a competitor based on their instructor or what school they come from. Certain academies are known for certain moves. But I sincerely hope that if you meet one of my students in a tournament you would have no idea what to expect other than they are well rounded and technically sound!
How do you address self defense while you teach positions? (Esp if you have competitors in a class who want to specialize in their game.)
I make it a point to mention self defense applications whenever I teach, but I also make it a point to know my audience and the context I’m delivering to. I don’t harp on the self-defense aspect of Jiu Jitsu during the competition class for example (although I always make sure my students are aware that they should protect themselves at all times and not depend on the rules or referees to keep themselves safe.)
I often like to say that good Jiu Jitsu, more so the concepts as opposed to the individual techniques should be applicable in a number of situations. Gi, no Gi, MMA, self defense, ultimately none of those things should really throw off a Martial Artist as long as their Jiu Jitsu is fundamentally sound. Folks that say that their Jiu Jitsu is totally different from one situation to the next, I kind of wonder what their definition of Jiu Jitsu actually is.
Truth be told, I’m a little torn between wanting to keep certain aspects of the self defense aspect of Jiu Jitsu alive and the belief that self defense as it is often taught is, for lack of a better word, bullshit.
I feel a responsibility to teach Jiu Jitsu in a manner that wouldn’t get someone maimed in a street fight if it came down to it, but that largely has to do with establishing a context for moves. The best self defense is to avoid the conflict entirely—having the ability to be aware of your situation, your surroundings and your potential conflicts, and then if it comes down to it, the use of some kind of technique to keep yourself safe and get out of a situation.
Someone who trains in Jiu Jitsu for purely self-defense reasons isn’t going to last very long. They will get to a certain level of confidence, and if the other benefits of Jiu Jitsu haven’t taken hold of them by then, they will more often than not, drop out. (The same could be said about someone who comes in solely for competition purposes.)
In a more positive spin, there are a lot of things that make Jiu Jitsu a great activity. A responsible instructor should take care to address all of those things, and not narrow their focus to much. A student will narrow their focus to certain things over their careers and that is normal, largely because Jiu Jitsu is such a deep art and there are a lot of discoveries to be made as a martial artist.
How do you change the curriculum based on what you are reading from students’ performance?
I have a Fundamental curriculum and schedule that cycles every four months that I stick to pretty rigorously for reasons I mentioned previously. But the Fundamentals are only part of what I teach. In a way they are both a base and the outline for everything else I teach.
I like to break things up into hour long segments and keep careful track of the time. I generally teach in three hour blocks.
The first hour is Fundamentals, and as I stated earlier, that class is very scripted and I don’t deviate from the material too much for each cycle (how much of the prepared material I can get through depends on how the class is going). The second hour is intermediate/advanced lessons or techniques. It is ALWAYS based off what the Fundamentals class was for the day, but beyond that, things can vary quite a bit.
For example, if the Fundamentals class was about the maintaining the closed guard, the following class might be a specific attack from the closed guard, or a sweep, or addressing something that I observed someone attempting in class or at a tournament, or even something that is popular on Youtube at the moment. In this way, while the Fundamentals classes are rather unchanging, what I teach beyond that varies from cycle to cycle.
I try to keep things rotating because I believe in the importance of well roundedness (as opposed to specialization) and also because I think a break through can happen by looking at things from a different perspective.
For example, a student might be stuck or having difficultly performing a certain sweep from the guard. That might be in the back of the student’s mind when it comes to working on passing the guard, but now that they have a chance to see the position from a different viewpoint, i.e. the top of the guard. They often will gain insight into that sweep from a few lessons past.
In other words, development does not happen in a vacuum. There is a concurrent advancement of technique that will occur in both the student’s own development as they cycle through their learning, that also occurs within the academy as a whole, as everyone is learning together. The direct competition against each other is going to force development as well.
The challenge for an instructor is not to only recognize where these connections will occur, but to do what we can to encourage them.
I often tell my students that I do not necessarily have the answer that is right for them 100% of the time. I don’t believe in a one size fits all vision of Jiu Jitsu and I am certainly not trying to create clones of myself. I like to think of myself as a knowledgeable guide who can help a student achieve their maximum potential. A student’s Jiu Jitsu is valid when they have acknowledged its validity for themselves first, and then have had an opportunity to test it.
What’s the content and length of an average warm-up at your school?
Usually about 15 minutes or so. I select exercises to first build cardio and core strength (which are integral to the Jiu Jitsu experience). Depending on what the lesson is for the day, I will also select exercises and movements to help prepare students for techniques they will be performing. For example, if the class is going to be mount escapes, then there will be a lot of shrimp moves and bridging incorporated into the warm ups.
It’s important to acknowledge that many students are taking Jiu Jitsu for the purpose of getting more physically fit, so it’s important to address that. However, as they say, nothing will get you in shape for Jiu Jitsu, other than doing Jiu Jitsu.
Do you pair people up for sparring, or let everybody pick their own partner?
