In this episode, I talk to Rob Biernacki, Head Instructor at Island Top Team. We talk about Rob’s gamification teaching strategy, how being isolated has helped him develop his unique style, how he structures his classes, and how he decided on his current curriculum.
What would Rob change about the BJJ culture? Hear his thoughts on the idea of time-based black belts versus merit-based black belts, getting the best results, getting people to keep coming back for more, and get Rob’s rant on conspiracy theories.
[00:00] – Introduction to Episode 023.
[02:07] – Rob’s Background in Jiu-Jitsu.
[08:22] – How Has Isolation Helped Develop His Own Style?
[13:21] – Rob Biernacki’s Curriculum.
[24:37] – Gamification for Jiu-Jitsu.
[30:45] – Structuring Jiu-Jitsu Classes.
[38:44] – Getting the Best Results.
[44:10] – How to Get People to Keep Coming Back.
[55:23] – What Would Rob Biernacki Change?
[71:46] – Merit-Based Versus Time-Based Black Belt.
[83:27] – The Proliferation of Conspiracy Theories in Jiu-Jitsu.
Sonny Brown: Good day, Rob, how are you today, mate?
Rob Biernacki: I’m doing awesome.
Sonny: Excellent. Excellent. Now, we’re a big fan of your work. I see you online with your YouTube or when doing a lot of work with Stephan Kesting and you’re very vocal in some other podcasts that I’ve heard with BJJ Mental Models. I’ve got some strong opinions that I quite enjoy listening to.
I’ve reached out to get in touch just to have a chat about basically what some of your thoughts are on teaching, and learning, and different styles of pedagogy within Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Just wondering maybe we can just start with, what was your background in learning Jiu-Jitsu, and how were you taught?
Rob: My background was a little bit disparate in that I was living in Toronto, Canada. I was training with– I had a friend at the time who was a- he was still a brown belt when I started really training with him. I started training, I guess, around 2002, but as part of overall MMA training. I was not a dedicated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guy. As I said, I had a friend who was a brown belt. I trained at his gym maybe once or twice a week. I did a lot of No-Gi rolling at MMA clubs, that kind of stuff. Then I started getting a little more dedicated to the Jiu-Jitsu aspect of MMA when I started going down to American Top Team, which is probably around 2004.
My coach was Charles McCarthy at American Top Team, but I wasn’t there all the time. I would go down a few weeks at a time. Then that became a few months at a time, probably around 2010 until I got my black belt in 2012. Because I was, to a certain degree, left to my own devices, I cobbled together a bunch of different things. I went through a pretty long phase of being the move chaser guy. In other words, if I lost a roll, the reason had to be that I didn’t know enough moves. If I got arm barred, it meant I didn’t know enough armbar escapes. If I couldn’t submit someone, it meant I didn’t know enough submissions. I kept going down this rabbit hole of learning 10th planet and then learning leg locks and learning this and learning that and just trying to amass moves. It didn’t matter how many moves I amassed. I would always get smashed by good guys.
It was really weird– I was the guy who would annihilate people who were even a little bit worse than me, but I would get totally destroyed by people who were a little bit better than me. It’s like there was no in-between. If somebody had good positional Jiu-Jitsu, they would be able to handle me unless they had a deficiency in their leg lock defence, and I could catch them with that. Then if somebody was not as good as I was at the positional stuff, then I can just catch them all over the place, but it’s almost like I never had competitive roles.
I was either kicking someone’s ass, I was getting my ass kicked and it’s just because I didn’t have a proper understanding of what I now really try to promulgate, which is a fundamental conceptual understanding of alignment base, partial strike, all this stuff I preach, which I was exposed to in, I would say, the best presentation of it that I was exposed to was from Ryan Hall because he was the first guy that spoke my language, spoke the language of physics, of biomechanics, and of comical nerd references in his instructionals, that kind of stuff. That was somebody that I really looked up to once I was exposed to his work.
My training ended up being training with a lot of different people and then focusing exclusively on the Gi around 2010. I left leg locks completely alone and just did a lot of Gi training. Really didn’t start back up. I got my black belt in 2012 and then I didn’t really roll No-Gi for probably, I want to say, about three years. Then I started getting back into No-Gi. I did a competition in Portland and I started doing some No-Gi training for that. I won a match via heel hook and then I lost in the finals via heel hook. I was like, “Man, I’m never the guy who’s the worst leg locker in an exchange,” but that was from five years ago. That’s when I went out and I trained with Eddie Cummings and I got caught up on the leg lock game.
Now, people probably know me more as a No-Gi leg lock guy, but for a little while there, I was just Gi only and very focused on fundamental conceptually sound positional Ju-Jitsu. I’m a mix of those two approaches. Then as far as my teaching approach, the pretentious word for it is I’m an autodidact, which is, I’m largely self-taught. Prior to opening my club which took away all my free time, I used to read probably a couple of books a week, all nonfiction, mostly science, and I tried to stay as abreast as I could of developments in cognitive science, anything related to sports, and training, and stuff like that. I’m not as up on it as I used to be, but luckily, I have one of my black belts now who is doing the same thing I used to do and just reading up on it.
At our Academy between my previous research into it and my black belt, his name’s Callum McDonald, his current research into it. We try to keep evolving our pedagogy systems to reflect the state of the art in cognitive learning strategies.
Sonny: Beautiful. You mentioned Ryan Hall there early on in the piece. Was he someone you’d worked with personally, or was that just the influence of his–?
Rob: Yes. I travelled after– No, not after. Before I got my black belt, I travelled around for a little bit. I was at Ryan Hall’s Academy for a couple of weeks, and I was at Marcello Garcia’s for a couple of weeks. Then after that, I travelled around and trained with a few other people. I’m a pretty prolific travel-to-train guy.
There are certainly some people that I want to train with that I haven’t had a chance to yet, but the list of people that I wanted to train with and then got to train with. That bucket list is getting increasingly filled. I was very fortunate to get to train with him, not extensively or anything, but definitely something I wanted to do.
Sonny: Nice. You’re out there at Vancouver Island. I believe you previously referred to it as the New Zealand of Canada.
Rob: Of Canada.
Sonny: [laughs] I’m wondering because you’ve evolved into your own direction, even though I believe you’re associated or affiliated with Caio Terra at the moment.
Rob: Yes. We’re a Caio Terra affiliate.
Sonny: But you’ve certainly got your own style that seems to be pretty unique to what you’re doing. How much would you say that being isolated where you are has enabled you to be able to develop that?
Rob: I think it’s been a significant contribution. One of the formative bits of information that I got prior to opening my school was I saw an interview with, I want to say it was Jorge Gracie, and he was describing his thought process when he had moved to England basically as far as what he was looking to do in his Ju-Jitsu career and how he was able to achieve such incredible feats without being surrounded by really high-level training partners. I basically just stole his approach, which is to take every student that I can that develops an aptitude or an interest in a particular game, and try to maximize that particular student in that particular games that I would have a variety of training partners that were challenging, even if the overall role might not be challenging against a blue belt. If I could make that blue belt a brown belt in one position, then I could battle them in that position.
What that forced me to do is become as educated as possible in these different positions that I wanted to teach. I would seek out whether it was in travelling and training with somebody, or online, or DVD, whatever. Any kind of resources I could find that allowed me to model the best practices of the best practitioners at a particular guard, or submission, or whatever, and then I’d teach all this stuff that I was learning to my students once I felt comfortable enough to convey the information. There’s a difference between what I feel comfortable teaching to a class and what I feel comfortable giving to one person who’s working on something. My philosophy is I won’t teach something, let’s say, publicly until I’ve personally been working on it for about a year. I don’t like taking information that is still in development for me and teaching it.
There would be things that I wouldn’t teach in the general class, but that I was working on. I would take a student aside and do a private training session, like a drilling session just for my sake, where I was using them as a training partner. I would say, “I want to work on this and I want you to give me these responses.” Then I would try to coach them through it. I took that Jorge Gracie approach of try to make different people as good as possible at different things, and so that created an ongoing process for me of, “I want to get good at this guard,” “Okay, now we’re going to get good at this, now we’re going to get good at that.” I would say that as far as my ability to teach different positions, there aren’t too many positions in Jiu-Jitsu that I don’t feel comfortable teaching at this point.
Because it was just like, “I’m not awesome at them, and I’m not saying that I can play all these positions extremely well, but at the same where my wrestling knowledge is pretty good.” My actual wrestling is garbage like I’m a shitty wrestler, but I’ve trained like at American Top Team, I trained with some really elite-level wrestlers, and I train now with Yuri Simoes. Anytime he’s getting ready for ADCC, I’ve been part of his camps for the last three years, so I’ve had access to him. I think he’s easily one of the best wrestlers in Jiu-Jitsu, and so I’ve got to sit it on training sessions with him and his wrestling coach who’s amazing.
