Monday, October 14, 2019

Jiu Jitsu Three Minute Hack #3: Co-Teaching

Co-teaching is a concept that isn't new in the field of education, but is virtually unheard of in jiu jitsu. The idea is that two (or possibly more) teachers share the responsibility for teaching all of the students in any given class. Two instructors working in tandem confers several important benefits to our students. Different instructors have different teaching styles, which will resonate with different students. At the most fundamental level, co-teaching increases the effectiveness of BOTH teachers to the benefit of the students.

My first glimpse of the idea came when Shelly and I visited our "home" gym, San Diego Fight Club and took a class taught by Nick Oliver (for whom we know well) and Gary Padilla (for whom we had just met.) They were teaching the class together, and it was really cool (and effective) to have both of them explaining and demonstrating technique. We've been to many classes under Nick; he's an excellent teacher. But Gary's input made him even better.

Fast forward about three months.

When we started this school year (I teach high school), myself and several teachers started a co-teaching pilot program for our culturally and linguistically-diverse students (usually kids who are recent immigrants and speak little to no English.) Being the psychology dork I am, I immediately started day-dreaming about the possibilities of this co-teaching model in our bjj school. The memories of Nick and Gary seamlessly teaching that class a few months earlier was all the push I needed to give the idea a shot.

Around the same time, serendipity struck when we got a new member - Mike Gorski - a VERY experienced purple belt who has been doing jiu jitsu for twenty years. He's basically a human jiu jitsu encyclopedia who's knowledge is both incredibly deep AND broad. He has traveled far and wide, trained all over the place, and absorbed anything and everything he could from those experiences.

In short, he was the perfect co-teacher for this particular experiment. Over the last few weeks, we've been experimenting with teaching class together. While it's still in the early stages, the results have been even better than I expected. The students who have been attending these classes are already seeing HUGE leaps in their game despite the fact that the co-teaching is pretty rough right now because we're still very early in the experimental stage.

In the near future, I'll be testing four different models of co-teaching. Here are the four variations:

Supportive Co-Teaching

In this model, one teacher take the lead role and the other teacher plays a supportive role. The lead teacher does most of the instruction and the supportive teacher steps in to clarify, answer questions, and collect "data" (maybe by observing and taking notes) on what works and what doesn't work. That data will then be used to make future classes better.

One potential downside to this model is an unequal distribution of the workload. The lead teacher will end up doing most of the work. Another potential downside is unused expertise. The support teacher may have significant contributions they could make, but their supportive role limits the opportunity for them to share.

Parallel Co-Teaching

In this model, the class is divided in half and each teacher teaches their group. The teachers may swap groups at some point. In this model, both teachers get to share their expertise with students. Because the groups are smaller, there's also more opportunity to address student questions. This model also offers the cool possibility of developing a degree of intra-gym competitiveness between the two groups, which would be fun!

The potential problems with this model are time and noise. Coordinating the time needed to cover techniques may vary, which presents a challenge. Noise would be a concern if the students are in the same room, though this is easy enough to correct with respectful behavior.

Complementary Co-Teaching

In this model, both teachers play an active role in instruction. This is the model we've been playing with right now, only I framed it like Mike is the play-by-play guy and I am the color commentator (an analogy for you sports fans.) This model polls the expertise of both teachers, and gives the students two complimentary perspectives on the same material.

The negative of this system is coordination. This model takes some practice as each teacher adapts to the format. Because it requires close coordination, this model requires clearly-defined roles. This model also requires both teachers to be familiar with the techniques and concepts. 

Team Co-Teaching

In this model, teachers coordinate who does what, and teachers swap lead and support roles repeatedly throughout the class. This model requires A LOT of coordination. As such, this one's probably a bit complex unless the teachers are really familiar with each other.

The biggest down side to this model is planning - it takes a significant amount of planning to seamlessly teach a class this way.


Over the next few months, we'll be experimenting with these four models. I'm pretty stoked; co-teaching is a blast and, at least in the very early stages, shows incredible potential to make our classes significantly more effective.

If any of my readers own a school or teach at a school, give the ideas a try and let me know how it goes. I would LOVE to hear your feedback and experiences! Just shoot me an email to with the subject heading CO-TEACHING.



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Friday, October 11, 2019

Kids' Table Follow-Up

Welp, that was interesting.

In my last post, I outlined an idea Shelly and I were experimenting with regarding our kids jiu jitsu classes (the original post was published on our gym's website blog.) The idea spawned from one of our most significant issues we've had since transitioning between ourselves and Garrick, the previous owner. Originally, I planned on running the experiment for a month. However, the flaws in the idea sprang up almost immediately, which led us to the decision to shut it down.

The gist of the original issue?

We simply do not have the time or physical space to develop the kind of kids jiu jitsu program that would produce the kind of jiu jitsu students we want to produce. And we don't have a coach with the qualifications, availability, and desire to work with small children. If we had more physical space, which is a problem we'll resolve in the near future, this issue would be moot because we DO have coaches who would do an excellent job... but their availability is problematic.

But that doesn't help us today.

This was the impetus behind the "kid's table" experiment. We basically ran the kids bjj class and adult bjj class at the same time. We ran the experiment for three class periods - once last week and two days this week. The results? There were some clear successes and clear failures. Let's start with the successes.

The Good

  • The kids liked it. The feedback I received from parents was positive. The kids seemed to enjoy being part of the adult class, probably for the reason I mentioned in the original article. This fact alone assures we'll revisit the idea again in the future. 
  • Kids were exposed to higher level jiu jitsu. Jiu jitsu is a complex sport, and planting seeds of future progress early on is an excellent way to facilitate growth in the future. Psychologically, it gives kids a road map of sorts to where the future will take them.
  • Having small children in class was sort of inspiring. Watching kids be kids always makes you feel a little younger and is a powerful reminder of the importance of play.