I usually do make at least the first pairings, and then leave it up to the students after that. Sometimes I might exert a bit more control if I think there are logical match ups that would be more beneficial (such as keeping partners around the same size for competition preparation), or if I have special concerns about some potential match ups (I have one pair of brothers I can’t let train with each other because they will literally wind up killing themselves.)
It’s always interesting to me to observe when I let students make their own match ups to see who picks whom. There is a lot to be learned by simply observing your own class and seeing what your students will do when left to their own devices. Some people will deliberately avoid each other, some look for an easy match up, some people look for the most challenging match up possible. I can actually assess a lot about the student when they don’t think I’m watching however as far as they are concerned I’m always watching, lol!
In your opinion, is it a good idea to separate beginners and advanced into separate classes? Or indeed beginner, intermediate and advanced?
Yes, I do think that’s extremely important, but my school is a bit more established and I have a pretty diverse range of students. When the school was a bit more homogenized (filled with new students) I ran things a bit differently.
As stated before, classes are separated by not only the sophistication of the material, but also the intensity of the class. There are some definite requirements for being able to advance to the next level of classes, but as I instruct most of the classes myself, I can offer individual guidance on who is ready for what, and furthermore, what a student would have to do to move up a level.
Mind you, when I say “level” I don’t necessarily mean the advancement of belts. Belts operate on a different (and some would say mysterious) criteria and requirements. One of my favorite things about Jiu Jitsu is the distinction between theoretical and applied knowledge. In truth, a student is going to have to both types—they are going to have to be able to “know” a technique in terms of being able to explain it (not necessarily teach it) as well as being able to actually accomplish it to some degree.
How much sparring do you think there should be in a 1hr class and a 1.5hr class?
Depends on the class, who’s attending and the goals for the class. Not to be flippant, but the amount of sparring on a given session could be anywhere from 0% to 100%. As a coach it’s important to be in tune with your class and see what the vibe is and what is needed on a given day.
How would you go about setting up a women only class, in terms of format, techniques, warm-up etc?
I’ve experimented with this quite a bit, and so far, the answer seems to be making a women’s class that is supplemental too, but not a substitute for the regular class.
Like most other instructors, I would like to see more women training in Jiu Jitsu, but it is a very male dominated activity. Furthermore, I am a male teaching the class, and the majority of the women training with me are relatively inexperienced.
First, I establish the women’s only class as a safe zone.
They might be interested in Jiu Jitsu but are intimidated by participating in the regular group class. The women’s only class eliminates that obstacle, and hopefully gives them the courage and comfort to train in the regular classes. Again, as I am a male instructor this might have seemed weird at first, but I actually started the women’s only class after I had a few established women training with me in order to give them some more opportunities. I was pretty dependent on having established a comfort level with them first so they in turn could pass that to the new students coming in.
For lack of a better analogy I often compare it to the dance floor. No one wants to be the first one on it, but as soon as people look like they are having a good time out there soon everyone will join in.
Second, I think women’s only classes are important because women will push each other to excel in a way that a male and a female training together won’t. They will train harder against each other than say a male and a female will. There are certain social or ingrained taboos or attitudes that even the most enlightened students will find difficult to overcome in co-ed training.
The question of the level of intensity and the appropriateness of certain techniques come up often (almost always by the men), but when two ladies train against each other this is never brought up. Thus ladies will often have their most “intense” sparring sessions against each other. At the same time, I have also noticed that the women in Jiu Jitsu tend to quickly develop a camaraderie and will motivate each other. Perhaps they are bonding together because they are in the minority at any academy and they feel the need to stick together.
Third, as an instructor, it gives me the opportunity to address “women specific” issues regarding Jiu Jitsu. Usually, this has to do with the assumption that Jiu Jitsu is based on the fact that a smaller, weaker but more technical opponent can overcome a stronger, aggressive, less skilled opponent (although I don’t think the women in my school are necessarily the least physically imposing students). While I think it’s applicable in all classes I emphasize more matters of timing and the perception (or reality) that the female student can often be simply overpowered by their male counter part.
Interestingly enough, I had also envisioned this as a section where I could address more of the self defense techniques and issues of Jiu Jitsu, but requests for this have not come up nearly as often as I would have thought. However, I did recently have a conversation with one of my smaller students who felt that training in Jiu Jitsu has made her more confident and more clear-thinking, especially when she was placed in a potentially uncomfortable situation at work.
The actual running of the class is more akin to how I run my Fundamentals class, but this is also largely because the make up of the class is largely beginning women (I have promoted two women to blue belt over the years). It tends to be more technical than drilling or sparring, and I adjust the balance and ratio accordingly to who is in the class that day.
What are the elements that keep students coming back? What makes a new student stick with BJJ? What are the elements that keep upper belts returning to class?
Jiu Jitsu is a deep art with a lot to offer. As long as the student feels that there are still discoveries to be made, that they are still improving, and most importantly that Jiu Jitsu is benefitting their life over all, they will keep coming back. I still consider myself a student of the art first and foremost, and that’s what keeps me coming back.
A huge thanks to Gumby for taking the time to answer all our questions!