I’ve got a really good level of wrestling information that I might not be able to personally execute because I’m in my 40s and can’t put the time into getting good at it, so it’s the same thing with something like I’m not great at playing spider guard, but I can teach it pretty well, so I think that the geographic isolation forced me to become as diverse as possible in my information sets that I could pass on to students with the goal of making them exceptional training partners.
Sonny: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Then with the way that then you decided to present that information to your students to build them up in the different areas, did that mean that from the get-go, you were looking at changing how you were teaching your students as opposed to how you would be taught yourself?
Rob: Yes, very much so. Prior to launching my club, I tried to sit down and design a curriculum, but not a curriculum in the sense that most people think of it. When most people think of a curriculum, they might think of the Gracie Barra curriculum or the 10th Planet curriculum where it’s like, “Here are these moves that we do, and we drill these moves and on this week we’re working on these moves, and the next week we’re going to–.” I really wasn’t trying to do that, although I did create modules that are based on positions.
The first thing when I was creating our pedagogy system was I wanted to have the ability to focus people on a position for about a month. Every month we would do a module, and that module might be a specific guard, it might be a passing a format, it might be a submission control position, but everything had to be grounded in the fundamental concepts that I teach which are basically an expansion of the concepts that I got from Ryan Hall.
The idea of focusing on base posture structure, frames and levers, and then adding in the emphasis on wedges after training with Eddie Cummings, that kind of stuff. That was the foundation of it was, A, have concepts that become entrenched so that people can solve problems when they arise that aren’t pre-programmed. One thing I don’t believe in and I think there will probably be some overlap and what I’m saying between what School of Grappling– I don’t know the guy’s actual name but–
Rob: Andy, there you go. What Andy–
Sonny: He’s a good guy.
Rob: Yes. For anybody who is watching this or listening who isn’t exposed to Andy’s work, @schoolofgrappling on Instagram, schoolofgrappling.com, I think is his website-
Rob: -just awesome stuff.
Rob: Like somebody who echoes a lot of the same ideas that I have about training, although he’s quite a bit more wrestling-based in terms of his techniques.
Sonny: Yes, Judo background, but now he’s all focused on wrestling.
Rob: Yes. He puts a lot of material out about this idea, he calls it training the grey areas and focusing on skills rather than techniques. I use maybe slightly different terminology, but if I could draw in comparison to our fuck your Jiu-Jitsu drills, which are all based around– I know when you had Rory on, he explained fuck your Jiu-Jitsu, but those drills are all based around the idea of giving people problems to solve and gamifying the process of solving those problems and then putting them in positions to work on skill sets that are usually considered intangibles in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which I think is really wrong.
Again, I’m not trying to like throw anybody under the bus, but the way that we teach people in Jiu-Jitsu is so just– it’s ass backwards because all the high-level competitors, they develop these skills that– Again, most people think are intangible, it’s like guard retention. Most people at most academies that don’t compete have garbage guard retention, regardless of the belt. I noticed that in my travels to different schools, it’s like I would roll with a blue belt who competed a lot, and I’d have a really hard time passing the guy’s guard, and then I’d roll with a black belt who never competed and I would run through this guy’s guard. One of the things I used to do a lot in my own training was I would do what we call no hands guard, so I’d stick my hands in my belt and just defend my guard with my legs, so I had a guard that was pretty tough to pass. Again I would roll with brown belts, black belts, who couldn’t come close to passing my guard without my hands. That shouldn’t be a thing. Then I would roll with a good tough purple belt competitor and if I tried the no hands guard thing the dude would smash my guard.
The underlying theme seemed to be that every good competitor has these subsets of skills that they get very good at, and guard retention is one of them. Passing is another. Being difficult to sweep is another one. When I was developing the fuck your Jiu-Jitsu drilling system, that’s what I emphasized– Oh, and sweeping too, like being good at chaining sweeps together, the same way that wrestlers are so good at chaining takedowns together. When you go up against the guy who’s an active competitor, if he goes for a sweep and you shut that sweep down because you know the counter, he’ll just go to another thing and another thing, another thing and then you’re on your butt. Those are the things that I emphasized is developing an ability to connect different sweeping movements together, regardless of what guard you play. There are subsets of sweeping, like chambering someone’s leg on your shoulder for X guard.
That’s something that you can do regardless of whether you play X guard, regardless of whether you do the classic X guard technical standup sweep or not. That’s just a single leg done in a different way. Getting people good at iterations of those movements is what I was trying to achieve and that’s where fuck your Jiu-Jitsu was born, and then the gamifying of it was also born from just doing– one just personal experience and understanding how people roll, and then again watching guys. I’ve watched Ryan Hall roll quite a bit when I was at his school.
I would come in for a class and I would do the class and often he would show up. If I did the noon class or the 11:00 AM class, I don’t remember but like the earlier class, he didn’t teach that class, he taught the evening class, but he would come in, and after that class was done, he would roll with Saff or whoever was there and I would just stay and watch him roll as much as I– to the extent that hopefully didn’t make him feel uncomfortable. I was just trying to watch as much as I could, and I’ve never seen anybody else roll the way that Ryan Hall rolls in training.
It was so focused on allowing movement to happen, you can see clips of it online of him when he’s rolling at seminars or even there’s some footage of him rolling with blue belts, and he’s standing on them like a gargoyle. He’s just working on balance and sensitivity and stuff like that. When I was training at his academy, he gave a speech about his training attitude and how if you sweep him 99 times, on the 100th time, he’s going to walk into your guard like he doesn’t give a fuck about your Jiu-Jitsu and just try to get whatever experience you can out of it and that’s actually where the name fuck your Jiu-Jitsu comes from.
That’s how influenced I am by Ryan Hall. It’s from that speech and then I took just the watching him roll and the attitude that he had towards it, and I tried to codify that with a set of rules that created a game out of developing these skills. When people first see it, they think of it as situational sparring, but it’s not because situational sparring is too aggressive. It’s too much like real rolling where if somebody is already skilful at a position, they’re just going to run their A-game in that position over and over again and it’s not playful enough.
The idea behind it was to take again the most current research I had read at the time was based on a book by Malcolm Gladwell, which is a book called Outliers. It included the 10,000-hour rule, which has largely been debunked to this point, but it included another example of certain cultures that promoted gamifying, even like– I’ll use the specific example was the Brazilian soccer team. They would play this indoor soccer variant, which was like five on five or something where they got a lot more time with ball handling and passing and the walls were in place so they were basically just having fun.
They did it like, they weren’t really trying to obviously, you’re trying to win, but they were able to have fun with subsets of skills in soccer. That was one of the things that contributed to their skill level. Since then, I’ve become exposed to other examples like the Finns are unreal at car racing. There’s a saying in car racing which is if you want to win, employ a Finn. It’s because they get so much exposure to car control at an early age through Go-karts, through rally racing, through all these different things and so I very much wanted to try to develop these games because that was the science at the time and that has been born out by the more recent research as to how you can take athletes from a minimal level of skill to a maximum level of skill by focusing on certain things.
Sonny: That makes a lot of sense and yet a big shout out to Andy from School of Grappling. I spoke to him previously because he really made a lot of big things click for me personally, with that idea of the grey-zone and gamification as a way to teach both techniques and concepts, because previously, I’d heard concepts used in Jiu-Jitsu obviously and I’m like, I know a concept, but what’s so, you got to be able to do the move.
Then people would say, we’ve got to do situational sparring and I’m like, we already do it, what’s the big deal? We work from half guard, we work from closed guard, that’s situational sparring, but it was really through the conversations with him were emphasizing the gamification that really clicked for me that I could understand how it could all merge together. I’m wondering then aside from the Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu game that you’ve got, are there other ways of gamification that you’ve developed?
Rob: Yes, absolutely. Because Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu tends to be-it’s one version of a type of restricted drilling so when we design drills, and I’m actually in the process right now of filming a module for the pedagogy section on our site on how to design drills and we start with a very narrowly focused drill. One of the videos actually talk about chaos or chaotic versus linear progressions, and I talk about chaos theory, which is really arcane, but–
Sonny: You’d be surprised how often it’s come up in these conversations. [laughs]
Rob: It has to. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has so many analogous traits to chaos theory. When we’re designing drills, we can have a game be something as simple as, if we’re going to talk about situational sparring, we’re going to say, half guard. We’re just trying to win an underhook. That can be a game. That’s an incredibly narrow game and if two people are relative beginners and they don’t have the skill to have a Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu type around, they can just sit there and pummel.
