Recently I was asked an interesting question by a new student. This student had considerable experience in other martial arts and had just completed the trial week on our BJJ program. He had obviously enjoyed his training over the course of the week and was excited to continue. He approached me at the end of the class and asked ‘ How long does it take to get good?’
Since becoming a full time coach I’ve spent 100’s of hours attending Martial Arts and Fitness business courses focusing on Marketing, how to convert trials into students, upselling and many other related topics. I knew there was a perfect way to ‘re-frame’ the question, get him signing up and resulting in a high five and three year commitment to getting his black belt, however the question came at the end of a long week of tough sessions, teaching classes, training fighters and also working hard on my own training so I gave him the honest answer.
It might take your whole lifetime to get good and even then that might not be enough. What I meant is that Jiu Jitsu isn't a sequence of secret moves that you can memorise and then you’ll be invincible and receive your black belt in three years. It's tough, you learn the moves but your training partners learn the moves too so they can shut you down then you keep battling back and forth night after night, week after week for years and years until eventually one of you quit.
This is the reality of Jiu Jitsu training that separates it from many other martial arts. It is relatively ‘safe’ so you can go pretty hard almost every time you train without needing to pull your punches. You cannot comfort yourself with telling yourself that I would’ve won that match if I’d hit him with my power kick. You will get tapped out a lot on your way to getting black belt and you need to develop an ego that will allow you to deal with this short term inconvenience for your long term benefit.
I also explained to the new student that even though it sounds hard that the training is fun and enjoyable, and that's why people stick to it. Before long you forget about far off goal of getting a black belt and just enjoy the process of getting on the mat and testing yourself and your skills.
Afterwards though I realised that there is another way to look at the question “how long does it take to get good at Jiu Jitsu?’ This is an interesting question because it's very subjective, one person's idea of ‘Good at Jiu Jitsu’ may be very different to others. Some may think being good at Jiu Jitsu means winning a world title at the Black Belt division whereas another may define it as the ability to defend yourself.
In my opinion very few people get involved in Jiu Jitsu because they want to win world titles. Most people begin training because they want to get fit, lose weight or learn self defence.
My own definition of being ‘good’ at Jiu Jitsu is simple. Can you defend yourself and defeat a larger and stronger opponent using Jiu Jitsu techniques? If you can then your training has worked. One of the strengths of Jiu Jitsu compared to other martial arts is that it is possible to achieve this goal in a relatively short time (6 months to 1 Year). With other fighting styles it is much harder to achieve this goal. Styles such as boxing or karate take much longer to get the same result. It's possible that some students can hit very hard and defend themselves after six months of boxing or karate training but it's always difficult to say if that is due to the training they received or just down to their natural power. With Jiu Jitsu the results are very consistent. Everyone can learn the same basic strategy and the techniques aren’t complicated.
Another way of looking at this question is relevant to fighters and martial arts from all styles and backgrounds. The important goal is not to just get ‘Good’, the goal is to keep continually improving. To get better than you were last class, or last week or last year or in your last tournament. Even if you’re winning every match, is there anything you could be doing better. Making that armlock tighter, finishing that sweep or improving defence.
So in short it should take around six months to one year until you can defeat an average untrained opponent using Jiu Jitsu (Provided you are being taught correctly and are training consistently) however you can spend your entire lifetime improving and perfecting your Jiu Jitsu.
Recently I’ve been asked about balancing my own training, being a martial arts coach, and also being a Dad. I believe martial arts training can have positive benefits on all aspects of your life but obviously it is tough to balance everything.
It's a little bit different for me because I’m a full time martial arts coach and had already been training for twenty five years before becoming a dad. However I feel it's still possible for Dads to benefit from Martial Arts training even if you are limited in how much time you have to training and at what stage in your life you get started.
I believe one of the best things parents can do for their kids is to lead by example. Kids will pick up on the habits of their parents and Martial arts training is a good way to pass on these good habits.
Discipline - Martial arts training is great for developing discipline, in particular self discipline, forcing yourself to stick to rules or achieve goals that you have set for yourself because you know that you will benefit from them in the long term. This type of discipline is another good example to pass onto children. They don’t feel like doing their homework but they need to be disciplined enough to do it so they will pass their exams.
Another good habit which Martial arts training develops is integrity and accountability, - Setting goals for yourself, doing what you said you would do and committing to achieving your goals rather making excuses.
There are also many other benefits to martial arts training such as increasing your fitness which will allow you to lead a healthier lifestyle. Developing more confidence both in terms of self defence ability but also the confidence that comes from learning and improving in a new skill. There is also the added benefit of stress relief, martial arts training is a good way to counter balance all the stresses of a busy life.
