Do you think specific beginners classes are necessary in BJJ/Grappling?

The picture above of lion cubs learning to fight a.k.a. playing is from a fantastic site. It just so happens to link into my story.

I saw a topic on the Cage Warriors Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Forum. The question was: Do you think specific beginners classes are necessary? and this was my reply:

I'm a softie. I believe there is a place for everyone in BJJ / Grappling and the reason someone should walk out and never come back is because they found something greater for them elsewhere, not because they were thrown in the deep end.

When I first started in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, there were defined beginner classes but due to work commitment I couldn't make them. Karl was kind enough (after much begging and nagging on my behalf) to let me train in the advanced session on the condition that I told everyone I shook hands with that I'm completely new. I basically learnt to tap a lot. I also learnt how easy it is for a girl to tap a strong beginner.

Unfortunately, I also picked up a ton of bad grappling habits. Sink-or-swim has it's place, but if it's your first exposure to the water, you will develop bad swimming habits and that's true to BJJ / Grappling too. Habits you’ll need to, best case scenario, re-learn later on or may lead to your injury.

As soon as my schedule allowed, I started attending the beginner gi-classes and took me months to re-programme my basic techniques like mount escapes and how to apply pressure from side control top. These are things that an instructor faced with 20-25 athletes couldn't possibly pick up on in an advanced session and it would be unfair to expect him/her to do so. Not to mention the stupid notions I developed like: "Yeah scissor sweep isn't really suitable for me!" No you daft idiot. I felt it wasn't suitable for me coz the advanced guys always caught me with foot locks coz I was doing the sweep wrong. No one had actually shown me how to properly do the sweep. I had just watched someone somewhere and missed out essential details. It had nothing with being tough or not. I just didn't know!

Sparring is what separates Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from all the crap out there and it’s what makes it real and alive. That doesn’t mean that the student have to free-spar from the first day, week or even month!

This is how you stay protected and somewhat safe under the mount.
Here is a mount escape.
Here is another.

Now go under his mount and try to stay protected while you go back and forth between the two while the top guy is trying to maintain position and maybe attack with a choke or maybe even an armlock.

That’s alive. That’s BJJ and it’s definitely suitable for anyone on their first day.

Will they learn something? Yes
Will it be something true, honest and useful within the whole of BJJ/MMA/No-gi? Yes
Will they work hard? Yes
Will the coach have time and space to drill properly and supervise the technique? Yes
Will the student come back? Maybe. Who knows! But if not, it won’t be because they didn’t feel they belong or the golden phrase “I think I need to go the gym/loose weight/work on my cv…etc. before I start doing this!”.

But like I said. That’s just me, and I’m a big softie.

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A.D. McClish said...

My sister-in-law and I have often talked about this same subject. We both started off at the same time. I will never forget my first class. We don't have beginner classes at our school, so I was thrown into the deep end in a manner of speaking. My first grapple, I sat down in front of a guy and just stared at him. I had no clue what to do. He kept telling me to get in a dominant position, but I didn't know what a dominant position was! lol There have been times where I've felt like I'm missing some basic things, but from my perspective, there are positives of the other format too. Here are a few I've experienced:

1) I learned to defend myself really quickly when you're rolling with more experienced people. It was either that or get choked out! lol

2) I learn a lot more when I roll with a higher belt. What the heck did they just do? How did they get there? Where is that sharp pain coming from? Not only do they teach me by doing things to me, but many of them actually take time during our grapples to correct me or make suggestions. If I was going with someone at my same level, they wouldn't be able to do that.

3) The higher belts tone down their grappling to just a little bit above my skill level so that, while I am able to move, I am always challenged. I found that when I grappled only white belts sometimes there wasn't as much of a challenge.

4) My instructors made special efforts to roll with us newbies and to teach us basic principles during advanced techniques. For example, while explaining detailed techniques, they would look at us and tell us the underlying principle. The higher belts would take away the details of the advanced technique while us lower belts would be able to take away the basic concepts. Also, because I have been learning all the techniques alongside the higher belts since the beginning, the movements are already familiar now, even if they aren't as well polished as the higher belts.