As long as it’s explained to them what are the contingent parts of victory in a pummeling exchange, you can do that. That would be an example of a really focused drill that is a game. It’s like, as soon as you win an underhook, we stop. Then you can expand that to you win an underhook and you come up to your knees and we stop and so on and so. If you want to get really narrow with the games, you can do it that way. We have what we call Micro Battles, which are games like that. We’ll do something called an Arm-Drag game where one person is playing seated Butterfly Guard and we do this whenever we teach the Butterfly Guard module and whenever we teach the Arm-Drag module. You’re in a seated Butterfly Guard and– Do you know what Sticky Hands are in Wing Chun?
Rob: It’s almost like sticking hands where you’re not allowed to disconnect your hands from your training partner. Your hand fighting and the objective for the person that’s playing seated Butterfly Guard is to gain an Arm-Drag grip, pull the elbow and just hit an Arm-Drag just to the point where your body’s beside, you don’t have to take their back, you don’t have to come up on a single leg, you don’t have to do anything. It’s just as soon as you win the Arm-Drag and get past the centerline, the game is over and you start again. Then the person on top, if they win the hand fight, they have to try to stand up and pass.
Then the person on the bottom just immediately puts butterfly hooks in behind their knees and drops to their back, to stop the pass. There are very definitive endpoints, and it’s not as narrowly focused as maybe pummeling for underhooks, but that’s a game that you can play. Man, we do that game so damn much that we know when people come to our gym, that have never rolled with somebody that’s good at Arm-Drags, man, they just get arm dragged over and over and over and over.
That’s just an example of gamification. If I just taught my guys the Arm-Drag and then was like, “All right, go roll now, try to hit an Arm-Drag,” they would never be anywhere near as good at it. We have a lot of different forms of games related to developing very specific skills. We’ll do a version of Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu that’s related to wrestling where we only hand fight. There are no takedowns. We hand fight and as soon as you get to the hips, so you get to a body lock or you get to the legs or anything like that, it’s done.
I got to find especially for Jiu-Jitsu practitioners who are hobbyists or for guys like myself, who are like, I compete, but I’m not a competitor. I’m not a full-time athlete or anything like that. If we want to work on our wrestling and we’re not full-time athletes, so we’re not taking steroids and all that kind of stuff, we’re going to get injured, trying to bang it out on the feet the way that wrestlers do. We have to figure out ways to train our wrestling that puts minimal mileage on our bodies and that’s probably the best way is just to engage in the hand fight, win the hand fight.
That’s another example of something that we have extensively gamified at our Academy. When I do go out and compete, what I’ve noticed is as long as we’re talking like guys in my category, masters, I’m not saying I’m going to be the better hand fighter against someone like ADCC guy, that’s ridiculous, but competing with equivalent black belts in my age category, et cetera, et cetera and even going above my weight class, competing. I’m in my 40s so when I compete locally, I’m often put into a masters category that is guys in their 30s. I can only get equivalent age and weight-class, black belt competition by going to No-Gi Worlds. I have to compete in a big tournament. In my local area, I might be competing against guys that are two-weight classes above me or guys that are 10, 15 years younger, that kind of stuff. In those categories, I have never felt like I was in any danger in the hand fighting department. I know I can always win the hand fight because it’s just something I do so much more than a lot of people. That’s another example of something that Jiu-Jitsu guys don’t do enough of.
Sonny: I’m a big fan of hand fighting rounds, I do them all the time now, especially just as a warm-up and put all the guys through hand fighting and it’s great fun. That brings me the question, how do you then structure your classes and split it between game-time and full rolling time. Because even now when I get people doing some situational stuff, I can maybe it’s my own thoughts, but in the back of my mind, I’m like, they’re just wanting to go full rounds and just go crazy.
Rob: This is interesting because the thing that you mentioned earlier about how did being geographically isolated contribute to my development? One of the ways that it contributed to my development as an instructor is when I moved to the town that I live in, I was the first black belt in that town and I was only the second black belt on Vancouver Island, which meant that if you wanted good Jiu-Jitsu instruction in my town, you had to come to me and if I said, “Drill for 45 minutes.” Everyone was like, “Okay, that’s what I’ll do.”
Whereas if I had opened up shop in Vancouver, or some other big city, and I tried to teach the way I taught years ago, maybe people would have gotten bored and gone to the club down the road. Nowadays I’ve got a reputation for being a skilful instructor. When I say to do something people just like, “Oh yes. Well, he knows what he’s talking about.” Back in the day, that could have gone very differently. Over the years, we’ve developed a lot of different formats for our classes. The current format that we use involves– I try not to over teach. One thing that the longer I teach– In the sense of the length of my career.
The more time I’ve spent as an instructor the less material I try to present. Whether it’s teaching classes or teaching seminars. I try to teach less. I want people to get an idea of the main concept and the movement that we’re doing. I want them to experience either a gamified or a restricted drill that involves that movement. Let’s say in an hour-long class, I’ll say, “Okay guys, we’re working on a knee cut pass.” There is a basic movement that we’re trying to do to just get to the knee cut position. We’ll go through that movement a little bit then I’ll immediately have them situation spar that position.
When I say that position it’s like they’ll start with one person standing, and the other person on their back like a recumbent guard with their legs up. I’ll provide some basic rules so that we’ve gamified the process of sparring to get to the knee cut position. There usually will not be more than let’s say two minutes of instructions at the beginning. We want a very basic movement that acts as a warm-up. One thing I don’t like is the traditional warm-up. Like, let’s run around and do jumping jacks for 20 minutes. I can’t stand that. I hated it as a practitioner because I felt like I would rather be doing Jiu-Jitsu. I’m paying to learn Jiu-Jitsu, I can do callisthenics on my own at home. We warm up with a movement that’s related to what we’re doing that day. We might just do a couple of entries to a knee cut. Then I’ll give a little bit of instruction on what’s happening and then they will spar that.
Then if I’ve designed the class properly, what will usually happen is there will be one obvious problem that arises when people are trying to get to let’s say the knee cut. Then the next segment of the class will address that problem and hopefully get them to the next stage. Then sometimes we’ll work backwards. We’ll go from you’re already deep in the knee cut position, and you’re facing a frame like an upper-body frame. Their arms are in your way. How do you get that? Once you beat the legs, you are at the hips, how do you finish the pass?
Then again, they’ll just spar that. Then after that, we will do a Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu type round that’s just sparring, getting to the knee cut, and completing the knee cut. Then we’ll do a Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu passing round. Where you can do any kind of passing, but I tell them, try to get to the knee cut, try to use all the other passes to get to the knee cut. That process will take about 45 minutes. Then we’ll do a couple of other just general Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu rounds. It might be top control, it might be something else.
There will be 10 to 15 minutes of warm-up and instruction, then around that gamifies what we did. A solution to a problem, then another round that gamifies what we did, and then maybe a short Q&A where I’ll like, “Hey, does anybody have any questions about this or that?’ “No.” “Okay, then we’ll do Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu.” In an hour, we might be drilling in the sense of reps of the technique for maybe 20 minutes. There might be about 10 minutes of instruction at the most. Then the rest of it will be situational sparring, gamification, Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu, that kind of stuff.
Sonny: Okay, now the biggest thing I noticed there was maybe the absence of just full free live rolls? Is that–?
Rob: Yes, in a class, we don’t roll. We have a class called a rollathon which is just an hour of rolling. A BJJ 101 class would be focused entirely on skill development. Then if you want to roll, you roll for an hour after that. I want the culture at our club of developing skills and focusing on your own development. Taking responsibility for your own learning. Aside from the curriculum classes where we’ll have a 201 class or a 101 class. We have a class called the skills development class where there is no formal instruction involved.
I show up, class starts, and people just start working on their own shit. They come to class with something to work on and then I’m just walking around and answering questions. I’m a very general guide. There is no sparring allowed of any kind in that class. Although you can do Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu.
Rob: You can’t do sparring. You have to work on a skill, you have to do some game, you can drill, you can do whatever. Then after that, again, there is an hour of rolling. We get a ton of rolling in, but I try to have it almost be like where there is a separate mentality to what I’m doing to develop my skills versus what is the purpose of rolling. The purpose of rolling, it can be to develop skills. You can definitely roll with an eye towards developing a particular skill, but if you just come to class and drill a little bit then want to roll right away, I just think the skill development suffers.
Sonny: Yes, 100% that’s somewhere that like I’ve been there myself. I can think back to times where I’m just like, I just want to roll and I know that that’s not the best thing, but whatever. That’s just the day I was having that I just– yes, come on. I need to choke someone. [laughs]
Rob: Yes, for sure.
Sonny: What I like about what you are doing and the idea of gamification really is making that skill development fun. You can get that kind of sense of playfulness and experience through skill development. It’s like a bit of spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down approach. Is that what you found? Have you found that working with your students and instilling that within them?
