John Will - BJJ Interview

I talk to John Will, one of the all-time legends of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu & Martial Arts. As an early adopter of BJJ and Mixed Martial Arts, he has spent countless hours teaching Jiu-Jitsu classes and seminars worldwide. Combined with an active interest in the art of learning and teaching, it gives him an invaluable insight into how best to deliver information and techniques to a class of students and how to help yourself become a better learner and martial artist, which we discuss in this podcast episode.

“What got you there is not what keeps you there.”

John B Will

Listen To John Will





[02:17] – John Will’s Intro

[03:45] – About the seminars John does

[06:42] – Designing a class

[10:00] – How he decides what to include in the class?

[12:34] – Problem with martial arts—people are drawn towards flashy moves

[15:55] – How to make the boring part of Jiu-Jitsu training exciting

[20:44] – Ways to disguise fundamentals with flashy moves

[23:06] – Ways to encourage students to take ownership of their own learning

[26:19] – Setting the steps for his students, he wants them to follow

[27:33] – Teaching the students how to extract maximum value from whatever they’re doing

[30:17] – Best constraints to make people perform better

[33:11] – When you’re on the mat, act like other people don’t exist

[36:45] – Dealing with the problem of the Bystanders effect

[38:15] – The traffic constraint

[41:41] – Knowing the reasons behind his decisions as a coach

[46:35] – Extracting value from your workout

[52:29] – Stop the cascade of thinking

[54:27] – Getting out of your comfort zone

[59:25] – How did his training under Anthony Lange come into fruition?

[1:01:32] – Martial arts beyond functionality

[1:04:01] – His article about mixing martial arts

[1:07:31] – His advice to people who want to bring changes in martial arts


He pays attention to Teaching The fundamentals in his seminars

John pays more attention to the fundamental principles of BJJ and martial arts in his seminars. He says, “I tend to be inclined towards nuance and paying attention to detail. It’s just my nature. And when you do something like teaching a class more than 10,000 times, it becomes so important”.

This meshes with that old myth about the ‘10,000 hours to get expertise.’ So when you start teaching 10 or 20,000 classes, and you link that together with a natural inclination to paying attention to detail, then you’ll notice things in your 5000th class that you didn’t notice teaching in your first class.”

Deciding what to include in the BJJ class

Telling about how he decides what to include in the class, he says, “I would leave out the foliage and all those little crazy iterations of iterations. That’s it. I would leave that out and focus on the basic idea, the main thing, and maybe the first branching of the concept because that’s what got it started when none of this foliage would exist.

So that’s a mistake. You started in some weird variation of the move, and they don’t even know why they’re doing de la Riva. Why de la Riva? We used to call it standing half guard, you’re up, and I’ve got one of your legs in between my legs before it was called going over standing half guard. So why am I doing that?

Because of this situation. Because it’s about an angle, so you start with that and then build on it and then build on it and then later on you can end up getting the de la Riva but getting the under-hook, pulling the knee inside, going to K guard, and getting the backside.”

Best constraints to keep the people on the mat

Don’t be surrounded by your students because precisely 50% of them can’t see what you’re doing. John says, “I’ve seen so-called high-level coaches—they’re not high-level coaches, they’re high-level performers.

Everyone make a circle, and now I will demonstrate a technique. What is that? It’s silly. So what I could say is everyone gets that side of me. And then I take responsibility for the way I orient, so you get to see the angle. And then, if you need to see the other side, we spin it around so that they see the other side. But that’s a mechanical fix. What’s much better than that we get across to our students this concept of taking full responsibility for their own learning.”

Encouraging students to take full responsibility for their own learning

Taking responsibility for their own learning means the coach got to stand up and walk three meters over there to see the beat. That’s much better. Because then, the problem is not fixed by a trick.

John says, “I will do lots of learning tricks to overcome some of their little problems because they can’t figure out the walk over there. So I will fix it because I want the outcome in my advanced class. No, they will walk, move, ask a question they will get, and want clarification; that’s what I want. But that requires time to get them more because through that they can then transport that anywhere in the world, any situation and be great at learning.”

Pay Attention!

Another constraint to keep people on the mat is paying attention. This sounds silly, but to make it simple to understand—the way to behave on the mat is to act as if it was just you and the person playing with you. So if you and he were in a conversation about something, and he started talking, and you started making some moves, he would think something’s wrong with me. But you put 20 people there, and people feel that “no way. I’m not putting up with it.” So it’s a simple rule, the way you’re on the mat, and 20 people are watching, you’re going to look at him, and you have to act as if those other 19 people do not exist.

The reason John Will mixed BJJ and martial arts

Nowadays, mixing martial arts might not be considered to be anything special. But back in 1982, it was considered radical to mix your martial arts. John says, “In fact, I got a lot of flack for that from the traditional martial arts community.

Someone was doing Shota Can Taekwondo, or they did Jeet Kune Do or boxing, etc. And I was just having none of it. And the reason I was having none of it was that when I looked out into the world, that was not the solution for the problem that was there. The fights that I got into and saw in Southeast Asia, for example, were headbutts and elbows and taking him down and playing with a knife, and stabbing him twice. I needed to know a lot of things here. I was looking at the world, there was a very clear problem, and I wanted to simplify it.

Because martial art shouldn’t be just about functionality, there’s a lot of value in martial arts that have nothing to do with fighting. It could be argued that most of it has nothing to do with fighting because we’re not getting into fights. We’re actually living a healthy, normal, well-balanced adjusted lifestyle.”

John Will Resources

John Will Links

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John Will - Learning BJJ