4 Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Grappling Seminar

Back when I started grappling, there weren’t very many people teaching BJJ.  Seminars were important: if you didn’t live in the Los Angeles area then a grappling seminar might be the only you that you could pick up some BJJ…

Things have really changed.

Stephan teaching the X Guard at a Submission Grappling Seminar

Not only are there a lot more schools everywhere, but many of big names from the submission grappling, BJJ, and MMA world spend time on the road teaching seminars, workshops and clinics.

Nowadays you’ve got the internet, instructional videos and BJJ schools cropping up all over the place.  But seminars are still important, because they allow you to get that personal touch from someone whom you don’t have regular access to.

Even so, you might have a few concerns about attending one of these sessions.  That’s why I’m going to address four important questions about grappling seminars.

1, “Can I really learn grappling at a seminar?”

My answer is an enthusiastic, unqualified YES!!

I’ve not only given seminars, but I’m also a seminar attendee.

(That sounds a bit like the Hair Club for Men advertisement, doesn’t it?)

In fact I’ve learned techniques, drills, concepts and training methods at more than 50 seminars in the United States and Canada taught by more than 20 different grappling teachers.

Here’s a partial list of grapplers that I’ve trained with at seminars: Amal Easton, Marco Feitosa, Philip Gelinas, Carlson Gracie Sr., Roy Harris, Dan Inosanto, Denis Kang, Emily Kwok, Marc Laimon, Rafael Lovato Jr., Jean Jacques Machado, Rigan Machado, Roger Machado, Carlos Newton, Erik Paulson, Bob Reish, Marcus ‘Conan’ Silveira, Marcus Soares, Vitor ‘Shaolin’ Ribeiro, Oleg Taktarov, Nick Ugoalah, and Yasuhiro Yamashita.

(My apologies if I missed anyone; a lot of people have practiced their chokes on me over the years.)

I’ve driven up to 6 hours each way, or bought plane tickets, to attend certain seminars. And I continue to go to martial arts and grappling seminars to this day.

Sometimes I end up learning that one killer detail that I need to finally unstick a technique that I just haven’t been able to get working. And sometimes I end up with more of a big picture breakthrough just from seeing how other people do things. But there’s no doubt that going to these things been incredibly useful to my development as a grappler.

Plus I’ve met some really cool people and developed friendships with some of them.

Now, it’s true that if you attend enough seminars, then once in a while you’re going to get skunked. Shut out. Or even cheated and bilked.

It’s possible that you’ll pay for a seminar, move heaven and earth to create the time to attend the damn thing, and at the end of it you won’t have learned a darn thing.

Sometimes this happens because a famous grappler may not be a good teacher. Not every competitor can teach well. Let’s do a quick quiz; would you rather learn boxing from Mike Tyson or his original coach, Cus D’Amato?

Right, I thought so…

Sometimes you might not get much out of a seminar because the instructor is still actively competing and doesn’t want to share the real details behind his ‘go-to’ moves. He might be afraid that he’ll lose the edge he uses to dominate his opponents. In this case the person might might just share a bunch of fancy fluffy moves that won’t really work against a quality opponent.

Sometimes it’s because the celebrity instructor is only paying attention to the cute girls at the seminar, or spending the whole time on his phone (don’t laugh, I’ve seen both).

When this happens, there’s no way around it. IT SUCKS!

But the good news is that it doesn’t happen very often.

Most of the people teaching seminars are genuine about wanting you to learn. They’re serious about spreading the art. They’ll try to help you, if for no other reason than they know you’ll never come back to them if you don’t get your money’s worth.

So boycott people who give crappy seminars. And tell your friends about it so that they don’t go either.

But rest assured, this doesn’t happen very often. I’ve come away with good, useful and practical material from over 95% of the grappling seminars I’ve attended.

In the grand scheme of things, a 95% success rate is pretty good!!

2, “How am I going to remember all this material”

At some seminars the instructor shows a LOT of material. This can be a little overwhelming; you end up thinking, “how on earth am I going to remember all this?”

Here are some tips and tricks to help you retain as much as possible.

First of all, make sure you use repetition training. Don’t just hang out on the mat discussing the techniques: actively rep them out. If your body learns how to do a technique through repetition then your brain is probably going to remember it too!

In addition to the practice time allotted by the instructor, try to sneak in some extra time too.

For example, let’s say that everyone breaks for lunch. Before you head out, grab your training partner and bang off an extra 10 reps before you join the hungry herd. And when you get back, before the seminar gets going again, do a few more reps once again.

This is partially about the repetition, but it’s also about forcing yourself to recall the techniques several times throughout the day. This really helps get them into your brain.