Rob: Yes. We’ve been talking obviously a lot about how do we get the best results out of training? The reality of it is I am not a coach to an ADCC team. I’m a nerd on an island who is only ever going to coach hobbyists in his life. The geographic isolation creates another situation where it’s like, because of where I’m at, there is not a single high-level athlete that is ever going to come to me for training. If you are a really good athlete where I’m at, you’re going to go play hockey.
You are not going to come to me for Jiu-Jitsu. There is no funnel of athletes to the– It’s just not going to happen. I had to let go of those sorts of coaching aspirations. I get to coach really elite guys every once in a while when I travel. I coach Yuri Simoes, I’ve coached Bill Cooper. That happens in very small doses. My day job is I teach 100% hobbyists. Even the guys I teach who compete are just guys who do this for fun. I can’t approach what I do with the mentality of “I don’t give a shit about fun. I’m just trying to make champions.” That is not what I do. If I did that, I would be a much less successful business owner.
My school would make a lot less money. I’ve very much over the last- let’s say over the first few years I was very much that guy. It was just, what is the best way to teach, let’s not worry as much about fun. Over the last few years, it’s, “What is the best way to teach, but how can we have as much fun doing it as possible?” Oddly enough, the gamification stuff, the Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu, all that stuff we do, it does make it way more fun. We used to drill for longer because I was modelling the Atos kind of approach. The drill to win is where you just come in and you just drill for 45 minutes straight.
That’s what I used to make my students do because I’m always trying to find newer, better ways of doing things. I wasn’t satisfied with “Well, that’s how Actos does it, so who am I to modify it?” I just did more research on one of the guys I mentioned earlier, Cal, my black belt, he was like, “Hey man, I was reading some research that shows that people actually learn better when they have a choice in the material.” We incorporated what we call a split module, where at the beginning of the month, everybody that’s in class votes on the material that we’re going to present. You have two modules instead of one, and you can learn the material from either module in any class you show up to.
Because people it’s not like, “Okay guys, we’re doing De La Riva guard for the month.” Well, what if you’re not really a fan of Del La Riva guard, then you’re forced to drill De la Riva guard stuff. This way, we vote on it and you can work on the other. If we go back to De la Riva guard and Kimora control. If you show up that month, you don’t like Del La Riva guard. Well, then you do Kimura control.
We’ve added elements like that. Then we got rid of the 45 minutes of drilling stuff and reduced the amount of time we’re drilling and increase the amount of time we’re doing situational sparring or game playing or anything like that, and within a week or two of changing the format, students started coming up to like, “Man, I’m really digging this new class format, this is just way more fun, da da da da.” I very much want that to be the student experience. Like how can I design a class so that you’re getting the best results possible for your progress, but it doesn’t feel like it’s an onerous task to get there. You feel like you’re just having fun doing it.
Sonny: Exactly. Because for me personally, now I’m trying to do Jiu-Jitsu for as long as I possibly can, into my hopefully 60s, 70s, let’s keep pushing it as far as we can. I know that the best way to do that is to make myself still want to go by making it as fun as possible and that’s what I want to impart onto everyone else who’s just– If people are going to stick around, it’s got to be something that they enjoy doing and look forward to coming to.
That gamification seems like such a strong, important element they can play in that aside from just, hey, full rolling, just go for each other’s necks. What are some other ways that you would think would be important to incorporate in just keeping people coming back and doing Jiu-Jitsu for a long time?
Rob: This is something that I’ve spent a lot of time working on. This is again the advantage of not being– I guess I’m a decently highly regarded coach, like people in the online Jiu-Jitsu community know who I am and people like what I do, but I’m not a trainer of champions. In other words, I’m not like let’s pick an example, like Romulo Barralis a multiple-time champion in his own right and then he trains world champions, and so because I’m not that guy, if I was that guy, I wouldn’t have to worry about the business side.
I would have some affluent business partner who would provide me with a school, do all the marketing, da da da, I would just show up and teach classes. Because I’m not that guy and because I’m geographically isolated, I’ve had to learn on the fly how to be a businessman and how to make Jiu-Jitsu appealing to people where there isn’t a Jiu-Jitsu culture. I don’t have access to a community of people who love Jiu-Jitsu because we’re building the Jiu-Jitsu community where I’m at.
There isn’t this massive, in other words, even if I was in Vancouver, there are probably 50 schools in Vancouver. If I opened up shop in Vancouver as an instructor of some renown, there would be people who’d already been training that might just come to me, whereas what I’ve got to do for the most part here is build people from the ground up with no exposure to Jiu-Jitsu prior to training with me, that is like a huge majority of my students.
I’ve tried to learn more and more about the process of being a beginner, and how do you make something enjoyable and how do you get people to develop training habits that sustain enthusiasm and encourage longevity in the sense of like healthy training habits. The things that I’ve tried to incorporate over the last few years have been related to– We do an intro for every student, that’s not uncommon. I think most decently well run Jiu-Jitsu academies don’t just have someone show up and join a class. You sit them down, you explain etiquette.
We always explain the concepts, the base posture, structure frames, and levers. We teach them how to do a technical standup and a bridge and a hip escape and like fundamental stuff like that, then they join the class. Then before they actually join the class though, we will, after having gone through this onboarding process of like, here are some ideas about concepts, here are some movements.
I’ll go through a training mentality speech or like an explanation, and that explanation is basically if you come to Jiu-Jitsu and your goal is to be submitting people within a week or two, you’re going to have an awful time. If your goal is to armbar folks, you’re going to hate Jiu-Jitsu because unless you’re a crazy-good athlete, some 200-pound former rugby player or whatever, you’re not arm barring anybody in your first week, month, whatever of Jiu-Jitsu, you’re just getting your ass kicked. It’s really hard for somebody who’s trying to learn a new skill to come in and just get shit kicked and not feel really discouraged.
We give them this– I don’t know if it’s a trick or whatever, but we basically teach them the notion of incremental goals and how that corresponds to enjoyment. If you come to class and your goal is to armbar, someone, every single class you leave for the first few months is a failure, and you walk out of that class having failed and only failed. If you come to class with the mentality that if somebody pulled my head down and I recognize that that was broken posture, and I pulled their hand off of my head, I just won. Even if you do nothing else through the rest of the roll, that is successful. You did one thing where you recognize that your alignment was broken.
You accessed the lever and you fixed your posture. You will do multiple things like that like you recognized that your guard was being passed and you put up some frames. There you go, that’s a win. Then you leave the class having won, having succeeded 5 times, 10 times, 20 times, even though you got your guard passed and you got your back taken and you got choked, that’s not what determined your levels of success in class. We promote the hell out of that for beginners, just like you will leave every class having succeeded, and that will get you coming back. Then the other thing that I really emphasize, and this is not just related to student retention, but it’s like you’re talking about, I want to do Jiu-Jitsu in my 60s, in my 70s, in my 80s.
We encourage rolling to explore and develop and we discourage rolling super hard all the time. There’s a time to roll hard. If you train five days a week and you want to come in and roll hard one or two days a week, that’s cool. If you’re getting ready for a competition, and you want to come in and roll hard four days a week, that’s cool, but outside of those contexts, it is not smart. It’s not safe, it’s not wise to roll hard all the time.
What we do as far as the atmosphere of our club is guys who come in and try to roll that way, they get discouraged, because either we’ll make fun of them in a gentle way, we’re not trying to necessarily pick on anyone, but if somebody rolls in a way that isn’t conducive to a lot of movement happening, we have phrases like, “Oh, that guy took his ball and went home.” Or “That guy’s- he’s trying to win the drill.” Or all that kind of stuff. We encourage having an attitude of helping your training partners, being a good student, being helpful. Our number one rule is to keep yourself and your training partners safe.
The number two rule is to try to have fun and explore and all that kind of stuff. We create this mentality where we’re all just having fun and playing games, and when we roll, we’re trying to get better by exploring as much as possible. The whole atmosphere is have fun and we all get better together. There are ways of doing that, that involve very little potential for injury, very little potential for wearing your body down and just maximizing your potential for learning and development. It comes down to training mentality.
It comes down to emphasizing safety and having all these methods because I would always emphasize rolling safely in the past, but if you don’t give people the tools to do so, they might not even be intentionally trying to roll too hard. It’s just that how, like if you just go from zero to rolling, all the rolling’s going to be super hard. By having all those games and those incremental steps to full rolling, when you start rolling, you can start the process all over again. You start with I’m going to take it real easy and I’m going to ramp up certain aspects of the roll. I’m going to pick the partners that I do it with. I like to roll hard.
When I roll with my black belts, man, we do a lot of hard rolls because we can do it safely. A hard roll with a black belt can be very safe and can be had at 60%, 70% intensity, whereas if two white belts roll at 60%, 70% intensity, they’re going to hurt each other. I can apply a heel hook on one of my black belts with a great deal of– I can do it pretty hard and never worry about hurting them. I can be in a submission with one of my higher belts and know that I’m not going to get hurt if I ride the edge if I go right to the edge of where I got a tap, but I don’t ever want my white belts doing that. We go through a very definitive process of building people up to the point where they recognize how to roll safely by increasing the intensity very gradually. Did that all make sense?
