Words: Oli Geddes
Let’s get this out of the way to begin with – no-one needs private lessons. But there are a few different groups of people who might benefit substantially from introducing them to their training schedule:
Those with limited time or an irregular schedule
I’m going to bundle these two together because they are similar in several ways. Some students have exceptionally busy schedules and can only make it to training for one or two hours a week, and would like to maximise the value of that time by ensuring it is entirely focused on learning and development. In a typical class, a lot of time is spent warming up and drilling, and although there will be one or more instructors keeping an eye on everyone, they cannot be everywhere at once. Since in drilling you will also be the uke (recipient of the technique) half of the time, when you have only so much time in the week you would obviously benefit from having an instructor watching – and feeling – every movement. Equally, if you work hours which mean you can only get to one or two classes a week (or, worst case, none at all) then private classes may be required to get as much mat time as you would want.
Those looking to expand their game
You’ve been rolling well for the past few months, everything has been going well, you’ve found a few techniques that work well for you, but you’ve struggled with moving beyond that base into anything new. You were comfortable with your subset of techniques, and stepping out from the closed guard into the dynamic world of the open guard is proving to be a bit overwhelming. You may have learned a number of techniques from the new position but there is only so much time in a class for technique, and rarely enough to craft an in-depth understanding of a position; the fundamentals of maintaining it, the various combinations that can come from it, and the things that must be absolutely avoided. A full hour working on that is usually enough to cover a position and the mechanics of it, and then to give a student a new toolbox to start working on in that new position – allowing the student to expand their game and continue making progress over the next months of training rather than stagnating.
Those looking to refine their game
This can come in two forms – firstly in a more wide-reaching form where a student is having success with certain techniques or positions, but feels they could be doing them better. Maybe they cannot apply them in certain situations, whether it be to different styles of passing, working on an individual who plays a guard a little differently, or perhaps they simply feel that they are using more energy than they should to make the techniques work. A private class here would be a great opportunity for an instructor to introduce some small tweaks that might have been too detailed for a class atmosphere, whilst at the same time perhaps introducing one or two new techniques that complement the student’s existing skillset.
Secondly, on a more focused level, there may have been some new techniques introduced in the previous weeks that they are having trouble getting down and would really like to focus some drilling time in ironing out the details to make it easier to integrate them into their regular rolling. All of that said, if you have smaller and simpler questions, your instructor should be happy to answer them after the class. This doesn’t mean take half an hour after every session pumping them for knowledge (although there are plenty of instructors who are totally okay with that). But if you require long extended periods of instruction to deal with some of the issues above, maybe private classes are for you.
Okay, so I’ve decided I want to take private lessons – who do I ask?
In general, your first port of call should be your head instructor. He will have been watching your progress, and will generally be the most experienced person within your gym. However, that doesn’t make him the only option. There is definitely a place for asking another senior training partner instead. Not only will it generally be cheaper, there will be situations where you will benefit more from asking a less experienced training partner who is an expert in a specific position than by asking your instructor who will have a greater general knowledge but less in-depth knowledge of your subject matter. My rule of thumb for this has always been that I would rather ask a purple belt who was an expert in a position than a black belt who didn’t play it all that often. The black belt may play it more effectively but that is often more due to a greater overall competence, not through hours upon hours of focusing on one position or submission. This also extends to body types, where a student might prefer to take classes from a practitioner with a body type or weight closer to their own, rather than someone who may be overall more knowledgeable but will not have the same advantages or limitations as the student in question.
How many classes should I do, and how often?
You will very rarely want to do more than one private session a week. Leaving aside the financial implications of doing so, you will need time on the mat to work on the techniques you cover in the sessions – there’s no point in developing a whole new game over the course of an hour if you have barely had an hour’s mat time using it before you are learning something new and breaking new ground. As a minimum, I would say you would want at least three sessions between private classes, which will mean for a relatively frequent practitioner you are limited to once a week – those coming less often may benefit from once a fortnight, or even once a month.
What should the classes include?
Most of this should be addressed in the ‘Who should take private classes?’ section above. Going into a private class without any real idea what you want out of it can be risky and make it a lot harder for the instructor to do his job of making your jiu jitsu better. Going into a private class and saying “Can we just roll and then you can tell me what I need to work on?” makes things a lot harder on the instructor because not only does he have less time to make improvements, he will have to develop a structure for the class, and the topics it will cover, on the fly. Whilst there are certainly instructors who are capable of doing that, it can also be more difficult for the student to learn if the teacher highlights a number of disparate issues without a real theme connecting them.
How do I maximise the effectiveness of my private classes?
Take notes. If you have real problems with remembering things mid class, take them during the class, but if possible try to write down all the topics covered and the important points from them as soon as the class as finished. Even better, try to go through it all again with the instructor and confirm the points as you write them down. An excellent option that most teachers should be okay with is to take five to ten minutes at the end of the session to make a video summarising the key points in the class for your reference. This can be invaluable in terms of taking the material onboard. You have paid for an hour of quality learning, it would be a terrible waste to forget any of it. Also, and this might seem obvious, try to implement the material from the classes. It’s very easy to stick to your ‘A’ game in rolling, but there’s no point covering new material and then not testing it, coming back in for another class and when the instructor asks you if you had any problems the honest answer is “Well, I didn’t actually try any of it.” Finally, don’t be afraid to ask the instructor if things come up when you are trying to implement the content from the classes. They should be happy to give you a quick five or ten minute run through, adjustment or refresher to try and set you on a better track as you continue your training.
Private lessons are not for everyone, and by no means essential, but for certain people they can really make a big difference. I hope some of the points here help you to decide whether they are for you and if they are, give you some idea about how to make the most of them.