Words: Oliver Geddes
Every instructor has their own individual way of running classes at their academy. Some prefer drilling, some prefer as much hard sparring as possible. What I aim to do in this article is outline a little of how I like to run a typical class, and why I choose to run it in the way that I do.
Timeline for a 90 minute class
Warm-up and mobilisation – 15 minutes
First rolling period – 10 minutes
Technique – 25 minutes
Technique sparring – 10 minutes
Sparring – 30 minutes
Warm-up and Mobilisation
No one likes lining up and doing jumping jacks and squats. No one. Although having a familiar and non-taxing warm-up every session does have its advantages (and in warmer climates, may be more than sufficient to get somebody prepared for a class), in general I prefer a very mobile warm up. I line everyone up on the wall, and then send them off to run around the edges of the mats, clapping hands with every member of the class individually as they pass, to welcome them to the class. The movements here are fairly typical – shoulder rotations, high knees and heels, sideways skipping, sprints, forward rolls, backward rolls and shrimping. These allows students to warm up their joints whilst raising their core body temperature and getting their heart rate up.
Finally, mobilisation concludes with some movement drilling. My favourite sequence for this is passing the open guard (usually with a bullfight variation, but any open guard pass is fine) to knee on belly. Your partner turns in and you step over the head and switch to the other side, blocking their hips with your elbow to turn into side control. If you want to, you can increase the difficulty by adding a back take or Ezekiel choke on at the end for the more advanced students.
This is usually drilled for a minute and a half per person. The reason I like this movement in particular is because it’s one of the movements in jiu jitsu that you just have to have on tap – you can’t really set it up, and if you have to think about it, the moment is gone. As it’s all movement based with no real partner resistance, there’s a much lower risk of anyone who might have arrived late hurting themselves. Other good alternatives are open guard passing movements and chains or guard retention drills.
The First Rolling Period
A lot of people come into class looking to spar, and the longer you make them wait the more antsy they get, so their attention can end up wandering. By introducing sparring early you can burn off some of their excess energy and get them calmed down and ready to listen when the technique begins afterwards. It gives people who are less fit two sparring sections in the class with more recovery time in between, so newer students don’t have to sit out as much.
The basic structure is ‘King of the Hill’ guard passing, with preferably just under half the class on their backs and the other half waiting on the wall. If it’s possible to do it so there’s just one person spare, so much the better. This sets a very fast pace; it stops people from getting cold in between rolls and it makes students less likely to be stubborn about losing. When there’s a 20-person line along the wall, people fight much harder to avoid having to go back to the line and this can slightly increase the likelihood of injury.
Finally, it is incredibly frustrating to watch people spar for five minutes, go in, get swept in ten seconds and then head back to the wall to watch again. I also introduce a few other elements to keep everyone tested and working throughout to the best of their ability: the person who is playing guard can only close their guard for three seconds at a time – this prevents things from getting too bogged down with someone just staying stuck in closed guard for five minutes at a time. It makes things happen, and ultimately the more you get done in a roll the more you learn, whether it succeeds or not. Related to the above point, I ban the lockdown from half guard. Great technique, but it makes it too easy to slow the action down. No leglocks of any kind – this is primarily because most people’s feet and knees may not be entirely warmed up yet, but it also encourages people to make clean sweeps and passes without having to second guess the threat of leglocks.
It’s a little unfair not to allow people to close their guards whilst exposing them to footlocks. If you win, you stay in – this means that the more experienced students will train for longer rounds, dealing with fresh opponents and testing and improving their stamina and fitness that way. Newer students will get the chance to work with a lot of different people and experience a lot of different rolling styles over the same time period. The person who comes off the wall gets to choose top or bottom – by allowing the person coming in to choose to be positioned wherever their game is stronger, it makes it harder for the person in the middle to stay in the middle. Additionally, it prevents guard players from staying in forever whilst only utilising the more developed part of their game.
This is simple and traditional. I show two or three related movements from a position, trying to cover the most common possible reactions to the situation. Obviously it is important to choose the correct techniques in building a structured syllabus for your students, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Once again, this is a 10-minute round of King of the Hill, this time from the position of the day. I prefer King of the Hill for this because it gives you the opportunity to try the technique when faced with many different body types and many different reactions. One person is generally going to react one way so just drilling with one partner can be limiting. This method allows you to work the technique on someone of different levels, so you can try it on people you are better than as well as those who are better than you.
The two primary rules this time: everyone should hit the position of the day once – if this means you stack the deck in their favour or that you have to give them the final power grips out of the gate, that’s what you have to do. The important thing here is that for someone to retain a technique and work it into their game they need to both have it cemented into their memory and to have confidence in it. Using it in sparring achieves both aims. If the technique has multiple stages or the class is longer in duration, it is possible to devote time to several different sparring setups with the attacker getting less and less controlling grips each time.
If you win three times, you are out – this stops students who are either overall more experienced or who are particularly skilled with the technique of the day from just camping out and taking up all the relevant mat time. By cycling through these people who keep winning, you give the newer or less familiar students more time and opportunity to successfully hit the move of the day.
To finish the class, we move on to regular sparring. I usually favour six minute rounds but if time is limited I will decrease the length of the rounds rather than the number of them. I believe that in general there is more to be learned from diversity of training partners than extra time with one individual. I will often begin the sparring from the position of the day to give further opportunity to hit some of the techniques live. Pairs start in that position and then spar normally, changing positions as appropriate. Should someone be submitted, they will switch top and bottom and start again. If I feel that there hasn’t been appropriate specific training this is an opportunity to get a little more in whilst not stifling the students’ games too much.
Overall, this structure means that students will get 45 to 50 minutes of live training in a 90 minute class, which is a lot, whilst steering them down a path that allows them to expand and utilise the techniques of the day. There’s nothing worse than being taught a new technique and then spending all the sparring rounds of the day in a completely different position with no possibility of employing the technique you’ve just learned. I hope you can work some of these concepts into how you run your classes and that it brings the benefits I have seen when using it with my own students.