Sonny: Yes, definitely did. There was a lot in there that was really good. I especially liked the idea of making beginners appreciate the value of incremental progressions and those little wins that they can get because especially, I remember once someone was asking me, when do you think I’ll get my first tap?
I thought I was giving them, this was a hopeful answer like, “Oh, sometimes you got to wait until someone new comes in and then you’ll be able to get them.” I thought that was like, “Yes, it’s on the horizon.” The look of disappointment on their face when I said that, I was like, “Oh, okay. That was not what they wanted to hear.” Making them value that incremental progression makes a lot of sense and being able to do that.
A lot of that is having control over the culture that you’ve got there to be able to set everyone’s goals as soon as they walk through the door. It’s surprising that a lot of the people who are doing something different or unique are actually geographically isolated it seems because there is the big mainstream Jiu-Jitsu culture that is going to be all-encompassing if you’re right next to somewhere that’s got a lot of that going on.
That’s what people will expect and if you try and do something new out of the mold, a bit different, you’re going to cop a lot of questions and a lot of flack. The only person who is probably able to do that successfully, but obviously Eddie Bravo comes to mind as someone who went out of that mode and did his own thing. I’m wondering, just in terms of, on a broader cultural thing with Jiu-Jitsu, what would be one of the things that you might say would need or that if you could change as a whole, would you? Or maybe you wouldn’t because it gives you a good little advantage of doing your own thing there.
Rob: It’s interesting. I was on a podcast a couple of years ago and somebody asked me if I saw that this conceptual approach and this emphasis on well-thought-out pedagogy methods because those are two separate things. I would say that quite a few more instructors are jumping on board with the idea of teaching concepts. When I started teaching, literally the only guy that was speaking in these terms was Ryan Hall, because at the time nobody had really heard John Danaher talk about like, obviously John Danaher teaches very conceptually, but he was such an enigma back then.
People didn’t know. To a certain degree, Demian Maia was, but if you hadn’t gone out and got his Science of Jiu-Jitsu instructionals or whatever, it’s not like that was part of the mainstream. Really the only guy that had a fair bit of exposure was Ryan Hall. Now it’s getting out there more, but I still think we are very much in the infancy of pedagogy approaches. Five years ago, I would have said more guys need to teach conceptually. I think that’s happening. I think that the industry is changing in that regard. Now I would say more guys need to really invest in developing a pedagogy method or sign up to bjjconcepts.net, get the pedagogy, we’ve got one. I do hope that we can be part of spreading this notion that the way that we teach needs to improve dramatically.
The state of Jiu-Jitsu in let’s say North America, but in the world in general has been, I would argue compromised by the– I don’t want to get too far down a rabbit hole here, but for myself, I opened my school in 2012. Almost everyone I know that opened a school did so in and around that area. Over the last 10 years, if you opened a Jiu-Jitsu school, basically since the 2008 financial crisis, you have opened a school in the most unprecedented economic growth period in human history on top of an explosion in the popularity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which means that tons of people had the money for it and the demand far outpaced the supply, which conspired to create a market for– You could have garbage skills at teaching and still run a successful school.
There was zero market pressure up until like we’ll see what happens now. I think one of the aftermaths of COVID is going to be you’re no longer just going to be able to open up a school if you’re a black belt and just make money. I’m not saying people were making money hand over fist because there’s also this myth I think in Jiu-Jitsu that it’s hard to make money running a school up until three months ago. It was absolutely not hard to make a living.
If you were failing, it meant that you were either catastrophically competent as a businessman or you were just in a saturated market. I don’t doubt that it’s hard to open a school in Los Angeles and make money but if you went to a new market and just opened a school, literally every single person I know that opened a school in my relative geographic area, in British Columbia, Canada, every single person I know that opened a school succeeded.
Even the guys who absolutely fucking suck at Jiu-Jitsu, are not good at teaching, they all succeeded. They all have successful schools in the sense that they are making a living. They’re not making a killing, but to me, if you’re making a living doing something you love, that’s a success. I think that we went through this period of time where you literally didn’t have to be any good. How many stories have you heard of like I emailed the Jiu-Jitsu club about classes and they never got back to me? That would not exist in a truly competitive market where there was more supply than demand.
I think we’re about to see the importance of real teaching skills could become more valuable where because the demand is going to drop for a little while and I couldn’t be wrong. We could go through a huge recovery. I don’t know what the recovery is going to be. If the recovery is enormous and we go through this filtering process where a bunch of schools go out of business, then honestly, it’s going to get even worse because there’ll be fewer schools and a whole bunch of people are going to go back to wanting to do Jiu-Jitsu and so it’s going to matter even less if somebody’s good at teaching.
I might be way off on this, but one of the things I think will happen as we reach a saturation point of Jiu-Jitsu schools, the market pressure is going to change where you won’t be able to get away with being a half-assed teacher. Because people have seen what good instruction looks like more and more. They will have seen what fun classes look like, it’s not as good instruction in terms of quality.
You go to a class and it’s like, “I’m doing Jumping Jacks. I’m learning random moves. Then, I roll and I get my ass kicked.” The people at the club across town or across the street, the classes are more diverse and there’s this and there’s that. I think as whatever it takes to reach that point in Jiu-Jitsu where you can’t just open a school, and use car salesman marketing to drive in people where it has to be quality. Pre COVID, the biggest contributing factor to the success of a school was just how good was your marketing.
You could be a dog sh*t at teaching, but if you’ve got decent marketing and you have a relatively affluent area that you open up. If you make good choices with locating your business, and you have decent marketing, you could be a terrible teacher and you’ll succeed. As we get a point of saturation, that should change. If I could snap my fingers, it wouldn’t be a finger snap, but literally would be– the market forces will demand better pedagogy methodology within Jiu-Jitsu. People will be forced to learn how to be better teachers.
Sonny: Yes. Really great point that I hadn’t thought of before, but as you’re discussing it, it does seem like that. Instruction quality isn’t really taken into account at the different schools because it’s assumed that it’s all the same. It’s just, “Oh, it’s going to be the same anyway.” There’s no point of differentiation between anyone so, is not a concern.
Rob: That is just down to the- if I want to be combative, I think that there are affiliations out there that are honestly trying to, subvert the notion that there are degrees of skill at Black Belt. I’ve been very outspoken, especially in my area, about the idea that I think a lot of guys who were wearing Black Belts, shouldn’t be wearing black belts. I think that Black Belts should be indicative of- it’s almost like a PhD in Jiu-Jitsu.
If you’re not extremely knowledgeable, I don’t think there should be such a thing as a time served Black Belt. I use the phrase merit-based promotion and time-based promotion, and so there are a lot of affiliations that you get your time card, you get attending a certain number of classes, and you get promoted. There are guys who just, show up enough and they eventually get a black belt.
I think are affiliations that want to blur the lines between a Black Belt who just showed up for 10 years, and a Black Belt who’s legitimately skilled and knowledgeable in a diverse amount of Jiu-Jitsu, because it’s in their interest as a business entity to not have someone be able to differentiate, “Well, that guy’s a Black Belt, and that guy’s a Black Belt.” The differentiating factor right now is competition. “How do you say that I’m a really good Black Belt?” “Well, I won this tournament.” Anything other than that, they just want to try to say, “Yes, well that guy’s a Black Belt and that guy’s a Black Belt.” I’ve heard uninformed consumers say, “Well, this particular guy is a fifth-degree Black Belt. He must be really good”.
I remember being at a school once training, two guys walked in the door, and they’re like, “Hey, did you see that guy? He’s a fifth or sixth degree Black Belt”, Damien Maia is only a second-degree Black Belt. Can you imagine how good that guy is? I laugh. That’s the level of knowledge that people have, and so they see this fat old guy who let’s be honest, it’s probably not that good at Jiu-Jitsu. Because he hasn’t learned a new move since the ’90s, but he’s got all these stripes because we’re giving out stripes now for time served. I’m very vocal about that. If we’re not going to have clearer rank standards, which, I think, is impossible, by the way. I don’t want a governing body to say anything.
What I do want is there to be a relatively open and honest conversation within the community about the distinction between merit-based rank and time-based rank. We all know that once you’ve been in Jiu-Jitsu for a little while, you do know that there are Black Belt- it’s like Joe Rogan says, “There are Black Belts, and then there are Black Belts.” There are Black Belts who strangle other Black Belts. Then, there are Black Belts who strangled those Black Belts. Then, there are Black Belts who are world champion Black Belts. Then, there are Black Belts who win the five-World Championships who strangled those Black- there are so many levels to this, right?
