Black Belt Learning Strategies and Advice: Josh Vogel

Black Belt Learning Strategies and Advice: Josh Vogel

Black belt  Kenneth Brown interviews Migliarese black belt Josh Vogel on the art of teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.


Many of us have experienced plateaus in our training. It may last a day, week, month or longer, but during that period, we perceive that we aren’t improving. If that perception holds firm for a long enough period, it can cause some to abandon the art with the belief that they have reached their limit and can go no further.

This series of interviews is made to address that problem by drawing upon the experience of individuals who have persevered through obstacles to attain their black belt. They will be asked questions about how they learn as a student and how they teach as an instructor.

First up is Josh Vogel, who is a black belt under the Migliarese brothers of Balance Studios in Philadelphia. If you’ve ever visited his blog, Josh Vogel Art, or subscribed to his newsletter, the Sloth Report, you know how much time and effort he devotes to the art and development of Jiu-jitsu. That’s why I sought him out, and in this interview he shares some great insights.


The Interview

What do you consider the basics of Jiu-jitsu, and in an ideal world, how would you structure a program to give brand new students a firm foundation within a period of three months? Imagine that the only barrier to you accomplishing that goal lies in the limits of your own creativity?

Josh Vogel: I consider the first layer of basics of Jiu-jitsu to be natural movements that bridge the gap between what humans do naturally when they fight/grapple/roughhouse/wrestle around and movements that take more training. For example, when people rough house or fight all over the world, they head lock each other and mount each other in various ways.

The first layer of basics, in my opinion, would “educate” the head lock, mount and other natural movements like that. Some of the traditional Gracie self defense curriculum fit this pattern quite nicely (which is why most people who learn this way don’t need much explanation of “why” they are learning to clinch, headlock or mount. They just need technical refinements to shape it up)

In an ideal world, a 3 month program would be a mix of group and private lessons. Group lessons with a specific curriculum of material and private lessons to help modify and select specific techniques to suit the individual and their goals.

A curriculum would have Layer 1, which would be educating what people naturally do. Layer 2 would be starting to train stuff that is natural but needs more education (manipulating the opponent with their legs takes more time to learn than how to tackle or mount for a lot of people, for example).

The 3 months would be focused on providing the student with 1 or 2 techniques from each basic position (learning from curriculum and refining in private lesson and through carefully structured sparring/positional sparring).

What are some aha moments you’ve had both as a student and as a teacher of our art?

Josh Vogel: My biggest “aha” moments inside of the art as a student have always been in discovering or being taught something that simplifies what I am doing and makes me feel stupid for not having known it before. On a technical level, a good example is when I went to a Rickson seminar and he taught that detail of angling your head before you upa (the one he showed on the Budovideos video). It was such a simple idea once he explained it, and it made my upa significantly more effective, but I would have never figured it out if I hadn’t been shown it.

As a teacher, my biggest “aha” moments come from things that I learn outside of BJJ. Taking Muay Thai private lessons with an excellent coach (and watching that coach teach his students) has taught me a lot about how to teach my higher belt students, by simultaneously being a teacher, coach and training partner for them in private lessons. Teaching myself how to rock climb/boulder taught me how valuable a coach is and how to maximize my learning time in the absence of a coach. I’m learning the same lessons in taking private and group hand balancing lessons from a coach now too.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from exploring outside of BJJ is that it’s easy to forget what it’s like to walk in the door of a new place for the first time when you have been doing BJJ for 11 years. In learning other arts, I’m constantly walking in the door for the first time, experiencing the anxiety of not knowing anyone and re-experiencing the growing pains of being a whitebelt again. It helps me identify with new students better.

Whoa. That is a good point. It does become harder to remember in vivid detail what it was like to step on the mats that first day as time goes and you progress in belts. So here’s a question. If you could go back to that first year, what would you do differently to make the experience better and speed up your learning?

Josh Vogel: I would take private lessons and I would video tape my rolls. I couldn’t afford it at the time (privates or a video camera), but I would have found a way to do at least a little of both. I also would have listened and implemented my coaches advice better. That’s one thing I’m learning from hand balancing. When my coach tells me that my core is not tight or my hips are too far to the right, I shut up and listen, making that my priority to work on. In 2003 I wasn’t very coachable haha.

The video camera would have helped for making sure I’m implementing when my coach is not there. Also for finding flaws I might not otherwise see just by rolling. Also to help me see and remember specific situations that I didn’t understand better.


So the actionable advice is appreciate and learn from the experience of others, take advantage of additional learning opportunities, and measure your current performance to find areas that can be improved on. Would you also recommend that students incorporate aspects of other arts and disciplines into their training, like you do, at an early stage?

Josh Vogel: Another thing that has really helped me identify with the early learning process also is that my wife (Angela Vogel) started training BJJ two years ago. I get to re-live a lot of the same growing pains vicariously though her again.

It’s probably great to have someone to experiment with as well.

Josh Vogel: Yeah, it’s fantastic. Especially because she is both naturally gifted and incredibly hard working. She has gotten to a level very quickly where we can discuss and train some pretty sophisticated stuff, which is great for me. It also gives me more insight into what women experience in BJJ, which is something I would not normally have the same insight into.

Part of what makes her get good quickly is that unlike me, she is very coachable. She listens and implements and doesn’t blame the technique if something doesn’t work.

That’s definitely my actionable advice. Listen to and trust your coaches. As far as metrics and measuring performance goes, yes, that helps speed up progress a lot for some people, but you have to find a balance between being someone who is performance based and someone who is training for fun. Don’t let quantification kill your enjoyment, make it add to your enjoyment.