The Bad

  • The adults were kinda "meh."As it turns out, a lot of adults go to jiu jitsu as an escape from the responsibilities of parenting and the noise of small children. Running the classes concurrently diminished the quality of the adult class.
  • The kids were exposed to a higher level of jiu jitsu. The kids were generally incapable of following the complexity of the techniques that we taught in class. They simply aren't at a stage of cognitive development that allows them to process and retain the complex steps of the adult bjj instruction. This forces the instructors to either simplify the techniques and short-change the adults, or risk sabotaging the kids' motivation to do jiu jitsu by making it too difficult. In child psychology terms, we were surpassing their optimal zone of proximal development (Thanks Vygotsky!) Further, we had little or no opportunity to differentiate the instruction in a way that wouldn't take a looooong time during class, which would once again short-change the adults.
  • The crowded mats made some activities extremely difficult. This was more of an issue with the kids than the adults. Kids need space to move, run, jump, and play. Our first attempt to fix this problem involved setting up a small mat space in an adjacent room. Those mats were too small, so we moved the kids to one end of our main mat space. Again, this proved to be too small to be effective. This is a problem that we won't be able to solve until we find a larger space.
  • The kids were really distracted by the adults. Keeping little kids on task is an art (which I personally do not possess... it's really hard work.) The adults at the other end of our mats proved to be far too distracting, which had a significant negative effect on the kids' actual learning.
  • Our kids coaches lost autonomy. This is the real deal-breaker. Because the adult class is the higher priority (way more students), the adult class drives the class. This forces the kids coach to work with and around the adults, which dramatically affects the efficacy of the kids class. 

Possible Future Ideas

It goes without saying, but we have to axe the "Thanksgiving Dinner Table" model, at least for the immediate future. Next week, we'll be re-instituting our separate kids classes and adult classes. The experiment was a net fail, but we DID learn a ton of good information we can use to tweak the idea in the near future. Here are some possible ideas:

  • Hold a "Family Class." Since all of our kids have parents who train, we could solve a lot of the issues from above without sacrificing any of the benefits by holding a weekly or bi-weekly "family class" in addition to our regular kids and adult classes. We'd develop a simple curriculum, teach it much like any other class, and have parents work with their kids. Then maybe have a snack afterward (ala Little League games.) 
  • Hold separate-but-concurrent classes with VERY limited interaction. This idea is predicated on acquiring a bigger space. Most of our problems stemmed from too much overlap between the classes, but space necessitated that. If we had more space, we could feasibly have one part of class specifically dedicated to adult/ kid interactions.
  • Implement a Big Brother/ Big Sister-esque Program. Okay this one's a little out there, but I actually got the idea from a Boys and Girls Club my kids attended for years when we lived in San Diego. Pair each child up with an older child/teen who has demonstrated the ability to serve as a role model. The role model could answer questions, show technique, model appropriate behavior in class and in the gym, etc. This could be of benefit for both the younger and older child. 


 Creative experimentation sometimes results in resounding successes. Sometimes it results in abysmal failures. That's the inherent risk of being open to innovation. This particular experiment was somewhere in the middle. Importantly, it provided valuable feedback for future experimentation. 

For coaches and gym owners who may read this, consider giving the ideas a go. If you do, contact me (Jason) at with the subject of "THANKSGIVING TABLE EXPERIMENT". This idea has some clear potential; we're just not yet in a place where it'll result in the kind of success I expect. Some of y'all may have some significant improvements or other ideas for experimentation; I'd LOVE to hear your thoughts!



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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Jiu Jitsu Three Minute Hack #2: The Kids' Table Experiment and Child Psychology

Kids' classes are always a conundrum. While it's fun and fulfilling to teach jiu jitsu to receptive kid who have a deep, intrinsic motivation to do the sport, the kids who aren't really into it are a mental and emotional drain. It's basically like teaching world geography to freshmen in a public high school. 

<looks around innocently>

In the traditional martial arts studio business model, kids classes are basically the cash cow that keeps the doors open. The formula is pretty straight-forward: Offer parents a low rates at convenient times, the parents drop their kids off for an hour or two of babysitting, and you'll tire them out with some hyped-up games you either learned from elementary school PE class or found on Youtube.
"Hey, look. Sharks and Minnows. How very creative."

While this formula is handy for lining pockets of the owner, it ignores anything and everything we know about child psychology. The result? We end up with a whole lotta kids who, as future out-of-shape adults, can say they "tried jiu jitsu for a few months when I was a kid." Basically that McDojo's kids' program ruined martial arts for them because it treated the martial arts as if it were some sort of medicine that requires stupid playground games to be palatable.

No thank you. 

We can do better. We have an entire universe of published research on the nuances of child psychology. We know what it takes to create and maintain a high level of intrinsic motivation, yet we still rely on ineffective and even damaging strategies that rely on extrinsic motivators like giving belt promotions every day that ends in "Y." 

The solution isn't complicated, it just requires a bit of knowledge about the nature of human motivation. And there's no more basic idea than "humans want what they can't have." All we need to do is make our martial art elusive. Almost every martial art teacher I've met completely ignores this very basic rule by forcing the martial art on kids. Or worse, creating an environment where parents can easily force the martial art on their kids. That's a recipe for disaster. In my two decades of teaching and coaching kids ranging from three to eighteen, I can unequivocally say this situations ends in disappointment and resentment 100% of the time. 

So how do we use this magical scarcity principle? How do we make our kid's classes more elusive?

Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Independence Day party I've ever attended had an adults table and a kids table. Most of us have probably experienced sitting at that kid's table. You're just sitting there eating your lumpy mashed potatoes and over-cooked turkey, watching the adults laughing and having fun, just waiting until the day when you were old enough to graduate to the Big Leagues. You WANTED to sit at the adult table, and the anticipation was killing you! 

So there's the answer. Set up classes like Thanksgiving dinner. Make a kid's table. Figuratively, of course. Run your kids class concurrently with your adults class. Set up a mat area away from your main mat area, and let the kids train there during the adults class. Let the kids see the adults laughing and having fun... but keep them at a distance. Maybe give them an occasional taste, but make it clear they're not ready for the adults class until they can prove they're mature enough to handle it.
So why would this model be so different? 