Sonny: Yes. World champion purple belts who could probably-
Rob: Who could strangle mixed Black Belts. That’s the thing. Personally, I don’t think there should be a World Championship for Colored Belt. I think that’s laughable. Can you imagine somebody just says, “I’m an Olympic Champion in Judo at Yellow Belt”? It’s absurd.
Sonny: We have that situation.
Rob: Right. I think, honestly, it’s good for the sport to have an extensive competition scene, but I think it’s bad for the sport that the way we categorize, it makes it so that we’re selling fake glory to narcissists because the IBJJF basically exists on the business model of having someone be able to say, “I’m a world champion.” Meanwhile, there were three asterisks after that. It’s like, “I’m in masters for Blue Belt World Champion”, like, “Dude, you are not a world champion. I’m not trying to shit on the accomplishment”.
Sonny: “This poor bastard is full of Blue Belt.” out there… [laughs]
Rob: That doesn’t exist in any other sport. In other sports, there’s a junior league, and then you work your way up. I get it, we need to have this for Jiu-Jitsu, but don’t call it the World Championship. If you’re not a Black Belt world champion, you’re not a world champion. I think it makes our sports seem clown shoes to an outside observer because they’re, “Well, how many world champions are there? It can’t be that hard to be a world champion because I know a world champion.” There are guys on my island that are like, “I’m a world champion”.
There’s a guy who went to the– it’s not even Jiu-Jitsu, it’s Combat Submission Wrestling World Championships in fucking Bulgaria. It’s like, that dude lost at the provincials at Purple Belt in BC. What the fuck are we even talking about? There’s this bizarre rank inflation and title inflation that happens. I’m not down with any of it. I wish we were more on the up and up with these kinds of things.
Sonny: Although I will say, I do personally want to go to some Combat Wrestling one day, just because I like the rural set [laughs] .
Rob: The rule set it’s great. I’m sure the longer it exists, it will become a pretty legit thing.
Sonny: I get you.
Rob: Every MMA promotion is the podunk cage fighting world champion. It’s like, “No dude, you’re not”.
Sonny: Yes. Especially, I could definitely get behind the idea of at a bare minimum of if you win the world champion, so you podium, that should just be an instant promotion. If you can’t, especially then have multiple-year Blue Belts world champion, it’s like, “Come on. That’s gone too far.”.
Rob: On the flip side, I don’t think that somebody who wins- because you’ll hear this said of, any Blue Belt world champion at this point will beat most hobbyist Black Belts. I don’t think that’s even a controversial statement to make.
Sonny: Probably not.
Rob: I’m not of the position where like, “Oh, just because that guy could be those Black Belts, means that he should be a Black Belt.” For one, I think probably a lot of those Black Belts shouldn’t be Black Belts, but there’s something to be said for somebody having a narrow skill-set, and being able to win would be because they’re exceptional at that skill-set.
I do think there’s a process that we need for getting people up to speed, but I just think we need to be a lot clearer about it. Again, the IBJJF has benefited from there being a no distinction between hobbyists and full-time professional athletes. You got guys who are flying in to the Houston IBJJF open and are competing against guys who train three times a week, and are going to try and see how they do.
Then, you get these guys who get to have these crazy highlight reels because they’re styling on hobbyists. I don’t think that that is good for the sport, because we need to have a real-hard distinction between those pros and the hobbyists. I don’t think that they should compete with each other. I don’t think that’s beneficial.
Sonny: No, that makes a lot of sense. I just want to run then, by you a hypothetical scenario because I’m just focusing on that take of the merit-based Black Belt versus the time-based Black Belt. Let’s say knowing the situation myself, but if you’ve got a Brown Belt who’s been working with you.
Little Jimmy’s been with your 10 years, maybe it’s going into 11, 12, 13, 14, he’s on his Brown. He’s a good guy, but maybe some things just aren’t clicking with him and he’s asking you, “Hey, Rob, maybe is it going to be this year or-?” Do you see where I’m going?
Rob: I absolutely see where you’re going. I actually do believe that there are people who will never get a Black Belt from me. Actually, there are people who will never get a Brown Belt from me. Let’s say you started Jiu-Jitsu at 35 and you train twice a week. You get diminishing returns at a certain point. If you are not able to put the time in to garner the skills, then at a point where your body starts declining, I can’t give somebody a belt on theoretical knowledge alone.
That might change. I’m not trying to say that this is the be-all-end-all position, but with where I’m at now, to me, Purple Belt is- the belts in Jiu-Jitsu mean different things than they do in other martial arts. In other martial arts, Black Belt is like, “Hey, you understand-“, a Judo Black Belt. A Judo Black Belt is usually about three years, maybe five. It’s considered the belt at which you understand the art.
It’s not considered this crazy expert Belt, but what we’ve said about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is if you’re a Black Belt, it’s 10 years, and you’re a doctor, you’re this and you’re that. If we’re going to say that, to me, you don’t become a medical doctor by showing up to university a couple of times a week, and then eventually like, “Okay, Man, you can do surgery”. You don’t do it that way.
If we’re going to say that Black Belt is this level of standard in Jiu-Jitsu, then to me, you got to say that there are people who are just not going to get there. For me, Purple Belt is the new Black Belt in that sense. If you’re the guy who shows up a couple of times a week and you’re just going to train really casually, I think you’re going to top out at Purple Belt. I think that is a level of skill that just about anybody, of just about any level of athleticism, maybe a little overweight, not great diet, not great athlete, but just comes to class consistently. Honestly, I’ve got some people that I train where I’m like, “Let’s see what happens. Let’s see how it goes.” Because when I say, “I think they’re going to top out at Purple Belt”, I’m literally just basing that on-
Sonny: A hunch.
Rob: Yes, it’s a hunch. I think that what I consider Black Belt level is pretty damn high, but maybe they get to Brown. I’m prepared to have my mind changed on it, but my hunch is that Purple Belt is where somebody tops out. If they’re that guy who, as I said, they train a couple of times a week. They don’t take it that seriously.
Sonny: Sure. Let’s say then, in that hypothetical, you’ve got someone maybe topping out Purple or Brown, and they come to you, “What do I need to do to get to the-? I want to get to the next level of belt.” Are you going to give him a criteria or-?
Rob: Yes. One of the other things that we try to provide our students is a very clear rank structure and requirement. It would never- I shouldn’t say it would never, but it would be unlikely for it to happen that somebody would come to me at Purple Belt or at Brown Belt and be like, “What do I got to do to get my Black Belt?” Because every step of the way- I actually just had this conversation today with one of my students. He’s like, “Hey, I was about to talk to you about this before COVID and now we’re going to be getting back to training. What do I need to do?” He just got his Purple Belt before we shut the doors.
Now he’s like, “What do I have to focus on going towards Brown Belt?” I’m like, “Well, you got to focus on this, this, and this.” Our rank requirements are very clear and they’re very modular. As I said, I’m not a fan of, “You got to show me these moves”, because the moves might change where it’s like, “Oh, show me an armbar from the guard.” That’s fucking useless. “What am I going to do to? Test you? You can do an armbar from the guard on a dummy”, that’s worthless.
Rank requirements are the same way that we do our classes, which is I need you to demonstrate certain skills. To get a Blue Belt, you got to play a couple of different kinds of guards. You got to show me that you can do A, B passing options. You got to show me that you can do an A, B submission sequence from some dominant positions. I don’t care what it is. You could be a guy who hits a hip bump triangle from the guard and then turns that into an armbar. Great, there’s your A, B submission sequence. It doesn’t have to be anything else.
You can get a Blue Belt from me and not know- I shouldn’t say not know, but not be super good at the armbar from the mount, because that’s just not your sequence. If your A, B sequence from the mount is that you go for a guillotine, and then turn that into a darce. Cool. You might be a guy who just goes, mounted triangle, and then could only do the armbar from there and you never do the classic armbar from the mount where you push on the guy’s chest. That’s fine. You’ll get there eventually.
I don’t those kinds of requirements, but you need to know one leg attack and that’s usually the straight ankle lock. Then, to get a Purple Belt, you got to show me that you can do pressure passing and movement-based passing, that you can play three guards, and that you understand the leg lock system, but you don’t have to heel hook anybody and you’ll still get a Purple Belt for me. It’s more about, do you have a certain set of skills? Then, by the time you get to Black Belt, man, you got to play five or six different guards.
You got to have pressure passing and movement-based passing, and submission-based passing. You got to have a bunch of different submission systems that you’re good at. Your leg locks need to be good. You got to have takedowns and you’ve got to be able to explain Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in a conceptual fashion to people, you need to be able to teach. I got very high standards. If somebody is a mostly GI guy, and they’re a pretty damn good Purple Belt, but they’re not good at leg locks.