As far as exploring different arts, that depends on your lifestyle and background. When I first started, I only had room and energy for BJJ. Now I feel comfortable sacrificing some of my BJJ time for other things. The flip side is that perhaps I could have avoided a lot of the injuries I’ve gotten if I was more active in other activities that balance out my BJJ. It’s hard to say. Very individual I think.

One of the other good things about diversifying your physical activities outside of BJJ is that it gives you somewhere else to play when you are injured or burnt out on BJJ. When I hurt my legs, I can practice handstands or something else . When I hurt my arms, hands or wrists I can go skateboarding or practice some elements of parkour type stuff. If I hurt my ribs I can practice…eating bacon.

When it comes to teaching, what are three of the most common issues you’ve seen new students encounter, and how do you address them?

Josh Vogel: In no particular order:

  1. Making the leap from applying moves in drilling to trying them in sparring. For new students, it’s usually anxiety that makes this difficult. They are still working from a “fight or flight” stress response on some level, so they forget to try their techniques. I practice drilling with them and increasing resistance incrementally in positional sparring until they are more comfortable. I also coach them when they are rolling with other students (with their permission first) to help them remember to try the moves out.
  2. Remembering what happened when the moves went wrong. If you learn a move, and you try it and it doesn’t work, what happened? What did your opponent do to counter or stop it? If you don’t remember, then it’s hard for me to help you solve that problem. I ask my students constantly what went wrong, what went well and for other details when they try moves in rolling. Then, with that information we start to explore solutions for that problem together. That’s my way of starting the process of teaching students how to teach themselves so they won’t need me eventually.
  3. Self limiting beliefs. A lot of people say that they can’t do a move because they are too small, or too big, or their opponent is a black belt and they are a white belt, etc…While these things are all actually valid reasons why something wouldn’t work, they have to learn to lie to themselves and believe that they can make moves work against anyone. The truth is that if a 130lb white belt hits an x choke with precision and confidence at the right time, they can catch anyone, even a 230lb Black belt. So I try to help people develop a controlled confidence. They have to trick themselves into believing that no one on earth can hold them down on bottom of side control, even though the truth is that yes, people can pin them in side control. When I roll with my teachers, I pretend that they are white belts. They smash me easily. But if I tell myself that they are going to smash me and my moves won’t work because they are 220 lb black belts with 25 years of BJJ experience, I already tapped myself before they even grip me.

This is the hardest thing for me to help my students with. Helping them achieve small successes and incrementally build up from there is the only way I’ve found to teach this confidence.


That’s great. I agree with you a lot on the importance of early successes. We’ll close up with two more questions. The first is what’s your criteria for blue belts? What’s the bare minimum of conceptual and technical knowledge that they should have?

Josh Vogel: The belt thing I’m still trying to wrap my head around. I think a blue belt should be able to ask directions, order a glass of water and use basic greetings in the language of Jiu-jitsu.

That means that they should understand the basic logic of what to do in the major positions in sparring. It doesn’t mean that they have to be particularly successful doing those moves, but they should be reaching in the right direction. For example, if I see them get mounted, or I mount them, they should be trying an escape that they learned rather than relying only on gross motor movements like pushing their opponent away or pulling them in with no real direction.

They might not have the perfect grips, or even good grips to escape the mount, but they are trying the right movement in a way that is recognizable. Their movements should be recognized by people fluent in jiu-jitsu. More specifically, I would expect them to have a working knowledge of a specific curriculum (1 to 2 moves from each major position). That includes takedowns too.

The curriculum that I would use would include some of the classic self defense techniques in Gracie Jiu-jitsu.

Conceptually, 1 or 2 simple rules of thumb from each major position is what I would like to see. Stuff like “don’t let your arms cross your opponents center line in closed guard” kind of stuff.

White to blue belt is about eliminating that feeling of confusion on the mat, so the 1 to 2 techniques and concepts is a good way to go because too much information is just as confusing as not knowing what to do for new students.

Good stuff. Now imagine that a white belt came up to you and asked you for advice on books they should read or any other training they should do outside of class. What would you recommend?

Josh Vogel: The first book I would suggest is “Mastering Jujitsu” by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher. That book has the best explanation of the basic theory of Jiu-jitsu out there. The history is decent too. The techniques are okay but not the real gold in that book, in my opinion.

The second book I would suggest is “Effortless Combat Throws” by Tim Cartmell. That’s one of those books that you might not totally get as a white belt, but it will give you good ideas about posture and base. As you progress through the belts you will glean more and more nuggets of gold about making your BJJ more effortless. Keep in mind that it’s not specifically a BJJ book, but a general throws book written by a guy who was a Purple belt at the time and heavily involved in Chinese martial arts.

Other training outside of BJJ…I would say make time to do a bit of everything. Take long walks as much as possible, hike, run, swim some, do some crawling around, jump on stuff,climb stuff (rocks, trees), squat when you watch TV rather than sitting on a couch. Being a well balanced human physically the other 23 hours a day that you are not doing BJJ is going to do a lot more for your BJJ and your overall health than anything else. Do lots of different stuff.

Key Insights

  • Focus early on learning at least 1 technique from all the basic positions.
  • Pay attention and listen to the advice of your coaches.
  • Measure and improve on your performance in a way that is enjoyable to you.
  • Believe that you can learn anything even if it’s difficult in the beginning.
  • Explore and practice many different activities outside of BJJ. You never know what could supplement your training in unexpected ways.

Closing Comments

Some months ago, I had a friendly debate with Josh on the topic of what defines an advanced technique. It’s interesting, and it will give you a deeper understanding of his philosophy. Also check out the second edition to this series.

Also if you know of any lesser known black belts that think deeply about the learning process and instruction methods, feel free to recommend them for future interviews.

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