Jiu-Jitsu Times Reader Question: What Makes An Instructor Great/Successful?

Tom DeBlass and his instructor Ricardo Almeida.--photo by Mark Ward, Garden State Photography-courtesy of Tom DeBlass

Reader questions are a fantastic opportunity for the writers at the Jiu-Jitsu Times to give back to the community that we serve.  If you or any of your teammates ever have a question, feel free to reach out to me at and I will do my best to help you.  If the question has not yet been covered in one of my posts and has enough “meat” to it, I will write one for you.

I recently received the following question from one of our readers, James Woo, about what precisely makes an instructor great/successful:

What is the difference between a good BJJ instructor vs. one who is not as good. For example, people say Atos, AOJ, etc are good schools, but why? By that I don’t mean winning championships. What do they actually do when they teach compared to a not so good BJJ black belt instructor?  For example, maybe a good instructor teaches better moves? More detailed? What exactly is it?

I will do my best to answer this question based on my experience.

I have been fortunate enough to train all over the world.  I have taken classes in Italy, Israel, Canada, and throughout the eastern and mid-western part of the US.  I have learned from blue belt instructors and world champions.  I have learned from “who’s that guy?” to John Danaher, Jacare Cavalcanti, Buchecha and many, many others.  There are a few ways that high-level instructors are special.

For starters, there is the “personal connection.”  My current instructor, Pablo Castro, at Strong Style Mixed Martial Arts and Training Center is a great instructor. But what makes him special is not his ability to teach moves, it’s his personal investment in his students.  His desire is not to teach you how to grapple like him, it’s to make you better at grappling like you.  His confidence and pride on the mat is not fueled by what he can do to his students, but rather by what his students can do to their competition.  The personal connection that a coach has the ability to form with their students is an intangible aspect of that coach-student relationship that ultimately translates to success.  All of the great coaches have it.

Details.  The way an instructor teaches details, specifically to lower level practitioners, can differentiate between a successful and unsuccessful instructor.  This means a few different things.  For starters, one must know exactly which details to teach to the new student and how to teach them.  If you overwhelm them, they’ll lose more than they gain; if you don’t give them enough data, they won’t be able to grow.  It’s like watering a plant: if you don’t give it enough water, you’ll kill it by drying out its roots; if you give it too much, you’ll drown it.

On the other hand, higher level students require a whole different level of data to improve upon the information they already have.  They need to learn the very fine details of how the technique should be done in order to do it correctly against a trained opponent.  Details and how they are delivered are a major way that instructors can be good or bad.

There are only so many useful moves in jiu-jitsu, but great instructors will teach their students effective and surprising ways to chain those moves together.  If you watch the best guys in the world, some do fundamental techniques really really well, while others hit fantastic and sneaky transitions in a buttery, smooth fashion.  A great instructor knows how to create these sequences and how to teach lower level practitioners how to execute them.

Perhaps the most important detail to remember is that it’s not always the instructor that makes the students great, it’s their luck of the draw when it comes to the students they attract.  And greatness breeds greatness.  Think about it like this: Andre Galvao is a phenomenal instructor, but he attracted some ready-made products to his gym that are now teaching and training at his gym, making more phenomenal instructors and athletes.  A great instructor may be great based on their ability to attract greatness and create a hotbed for more greatness.  It’s all in the mindset.

These are the best answers I have to this question.  Instructors out there who have achieved greatness: what did you do differently?  Students who have achieved greatness: what did your instructors do differently?


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