Jumping into the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the first time, especially if you don’t have any grappling experience, can be more than a little overwhelming.
Even though I had a background in karate and kung fu, I had very little experience fighting on the ground, so the first couple of times I went to class, I felt like a fish out of water.
Hip escapes? No idea what those were. Triangle chokes? Forget it. Even trying to maintain any kind of position felt like an impossible task. I was always getting bumped and swept, and the next thing I knew I went from being on top to getting choked out.
The group lessons were great and I always learned something, but whenever it was time to roll I felt like I was grasping in the dark, trying to keep my head above water and just survive.
There are plenty of people who’ve gotten their blue belts and beyond without taking a single private lesson. But as someone who not only didn’t understand the language of jiujitsu, but was also stiff, out of shape, dealing with chronic injuries, and overweight, I realized I was going to need a little extra help if I wanted to make any progress and keep myself from getting too discouraged.
So, I did the obvious thing, and I started taking private lessons once a week with Daniel Spence, a Brazilian Jiujitsu black belt at Legacy Los Angeles.
That was around nine months ago, and it was the best decision I could have made. Private lessons have helped me improve my game so much, to the point where I’m actually preparing to compete in the Jiujitsu World League’s California Open at the end of this month.
Competing is something I told myself I would never do when I first started training because I was too afraid of getting injured. The fact that I’ve gotten up the courage to do it for the first time is huge for me, and I never would have without Professor Dan behind me during every step of my journey.
If you’re thinking about trying out private lessons to improve your jiujitsu, here are some tips for how to get the most out of them:
Tip #1: Take notes (and videos!) during your lessons
From day one, Professor Dan has constantly badgered me to get a notebook for our private lessons. While I still haven’t managed to do that (don’t ask me why), I have started taking notes on my phone and videoing myself doing the techniques I’ve learned, and I wish that I’d done so from the very beginning.
It’s extremely useful to be able to pull those notes out when you’re drilling with a partner later on, and especially the videos so you can have visual references. Also, sometimes you’ll catch mistakes or areas to improve upon when you review the videos later, so taking regular videos of yourself practicing the same techniques is a great way to spot weaknesses and track your progress.
Tip #2: It’s okay to drill the same thing over multiple lessons
Private lessons can be expensive, and I know you might be thinking it’s a waste of money to ask your instructor to teach you something they’ve already taught you.
But because of how complex jiujitsu can be, there will be moves your brain just can’t comprehend when you first start training. Sometimes they’re too complicated, or they require knowledge of other moves you haven’t mastered yet, or you simply don’t understand the mechanics involved.
For example, one of the first submissions Professor Dan taught me was the D’arce choke. He taught it to me from bottom side control, and at the time, I was so in over my head that all I could do was go through the motions. I didn’t understand the significance of why I was placing my hands in certain positions, or even really how the choke worked because at that time I didn’t have a good understanding of body positioning and awareness. All I could do was parrot him and hope I was doing it right.
But four months later, during another lesson, Professor Dan brought up the D’arce choke again. I’d forgotten all about it, and in fact, hadn’t used it once, but when he taught it to me again, suddenly everything clicked into place! After four months of training religiously, my brain was finally starting to grasp the language of jiujitsu, so the mechanics just fell into place this time.
And during the next group class I took, I caught a purple belt with that choke.
So, don’t be afraid to use your lesson time to go over something you’ve already “learned”. You might end up taking a technique you hated and turning it into a favorite.
Tip #3: Communicate with your instructor about your struggles
While your instructor undoubtedly has an entire curriculum they can teach you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow it all the time.
Are you struggling to escape from side control? Having trouble finishing a choke even though you understand the basic idea of it? Or is there a submission that a training partner keeps catching you in that you have no idea how to defend against?
These are all things your instructor can help you with. Many instructors will teach group lessons “by the book”, meaning they show you the textbook edition of a technique. But often these generic versions don’t account for different body types or limitations, and that’s where having personalized instruction can help.
No single instructor performs or teaches a technique the exact same way, and in a private lesson, your instructor can show you the most efficient ways to execute a technique that they have battle-tested themselves during hundreds of rolls and countless tournament matches.
They can also help you adjust certain techniques to fit your style, body type, or limitations. So if something isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s very likely they can help you fix it.
Tip #4: Roll, don’t just drill
One of the biggest advantages of taking private lessons is that you can drill a single move over and over under the watchful eye of an instructor. Getting that expert guidance every time you practice a move means you’ll improve ten times faster than you would drilling it with someone who is just as clueless as you.
But drilling the moves is just a means to an end. After all, the real test is when you’re actually rolling.
Are you remembering to get your cross faces and underhooks? Are you kick standing your leg out when going for knee on belly, or are you leaving it too close to your opponent’s head so they can catch it and sweep you? Are you aware of what your opponent is doing with their hands and limbs or are you getting too distracted by the pressure they’re putting on you?
Maybe you are. Or maybe you’re not. But either way, taking some time to roll or do positional sparring with your instructor during a private lesson is a great way to improve your game, especially if you’re overwhelmed and not really sure where to start.
Your instructor will spot weaknesses they can help you shore up, but also identify your strengths and suggest techniques for you to learn that complement your natural style.
Tip #5: Bring a friend
You might be thinking that bringing a friend along defeats the purpose of paying for one-on-one instruction. But, there are certain techniques, such as triangles and omoplatas, that are easier for your instructor to teach if they can see what you’re doing, and in general, it can be very helpful to give your instructor a bird’s eye view so they can correct you.
Did you find these tips helpful? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts! I’d love to hear about your experiences with private lessons, if any, both from the instructor or the student’s perspective.