This model leans on a primal drive all kids have - the desire to be a grown-up. It doesn't rely on crappy "motivators" like begging, pleading, scolding, yelling, bribing, giving weekly belt promotions, or playing crab soccer. As adults, we experience hedonic adaptation when we reach adulthood and forget just how much we wanted to grow up. We forget swearing whenever we were out of earshot of adults. We forget wearing makeup as a tween (my nod to both of my female readers.) We forget taking that swig of warm beer our dad left in the can. We forget how we would do anything to be big.
The real beauty of the idea is that desire to join the adult class will only grow over time, which gives the class instructors ample options to help regulate the kids' behaviors based on the specific criteria kids need to meet to get to the adult class. Teaching kids classes often feels like herding cats. It doesn't have to be like that. Age and ability is obvious, but you could also use knowledge of rules and procedures. The kids have to know how classes are run, why they're run that way, and how to behave in those classes. Or whatever you think is important. 

Will this model work for all kids? Absolutely not. There are always going to be those kids just don't give a crap and would rather be doing interpretive dance or badminton. No model is going to work for all kids. 

Over the next month, we'll be experimenting with this format. Part of it is done for logistics, but the main reason is to try to make a better kids class experience, especially for kids who have a genuine love for jiu jitsu. The current "martial arts kids class" model ain't doing these kids any favors, so why not try to create something better?

If any of my readers give this model a try, come back and leave a comment and tell us how it went! This idea has potential, but it's very new and untested. Lots of kinks to work out. Give it a shot.


Monday, August 5, 2019

Applying Marzano to Teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Nonlinguistic Representations

In my last few posts, I've been discussing Marzano's nine essential elements of teaching and how they apply to teaching jiu jitsu. In this post, I cover element #5 - Nonlinguistic Representations.

A nonlinguistic representation is an expression of an idea that goes beyond the use of words. It may include graphic organizers, diagrams, pictures, movement, demonstrations, 3D models, role-plays, simulations, or mental images. For jiu jitsu instructors, we're pretty familiar with movement (drilling or rolling) and demonstrations (watching our instructors demonstrating technique.)

The principle is pretty straight-forward - the more ways you represent the idea you're teaching, the more it's going to stick in you student's brains. All of us explain stuff linguistically and show stuff visually. Adding in other representations of the ideas can increase retention by almost 20% (Marzano, 2009), which is a pretty impressive improvement. Here are a few specific strategies that utilize this element:

1. Show a technique before explaining it so students have a context. Any given technique is automatically a nonlinguistic representation because it involves, well, nonverbal information. Namely, physical movement. The point, though, is to give students a context for what you're about to describe. When you're explaining the details of the technique, they will have a frame of reference to help understand it. In a sense, they're getting the "big picture."
3. Demonstrate techniques from different angles and from the perspective of both top and bottom positions. The goal here is to get students to start thinking about techniques as 3D representations in space, not just a checklist of specific details. This was sort of the impetus behind my Eight Points of Attack idea - it gives students a different way of mentally representing jiu jitsu in their brain.
4. Demonstrate the technique on everyone so they can FEEL it. We TALK about techniques a lot. We SHOW techniques a lot. But how often do we let our students FEEL the technique? Of course they feel it when they drill with their partner, but the first few times are going to be a little rough around the edges. It's better if they feel how the technique is supposed to feel when done correctly. An easy way to do this is to just go around and do the technique on everyone in class. Depending on class size, though, this could be logistically impossible. This is a good opportunity to let your higher belts contribute by having them help by demonstrating the technique on the less experienced students.
5. Have students generate mental pictures using VMBR. Visual-Motor Behavior Rehearsal is a fancy term for combining relaxation and imagery. The mental images created via VMBR are a form of nonlinguistic representations. To use this method, lead class like you normally would. After demonstrating the technique and drilling but before live rolling, have students spread out on the mat, lie on their backs, close their eyes, and go through a progressive relaxation exercise. Then have them imagine using the technique they just learned. The more senses they can engage vividly, the more effective this is (what does it feel like, what does it sound like, what do you smell, etc.)
6. Have students doodle what they learned in class in their notebooks. Drawing is an excellent use of nonlinguistic representations. This one's pretty straight-forward, just have students doodle the technique (or steps of the technique) in their notebooks. Here's an example of a judo-based doodle:

Your artwork doesn't have to be this good. The notebook is, after all, for your eyes only.

7. Use graphic organizers. Graphic organizers are a great tool for jiu jitsu students. Instead of attempting to explain them, watch this short vid:

Having students make graphic organizers to represent techniques is effective. It's also effective to use graphic organizers to organize ALL of your jiu jitsu knowledge. Here's an example I believe came from Rickson:

8. Use a anatomical models for demos. This last one's my favorite and loosely based on my aforementioned Eight Points of Attack idea. Having a thorough understanding of anatomy and physiology goes a long way towards being effective on the mats. If you understand the structures of the body and how they work, you understand the precise nature of all submissions (and other techniques and concepts.) Using anatomical models, like a skeleton or models of specific joints, you can demonstrate exactly what is happening during a submission. While not all students will appreciate this granularity of detail, your more geeky students will LOVE it.

Try these eight methods. If one or more work well, share your experiences in the comments section!



Friday, August 2, 2019

Applying Marzano to Teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Homework and Repetition

HOMEWORK IN JIU JIJTSU?!? That sounds terrible!

That was the first response I got a few years back when a lower belt training partner asked me what he could do to super-charge his progression in jiu jitsu. Admittedly, getting jiu jitsu students to do homework can be a tough sell given most of us are taught to hate homework based off our formal schooling experiences.

I get it. As a long-time high school teacher, I'm intimately familiar with the application (and perception) of homework. It's almost always mundane busy work with minimal connection to the actual knowledge the student is supposed to be learning. and there's sooooo much of it!

