Settling an (Annoying) Debate.
- “That’s a bunch of YouTube-Jitsu, it’s crap!”
- “Oh, did you get another junky move from YouTube Sensei?”
- “You can’t learn jiu-jitsu from videos, only from a qualified instructor!”
Sound familiar? Did your instructor say these things to you after you excitedly showed him a funky move you got from the internet? Did an upper-belt teammate say something similar? Most importantly: are they correct? Can you really not learn jiu-jitsu from the internet?
This is a question that comes up constantly, both online and in person. The fact that it still comes up is both vexing and confusing to me. However, I have to have some humility and patience about that. It is a more complicated topic than one would think, at first consideration. And my own perspective has taken over twenty years to cook and simmer.Read More
I’ve been on mats for most of my life. My particular grappling recipe is a bit unusual though. As a teenager, I started learning folk-style wrestling, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at the same time; I’m now a black belt in BJJ, and Shodan (undegreed black belt) in Judo.
I therefore have either credibility or bias when it comes to this question, depending on how you want to look at it. My perspective is based on a lifetime of learning from not one, but several very generous and able teachers. Along the way, I have also definitely peeked at a few videos. But I’ve also gone through phases where I didn’t check out a single video, but rather focused on fundamentals I learned from a sensei, in person. The classics never go out of style; legends like Roger Gracie and Rickson Gracie have proven that, and are not at all shy about saying so.
While I did focus on fundamentals in that manner, and toned down my video-hunting, I experienced one very specific kind of improvement. Definitely. Everything about my high-percentage grappling game got just a bit tighter, more second-nature; nothing exotic came out of my technical tool set. I had a qualified instructor critique my execution of these fundamentals — which I definitely would not have been able to do on my own — and that went a very long way.
At other times, I’ve pilfered techniques far and wide from videos produced by world champions and MMA / Vale Tudo stars, productively making use of the techniques they offer for a comparatively small price tag. A lot of these videos have been well produced, and had top talent sharing their game freely.
I’ve even gotten extraordinarily valuable techniques from YouTube, from guys with black belts around their waists but without competition renown or other comparable achievements. And the camera-person couldn’t hold a shot steadily to save their life.
Let’s be real: some of the other stuff I got from videos was indeed garbage — both the slickly produced videos, and the organic YouTube stuff. On the other hand, some other YouTube material has been solid gold, which I still use. It isn’t always clear which is which; trash, or treasure. Sometimes the slickly produced World Champion’s videos have contained some rather shocking bits of pure garbage, whereas the gems hidden in a seeming “nobody” YouTube sensei’s videos have endured in my game forever.
When BJJ Professors make the concession that there are indeed a lot of great video-discoverable techniques out there, but also a lot of junk, that’s a correct assessment. However, they usually also mention this as a gesture at their own authority to help you sort out the junk. And they are often sincere about this, with good motives. But not always. Sometimes they are just protecting their livelihood. But I’ll come back to that.
In my particular case, it would have been absolutely impossible to imagine learning “YouTube jiu-jitsu” from scratch, armed only with a few other buddies who also bookmarked a bunch of their own videos. I was not an athlete of any kind. My only other understanding of body mechanics came from riding bikes and hip-hop dancing.
For someone so green like I was, as a teenager: I wouldn’t have even known what I didn’t know. For my journey, I had attentive instruction, and needed it. I had those wrestling coaches, my Judo sensei, and BJJ professors to teach me and correct me, and that was absolutely crucial.
Would this have been different if I had wrestling or judo experience prior to my exposure to BJJ, rather than learning them simultaneously as a teenager? Or, for that matter, would I have had enough context if I had done other martial arts which occasionally featured similar grappling mechanics? For example, if I’d studied classical Japanese Jiu-Jitsu forms without a free-grappling phase in the dojo: might this have given me some additional minimal context which videos could supplement, or even basically complete my grappling fundamentals checklist?
In my experience, yes: absolutely, I’ve seen organic “grappling clubs” do exactly this, and produce dangerous players. I’ve seen guys with all those different backgrounds (wrestling, JJJ, Judo, etc) get together and quite productively make their own unofficial grappling clubs, without a single colored BJJ belt in sight… or at least, nothing higher than blue belts. Their club-members, from what I saw, successfully learned a ton of fundamentals without a “qualified” teacher — to say nothing of all the marginal weird techniques no one was telling them to avoid.
Even with a pronounced learning curve, these organic clubs had enough context to get them going. Sometimes their athletes have even won a division at NAGA tournaments, or at least competently used jiu-jitsu in MMA fights. These DIY clubs achieved these results with little more than a mutually cobbled-together set of videos and a commitment to systematically review whatever they got their hands on.
The DIY clubs I knew personally did this with the old Renzo Gracie videos from the 1990’s, or other sets of old VHS tapes by Panther Productions. Many of the videos they tore through were not even BJJ, but submission grappling and judo videos. Later, I’d see other unofficial clubs do similar things with the Gracie Combatives DVDs, supplemented by YouTube.
Famously, there are also examples in the MMA world where gyms without a qualified BJJ instructor definitively overcame jiu-jitsu with its own toolset. A few teams productively combined world class wrestlers with extant video libraries at the time, plus maybe a coach who had a year or less of fundamentals BJJ training. Some of these environments still produced grapplers on par with (or even: better than) products of pure BJJ or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu camps. Pat Miletech and Matt Hughes come to mind, from Miletich Fighting Systems.