In fact, when I got my blue belt I went to my instructor and said, "I'm not sure I'm really ready for my blue belt. There are so many details about my techniques that I am either forgetting or doing wrong." My instructors response was that he was promoting me to blue belt, not purple belt. lol

I don't know. I can see the positive and negative sides to both. Great discussion starter, though! Sorry this post was so long! ;)

The Part Time Grappler said...

Haha are you kidding? I usually write essays on your blog :) I'm very flattered you took the time.

While I agree with EVERY point you brought up, I have a couple of thoughts on them:

Point 1. Yes you learned quickly how to defend yourself. I bet though the learning wasn't optimal and that you picked up a small bad habit here or there. I know for sure I did.

Points 2&3, while definitely very valid and well formulated, I still think the benefits would have been multifold if you had gone to a few months of beginner classes before.

Point 4, you were lucky!! Not to mention the higher attention you would have got if you were one of e.g. 12 white belts under his/her watchful eyes rather than one of e.g. 2-3 mixed in with a bunch of athletes, some of whom are getting ready for gradings/comps/bar mitzvas or whatever.

Once again, I agree with you. Heck, I had the exact same start. It's only now because I direct a lot of attention to teaching and curriculum writing that I think about it a lot.

A week or so ago, I got a question from a new starters AFTER A WHOLE HOUR Of GUARD PASSING (now remember, we teach very intelligently and we take our time in the beginners sessions to break down ins and out of Posture-pressure-posibilities and are very methodical). He appraoched me after the session and said:

"I really liked what Martyn was showing and it was very methodical. But I don't understand why all the effort. After all, YOU WERE ON TOP IN THE FIRST PLACE! why bother do this whole passing the guard thingi?"

I didn't know to laugh or cry. It's not his fault! He just walked in, borrowed a gi, did the warm-up and joined a well structured beginners session. However, everyon else there had done a couple of lessons (not more) and was familiar with the general idea of positional hierarchy, so we didn't harp on the why. Martyn just focused on doing an excellent job of teaching the how.

I really like the name sink-or-swim. I think it's a very clever and catchy name. However, I can't ever see this kinda thing happening at a swimming school :)

slideyfoot said...

I think basically it's a question of faster progress for talented/dedicated students versus losing potentially good students.

A school cannot survive on just the hardcore competition team: you need the hobbyists, and it is also possible that somebody who starts out as a dabbler turns into a great competitor.

I started at the Roger Gracie Academy, where they had a clear class structure of beginner (up to four stripe white) and advanced (three stripe whites up to black belts). That's now been further split into beginner, intermediate (three stripe white to four stripe blue) and advanced (three stripe blue to black belt).

For me, that was helpful. You had a chance to learn the techniques with people who were either your peers, or not far off.

On the other hand, I massively benefitted from the advice of higher level training partners once I moved up to the advanced.

It could be that the way my current school, Gracie Barra Birmingham, does it is the ideal. They also split their classes (into foundation, basics and advanced), but there are no restrictions on belt level. Kev at RGA Wycombe, my favourite instructor so far, also didn't stop higher belts training in the beginner class.

So, whereas at RGA, a blue belt can't train in the beginner class, anybody at GB Brum can train in the basics. I've seen brown belts learning those fundamental moves alongside the white belts.

Like A.D. alluded to, it is really frustrating for a beginner to be in a situation where they have nothing they can do: no basic escapes, no basic guard pass, no basic sweep.

That's an unnecessary barrier, in my view, which can easily be removed by incorporating some kind of beginner/basic class into the school schedule, and insisting everybody starting out has to attend it before moving on to the advanced.

The Part Time Grappler said...

Exactly! I completely agree Slidey!Not only can a school not survive without hobbyists, but why would it want to??

Let's imagine a sink-or-swim environment. I join and I'm excellent and all is dandy. Then when I'm bored with competition and have reached, say, 40 years of age and want to focus on other aspects of BJJ, suddenly I'm not welcome there anymore?? That'd suck!

I feel it's natural that any athlete should be able to attend any session (i.e. more in line with Braulio's rules). That would never happen anywhere outside the MA!! Imagine this: Sorry you can't do any more basic skill training Tiger Woods, you're too advanced for that!