This is the eighth guest post in our series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. This essay, by Graham Barlow, explores the rapid adoption of video conferencing as an instructional medium within the BJJ community. Barlow wonders whether a practice that define’s its authenticity through rolling and competing can truly claim Zoom as its own. If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.
“BJJ in the Age of Zoom”
By Graham Barlow
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazlilan Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) academies around the world have been forced to shut their doors. This is an unprecedented time in the history of BJJ. It has gone from being one of the fastest growing martial arts in the world to entering a period of universal and immediate decline. To combat this trend the switch to online learning, mainly using Zoom to teach interactive classes, has been just as dramatic and universally adopted. But does Zoom really work for BJJ, an art that prides itself on the kind of authenticity that only live sparring provides?
I used to think the idea of learning martial arts from a video was absurd, but when I started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu back in 2011 it made a lot more sense. When I got caught with something in rolling I could just look up what happened online after the class and find the counter I needed. And when I progressed beyond the basics and I wanted to keep up with the modern trends in the game, like footlocks, it was all there waiting for me online.
BJJ is a game of knowledge as much as skill. Once you’ve progressed beyond the level of knowing the basics – how the body needs to move on the ground, how to choke somebody, how to break their arm – it’s simply a matter of knowing enough techniques to cope with whatever situation you find yourself in (knowledge), and being able to perform them under pressure (experience/skill).
If you are stuck in the 50/50 position and don’t know what to do with your legs entangled like that, no amount of ‘surfing the wave’, or ‘going with the flow’, is going to help. If your partner knows what to do in that situation and you don’t, you will lose. Or you could try and Hulk your way out of it and blow your own knee in the process – it’s your choice. The idea that if you just learn a few principles of movement you can be ‘ok’ in any situation comes crashing down when faced with the realization that there are five minutes to go in this roll and you have already been tapped twice by somebody who simply knows where to put his foot.
In the early days it was sensible advice to avoid online instruction as there was very little on YouTube except questionable techniques and bad advice. Over time this has changed. Now you can find an almost unlimited amount of technical advice from active world champions available for free. There are genuinely too many options to choose between. And of course there’s a booming market in paid courses from famous names like John Danaher and Gordan Ryan if you want a deep-dive on a particular subject like back attacks or heel hooks. Academies of famous world champions like Marcelo Garcia and the Mendes brothers sell a monthly membership enabling anybody access to their weekly classes via video. You can see why these websites are popular. It is a rare BJJ coach that knows the butterfly guard better than Marcelo Garcia, or the 411 position better than John Danaher.
BJJ has always been quick to adapt to new technology, but this has not been without its growing pains. The awarding of belts online caused a real stir a few years ago. The ire was predictable as within the BJJ community belt grading has always been a big deal. Earning any belt in BJJ takes longer than in most other martial arts and requires a considerable level of personal commitment. In the days before black belt coaches became ubiquitous it would be quite common for there to be only a handful in a country, if you were lucky. Travelling long distances, often internationally, to train with higher belts was par for the course. People suffered for their belts and they weren’t happy with any perceived attempt to water-down the art, fearing that it might go the way of shopping mall Karate or Tae Kwon Do, where a ten year old can get a black belt in a matter of months.
Yet when the COVID-19 pandemic struck all previous objections to online learning (that it wasn’t real enough and couldn’t function as a true substitute for mat time) were suddenly off the table. BJJ was quick to look to technology as its saviour.
Three phase response
The pandemic has hit BJJ particularly hard. Barring an orgy there are very few other activities in which you come into so much extremely close body contact with so many other people in a single hour. While a Tai Chi or Yoga class can still function while maintaining 2 meters of social isolation between practitioners with relatively little change to a usual class structure, there’s no such equivalent in BJJ.
So far the BJJ response to the pandemic has happened in phases. The first phase was giving away free stuff online. The BJJ business model is structured around full-time gyms supported by direct debits from members. With no classes being taught the immediate fear was people would cancel in droves. The messaging was clear and reasonable – support your academy by not cancelling your direct debit so that there’s still an academy left to come back to when this is all over. To fill in the gap in classes, instructors filmed Facebook Lives showing techniques and online BJJ websites like BJJ Fanatics gave away some free content to help the community. Some of the large BJJ organisations, like Gracie Barra, made all their paid-for online content free to current members.