But homework can actually be an enjoyable thing in jiu jitsu! And a little bit goes a long way. As jiu jitsu instructors, we can speed our student's progress by giving them small little "assignments" to complete outside class. Before I get to specific examples, here are the "homework rules" best practices you should be following. 

1. Homework needs to directly support whatever your students are learning in class. If you're covering a scissor sweep in class, don't have students work on a berimbolo at home. 
2. Explain WHY the homework is given. Students need to understand the connection between what they're learning in class and what they're learning on their own at home. 
3. Keep the time commitment to a minimum. Our students lead busy lives; they're not going to spend three hours per night working on shrimping in their living room. If homework requires more than a 10-15 minute time commitment, it's probably not getting done. 
4. All homework should accomplish one of two things, preferably both - deepens understanding and improves skills. When planning what to give as homework, always focus on one or both of these goals. 
5. Make sure the student can actually DO the task. If the student doesn't have the necessary knowledge or physical skills to do the homework, it ain't getting done. As such, homework should reflect stuff they've already learned in class unless what you're asking them to do is within their grasp (refer to Vgotsky's "Zones of Proximal Development.")
6. Make the homework enjoyable. If the homework is tedious or in any way unpleasant, nobody's going to do it. Maximizing compliance with completing homework requires a bit of clever marketing. Don't be afraid to get students excited about the "assignments."

With these points in mind, here are some homework ideas you can give your students:

1. Get in the habit of practicing fundamental movements in your daily life. If you're on the floor, use a technical stand-up to get up. Shrimp your way out of bed. When walking down the hall, practice your footwork for shooting, throws, or trips. When you pick something up and hold it, get used to using the minimum grip strength needed to keep it in your hand. If your heart rate increases for whatever reason, practice slowing your breathing and relaxing your muscles until it returns to normal. If your significant other gives you a hug, dig for the underhook. You get the idea. 
2. Find video of the technique or concept we're working on in a black belt competition; share with the rest of the school. Watching high level practitioners executing technique correctly is a sport psychology mainstay for learning motor skills. If we're covering guillotines in class, this one would be a perfect example of a supplemental video that would benefit the entire school.
3. Research the technique we just covered in class by watching three Youtube videos on the same technique; share with the rest of the school. This is sort of related to #2, but has a different application. For any given aspect of jiu jitsu, there are all kinds of opinions on best-practices. How do you do a cross choke? There a probably 1,000 different details taught throughout the bjj world. This particular assignment exposes students to more details than you'd cover as the instructor. Now, this particular one requires you, as an instructor, to put your ego aside and recognize both your students and yourself can benefit from other perspectives. It also requires you to help your students experiment with different details to figure out what works best for them as individuals.
4. Review the material we covered in class and develop three questions related to problems or issues you have with the material. Developing questions is an excellent way to critically think about what you're learning, which helps you learn the material through deep processing. Further, answering the questions in the next class benefits the rest of the students. 
5. Use VMBR to practice technique. Visual-Motor Behavior Rehearsal is a fancy term for combining relaxation and mental imagery to develop motor skills. This is an idea I explicitly teach in class, and it makes excellent homework. Research indicates the method is almost as effective as actual physical practice. In jiu jitsu where overtraining and injuries are real problems, this homework can be a game-changer, especially for older practitioners. 
6. Do solo drills. Jason Scully of the Grappler's Guide (a phenomenal resource itself) produced this short video demonstrating 33 solo drills for jiu jitsu. Assign your students one or two of these per night; have them do 100 reps each. This will help both new and experienced students learn the gross motor skills of the basic movements that make up the vast majority of movement patterns we use in the sport. 

There you have it - some guidelines and examples of homework you can assign to your students to help them process. Have fun!

If you have any other suggestions for homework, share it in the comments section!



Thursday, August 1, 2019

Applying Marzano to Teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition

In the last two posts, I covered aspects of Marzano's nine essential aspects of effective teaching, including "Identifying Similarities and Differences" and "Summarizing and Note-Taking." In this post, I'll explore the third of the nine - "Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition."

This one is especially interesting to me because of my background in psychology. Reinforcement (aka a "reward") is a topic we talk about all the time in my psychology classes. Personally, I use reinforcement all the time in the classroom, when teaching on the mats, and in my day-to-day life. It's a wonderfully-effective tool for getting people to repeat a behavior.

The goal of using this strategy is two-fold. First, it motivates people to keep training. In jiu jitsu, the time you spend on the mat matters. A lot. After all, a black belt really is nothing more than a white belt who never stopped training. Both the reinforcement of effort and providing recognition for achieving a particular standard (like promotions) help keep people coming back.

Second, this strategy provides feedback so the students know they're on the right track. As more experienced practitioners, we sometimes forget our students don't automatically possess the wisdom we've collected by OUR time on the mat that tells us we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. Simply rewarding the students for the kind of effort that will make them better, and recognizing when they do something right, provides a powerful guide that will keep their learning on the right track.

Of Marzano's nine, this one is also probably the one most used by jiu jitsu instructors now. Every jiu jitsu instructor I've ever trained under has used reinforcement to encourage effort AND has provided recognition for accomplishments. Unfortunately, HOW these are applied sometimes goes off the rails a bit.

So... here are some tips from your friendly neighborhood psychology teacher:

1. Reinforce EFFORT more (work hard), outcomes less (focus on winning.) Reinforcers increase behaviors. We want our students to work hard, so we reinforce effort. Winning is a natural outgrowth of effort. Or, more accurately, the probability of winning increases as a function of effort. But "winning" is out of an individual's direct control. No matter how much I practice, I ain't beating Mike Jordan in a game of one-on-one.
2. Make sure the reinforcer you're using is actually a reinforcer for that individual. Not everyone wants a candy bar for cleaning the toilets. Reinforcers are personal. What motivates ME does not necessarily motivate YOU. As a jiu jitsu instructor, you have to figure out what motivates each of your students.
3. Make sure the reinforcer is clearly contingent on the desired behavior.  The student absolutely has to understand their "reward" is being given because they engaged in a specific behavior. While this seems pretty logical, if the teacher isn't explicit, the student may think they were rewarded for a different behavior, which they will then repeat.
4. Recognition may be public or private. Some people like to be recognized in front of peers that matter to them. Others prefer to be recognized in private. Most people have a preference; it's up to you to figure out which one is better for each student. 
5. Reinforcement and recognition must be immediate. Or, the sooner either is given after the desired behavior or outcome, the more effective it is. If a student hits that arm bar from guard, recognize it right then. Don't wait until next Tuesday. 
6. Use reinforcement and punishment at a 4:1 ratio. Admittedly, this one's getting a little geeky, but track your use of rewards and punishments. Research indicates this ratio maximizes learning.

