I recently read Valerie Worthington’s article on her initial experiences with BJJ. It’s a heart rending read of isolation and neglect.
When I was first starting out in Brazilian jiu jitsu, I experienced an internal struggle every day I went to train. On one hand, I was stupid crazy about training. I loved what I was learning and simply disappearing into the focus, the experience, and the challenges. But on the other hand, the anticipation of going into class, feeling intimidated and small because I was new and awful at it, and having to contend with a roomful of complete strangers, was sometimes almost too much to get past. I would sit in the parking lot before class every night, shoring up my confidence and psyching myself up to go inside.
Part of the challenge was the feeling of benign neglect I sensed from the group.
Everyone was cordial enough but would quickly extricate themselves from conversations with me and gravitate toward their friends at the first opportunity.
For months, I would go to class, do my thing with the person who was unfortunate enough to end up being my partner, and then be gently relegated back to wallflower status.
Valarie’s love of BJJ overcame the environment she was in, but how many others couldn’t overcome it?
Stories like this make me sad. BJJ is one of those things that really changes our lives for the better. The people that get turned away from BJJ by these unfortunate experiences miss out on the wonder of BJJ that we all know. This is a shame.
An instructor’s role is more than just teaching BJJ. It is to provide an environment for learning to occur. An instructor should realise that he doesn’t teach BJJ at all. He merely offers suggestions, ideas and concepts. A student’s real teachers are his training partners.
Here are some of the things that I have found to help build an environment for learning.
- People’s names are a big deal. I try to remember everyone’s name. If I forget, I ask them. I expect everyone to do the same.
- Everyone trains with everyone. No cliques. No dodging. We rotate training partners many times during a session.
- Minimal instruction. My job is to help people become better grapplers, not show off what I can do. The best learning comes from your training partner.
- When people are practising, I walk around and offer suggestions to the training partner rather that the person doing the drill. BJJ is mainly learnt physically by doing, not by watching a demonstration.
- Train with progressive resistance and strive to become good training partners.
A healthy atmosphere is one where everyone in the group is interacting with each other with the goal of getting better.
As a member of a gym, what can you do help maintain this environment for learning?
- You’re a member of the group. Your opinion is meaningful.
- Speak up if see a problem. Don’t assume that everyone is as observant as you are.
- Remember how everyone was welcoming to you when you started? Make newcomers just as welcome as you were. A friendly face in a room of strangers means a lot.
- You learn from your training partners, not your coach. You want great training partners that help you improve. Build them.