If you're a Dad and don't already train in Martial Arts or do any other physical activities I strongly encourage to book in for a trial session at a local school and give it a go.
Denis Kelly is a former Mixed Martial Arts fighter and now head MMA Coach at Nemesis Martial Arts based in Melbourne, Australia.
He holds Black Belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Karate, Kickboxing & Krav Maga, Boxing Australia Level 1 Coaching Accreditation, Cert 3 & 4 in Fitness, Cert 3 in Sports Coaching and Australian Strength & Conditioning Association Level 1 Coach.
Denis has competed at a high level in various Combat Sports including Professional Mixed Martial Arts and Muay Thai.He has fought in the UK, Europe, Australia & New Zealand. He has also competed extensively in Brazilian JiuJitsu, Freestyle Wrestling, Sambo Wrestling, Judo & Karate.
Denis did the majority of his training at Carlson Gracie Academy in London. He has trained all over the world including BJJ & MMA in Brazil, Japan & the USA as well as Kickboxing and Muay Thai in Thailand, Holland and Myanmar.
In addition to his Martial Arts qualifications Denis also received a Business degree from Middlesex University London in 2000 and has worked in Finance for several large companies in both London and Melbourne is the years prior to becoming a full time martial arts coach.
In 2009 Denis opened Team Nemesis Martial Arts together with Muay Thai Trainer Phillip Lai. In just a few years the team has produced several of Australia's top MMA & Muay Thai fighters.
As a trainer Denis believes the key to his team’s success is to constantly search for more efficient & effective training methods to continually improve his fighters every day.
These are some of the things I've picked up on my first ten years as an MMA Coach
You don’t need to be a Fighter.
Before becoming a coach I believed that I needed to gain as much fight experience as possible. In my mind it would affect my credibility if I hadn't been there and done it. Since opening my school I've never had a single student who cares if I had real fight experience or not. The only thing that students care about is whether you will be able to help them achieve their goals. Fight Experience can be useful and is helpful for separating the legitimate coaches from the frauds but many experienced fighters are clueless when it comes to coaching and don’t take the time to learn how to coach properly.
No Substitute for Experience.
However, my own fight career has been a useful asset for me. My experiences in the ring and cage have given me confidence in preparing fighters and an ability to understand what they are going through during their preparation. I can help my fighters avoid making the mistakes that I made during my fight career. This speeds up their learning and progression rather than relying on trial and error. I am also confident that I am not asking my fighters to do anything that I haven’t done myself. Trustworthiness is one of the most valuable attributes a coach can have. The fighter must be able to trust the coach 100% rather than doubting if he is actually speaking from experience.
Wide Knowledge Base.
What you learnt during your own training and fighting won’t be enough. Every Fighter has their favourite techniques that have worked well throughout their competitive career. When you start coaching you encounter a wide variety of students of different skill levels, personalities and body types for whom these techniques just aren’t a good fit. Students will get bored of learning your ‘A game’ every night for the next five years. You need to go back and re-learn many techniques and skills that you didn’t pay too much attention to when you were a fighter. You need to understand them so you can pass them onto your students. You also need to invest time in learning how to coach properly and be aware of the distinction between demonstrating how much you know versus passing on the information in a useful manner.
Always Keep Learning.
Don’t keep looking back to the glory days. MMA is continually getting better and more advanced and a good coach needs to keep learning and improving. Some martial arts styles haven’t changed much in the past 50 years however MMA and BJJ are continually evolving and changing, A good coach must keep up to date with new techniques so that students are not caught off guard by them, Too many coaches rely on just teaching the way they were taught. All sports evolve and improve over time and combat sports are no different. It makes sense to continually stay on top of the latest developments in the sport just as an athletics or football coach would.
Martial Arts Trends come and go.
There will always be new fads or new trends in the industry. Since gaining popularity in the western world Martial Arts has a history of going through trends where one style would be popular for a few years and then replaced by another. This was the case with Judo, Kung Fu, Karate and then Ninjitsu. MMA & BJJ are currently the biggest trend in the martial arts world. BJJ is actually a microcosm of this Martial Arts trend phenomenon where we see a new group of techniques become popular for a few years before being replaced by something else. Based on this I believe you need to be aware of the current trends in the industry but focus on the term long term rather than basing your entire coaching philosophy around whatever happens to be popular at the moment.
The Right Culture and Training Environment.