Did these guys have holes in their “pure BJJ” game? Almost certainly. Do guys at schools with “qualified” BJJ teachers also have holes in their game? Also, yes, without a doubt. Does that make it a wash?
Technically: no. But functionally: maybe.
The model I described above has worked to produce competent grapplers, maybe even local or regional tournament winners. It has even produced world-champion results in the world of MMA. However, I have never seen it produce a world champion in pure grappling environments. That seems to be uniquely possible under the guidance of a dedicated professor, sensei, etc.. At least, it seems to take a qualified BJJ coach (or qualified catch-wresting coach, in cases like Josh Barnett) to get them to that level; to at least “polish” them for performance at that highest competitive level.
Does that matter to everyone though?
It matters purely in terms of specifically jiu-jitsu tournaments, probably, but maybe that’s the extent of the difference. In my opinion.
Also, this is not a problem most people will even have. The vast majority of jiu-jitsu players won’t ever have to worry about the stakes being that high; they are mostly recreational players. They might have a Pan-American tournament or IBJJF International open, at most, to set as their baseline. Maybe a “World Masters” if they are getting up there in the age brackets. If they are truly dedicated athletes, they may even take on one of the increasingly popular submission-only exhibition matches.
For everyone else under the “world tournament” threshold, here’s my official verdict: the videos will go a very long way. They help, measurably. Additionally: a DIY grappling club with a diverse enough membership (some judoka, wrestlers, maybe a blue belt BJJ player) — plus a virtually limitless supply of videos — can close the remainder of that gap. It’s been done, several times.
We’re discussing what can be done. But how about what should be done?
In my experience, by the numbers, having a qualified instructor — along with your own self-directed learning — takes you the farthest. Or at least, it takes the aggregate group the farthest, and fastest. If you don’t have access to a qualified coach, you can still do quite a bit on your own. But it may take you a bit longer. I say may because it is not an absolute.
Another dirty little secret: DIY clubs can get away with having a seasoned blue belt or purple belt at their nucleus, who help to add context to the videos, and still do a lot of damage competitively. We see this a lot with affiliate schools headed by a talented (but mid-ranked) teacher.
Peer feedback and adversarial grappling play such a massive role in sparring improvement, along with technical instruction from videos. I’d argue that blue belts and purple belts gain enough context to begin a very productive self-directed video-learning journey, if they maintain a consistent enough grappling regimen with a diverse enough group.
Further, I’d argue that they should do this. By the time you’re purple belt and above in BJJ, you should be engaging in a truly profound amount of self-directed learning — which your “qualified” professor can help you polish and complete.
What’s the secret ingredient that allows for this greater degree of DIY learning? The adversarial testing process. Free grappling. Signing up for local tournaments at whatever pace you desire to do so. The efficacy of any bit of YouTube-Jitsu is therefore falsifiable, and easily so. It either works after X number of attempts, or it doesn’t. It either worked in a competition against a stranger, after refining it in the gym with your partners, or it didn’t.
If this wasn’t all testable, it could be back in the purely doctrinal world of top-down authority telling you what works and what does not. But the inclusion of free-grappling planted the seeds for a lot of self-directed learning. You can test it all. Performance against resisting opponents provides the ultimate verdict.
If you have a professor who makes his living with his dojo, and by securing his spot as the authority, you absolutely have to keep his economic stake in mind. You have to view what he says about video-learning with that factor built-in. It doesn’t invalidate what he is saying per se, but you have to understand what stake he’s got in discrediting YouTube-jitsu altogether.
You also have to understand that a qualified professor will often, if not always, have your best interest at heart when they warn you against endless YouTube-jitsu rabbit holes. In many cases, it is because they don’t want you to neglect building a solid set of foundational techniques before getting exotic. However, again: I say “often”, not always.
In my case, I did have a teacher for a bit who practically banned us from video-hunting. He once, on a message board, back-handedly insulted another teacher by commenting on how many instructional videos this other teacher had in his bookshelf; as if to say his BJJ training was less real because he learned a lot from videos. Additionally, if the videos contained information about footlocks or other unorthodox techniques, it was automatically a non-starter, forbidden.
Not coincidentally, this was also the most insecure and possessive martial arts teacher I’ve ever had, and my journey inevitably took me out of his dojo. What’s more, he definitely scoured videos for material to teach for his own classes; sometimes even telling me where he got the material. So that speaks volumes about, at least, his private valuation of video-learning… because he leveraged it for his own business needs. It was okay for him, but not for us; and we “needed him” to know the difference between real and fake BJJ techniques.
Your teacher is not the final authority on what is real, true, and what is not. Again: that is what grappling and competing is for.
If you have a teacher like the one I mentioned above, my advice: leave. Get a teacher who encourages you to attend both to learning your fundamentals, and encourages you to develop your own research and style.
Have I clarified anything with this post? Or just confused you more? Hopefully the takeaway you have is that video learning can help, you should absolutely check out videos for technical homework. You should also make sure you have a seasoned teacher to help keep you attentive to fundamentals and help you sort out the junk. But I’d definitely be wary of anyone telling you in no uncertain terms to avoid checking out videos altogether.