Jiu Jiu’s note: This week I have a guest writer, Can Sönmez, a purple belt who teaches classes at Gracie Barra Bristol. I asked him to write his thoughts on teaching jiu jitsu. Note: Can is currently visiting Georgette in Texas – so their blogs may have some interesting posts about the experience! Check them out!

I started teaching fairly recently, back in May 2011. That’s the same month I moved to Bristol permanently, so as one of two purple belts at the school (there has since been a third), the head coach called to ask for my help once a week. After putting the phone down, 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.

Can Sönmez at John Will Seminar 2012

Can Sönmez at John Will Seminar 2012

As anyone who has read my blog will know, I tend to take copious notes. Unsurprisingly, I’ve done something similar with teaching: to prepare for a lesson, I blog in reverse. Each week, I look through all my old blog posts related to the techniques I’ve decided to teach (I use a lot of labels, so that is normally quite easy. For example, ‘overhook guard’ or ‘scissor sweep’), then revisit some of my favourite instructionals to see how top black belts teach it (especially Saulo, Roy Dean, Xande and Braulio). Next I’ll write up the class in full, then re-read it several times before heading down to teach. I’ll take more notes afterwards, if there are things I want to change for next time (e.g., maybe a drill needs more explanation, there was a question I couldn’t answer as fully as I wanted to, I missed out a detail I wanted to include, etc).

My intention from the start was to build a curriculum I can keep refining, until I’ve got a solid set of lessons I’m able to teach effectively. Initially the schedule was entirely down to me, so I split it into three week cycles for each position, covering maintaining, attacking and escaping (or in the context of guard, passing). The schedule has since become more regulated, as the head coach wanted all the instructors at the school to follow the Gracie Barra curriculum. Fortunately that is just in terms of positional categories rather than particular techniques, meaning I could therefore continue using what I had taught, but in two week rather than three week cycles.

I have been focusing on the techniques that I have personally found most useful over the last six years, making sure they are simple techniques that do not rely on physical attributes, like strength, speed and flexibility. There is a selfish element to that, as for a long time now I have been attempting to develop a game that will enable me to train as long as possible. When I’m seventy, I will not be able to depend on physical attributes. I therefore think it is sensible to get used to that now, when I still have those attributes and can use them to experiment. As most of the students I teach are white belts, I also try to avoid complexity, which in turn is beneficial for me: I find it difficult to apply a technique in sparring if there are too many moving parts to keep in mind.

Can GrappleThon typing - not using the Mac!

Can at the GrappleThon

It’s been interesting to see what works for students, along with what works for me. When 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.

My classes are normally 1.5hrs, for which I’ve settled into a pattern. That begins with a warm-up of about 10-15 minutes: the head coach had a particular series he wanted me to include. I then teach two techniques (normally with some slight variations, such as the grips, as I like to offer choice. My way is definitely not the only way, so I’m keen to avoid being dogmatic), allocating 4 minutes drilling for each partner, then 3 minutes each of progressive resistance. Next is specific sparring. If you’re not familiar with that term, an example would be starting in guard, the person on top looking to pass, the person on bottom trying to sweep or submit. If either reaches their goal, they restart in guard. I aim for between 20 to 40 minutes, depending on how much time is left. If there is time, I’ll include free sparring and a flow roll, before warming down with some stretches.

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, 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.

Having the option of sparring is useful If I’m ever unsure about something I’m teaching. For example, I’m not great at passing, but even if I haven’t taught the technique as well as I’d like, I can at least give the students lots of time to practice that specific position and technique against resistance. It is also handy if I have more time leftover than I expected, as I can just add in more sparring.

It’s been a luxury not having the responsibility and pressure of being a head coach or school owner: I’m only a purple belt helping out by taking Thursdays. That means I don’t have to include the elements I personally dislike, such as takedowns and self defence, because I know the head coach already has that covered in other classes. Still, that would be an interesting problem if I ever did run a school myself. In that unlikely event, I may well write a follow-up to this article. ;D

About the author: Can Sönmez started training in 2006, receiving his purple belt from Roger Gracie and Kev Capel in 2011. He has been nerding out on BJJ from the beginning, writing up every class over on slideyfoot.com. Can is currently teaching at Gracie Barra Bristol, giving him yet another outlet for BJJ geekery.