As mentioned previously, a good coach must stay on top of the latest developments in in the sport, however, Trends come and go. What is relevant and popular this year may soon be seen as an old fashioned technique that nobody uses anymore. What can persist for a much longer time is the gym culture that you create. The atmosphere and culture in your gym is the most important asset. How the students and fighters act, treat each other and behave in the gym. The training environment you create in terms of safe and effective training, and the reputation and the values of the team are more important than short term success.
Coaching Beginners is more Impressive than Coaching Champions.
Anyone can coach a fighter who is already a champion. By the time they reach Championship level the fighter should already have spent ten thousand hours training. It becomes more a matter of supervising their training and making sure they don't do anything stupid. What impresses me most is when a coach can take a complete beginner with no skill or training background and get them to championship level.
The Team is more Important than the Individual Fighters.
Obviously it is always more rewarding to work with a fighter from beginner level all the way up to championship level but this is not always possible. Fighters will switch gyms, lose interest in fighting or quit training altogether but its not a big deal. Every top level professional sports team has players leave every season, every college or high school has to start off each year with a fresh batch of players. If the right systems, culture and coaching are in place then the team will consistently produce results.
Focus on Quality over quantity.
Some people aren’t a good fit and will do more harm than good. Many coaches think that the more people they can ram into their classes or fight team the better. One bad training partner with the wrong attitude can put off (or Injure) five or six people. The same is true with building the long-term culture of the Gym. Some fighters will bring with them bad habits such as turning up late, missing classes or lazy training. If you don’t stamp it out this will eventually rub off on other junior members of the team, who will follow the lead of the senior fighters, develop the same bad habits and ultimately lose any chance of achieving their full potential. No matter how much talent a fighter may potentially have, if they don't fit with your team culture and philosophy you are better off without them.
There are no secrets.
Fighters often feel like they are missing out if they aren't training with ten world champions every day. I've trained at some of the best gyms around the world and with many of the top coaches. What I've learnt is that there really are no secrets. The most successful gyms and fighters just do the same things that everyone else does, they just do more of it and do it more consistently.
It's about more than just Winning Fights.
Training fighters to win trophies and belts is great but the novelty quickly wears off. This is especially true if you feel that the competition success isn’t having a positive effect on the fighter or the team. There are too many examples of fighters and athletes who were successful in competition but the success had disastrous consequences for their life outside of sport. Martial Arts should be a way of improving the lives of everyone involved rather than focusing on winning at all costs.
In this series of articles I will look at the fights which I regard as the most significant in the evolution of Martial Arts. Rather than focusing on fights which had the highest pay per view numbers or media impact, I will discuss the matches which I feel had the most historical significance in terms of shaping and changing the sport. Mixed Martial Arts to me is all about the fights themselves and more precisely the fighters, techniques and training methods used to produce these fights.
As a coach it is important to understand the history of your sport and understand how and why it has developed in a certain way over the years. This helps to open your eyes to the techniques and training methods which have been adopted, developed or in some cases discarded. It is essential to learn from those who have come before you in order benefit from the lessons and experience they learned the hard way and avoid repeating their mistakes.
Lets begin with a fight which in my opinion really started it all; Royce Gracie versus Art Jimmerson. November 12, 1993.
The history of Mixed Rules Fights
UFC 1 was not the first Mixed Rules Fight event. There were several earlier MMA promotions including Shooto in Japanwhich had been active since 1986. Perhaps the most notable prior example of a Mixed Rules fight was Muhammad Ali vs Antio Inoki held in Tokyo in 1976. This fight was generally regarded as a huge failure which did not capture the imagination of fans. It was difficult to agree on rules which would accommodate both the Boxer and the Wrestler. This led to the creation of a compromised rule-set where neither fighter could really use their weapons effectively, it actually appeared that the fighters weren'ttrying to fight each other at all and instead just trying not to lose, something which go on to be a recurring problem in modern day MMA. There was also a lot of confusion over whether the fight would be real or 'worked' and its generally understood that even Ali himself wasn't sure if it would be a real fight until right before the match.
The first Ultimate Fighting Championship promised something that the public had never seen before. A No Rules style versus style event where the most deadly martial arts systems would be pitted against each other to discover which was most effective.
The Background of this Fight
The most important fight in my opinion was Royce Gracie vs Art Jimmerson. The outcome of this match now seems very obvious and predictable. The idea of a highly trained Jiu-jitsu expert taking on a Boxer with no grappling experience and wearing one glove seems ridiculous now however in 1993 it was an eye opener about the potential of the unknown Martial Art from Brazil.
Art Jimmerson was a legitimate threat as a highly experienced professional Boxing Champion. At the time of fighting in the first UFC he had accumulated 34 fights with 29 wins and was on a 15 fight win streak His last loss was in an NABF light heavyweight title fight against Olympic gold medalist Andrew Maynard.