Start using reinforcement and praise in your jiu jitsu instruction, and follow the rules above. Let us know how it goes by leaving a comment below!



Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Applying Marzano to Teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Summarizing and Note-Taking

In the first post in this series, I discussed the idea of having jiu jitsu students compare and contrast knowledge learned in class using Marzano's "Identify Similarities and Differences" educational strategy. In this post, I'll discuss Marzano's second strategy - Summarizing and Note-Taking

This idea is one of the few that's actually fairly well-known within the jiu jitsu community. In fact, there are a lot of "Jiu Jitsu Journals" on the market (like this one) that are specifically formatted for this very purpose. 

Journaling works like this. You go to class and bring your notebook. As the coach is discussing whatever you're learning that day, you write it down. Maybe include the date, who was teaching, and other information that'll help you organize the material. 

That's it. That's all there is to it. Over time, you end up with a record of each technique you covered. Given we forget a large percentage of the knowledge we learn in class, this gives you a permanent record of what you've learned, which can be reviewed in the future.

I kept fairly detailed notebooks all the way through blue belt, and those notebooks have been an invaluable resource as I advanced through the ranks. Not only does it remind me of techniques and concepts I had forgotten, but it also reminded me of details I would miss when actually trying techniques live.

How to Make Note-Taking and Journaling More Effective

 You can make this exercise far more effective by taking a few simple steps, including:

  1. Actively make decisions on what details are important and which ones are unimportant. Critically thinking of what you should include is one of the best ways to deeply process new information, which takes your learning to new heights.
  2. Write it in your own words. This is another deep processing strategy. Putting something into your own words forces you to consider what you are really learning.
  3. Use diagrams and doodles. Yet another deep processing strategy. It doesn't matter if your artistic skills are garbage; these diagrams and doodles are for YOU, not others. They're not going to be hanging in the Guggenheim.
  4. Compare and contrast to other semi-related concepts or techniques. This idea borrows from the first concept. Compare what you're learning now to something related you've learned in the past.
  5. Add questions you may have about this information. Asking questions is another excellent deep-processing hack. Ask questions about the HOW, WHY, WHEN, WHERE, etc. for anything and everything you learn. Personally, as an instructor, I LOVE when m students ask questions. It gives me a change to clarify and indicates they're actively engaging with the material. It's no surprise the students who ask the most questions tend to advance in jiu jitsu the fastest.
  6. Add additional information. In my notes, I included the date, where I was training, who was teaching the class, who I was paired with for drilling (usually Shelly), who I rolled with and what the outcomes were, whether or not I was able to execute whatever we learned while live rolling, any injuries I may have sustained and what I was doing when they happened, and so on.
For instructors, you can also keep a "teaching journal", which I just started. It's the same idea, only I talk about what we covered in class. I include information like who was in class, what activities we did, and how it went. What things went well? What things sucked? What methods did I use for formative assessment, and how successful was it? What questions did students ask and how did I answer? I'll use this information in the future to systematically improve my own teaching.

Give it a shot! Leave a comment and let us know how it went.



Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Applying Marzano to Teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Identifying Similarities and Differences

 "I forget 80% of what I JUST learned in class tonight!"
- Every jiu jitsu practitioner in the history of forever

We've all been there. We teach a jiu jitsu class and our students forget almost everything we taught. This should indicate our methods of teaching are kinda crappy, yet I rarely see this issue being addressed by the jiu jitsu community. Here's a solution.

Continuing with my series on applying educational theory to the teaching of Brazilian jiu jitsu, this post introduces Bob Marzano et. al. and their concept of "essential nine" educational strategies teachers use to effectively convey whatever we're teaching. Today, I'll cover the first of these nine strategies - identifying similarities and differences

In jiu jitsu, we have a nearly-unlimited number of techniques, concepts, positions, transitions, sweeps, escapes... the list goes on and on. Basically, there's a shit-ton of information related to the art. For a student learning the art, this can be overwhelming. I'm a brown belt and have been doing this for somewhere north of seven years and I'm still sometimes overwhelmed by what I don't know.

Just this last week, we had a very good competitive black belt visit our school. Aside from the thrashing I received (man, I love that!), he piqued my interest in de la Riva guard, an open guard I've largely ignored in favor of x-guard, butterfly, lasso, and lapel-and-sleeve guard. 

This highlights the major conundrum of the sport - how does a student learn everything there is to learn? 

The traditional answer, of course, is to just keep training. Time on mat. Just keep showing up and it'll eventually make sense. While this *appears* to be the case based on long-term practitioners eventually "getting" more and more knowledge, perhaps the art is just self-selecting. Those who are predisposed to understanding jiu jitsu as it's currently taught just happen to be the folks who stick with it, while the people who can't, don't, or won't learn that knowledge might just weed themselves out by quitting prematurely. 

The experimental psychologist in me would love to actually study this phenomenon, but that's an adventure for the future. In the interim, we can borrow lessons from the classroom and utilize Marzano's first idea - Identifying Similarities and Differences.

In the classroom, this strategy involves breaking concepts down into simpler parts, then classifying the concepts based on similarities or differences. For example, if we're studying European colonialism, we could classify the expansion of each nation based on their economic goals. The idea is to get students to process the knowledge at a deeper level by actually having to THINK about the knowledge in some critical way, which is a necessity when you're identifying similarities and differences. 

In jiu jisu classes, instructors can use the same idea. Take two submissions - an Americana and a kimura. After demonstrating and drilling each, split your class up into groups of four or five. Have each group discuss the similarities an differences between each submission. Give them four or five minutes to come up with two similarities and two differences, then have them report their "findings" to the rest of the class. We have a white board on the wall, so I'd have each group send one member up to write their findings under a "similarities" and "differences" headings. 

This method is effective because it gets the students thinking about the nature of the submissions. Specifically, it gets them thinking about the DETAILS of the submissions. That's the only way you can assess similarities and differences. How does the submissions work mechanically? What specific parts of the joints are being affected? What grips are being used? What detals are permitting you to control the opponent when the submission is applied? And so on.

Our brains, based on our best evidence, work like a giant interconnected network. Somewhere, the procedural memories of how to execute an Americana and a kimura reside. Those memory locations are interconnected with other areas based on how you've manipulated the knowledge of those memories. The more interconnected those memories are, the easier it is to pull them off in live rolling. Basically, the more we think about the submissions on a deeper level, the faster and more efficiently we learn them.

In a typical gym using typical bjj training methods, a student would learn the gross motor movements of an Americana, drill it, then maybe try to pull it off live while doing some positional sparring. Six months later, they may cover it again, and they'll learn a few more details, drill it, then try to hit it while rolling. This trend continues for years as the student moves from learning the gross motor skills to ever-more detailed fine motor skills. By the time they reach black belt some 8-12 years after starting, they'll be really proficient at the Americana. 

The next class, the instructor goes trough the same process with the kimura. Demo -> drill -> practice live. Lather, rinse, repeat. By black belt, they're really good at the kimura.

But it takes 8-12 YEARS.

Now let's look at how Marzano's first concept can help using an El Diablo Combatives class as an example. We demo the Americana and show a great deal of both fine and gross motor skill details. Students pair up and drill the technique enough to get familiar enough with the mechanics. Then, in the same class, we go through the same process with the kimura. Now we split the class up into groups of four or five and they discuss the similarities and differences between the two submissions, then report out to the group.

A few interesting things happen in these groups. First, every group member is going to remember specific-but-different details from the demonstrations. By discussing these details, they'll remind each other of the details they may have missed or already forgotten. Normally, sudents would have to wait months (or even years) before a technique is covered again so they'd have a chance to review these details. Now they're getting that review immediately, which makes a HUGE difference in them remembering the details. 

Second, they are being forced to think about HOW the submission actually works because the Americana and kimura have different mechanics that affect the shoulder joint differently. Instead of just having a vague notion of the mechanism of breakage (which is what happens in a traditional jiu jitsu class), the Marzano students will know exactly how the submission works.

Third, this helps students understand the underlying concepts behind submissions, which includes learning how to defend the submissions. This simple ten minute exercise dramatically boosts student understanding of how to apply the submissions effectively because they understand the submissions at a significantly deeper level. Because pretty much all defenses to submissions involves doing the opposite of what is needed to apply the submission, this deep understanding will help students recognize and apply effective defenses.

Finally, this idea promotes group cohesiveness through cooperative problem-solving. Cooperative interdependence, where students have to rely on each other to reach a particular goal (in this case, identifying the similarities and differences between submissions), forges stronger social bonds among the participants because they have to engage in real, substantial conversations. In essence, the students get to know each other better, which strengthens their bonds. In a sport where we absolutely must rely on our partners to keep us safe, this is a critical-yet-often overlooked aspect of running jiu jitsu classes.

Jiu jitsu instructors - give the idea a shot and report back by commenting here. If you're not a jiu jitsu instructor, forward this post to your instructors. This idea works, but I thnk it can by tweaked for the specific application in jiu jitsu classes. To that end, I'd LOVE to hear feedback, both positive and negative, regarding this idea. Have fun with it and let me know how it goes!



Sunday, July 28, 2019

Ideas that Help Us Become a Better Jiu Jitsu Player: Vgotsky's Zones of Proximal Development

Jiu jitsu is a sport with near-infinite breadth and depth. There's a reason it takes 10 years or more for most people to earn a black belt... there's just a hell of a lot of knowledge to learn and apply. Anything we can do to make this learning process easier or more efficient needs to be embraced, and Soviet Psychologist Lev Vygotsky's (1896-1934) "zones of proximal development" is one such idea.

The idea is pretty simple and is represented by this diagram:

The middle white triangle represents what you've already learned through previous training. The black area represents all the knowledge that exists about jiu jitsu (note this is not drawn to scale.) The red area represents the knowledge you CAN learn based on your present abilities, usually with outside help. In our sport, that usually means our coaches, but that help can also come from teammates, instructionals, books, etc. Once we do master the area in red, we'd change it to white and expand the red triangle out a little bit farther.

Theoretically, this concept is simple and, without any conscious effort on our part, is already being used by all of us whenever we learn something new in class (or anywhere else.) Practically, though, this concept can get a whole lot more effective if we consciously define exactly what that red triangle entails. The red triangle usually consists of the stuff we know we don't know, while the black consists mostly of that which we do not know we know. Since we cannot know what we don't know, we need to focus on what we know we don;t know. You know?

So how do you decide what's in the white triangle?

Step One: Start by assessing the two biggest your biggest holes in your game and write them down. Does your guard retention suck? Do you have trouble finishing an Americana? And let's face it- we could all work on our takedowns. If you have trouble with this step, just ask the training partners you roll with regularly. Now write down one strength of your game. Write that down, too.

Step Two: Talk to your coaches. Tell them explicitly what you would like to work on, ask them for advice, and ask if they could pay attention to those things. Your coaches are in the best position to give you expert feedback and instruction, which is the secret boost to utilizing Vgotsky's Zones of Proximal Development. 

Step Three: Put in the work. Now you train. While training, focus on these three things whenever possible. When you feel you've made adequate progress in correcting one of the two weaknesses or you've improved your strength to the point where you can use it on almost all of your training partners, go back to step one and identify something new. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Give it a shot. If this process works well for you, tell us the story in the comments!