They’re not getting the Brown Belt from me. If I ask them a question and they can’t explain- or a student asked them. If you want to be a teacher, at our club, the minimum is Brown Belt for teaching adult classes, although Purple Belts will fill in, I basically want only Brown or Black Belts teaching classes. If you’re going to aspire to that rank and somebody asks you a question and you can’t explain lever-based rotational control, “Sorry, dude, just stay in a Purple Belt.” The requirements are really clear and the standards are really clear.
No one’s going to complain because they all see what a Brown Belt looks at our club, what a Black Belt looks at our club. They know if they don’t live up to that, they’re not going to be asking me, “What do I got to do to get a Black Belt?”
Sonny: I think if it was just, you had high standards and the criteria wasn’t clear, then it sounds it’s cruel.
Rob: Yes, for sure.
Sonny: If you’ve got the criteria we’ll set-out and it’s just high standards, but if people know it and they want to work towards it, then I think that makes a lot of sense. That’s reasonable for a sport that values on overcoming obstacles and adversity that such a bit of adversity be put in place to achieve one of the pinnacles of the sport.
Rob: I think so. I think that we do– our students a disservice when we blur the lines. At a lot of gyms, there are two different tracks. There’s the hobbyist track and there’s the competitor track, you get guys who are showing up and they’re getting Purple Belts put on them, and then this dude who’s just murdering everybody.
He’s still a Blue Belt because they want him to win Blue Belt Worlds. Obviously, people figure it out. People aren’t stupid. They’re like, “I know why he’s not being promoted.” But the fact that it’s not talked about, the fact that it isn’t laid out in front of everybody- in my academy there aren’t two tracks, there isn’t the hobbyist track and the competitor track. It’s just you get promoted when you’re good. You don’t have to be a killer competitor, but you got to be good.
The guys at our school who compete, when they roll with guys at our school who don’t compete. There is particular ranks, the roles are competitive. The guy who competes might win a little bit more because he’s in better shape because he competes and all that stuff. In terms of pure skill, there they’re relatively equivalent. I don’t like having those kinds of separate rank pathways for people.
I think it’s disingenuous. Again, I think it allows for this blurring the lines bullshit where, “Oh, I’m going to open a school because I got my Black Belt.” To be fair, I wouldn’t have this opinion be as vocal if I didn’t see this done where a guy who showed up once in a while, doesn’t roll that much, doesn’t even compete, but he wants to run a school and he gets a Black Belt put on him despite being demonstrably shitty at Jiu-Jitsu, but he pays his affiliate fees and brings a dude out for a seminar. That guy slaps a Black Belt on him.
I fucking hate that because that guy pretends that he’s the equivalent of me or the equivalent of one of my Black Belts, or the equivalent of somebody who’s putting real work in to be a good Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, a good coach, etcetera, etcetera. That guy gets to skate by and pretend that he’s on the same playing field. I don’t like that. And if I call that guy out, I’m the asshole somehow. I don’t like that.
Sonny: I hear you on that. No, that’s a very reasonable way to put it in. Maybe just on that thing of calling someone out, it’s been a good conversation. I just want to shift gears for one last question, which is I wanted to just put this one to you and it didn’t come up naturally, so chuck it in here at the end. Just the idea of conspiracy theories and their proliferation within, it seems like a proliferation within Jiu-Jitsu. You can skip this one if you-
Rob: No, I will answer it, absolutely.
Sonny: Maybe to link it all back in, we’ve been talking about how we construct our knowledge of Jiu-Jitsu and teaching practices. That’s being the same as this conversation, are the methods we go about constructing that knowledge and basing it on research and feedback, and what we observe and what we’ve learned from other places.
There’s always been an emphasis in Jiu-Jitsu on weeding out things that don’t work and only using the observable reality of techniques that are based on competition. Yet, one thing that does seem to be a bit of a common occurrence is this idea of– there’s a lot of conspiracy theories that this just seems to be a common thing in Jiu-Jitsu that goes around, and I can’t find a way to square the two. I’m wondering what your opinion on it is.
Rob: What my opinion is on it? I’m going to bury myself with this answer, but whatever. First off, I think– when I say, “I think”, these are hypotheses on my part, I would love to be able to test them more extensively. I’d love to be able to grab a bunch of Black Belts and put them in a room and go through some really specific testing.
These are hunches on my part. The first one is that because Jiu-Jitsu is so empirical and people value personal experience as much as they do, we have a bunch of guys who have reached a certain level of Jiu-Jitsu and they value their personal experience above almost any other thing. If I prove to you that the armbar works, and then you get good through personal experience and you’re good at armbars, and you have your method for doing the armbar, you believe that that works. That’s great.
If you have no scientific background, and you don’t know anybody who got COVID and you think very highly of yourself, you may start seeking out confirmation bias type stuff. You will seek out information that supports, especially as a business owner. Let’s be honest, most people in Jiu-Jitsu are not highly educated. It’s not the wrestling where for the most part, if you wrestled at a high level, it means you went to university and you have some level of education.
There are a lot of just dumb fucks who are really good at Jiu-Jitsu, but if you were to try to give them a quiz on any critical thinking science, any kind of that stuff, they would fail miserably. They universally are– let’s just be honest, cult attitudes are rampant in Jiu-Jitsu. There are a lot of guys running Jiu-Jitsu schools who are just worshiped by their students, and they never get any negative feedback or blowback for their opinions. They’re deified at their school.
They can say some hellaciously stupid shit and people will just nod their heads. I think it’s a confluence of those factors where a lot of guys in this business are not well-educated. They’re very well educated in Jiu-Jitsu and we definitely live in a world where you can insulate yourself and get your own set of facts if you’re within a certain political bubble. I think martial arts in general, Jiu-Jitsu in particular, are going to skew more to one aspect of the political spectrum. That aspect of the political spectrum happens to be more prone to conspiracy theories, period and happens to be more anti-science in general.
You just have a confluence of factors where it’s like this Confederacy of Dunces that are talking to each other and just lack of the self-awareness to know how what they believe about Jiu-Jitsu is completely the opposite of what they’re doing in their life. As a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, as a Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt, if a White Belt came to you and started spouting off about Jiu-Jitsu, you’d be like, “Shut the fuck up, why am I listening to your opinion?” Yet, you go out all these armchair epidemiologists, armchair statisticians, armchair politicians, armchair economists, etcetera, etcetera, very comfortable with these opinions.
There’s also a factor that I think is significantly contributing to it, which is incredibly stressful times causes people to seek out anything that provides a feeling of certainty. Let’s be honest. The reason religion is as popular in society historically is that it sells certainty. It sells, “We’ve got the answers.” That’s all a conspiracy theory provides, it provides somebody who is going through a traumatic time in their life some semblance of control.
The world is really fucking scary if you believe is that a random virus turned the world upside down and compromised your ability to make a living. That is fucking terrifying that that can just come out of the blue. If it’s all part of a plan, that’s actually very reassuring [chuckles] because it takes the randomness away. Have you’ve seen the movie, The Dark Knight? Where the joker talks about-?
Rob: He talks about that. Where if it’s a random event, it’s terrifying, but as long as there’s a plan, then it’s okay. That’s what we’re seeing here. It’s like, “Oh, there’s a plan. Oh, Bill Gates created this that he can inject you with a microchip. Oh, okay. We’re cool.” Then, “I can just take this one action of not getting the vaccine. I’ve got a simple answer that’s allowing me to take full control of my life and my response to this.” Whereas if you’re just going along with what’s going on and you got to have your school shut, and you don’t know when it’s going to be able to open and you don’t know what’s safe and what’s not, then that’s fucking terrifying. Most people would rather be comfortable and have that security and reduce that cognitive dissonance than be like, “Fuck.” Man, I’ll tell you, for me, personally, I have most days over the last three months woken up with a sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the world because I know I’m not in control.
I don’t do well with a lack of control. I live a life where I, as an adult, had more control over my day to day existence than the vast majority of adults. Literally, I almost don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. Luckily, I’m a relatively disciplined person or I’d be a total fucking disaster because I don’t have to wake up in the morning. I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t have any responsibilities outside of show up and teach Jiu-Jitsu. I could be a nightmare and I’ve lived a very fortunate life. Now, there’s a bunch of shit that’s totally out of my control.
I try to educate myself about it and I try to do what’s best based on the best expert advice knowing also that expert advice is changing because it’s a new situation. This is where frankly, our education system in North America, and certainly a lot of other education systems, don’t do our society any favours because people don’t know what science is. They think, “Oh, science says this and now science says this other thing. Well, that means that science doesn’t know what it’s talking about.” Whereas people were educated to understand that science is a method, not a monolith, and that this is a new situation and the more we learn, we have to change our opinion and all that kind of stuff, then, it’d be less apt or less open to criticism.