Little was known about Royce Gracie prior to the event. He was actually the least experienced fighter on the card and had trained exclusively with his own family for his entire life. The rest of the tournament was filled with veteran competitors from Kickboxing, Full Contact Karate, Boxing, Shoot-fighting and Sumo.
What was it about Gracies style that made it so effective in the Jimmerson fight and then in his next ten fights all of which he won via submission within the next year?
Breakdown of the fight:
The actual fight is very uneventful by today's standards. Jimmersons speed and footwork looks impressive however he is unable to land a single punch before being taken down by Gracie with a double leg take-down one minute into the match. Gracie then easily steps over to full mount position and grapevines his legs taking away all of Jimmersons mobility or any chance of escape. We can see that Gracie is patiently waiting for his opponent to exhaust himself with his escape attempts before attacking with any submissions or strikes. Jimmerson realising he is unable to escape taps out two minutes into the match.
The importance of Ground-fighting:
The first crucial lesson we can learn from this match was how it highlighted the importance of ground fighting. No modern era fighter would consider competing in Mixed Martial Arts without extensive training in BJJ or another ground fighting system. Back in 1993 very few people realized the importance of ground fighting or had any idea of what they would do if a fight went to the ground.
Ground fighting also known as NeWaza or ParTerre did exist in various other systems such as Judo, Sambo or Wrestling but was quite often underestimated or ignored completely. It was just something you did if you couldn't throw your opponent. Most stand-up stylists were oblivious to the possibility of ending up down on the mat. They assumed that a skilled fighter would be able knock out or disable an opponent before they could get a grip on them or would easily be able to escape from any grip or hold.
Brazilian JiuJitsu was one of the only Martial Arts styles that focused on the strategy of getting an opponent to the mat by any means necessary rather than a classically impressive match winning throw or take-down. Once on the ground you have taken away all of the opponents kicks, punches and strikes. The opponent being unfamiliar with ground grappling is unable to put up any offence while you are free to work towards getting a joint lock or choke. Many realizing they are out of their depth simply gave up before any submission had even been attempted. This is exactly what happened in the Jimmerson fight. It should be noted however that a big part of this strategy was the lack of time limit on the ground (unlike in Judo and Sambo) which allows the fighter to work slowly and methodically without taking any big risks which may result in losing the position and allowing the opponent back to his feet.
The Secret to the Success of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
No secret techniques were employed by Gracie in this fight or in any of his next ten submission wins. All of the techniques used by Gracie to win those matches were already familiar to Judokas and other martial artists. In my opinion the reason for his success was in the Ground focused strategy discussed above and also in the training methods.
Pressure testing your techniques in some way is a vital component of all martial arts. It can be called Sparring, Rolling, Randori or Kumite but the ultimate goal is the same, to learn to apply your skills under some degree of resistance. Sparring can be divided three categories based on the level of resistance from your training partner.
Levels of Sparring
The first level is compliant Sparring. This is great for initially learning technique but the least effective for developing fighting ability and is most commonly found in Traditional Martial arts. Compliant Sparring cannot really be considered a genuine test as you are working with a willing partner who offers no resistance and allows you to execute your technique.
Second is the the most common and generally most useful type of Sparring. This involves trying to execute your techniques against a partner who is attempting to use the same techniques against you. For examples, Two judo players try to throw each other under, Two boxers try to land scoring punches on one another, or a sport karate fighter tries to kick and punch to score points against a partner who is trying to score points on them,
The Third type of training is what made Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu so effective in the early days. Imagine if the judo player was sparring against a partner who was not playing by their rules. What if the opponent was trying to punch or kick the Judo Player rather than grip fight? This would severely limit the type of throws which it was safe to use. What if there was no referee to declare an Ippon from a hold-down or a throw? The Judoka would then be forced to shift his attention to techniques which leave your opponent unable to continue such as joint locks or strangles leaving them to either admit defeat by tapping out or risk injury or unconsciousness.
In my opinion the combination of the correct strategy to fit the rule-set plus the correct training method - Practicing Jiu-jitsu to fight against other martial artists and fighters rather than to fight against other Jiu-jitsu players was the key to Royce Gracie's success and the dominance of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the early days of mixed martial arts. This led to the situation where everyone needed to learn ground fighting if they wanted to survive in this type of fight and eventually to the point where fighters were able to figure and shut down the BJJ fighters which I will cover in the next article.
Injuries are one of the main reasons students quit their martial arts training. Many students quit either directly because of an injury, they take time off to recover and then never return. Alternatively when they return all of their training partners have improved so much that they feel that they'll never catch up so they give up.