Friday, July 19, 2019

The Different Levels of Rolling

Here I am, a brown belt, and I'm ***still*** confused about how hard I should be rolling.

Well, not really, But sometimes it feels like it. "How hard should I be rolling" is one of the most avoided questions in our art. When I started years ago, I distinctly remember my first-ever live roll. It was with fellow white belt who had maybe a year of experience. Former wrestler. Strong and aggressive. I was just coming off several years of running ultramarathons in mountains, and had just finished my last 100 mile race about two months prior. I had cardio for days an had the capacity to spazz for a good hour straight. 

Needless to say, that first roll was six or so minutes of absolute WAR!

Well, not really. But it felt like it. In reality, that first roll consisted of us starting on our knees, my partner pulling guard, scissor sweeping me to mount, then armbarring me as I tried to frantically escape. But EVERY movement that day was executed at 100%. 

I LOVED it! That initial experience probably played a pivotal role in my decision to stick with the sport for those first few frustrating months. It would take years before I really understood how you're supposed to regulate rolling intensity and really understand what is meant by a "flow roll", a "light roll", or a "hard roll."

But eventually I did, and my jiu jitsu improved immediately. And my training partners probably gave a huge, collective sigh of relief. 

Over the years, I've discovered I'm not alone in this struggle. Almost everyone who starts jiu jitsu struggles with understanding how hard they should be rolling at any given time. Being a teacher, my "I'm am hammer..." tendency is to solve problems through... you guessed it - teaching! This is the system I'm implementing with my students to help alleviate this problem. It explicitly defines how you start the roll, what the goals of the roll are, and how each training partner should respond if there's a difference in ability, size, etc.

Rules of Rolling

1. Always Protect Your Partner. Our ability to train jiu jitsu is entirely dependent on having healthy training partners. Assuring our partners remain safe and injury-free is our HIGHEST priority when rolling. This means we never intentionally injure our partners, we ask our partner if they have any existing injuries before we roll, and we diligently follow the other two rules. 

2. The Two Second Rule. Submissions are meant to simulate either murder (via strangulation) or breaking limbs (via joint locks.) There's an inherent danger in training this stuff. To help assure our training partners remain injury-free, it's important we give them an opportunity to tap to whatever submission we're pulling off. We do this using the two second rule. Any time we're executing a submission, we need to be in control of the position and take about two seconds to apply said submission. This is especially true of all white belts who may not have trained long enough to understand exactly when they're caught in an inescapable submission attempt. 

3. The 10% Rule. Time on mat matters, and the mat never lies. The longer you train, the better you get. This means you'll eventually end up training with people who you can utterly and completely dominate. Unless we're doing a Comp Roll (discussed later), there's little value in rolls where the more experienced partner just destroys the less experienced partner. The more experienced partner should, under normal circumstances, always adjust their game to be about 10% better than the less experienced partner. As the more experienced partner, this is your chance to learn physical and emotional CONTROL, which are critical skills to learn to advance in jiu jitsu. Let them hit sweeps. Let them escape. Let them replace guard. Feed them submissions. Let them tap you on occasion, which also teaches you HUMILITY, yet another critical skill to learn to advance in this sport.

The Basic Starting Positions

Let's start with how we start. Any given roll can start on our feet (if we're working takedowns), on our knees (if space is limited), or in a specific position

If we're starting from a specific position, we can be "loose" or "tight." If we're playing loose, neither partner gets grips and starts with their hands behind their head. The goal is to practice fighting for and establishing grips and a superior position. If we're playing tight, we start with our preferred grips and position. Usually (but not always) the person in the inferior position will establish their grips and position first. 


Any given roll may serve a variety of purposes. Sometimes we will "roll to the tap", which means we're trying to win via submission. If someone taps, you reset in the original position you started from. This is our normal default rolling situation.

Sometimes we may play the "positional dominance" game. The goal here is to go from our starting position to the most advanced potion we can attain (usually back mount), then hold that position as long as we can. Our opponent's goal is the same - move up the positional hierarchy. The "winner" is the person who can maintain positional superiority the longest. We do not attempt submissions in this game. 

Finally, we may have "special" goals based on the grappling games we play in class. Sometimes we might have to take off a sock our opponent is wearing and put it on our own foot. Sometimes we might have to gain control of a tennis ball. Sometimes we might have to prevent someone from passing our guard without the use of our hands. Whatever. The special goals will be explained before the roll. 

Levels of Intensity

This one really hits on the issue I had in the beginning - just how hard am I supposed to roll? We use four "levels" of intensity; each one serves a specific purpose.  

The first is a "feeder roll." This is a LOW INTENSITY roll where each partner takes turns "feeding" each other positions that lead to obvious submissions. The opponent executes the submission SLOWLY to the tap. The partners stay in the same approximate position, and the partner who just executed the submission feeds their partner a submission. Each partner should be landing three or four submissions per minute. The goal of this roll is to practice "seeing" openings for submissions during scrambles and transitions. 

The second is a "light roll." This is what is often called "flow rolling." This is also a LOW INTENSITY roll, but the training partners do not feed each other submissions. When one partner gets a submission, reset to the starting position. There are two general rules for this type of roll - you should never have to use strength and you should never breathe hard. You should be able to have an easy conversation when rolling. If you're struggling to speak in complete sentences, you're rolling too hard. The goal of  this roll is almost always to warm up before heavy training (sometimes we use this as part of our warm-ups) OR to help develop the ability to relax when rolling. 

The third type of roll is a "hard roll." This kind of roll will feature VARIABLE INTENSITY, which can be high. But also may be low depending on the circumstances. This is the typical kind of roll we do toward the end of class. If we're rolling to the tap, reset after and start again. The goal of this roll is to develop the depth and breadth of our defensive and offense games against resisting opponents. While the intensity will get very high in this type of roll, the goal is to learn to regulate that intensity effectively enough to be able to do a thirty minute hard roll.