Because people don’t know that now it’s easy for them to like, “Well, they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about”. This guy who tells me that the lizard people are controlling etc and it’s all part of the plan and they just want to control us. It’s like, “Dude, really?” Again, if you had some critical thinking skills, you could maybe interrupt this process, but people don’t. There’s a severe lack of critical thinking, even in a community that likes to think of itself as like, “Look at us, we make fun of Karate. We make fun of Kung-Fu because those idiots don’t spar and then they’re posting about conspiracy theories and all this kind of stuff.
I think it’s a confluence of undereducated people with a tremendous amount of unearned social capital. People look up to Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts way too fucking much. They shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be taken as seriously as we are. You mentioned before if I could snap my fingers? Man, if I could snap my fingers and change something about Jiu-Jitsu, I would have some sort of protocol for knocking all of us Black Belts down a peg, several pegs actually. It’s something I have in my school, I have got protocols in place to make sure that I don’t ever get to thinking that I’m that fucking great because I’m not above it, none of us are above it. If you get enough people telling you you’re so fucking great you’re going to believe it. There is just an epidemic of that Jiu-Jitsu, there are way too many cultic practices and way too many people think that they’re qualified to be talking about shit they’ve got no business talking about. There you go.
Sonny: I hear you. I’m glad I asked that question. I’m glad I asked that question now [chuckles] .
Rob: I’m not glad I answered it because I’m sure some people are going to– Whatever.
Sonny: You’ll be alright. No, I thought that was pretty diplomatic, actually, but who am I to judge? I just put on pyjamas and roll around and teach people how to choke each other, I’m certainly no arbiter of good taste, [laughs].
You did bring up something which is very important, I think, which is that, from that personal experience, which is an interesting thing, I hadn’t thought about it the way you described it, but just that how people would never take what a White Belt said on face value as being an unquestionable truth just on their opinion, but yet it’s so common that they apply that thinking to other areas that they haven’t had experience with themselves.
I had a sleep scientist Dr Ian Dunican. Before he made a comment about fighters, he’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to overstep my mark because I’ve never fought.” I said,” Well, a lot of fighters are pretty quick to overstep their mark into science, so feel free.” [chuckles]
Rob: This is an interesting thing that you bring up because it’s funny how often you’ll hear a scientist or anyone who’s got either scientific training, or even just is scientifically inclined, they’re so quick to be like, “I don’t want to speak about this.” And if they do, I tend to speak about the topics outside of Jiu-Jitsu, but when I do, all I’m doing is speaking with reverence to the education that I’ve received or the information that I’ve received from experts. If I’m talking about cognitive learning strategies, I’m going to be like, “Hey man, I don’t know that much about this, here’s what I do know.” All I’m doing is repeating what I’ve learned from an expert in the field in a less cogent fashion.
I can explain basic physics, but as soon as we start to go beyond that, I’m like, “Man, I don’t know”. I think anybody who has any kind of scientific training that brings with it a certain amount of humility about speaking, even on another scientific talk, like a guy who’s an expert in one part of physics will be like, “Well, if I’m going to talk about this side of physics I’m overstepping my bounds.” Whereas just general society and people who don’t have a scientific background, they’re very comfortable talking out of their ass because there has been, in my opinion, a concerted effort over the last, I would say 30 years to 40 years on the part of certain political actors in North America, but probably more around the world as well, to undercut the validity of expertise, to try to make it so that expertise matters less, scientific knowledge matters less.
So that they can have a debate with a false equivalency where there’s a logical fallacy of equal argument. There are always two sides to a story, there are not always two equally valid arguments. Just because there are two arguments doesn’t make them equally valid. That’s a fallacy. I think there’s been a concerted effort and a very politically motivated one to make it so that people will view experts’ opinions and any other opinion on an equal basis. This has been done in a very calculated fashion to undermine the validity of scientific expertise. I think, A, it’s a tragedy. I think it’s going to contribute– and I think it already has.
Anyone who’s viewing current world events, can see what happens, look at the countries that are run by intelligent individuals with scientific training, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea. Look at countries that are governed by, I use the word charismatic in quotations, by “Charismatic idiots.” I don’t mean just the one that most people are going to think of, there are many of them. There are many charismatic idiots, including the one running my country. I say this without political affiliation, I’m not trying to throw anyone political leader under the bus, I’m saying that electing people who are fucking morons to office, regardless of their political stripe, have bad consequences. I think that we as a society, and we as Jiu-Jitsu practitioners within a community, need to raise our standards of who we listen to and who we elevate in terms of opinion.
If they’re not highly educated, if they don’t have some sort of expertise, then we shouldn’t listen to a goddamn thing they say. If we’re going to listen to Black Belts who have no expertise outside of Jiu-Jitsu, completely ignore them. They’ve got literally nothing to offer you in terms of a valid opinion.
Sonny: I agree with that. Maybe to wrap it all up and bring it back around to martial arts for tight in a nice little bow, as you were saying that I was thinking about when I corner fighters, and I’ll be cornering for kickboxing fighters, but the fighters will have a full-time kickboxing coach with them, Nick Pudney or Chad Lumley we work with. Sometimes they’ll be in the corner and I just want to yell something out because I’m there, I’m pumped up, but they’ve got the guys, they’ve had men who they’ve been working with and I’m here helping out, but I really want to yell something out. What I’ll do is I’ll listen to what those guys are saying and I’ll just yell that out.
Sonny: I think, I don’t know. I like that approach, it’s the one I’m doing myself and I think it can work.
Rob: Yes, I think if you have any voice, whether it’s in our Jiu-Jitsu community or in the wider community, and you want to speak with that voice outside of your area of expertise, speak with that voice to amplify the voices of experts and you can’t go wrong.
Sonny: I think that’s a good way to wrap this one up in a bar. Maybe we can come back in another time in the future and just delve deeper into those things as well because I think it’s been a great conversation, Rob, I really enjoyed it.
Rob: I would absolutely love to. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation as well. I had a blast talking to you, I’d be happy to do it again.
Sonny: Thank you so much. If people want to get in touch with you. I know you’ve got BJJconcepts.net. I know you’ve even got a live-in residency program or something.
Rob: Yes, I’ll try to touch on it as briefly as possible. Obviously, it’s not happening right now. We have a visiting student. It’s been brutal. I’m looking at my calendar now, I had all these visitors scheduled and it’s like, “Well, that guy’s not coming. That guy’s not going. That’s not happening.” We have a visiting student program. We host Jiu-Jitsu practitioners from all around the world. All you have to do is get here. The idea is it’s free.
I have a three-bedroom home, two of those bedrooms are dedicated to visitors and we’ve had as many as five people staying at my house at any given time. They stay with me. They train for free at my academy for a week. There’s no catch. We’ve done it for years. Over the last probably three or four years we’ve probably averaged between 50 and 80 people every year. Again, from all around the world. We actually had quite a number of visitors from Australia. A lot of visitors from the US around Canada, Europe, South America, Asia, really just about everywhere. It’s a great program that has allowed me to undercut my social tendencies because, if I didn’t have this program, I would literally never speak to another human being outside of Jiu-Jitsu class.
It’s been really beneficial that way. If somebody wants to get in touch with me, I’m on Instagram although I hate social media. I am on Instagram at Island Top Team. We also have an Instagram account for BJJ concepts, @BJJConcepts. You can get in touch with me through BJJConcepts.net through the email there. When things get back to normal eventually, the visiting student program will resume.
I now have a backlog of people that I will have to get out here who were supposed to visit over the last few months, but I will find room for anybody who wants to visit.
Hopefully, if you’re ever inclined to travel, come out here and visit us.
Sonny: I’d love to, whenever the borders are back on. After we get the microchip, we’ll be ready to go. Alright, Rob, it’s been beautiful, mate. I’d love to do it again in the future. Have a great day.
Rob: Awesome. You too, man.
- “I won’t teach something publicly until I’ve been personally working on it for about a year.”
- “The more time I spend as instructor, the less material I try to present.”
- “People actually learn better when they have a choice in the material.”
- “You will leave every class having succeeded, and that will get you coming back.”
- “More guys need to really invest in developing a pedagogy method.”
- “There are black belts and there are black belts.”
- “I don’t think there should be a world champion for colour belts.”
- “We’re selling fake glory to narcissists.”
- “If you’re not a black belt world champion, you’re not a world champion.”
- “We do our students a disservice when we blur the lines.”
- “Incredibly stressful times cause people to seek out anything that provides a feeling of certainty. That’s all a conspiracy theory provides.”
- “Just because there are two arguments doesn’t make them equally valid.”
- “Electing people who are fucking morons to office, regardless of their political stripe, has bad consequences.”
- “If you have any voice, and you want to speak with that voice outside of your area of expertise, speak with that voice to amplify the voices of experts.”