Affiliation vs Certification: How a 16-Year Old Blue Belt Can Teach Jiu-Jitsu

Houston Cottrell completed the Instructor Certification Program at the Gracie Academy at just sixteen, making him the youngest person ever to accomplish this feat. Cottrell started teaching Gracie Combatives and Gracie Bullyproof when he was seventeen, on a full time basis, to an expanding group of novice students in Madison, MS. The majority of jiu-jitsu instructors start in their twenties, thirties or forties and will have trained as adults for over a decade. Due to this, critics have suggested that Cottrell lacks the experience to teach adult students effectively.

In other jiu-jitsu organizations, new instructors work as affiliates under reputable black belt instructors, devise their own curriculums and interpret the martial arts for their students. In contrast, Gracie Academy instructors become certified. This means that they work from a set curriculum, and are shown precisely how and when to teach different techniques. Because Cottrell has been following this strict guidance, he has received glowing reports from all his students.

Gracie Academy Rener Gracie’s Exclusive Interview With Jiu-Jitsu Times

At 16 years old, Houston Cottrell became the youngest person to ever complete the Gracie Academy Instructor Certification Program. At 17 years old, he turned an empty warehouse into a state-of-the-art Level 1 Certified Training Center and began working full time to teach Gracie Bullyproof and Gracie Combatives to a growing number of beginner students in Madison, Mississippi.

Although he is a very unique exception and most instructors come to us well into their 20s, 30s, and 40s, it comes as no surprise that the emergence of a 16-year-old blue belt jiu-jitsu instructor has shocked some members of the jiu-jitsu community, since most jiu-jitsu blue belts will be the first to admit that they don’t feel qualified to teach anyone, let alone run their own schools.

To help people understand the uniqueness of Houston’s situation, I feel inclined to share some not-so-known facts about the Gracie Academy Instructor Certification Program (ICP) and the quality control measures we have in place at our Certified Training Centers around the world.

Affiliation vs. Certification

In the growing jiu-jitsu industry, “affiliation” is the most common type of business relationship between master instructors and their associate schools. Typically, a dedicated practitioner has the unique opportunity to train with a reputable black belt, enjoys the training, and then goes online to apply for official affiliation under the instructor. They agree to pay a monthly affiliation fee, and periodically the master instructor visits the school to teach seminars and issue belt promotions. In this model, the master instructor is relying on the past experience and knowledge base of the affiliate instructor to maintain quality standard at the school.

At the Gracie Academy, we do not “affiliate,” we “certify.” Our number one priority is that the student experience at every Certified Training Center mirrors what is provided at the Gracie Academy in Torrance. Rather than leaving it up to each individual instructor to decipher jiu-jitsu for their students, we provide a complete curriculum and teach them exactly what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it so that anyone can learn. By providing each CTC with a complete instructor’s roadmap and leveraging technology to implement extensive quality control measures, our vision has become a reality and we have 100+ independently owned Certified Training Centers that offer the unique student experience only found at the Gracie Academy Headquarters.

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The Gracie Academy Instructor Certification Program

To be considered for certification, a dedicated jiu-jitsu practitioner must first complete a rigorous Instructor Certification Program (ICP) that will ensure the Gracie Academy quality standard is upheld at their Certified Training Center. Regardless of their previous experience, prospective instructors must first complete the Gracie Combatives program and demonstrate a high level of proficiency in the 36 core self-defense techniques of the Gracie Academy curriculum. Once they have passed the technical evaluation, a prospect can apply for the Instructor Certification Program. This includes a thorough criminal background check – something that few, if any, other jiu-jitsu organizations conduct. Upon passing the background check, prospects begin a 60-day instructor-training course consisting of 52 learning modules comprised of in-depth video lectures/demonstrations as well as accompanying literature in a 107-page instructor manual. Although it may be hard to believe, during this 60-day course, 100% of the time and energy is dedicated to teaching the prospects how to teach, so they are capable of providing the “Gracie Academy Student Experience” anywhere in the world. This 60-day process culminates in a live evaluation that takes place over several days at Gracie Academy Headquarters, during which me, Ryron, and several of the highest ranking black belts in our organization re-test each prospective instructor’s Gracie Combatives technical proficiency, as well as verify their comprehension of all the essential teaching skills learned throughout the instructor course. Here are some of the skills that ICP candidates learn throughout the process:

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  • The 10-Minute Intro: The first lesson is the most important lesson of their life! They learn exactly what to say and what to teach in the first 10 minutes to get any prospective student excited about the lifelong jiu-jitsu journey.
  • Gracie Slice Presentation Formula: What you can do for your students is more important than what you can do to your students. Learn how to own the stage and captivate your students with ultra-detailed, easy-to-follow technique presentation skills with the time-tested Gracie family teaching formula.
  • One-on-one Retention: A good instructor corrects mistakes; a great instructor builds confidence. Learn the essential error correction methods of the Gracie Academy to help your students grow confidently and optimistically without arousing resentment.
  • Gracie Bullyproof Filters: 99% of BJJ instructors teach kids the same way they teach adults. Learn the secrets that grew the Gracie Academy kids’ program to over 250 students and keeps them coming back for more!

To see the complete list of all 52 instructor modules click here.


Four Levels of Certification

There are four levels of certification at which a CTC can be recognized. A Level 1 CTC is only authorized to teach Gracie Combatives and Gracie Bullyproof to beginner students. As an instructor continues to expand their knowledge in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, through countless hours of training at their CTC, extensive online study at Gracie University, and regular trips to Gracie Academy Headquarters, they will be considered for higher levels of certification. Higher ranking instructors who are qualified and capable of teaching purple and brown belt techniques may be recognized as Level 2 and Level 3 CTCs respectively. Only black belt instructors qualify for Level 4 recognition.

The Difference Between 16 and 26

Like every one of our certified instructors around the world, Houston Cottrell completed the Instructor Certification Program and opened his Level 1 CTC eager to share the fundamental techniques with eager men, women, and children in his community. Unfortunately, many critics are concerned that a 16-year-old can’t offer high quality jiu-jitsu instruction to adult students, and that only someone with 10+ years of training as an adult can offer a truly effective training environment. If this were a standard “jiu-jitsu affiliation” where he was expected to make up his own curriculum and decipher jiu-jitsu for his students, these concerns might have merit. But since Houston is following a strict roadmap that leaves nothing to chance and gives students confidence that they are learning the exact same techniques and details that are being shared in Torrance, he has had nothing but positive feedback from every student who has showed up to learn with him. As an additional quality control measure, all students at all CTCs are given free online access to the complete Gracie Combatives online video course through Gracie University, so they can verify that what their learning is, in fact, exactly the same as what we are teaching at headquarters. Of course, by the time Houston is 26 years old, he’ll be 10 times better as a practitioner, teacher and business owner than he is now, but that’s only because he’s got such a huge head start by starting at 16!

The Cost of Quality Instruction

When it comes to the financial side of jiu-jitsu, one lesson my grandfather taught me as a child was that our students don’t pay for jiu-jitsu; in every class we are giving it away for free. One cannot put a price tag on the self-defense skills, the increased confidence, and the lifestyle changes brought about through jiu-jitsu. When a student pays their tuition, they are not paying for jiu-jitsu, they are contributing to the rent, the utilities, and the instructor’s living expenses so he doesn’t have to get another job to subsidize his passion of “giving jiu-jitsu away for free.” Anyone who is concerned that $130/month is too much for a 17-year old blue belt to charge for jiu-jitsu instruction clearly hasn’t had their life altered by jiu-jitsu or doesn’t realize that rent, utilities and gas prices don’t care what your belt color is.

Ultimately, success is the best indicator of success. As long as Houton’s students are happy, and he continues to uphold the Gracie Academy standard as he’s done so loyally, he can continue “giving away” as much jiu-jitsu as he’d like.

Ironically, Helio Gracie taught his first jiu-jitsu class when he was only 16 years old, and so did I. Aside from everything else, to see a young man of the same age deliberately and whole-heartedly choose to pursue the path of empowering those around him, while most kids his age are addicted to snap chat and video games, is not only acceptable but also commendable in so many ways.

The last time I saw Houston was three weeks when he came to headquarters for some training and to get to get re-certified. After rolling with him, I told him that based on his incredible wisdom and dedication, we should change his name to “Rouston.” He smiled conservatively, shook my hand firmly, and looked me dead in the eye when he replied: “I was thinking the same thing.”




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