I guess this is the blog post where I get to embarrass my coaches whilst I talk about how awesome they are. So, Michael, Kieran, and Adam, if you don’t want to read heaps and heaps of praise, turn back now. Just kidding… maybe.
When talking about coaches BJJ is no different to any other subject, sport or learning experience. Who you have as a teacher is critical. If you don’t see eye to eye, or they don’t inspire you, you’re not going to get very far. This is especially true of myself. I am one of those people out there that if I don’t like doing something, you’ll know about it because I probably won’t do it unless I’m absolutely forced to. It’s just the way my brain works. I switch off when I’m bored. You might as well talk to a brick wall. Take GCSE maths. I had to do it (sadly), but I really really really didn’t want to. I ended up getting a B. I barely revised for it and when I saw my teacher she said that I could of done much better. The problem was that maths had never excited me, and she’d done very little to change that. To be fair to her she would have had a very long uphill struggle to get me to enjoy maths, but still.
For this reason I have been exceptionally lucky in who I have had as a coach since starting martial arts. Coaches are there to inspire enthusiasm in their students, you need to want to come back to class and learn, otherwise what’s the point? All of the instructors at Kaizen are passionate about martial arts (naturally!) and it comes across all the time. They have different interests within that broad spectrum, but the special thing is that they’re able to pass that on to their students, and to get them excited about whatever is on the agenda for that day’s class. I’m not a naturally sporty person. I played netball passably at school, but I sucked at most other things. Hockey was a waste of space, and athletics might as well have been thought up by the devil. Tennis and rounders were bearable I suppose. So when I started kickboxing three years(!) ago, I thought it would be much the same. I started off doing it because I wanted to be fitter, and not have to be rolled up the hill to class. And of course, when I first started, I sucked at it. I had no coordination, no dexterity, and my feet and hands were all over the place. I also had a tendency to “put my hands in my pockets” and leave my face unprotected. Super smart. I probably still suck at it (I’ve not done kickboxing in a while!), but Kieran and Adam were patient, and saw that I enjoyed it enough to want to keep trying, and that I had the drive to improve. They had time for the weaker and slower ones in the class, not just the natural prodigies or those who were more advanced. It made me stick at it.
And then I discovered grappling. First this was with Kieran at the Sports Centre, and then Michael came along, who is now the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach at Kaizen Academy. I can’t remember an exact timeline of who appeared when, but I had definitely been doing some grappling by the time Michael came along, always no-gi, I don’t think I even owned a gi at this point. I was aware of things such as closed guard, side control, knee slice, triangle chokes, arm bars etc. For me at that time they were mostly in the context of MMA, and if anyone had asked me about half-guard or single leg x, they would’ve been met with a blank expression and a shrug of the shoulders. To be fair, if someone asked me about half-guard or single leg x now, my response would probably be, ‘which bit?’.
Anyway, that aside, I knew a tiny bit, and had watched some grappling in the context of MMA/UFC, so I’d seen some of the cool stuff that was possible, but I had no idea about those such as Ryan Hall, Marcelo Garcia, the Mendes bros., Mackenzie Dern, Eddie Cummings et. al. I was more interested in learning cool shit than learning technical things. Michael is always fond of reminding me that I wanted to learn a flying armbar before I could pass a guard. I wanted to do the triple jump before I could crawl so to speak. I had a few basic instincts as well, such as being alright at basing, and having alright fight instinct. The reason being that I had little else in my arsenal to rely on. Anyway, Michael brought me firmly back down to the ground, and we started building from the foundations that had been solidly placed by Kieran and Adam, and worked upwards from there. I would say the timber frame of my game has probably been built by now, so it’s at least recognisable as to what I’m trying to create and what it might be in the future.
The structure of how teaching is approached at Kaizen is what has really worked for me. They have a principal based approach, rather than technique based. So whilst the BJJ syllabus is broken into chunks such as “half-guard top”, “x-guard”, etc. it’s all based around core principals, such as opening space, shutting space down and other things. This means that rather having a list of principals you can passably do, everything should (in theory) link together. I like to think of it like the game of squares that you used to play when you were bored in class. You initially start with a million little dots on a piece of paper, and sure if you draw a square, you’ll have a square and one point, but if you can create networks of lines, there’s the possibility that you’ll be able to create lots of squares in one turn and therefore gain lots of points. It’s like that for BJJ at Kaizen, whilst you might not initially see everything clearly, eventually the penny drops and the techniques link together through a network of principals, rather than being separate and disparate. You start to see things that might not have been there before, and are encouraged to try new things rather than doggedly going after the same sub because it’s the one you know. Awesome, you’re great at armbars from top mount – but if you can’t get there, what are you going to do? This is where the principals come in, they give you a million other options and nuances. Now that’s not to say that people don’t have their own special interests and techniques they hold dear. I’m a fan of x-guard, single leg x, footlocks and – rather differently – hunting for back takes from kimura attempts. Michael is a half guard specialist, Kieran prefers to hunt the back through berimbolos and inverted guard, and he is also known as the ‘triangle choke king’, and Adam is wrestling specialist, and you better start praying if he ends up passing your guard to top position at all. Amongst the students we’ve got people who are modelling themselves on Pablo Popovitch, on Garry Tonon, on João Miyao… etc. And we all learn from each other. No one keeps their techniques to themselves. Okay, we might initially, just to pull off something awesome in a roll, but once that’s happened we’re all happy to share, so we can grow and learn from each other. What’s the point in hogging techniques to yourself? That way no-one learns. This is true of even the coaches and students, rather than just student-to-student. The coaches are happy to listen and incorporate if you think you’ve got something cool to demonstrate and share.
I also like to roll with the coaches. Clearly I get beaten into the mat 95% of the time I do, but it also helps me learn, because of the feedback and encouragement I get at the end. When rolling with Michael I like to think of it like a video game. You might beat level 1, and be over the moon that you’ve done so, but then he’ll turn it up to level 2 and you don’t know what’s hit you. I’ve subbed Michael before, but then I’ve paid for it miserably in the next rolls. But that’s great. You know that it’s not impossible to get the upper hand, you’ve just got to be on point to achieve it.
Anyway, coming round full circle, I guess all this is post is trying to say is that I consider myself extremely lucky to train with these guys. Of course they don’t make up all of my training buddies, look out for a piece in a few weeks time ‘F Is Family: An Alphabet of BJJ’ where I’m going to wax lyrical about some of my awesome training partners.
Until next time,