You can never completely avoid injuries over the course of your Martial Arts training career. The basis for all types of martial arts is injuring and opponent or attacker. Its unrealistic to expect that you wont pick up some types of injuries. Even in forms of martial arts which are usually seen as relatively safe such as Tai Chi and Aikido, there is still a possibility of injury
Comparison with other sports
Injuries are possible in all forms or sports and physical activities. There are lots of best practice methods to prevent injuries which are exactly the same across all sports. These include warming up thoroughly, making sure you are using proper technique and doing a cool down and stretch at the end of a session.
Martial Arts Specific Injuries
There are several types of injuries which are more likely to occur in Martial Arts. These include joint injuries or loss of consciousness as a result of submission techniques, Cuts and bruises from accidental contact with strikes. Skin infections such as Ringworm or Staph infection commonly seen in grappling styles as a result of poor hygiene, there are also various injuries and illnesses associated with excessive weight cutting.
The most serious in my opinion is Head Trauma and Concussion. This is more common is striking styles but can also happen in grappling as a result of a slam or take-down. Excessive head trauma and concussion have very serious long term effects (memory loss, depression, loss of cognitive function) which are only now being understood. I would advise all Martial Arts students to be aware of these risk factors and choose their training activities wisely. Including choosing your training partners wisely which brings me to the next point.
Risks of Sparring
Something specific to martial arts is the risk involved in sparring or rolling in BJJ. This is one of the most fundamental and productive activities in Martial Arts training but it requires a large degree of trust and responsibility with the participants. You are trusting your training partner with your personal safety. You need to ensure you train with partners you can rely on to not go crazy and do risky or unpredictable techniques,
80/20 rule - 80% of the injuries are caused by 20% of the students. I've found that the majority of students can be trusted to roll or spar safely without any problems and without causing injuries. I've also noticed over the years that most of the injuries in sparring usually come form 20 percent of the students. If you're the coach I think it's a good idea to monitor the sparring and look out for those 20% of students who are constantly going too hard, being too competitive or using too many risky or unorthodox techniques. Take them aside and encourage them to tone it down or join up at the new gym down the road instead. You’ll be amazed how the injury rate goes down once you get rid of the ten ‘win at all costs’ students. Then the rest of your students can train in a safe and productive environment.
If you're a student have a look around at who is sparring sensibly and who is going crazy and try to avoid them as much as possible.
Other tips for minimizing injuries for Students and Coaches
Make sure all beginner students complete a Pre-Training evaluation / Functional Movement Screening. This will make sure any existing injuries or conditions are known to the coaches so the activity can be modified where necessary.
All sessions begin with a sport specific warm up. Use functional movements which will be similar to types of movement actually used in the session. Gradually increase intensity rather than going too hard too soon.
Training starts off at an easy technical pace for new students for at least the first two months - don't rush into sparring or high intensity training too soon. Even though the student may enjoy it their body will not yet be ready which leads to injury and quitting.
All students focus on training with good technique, not taking shortcuts. One of the common reasons for technique breaking down is due to exhaustion so make sure everyone trains at a pace they can maintain. Injuries are also just more likely to occur when a student is exhausted so adequate rest and recovery is essential.
Make sure all students have appropriate level of good quality, clean training equipment. This includes gloves, head gear, shin guards, mouth guard, clean clothing suitable for the activity (such as rash guard for grappling).
Additional strength training twice a week can also go a long way to prevent injuries in Martial Arts. It's important to avoid any kind of exercises which could cause additional injury risks and focus on good form and technique.
Recovery training such as Foam Rolling, Stretching or massages are also important for injury prevention and a good way to prolong your Martial Arts training career.
As mentioned above Martial Arts and Combat Sports are dangerous. Make sure all training is supervised by an experienced coach - This is one of the biggest risk factors I see in Martial Arts training. The 20% of students mentioned above get together to bang it out or roll on their own schedule because they are too busy to make it to the regular classes. Inevitably this leads to the students getting injured and quitting Martial Arts within three years.
This is also a big danger of open mat sessions in BJJ. Students may be doing reckless, injury causing techniques on each other without supervision. There needs to be firm rules in place about what is acceptable.
All sessions need to be run by a qualified and experienced coach. There is a big risk from a business point of view of sessions run by inexperienced coaches who have inadequate training on how to coach safely and effectively and how to minimize and prevent injuries.
Finally, its important to refer to a sports medicine specialist or sports physiotherapist if there is a serious injury or problem.
Check out my article about building the right Gym culture here: