Teaching as a Purple Belt

In March 2011, Roger Gracie and Kev Capel promoted me to purple belt. Two months later, I moved to Bristol, where conveniently there was a BJJ academy around the corner. Due to the colour of our belts, in May 2011 the head instructor in Bristol asked the other purple belt and I if we wanted to help out with classes. I jumped at the chance, as instructing jiu jitsu has been a long-term goal of mine for some time. I had some experience leading undergraduate seminars on literature, but discussing poetry is quite different to teaching a physical skill set like jiu jitsu.


I started thinking up a vague curriculum based on what I saw as the six major positions: side control, mount, closed guard, open guard, half guard and  the back. My approach to life relies heavily on research: I don’t feel comfortable about something unless I am well-prepared, with lots of analysis and related reading. In the case of teaching jiu jitsu, that means rereading my training notes in the first instance (made easy by the labelling system common to most blogs). Next, I look through instructionals I particularly enjoy, such as Saulo Ribeiro’s Jiu Jitsu Revolution series, his brother Xande’s more recent set, Roy Dean’s DVDs, Braulio Estima’s tutorials, material from Gracie University and the books by Ed Beneville.

I will then essentially blog in reverse, writing up the class before I’ve taught it. My choice of techniques has been based primarily on those which do not seem to rely upon physical attributes like speed, strength and flexibility. That is selfish, in that I want to build a game that will last for the rest of my life, but also intended to cater to the broadest range of students possible.

As a mere purple belt, I do not have the experience to plan a solid curriculum off the top of my head. That’s why I make an effort to gather as much student feedback as possible, along with taking plenty of notes on how the lesson went. I am hoping that will enable me to continue refining the lessons until I reach the point where I have an in-depth understanding of a small number of simple techniques.

It’s been interesting to see what works for students, along with what works for me. When initially teaching mount escapes, I was surprised to realise that I hardly ever do anything other than the foot drag. As a result, it actually felt a bit awkward teaching the basic elbow escape to recover guard. I’ve also found that I sometimes need to modify things on the fly when I run into unexpected problems, like a student with mobility issues or unavoidable size differences (especially when it is a small group). In one class I was teaching the scissor sweep, but there was a student with old injuries that meant she had difficulty bending her leg. I therefore taught her the flower sweep instead, as that way she could keep her legs fairly straight. 

Up until now my classes have almost without exception lasted 1.5hrs. I begin with a warm-up of roughly 10-15 minutes, then move into the technical section. I don’t like to teach more than two techniques, so that students have a better chance of retaining the information. For each technique, I have everybody drill for four minutes each, followed by three minutes of progressive resistance.

I feel the progressive resistance element is very important: I’m a big fan of the SBGi concept of ‘aliveness’, brilliantly described by SBGi founder Matt Thornton in this video. Speaking from experience, many times I have been shown a technique, but never felt I really got a chance to learn the application. I would learn the mechanics during drilling, and then fail to apply it in sparring. There needs to be a middle step, which is where progressive resistance comes in. You’re still drilling, but due to increasingly realistic resistance, I find it is easier to learn the proper application. I also always emphasise to students that they should be offering each other advice at this point if they can clearly see what their partner is doing wrong (e.g., “your base is a little off”, “you’re not controlling my hips”, “you keep letting me establish that grip”, etc). The best person to tell you what you’re doing wrong is the person who just exploited your mistake.

That’s followed by sparring. Most of the time, I stick to specific sparring, to make absolutely certain I’m providing an opportunity to test out the techniques against full resistance. For example, start in guard, where the aim is to pass, submit or sweep, after which you restart. If there is time, I’ll include some free sparring and flow rolling, after which we’ll stretch.

At the end, I will review the techniques I taught in class, following a method I saw at a John Will seminar. The students pair up as normal for drilling the technique, but everybody faces the same way. That means I can then run through the technique step by step, having the class follow along, secure in the knowledge that when I say “put your left arm under their head” everybody knows which limb goes where.

I’m in a fortunate position at the moment as I only teach once a week: the academy does not depend entirely on my lesson, so I can afford to focus on what I find interesting. Self defence, takedowns and no-gi are all covered during the rest of the week. I relish the opportunity to experiment, but if I ever find myself running an academy in the distant future, that will be a different kind of challenge. Given my current level, it is also a very long way off. 😉

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.