When it became clear that academies were not going to reopen in two weeks we entered “phase 2” – the era of Zoom, or other interactive video conferencing services. By adopting Zoom, BJJ instructors could teach live classes to their paying students, and give interactive feedback as the students copied the techniques from their front room or garden. The students are either following along using a grappling dummy or live with a partner that trains, or have a child that trains at the academy. This is where we are now.
I remember when grappling dummies were the type of things people used to laugh about in BJJ class. They are expensive and they look a bit like sex dolls. If some poor soul admitted to buying one, they were the butt of endless jokes about their new girlfriend. It was all part of the macho banter that you find in almost every sport where men group together, and that (hopefully) peters out when there are women training too.
The grappling dummy is now having its heyday. It is the go-to solution for training BJJ at home when you don’t have a partner. I can see its value for beginners. BJJ requires the use of particular muscles in a particular way that you don’t find in other activities, and hardwiring certain actions into your body takes time. You can drill the same move – say an armbar from knee on belly – over and over to your heart’s content. If you don’t yet have these moves ingrained in your soul a grappling dummy can help get them there.
For more experienced grapplers, like myself, the dummy’s utility is diminished. My body already knows how to do an armbar from knee on belly. It’s like riding a bike. I may be a bit rusty if I get in the saddle after not riding for a year, but in a few minutes, it all comes back.
What Zoom classes cannot do is replace the adrenaline hit that BJJ gives you. As Robert Drysdale recently said in his podcast with Paul Bowman, people in their initial phases of falling in love with BJJ are a little bit like drug addicts. They need their next hit. Very few things in martial arts match the BJJ experience. You get to live the (safe) life of a warrior for the half hour rolling session that ends each class. You genuinely experience the visceral thrills, the highs and lows of victory of the battlefield, in a way that you can’t find in any other martial art. Your rolls with your favourite training partners become like the legendary battles of Achilles and Hector at Troy.
Well, at least that’s what they feel like to you even if it just looks like two guys cuddling. And you get to do this every lesson. And full time academies have 3 classes a day. Just think of the possibilities!
All of this makes Zoom the methadone to BJJ’s heroin. There’s no other way to cut it – a taste of Zoom just leaves me craving the real stuff. As James famously sang in the mid 90s “If I’d never known such riches, I could live with being poor”.
While some will be happy with a Zoom class and a grappling dummy as a stop-gap, even the most die hard supporter of their BJJ academy is simply prowling at the gates like a hungry lion waiting for them to be unlocked so feeding time can begin. If I contrast the number of students I used to see on the mat with the number of faces I see on my academy’s live Zoom call, it’s a fraction of the number it used to be.
I contrast this with the experience of my friend who runs the local Systema academy. He has actually seen his overall student numbers rise since the pandemic started and he began offering Zoom classes. The main reason for this is access to a global market that he didn’t have before. Clearly, his Zoom classes are going to continue after the pandemic is over.
Systema just seems to work better online in exactly the way that BJJ doesn’t. A lot of the classes he taught were “health” classes which involve doing activities that can easily be done at home or outside – walking, running, breathing, falling, push ups, sit ups, squats, etc.
This is a tough time for BJJ. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that this is the biggest crisis that BJJ has faced in its lifetime. Who knows what the future holds?
Phase 3 of the BJJ response to COVID-19 has yet to begin. I suspect it will involve opening under limited conditions. Maybe a small number of students will be allowed into the gym but still be restricted to doing solo drills on a dummy (or their chosen partner) on the same mat, but staying 2 meters apart from others and wearing face masks? One might imagine this as a kind of in-person Zoom class.
Or perhaps the next phase will involve training with a limited number of people in your social group? We may be looking at friends training together in garages again, like the famous Gracie Garage, which was how BJJ started in California, before it took over the world.
I think there is one area where BJJ can make good use of online tools though, and that’s the social element. As well as the thrill of battle, the other addictive aspect to BJJ is forming almost instant bonds with fellow students. For men in particular, it is hard to make new friends after a certain age, and BJJ creates a genuine feeling of camaraderie and a community that you feel part of and valued by. As the army experience shows, people you’ve gone into battle with (even the simulated version offered by BJJ) become as close as brothers and sisters. I often think that what BJJ academies should be doing is focussing more on providing the social aspect online – forget the instructions, just let people gather and talk like they used to after class.
That’s what I miss most about BJJ – my friends.
About the Author
If you enjoyed this guest post you might also want to read: How Jiu-Jitsu Became a Traditional German Martial Art