Instructively uninstructed

For reasons that aren’t clear yet, no instructor turned up to teach us this evening. It could not have come at a more embarrassing time. Two new people had come along for their first ever class. They had bought their gis, they had paid their year’s subscription, they had psyched themselves up, and… nothing. A third guy had been just twice before – and he had had to cross the whole of London in the rush hour to get to the class, and… nothing.

For the honour of the academy, we decided to hold a class anyway.


There were eight of us and four three-stripe white belts, so we paired off with one three-striper in each pair. I took one of the novices and gave him a guided tour of BJJ. I took him through a range of positions – close guard, side control, and mount – and some of the standard moves: armbar, choke (two flavours), triangle, scissor sweep, sit-up sweep, guard pass, bridge out of side control, bridge out of mount. I showed him how each one was done and got him to try it out on me. I was careful to emphasize that all these moves were “as far as I can remember”: my aim was not to instruct but to give him a feel for the sport so that when he had his first class everything wouldn’t feel completely unfamiliar.

One of my friends did the same for the other novice. The pair that included the third-timer from Tottenham spent some time trying to reconstruct what he’d learned last time about capturing your opponent’s back, getting the hooks in, rolling him over and choking him; and the final pair seemed to be working mostly on chokes and defences to them.

It was a very interesting time. We learned that each of us has something to teach the others. Later on in the session I taught a friend my way of passing the guard while defending against a triangle and he taught me his way of defending against a rear naked choke (of course it was Luciano who’d originally taught us each of those techniques!).

Because we didn’t have an instructor on hand to answer questions, we spent a lot more time working the answers out for ourselves: exactly how a move was meant to work, and why. By being forced to think in this way, we came closer to the first principles of BJJ, something I’ve argued for before. It hadn’t occurred to me before that having an instructor present makes you intellectually lazy; but it must do, because now we all found ourselves really thinking in a way we’d rarely done in the past.

At the end of the session we’d all been on the mat continuously for over an hour. We hadn’t sparred against each other at all – no one had tried to vanquish anyone – but we had learned a great deal because we’d had to teach ourselves.

Actually, it was excellent.

Nevertheless, when the endorphins have worn off, I’m going to find out who was responsible for this cock-up and I’m going to pull his head off.