The fourth and last type of roll is a "comp roll." This is a HIGH INTENSITY roll meant to simulate a jiu jitsu competition, mma fight, or real-world self-defense scenario. This is an all-out balls-to-the-wall roll meant to simulate violence under conditions where both partners are highly motivated to win (or do damage in the case of mma or self-defense.) Both training partners should be using their best "A" games, which means they;re using their most effective offensive weapons and defense. In this type of roll, we still observe the "Always Protect Your Partner" and "Two Second Rule", but usually ignore the "10% Rule." This is the kind of roll where lower belts can expect to be completely smashed by higher belts. 


"How hard do I roll" doesn't have to be a mysterious question that takes years to figure out. Using the rules and guidelines above, it's easy to teach some basic ideas that will make training significantly safer AND more effective.

What do you think? How do you organize and manage your own rolling? Leave a comment!



Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Way We Teach and Learn Jiu Jitsu is Kinda Dumb

Pretty much every jiu jitsu program I've observed uses the same teaching methods and sequencing, and they go something like this:

The instructor begins the class with some sort of warm-up, then shows some technique which may or may not be part of a larger curriculum, the technique is drilled, and finally students do some live rolling.

This methodology is repeated class after class, week after week, month after month, and year after year. Sometimes new activities will be added in for a little variety, but the same general format is always followed. We generally accept this because it's the way it's always been done. And it's likely the way we learned, so we have a degree of false confidence in the efficacy of the methodology.

But what if there's a better way?

In the world of professional education, teachers are always experimenting with new ideas (or revisiting old ideas), tweaking their methods, and always striving to do the greatest good for the widest swath of students who come through our classroom. This results in a slew of empirically-confirmed teaching methods (which we call "pedagogy") that teachers employ in the classroom. Over my twenty years in education, I've become intimately familiar with this system. It works fairly well for most students (which is impressive considering how many kids genuinely hate going to school), but is absolutely fabulous for the kids who are motivated to learn.

We don't do that too much in the jits world, though. I've encountered a VERY small number of people who seriously consider HOW they teach, but the vast majority of us are way more concerned about WHAT we teach. We just keep doing what's always been done while taking very few pedagological risks. The sad part? It's not all that hard to make some really simple tweaks to our teaching that could make a huge impact on student learning. Here are a few ideas:

  1.  Give students access to video of whatever we're teaching that class. A short, simple three minute video explaining the concept or technique we're teaching that students could view before class will help the student prepare for learning the concept or technique in class. Viewing the same video after class will also help reinforce the points made in class. This is especially important if there are a fair number of details involved. 
  2. Get a white board. Write your daily goals and agenda on the board for students to see before and during class. We learn significantly faster when we know what we're learning and why we're learning it. We also retain the information better. We also learn better when we know what to expect. It gives training a very specific purpose. I've been doing this in my psychology classes for years, and it makes a significant positive difference. 
  3. Tailoring teaching to individual students. We all learn in different ways. Some of us learn better by seeing. Some learn better by hearing. Some learn better by doing. And so on. This isn't nearly as hard as it may seem. Just pay attention to which people in your classes seem to "get it." Whatever you normally do is working for them. Now pay attention to the students who are struggling. Have a conversation with them about their experiences in school. What kinds of classes did they like most? What did their teachers do that worked well? How about their experiences outside of school when they learned other stuff? These kinds of discussions can reveal a great deal of insight to HOW they learn best. Once you're armed with that knowledge, start implementing it in your teaching. In education, we call this idea "differentiation."
  4. Add in a little variety. Pablo Celnik (2016), in a Current Biology article, described research where his team was able to reduce the time required to learn a physical motor skill by half when compared to simply repeating a task again and again (like we do when drilling a technique.) All they did was slightly modify the task. In jiu jitsu, this could be accomplished by implementing ideas like my "embracing limitations" games
  5. Show videos of experts doing the technique or demonstrating the concept in competition. Watching different people doing a technique successfully is an old sport psychology trick. Given the prevalence of jiu jitsu videos online, this should be easy. 
  6. Speaking of sport psychology... implement visuo-motor behavior rehearsal. This is just a fancy way of combining progressive relaxation with imagery, which is picturing doing a specific technique in your mind repeatedly. 
  7. Have students teach the material back to you. According to the "level of processing" hypothesis, the "deeper" we process information, the better we learn it. While this topic could be an entire blog post itself, the gist of the idea is that the more you have to think about something, the better you learn it. One of the best ways to get our students to "think" about jiu jitsu is to have them teach jiu jitsu. The reason is pretty simple - teaching material forces you to consider how others will perceive it, which forces you to really break down and contemplate the material.
  8. Use inquiry-based instruction. Inquiry-based instruction is all about triggering curiosity in your students. It works like this - the instructor guides students to develop questions about something they're interested in learning. The students then research it and present what they learned. The instructor then guides the students to reflect on what they learned and the process they used (the latter is to develop ever-more efficient methods of inquiry.) For an endeavor like jiu jitsu, this concept would be gold.
  9. Use cooperative learning to solve problems. Cooperative learning involves dividing the class into small groups, giving each group a little part of the total knowledge you want to teach, then letting the groups put it all together by teaching each other. Like #7 on the list, this forces deep processing AND collaboration (which results in deeper social bonds.)
  10. Give accurate, timely feedback. I was lucky in that I cut my jiu jitsu teeth by working with my coach in very small groups during sparsely-attended morning classes. That gave me the opportunity to ask a ton of questions AND get constant, immediate feedback. I've noticed, though, that few instructors deliberately give feedback to their students on a routine basis beyond what they're doing correctly or incorrectly with whatever technique is being taught. Something as simple as giving monthly feedback on a student's strengths and weaknesses could be incredibly valuable to their progress.
These ten items are far from an exhaustive list of all the things we can do to help our students learn more efficiently. We should look at our teaching methodologies in the same way we look at our jiu jitsu game - it's something we should always work to improve. Not only will it make us better instructors, but it will help our students become better jiu jitsu practitioners. 


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