For bonus points make sure to meet up with your seminar training partner on another day – later on that week maybe – and do more repetition training. Once again, revisiting the material will really help hardwire the techniques into your brain.

But what about just video taping the seminar so that you can review it anytime you want?

This is a good idea if your guest instructor and the seminar host are OK with it, but most seminars don’t allow participants to use video cameras.

In a way this is understandable – the instructor wants to control what material, if any, ends up on Youtube. Plus he might think that other people who haven’t paid for the seminar shouldn’t have access to the material.

Regardless, if you’re not allowed to film the material then there’s another way to remember more stuff. Take notes. Lots and lots of notes.

Grappling Seminar 1Sometimes it’s possible to take neat tidy notes during the seminar, but that’s NOT what I usually do. Typically I just scribble stuff down as fast as possible during the seminar using my own illegible shorthand, and then I return to those rough notes and re-write everything later on that week.

Making notes forces you to pay attention. It’s harder to zone out. And if you choose to rewrite the notes at some point, well, that forces you to think about the material all over again doesn’t it?

Another good trick is to take notes and then meet up with your training partner later on that week. You may not have been allowed to film the seminar, but they can’t stop you from filming yourself! Put a camera on a tripod, hit ‘record,’ and then go through your notes re-enacting all the techniques you can remember. You’ll be making a guerrilla video notebook for the seminar while also getting a few more reps in!

The reality of note-taking and filming yourself is that you probably WON’T be going back to your notes or videos frequently, but it doesn’t matter…

The very act of physically taking notes and making post-seminar-video-summaries ensures that the material get lodged in your brain instead of it all fading away in a blur of cool stuff that you saw once but now just can’t remember…

In a few extreme cases, seminar instructors might not allow you to take notes. The reason for this escapes me, because the WHOLE POINT of teaching is to help the seminar attendees learn something, right?

I’ve only been to one seminar that had that absurd rule, and needless to say I’ll NEVER train with that person again.

In fact I was so irritated that it spurred me on to not forget a single thing: I ended up taking covert notes in the washroom multiple times throughout the seminar, and then I re-wrote the whole thing as soon as I got home. I ended up with maybe the most detailed set of notes I’ve ever written. Hah!

3, “What if the material doesn’t apply to me?”

People sometimes worry that a seminar instructor is going to show a whole bunch of material that won’t be useable, or applicable.

In a strange way this really doesn’t matter too much…

First of all, it’s good to keep an open mind. You just never know when a technique or position might suddenly start working for you. I recently told a story about a submission that I was pretty certain would never, ever work, and then without warning it suddenly became an effective technique for me.

So you can never be too sure about what is and what is not going to work.

Secondly, at least 90% of the techniques you learn will never make it into your ‘A Game’ (or even your ‘B Game’). And that’s perfectly OK.

A person’s ‘A Game’ is always a subset of all the techniques they know.

Marcelo Garcia knows how to do transition from rear mount to the straight armbar, but he’s probably never going to use that technique against a serious opponent. It’s just not one of his go-to moves. And he chooses not to use that particular technique because it doesn’t mesh well with his strategy and the rest of his game.

But even if some material doesn’t fit your game or your body type, then it’s still good to have physically trained that technique a bit at some point.

Knowledge is power. And the best way to learn how to defend against something is by practicing it yourself a few times.

I can’t promise you that a technique you learn in a grappling seminar will become part of your ‘A Game,’ but knowing how other people do things is really important so that you don’t get surprised by something new on the mats.

4, “How else can I get the most out of a seminar?”

Erik Paulson teaching at an MMA SeminarRecently I went to a fantastic 2 day Combat Submission Wrestling seminar taught by my friend and coach Erik Paulson. At one point, late in the day, he asked if anyone had any questions. And the room went quiet.

Quiet as in crickets-chirping quiet.

I was amazed.

Erik is an incredible resource. I mean this guy is willing to share his secrets on just about any area of grappling or MMA competition. Erik has met and/or trained with almost everyone in the game. He studied with the Gracies in the garage days when the UFC was just a twinkle in Rorion Gracie’s eye. He’s been around the fight game forever and has competed himself.

And nobody had any questions… Really?

(The reason I myself stayed silent at this point is that I’d already asked Erik at least 25 questions that weekend, so I thought I should shut up for a while and give other people a chance to talk.)

Here’s the bottom line. If you train then I’m 99.99999% sure that you DO have questions!

Are you clear about what to do in every single position you’ve ever ended up in on the mats? No way!

Is there a certain technique that you get caught with again and again? (If not, then you should probably find some more challenging training partners.)

Are you crystal clear on all aspects of how you should be arranging your training time? How to divide your time between repetition, sparring and conditioning? I’m guessing not so much…

Do you know everything there is to know about competition, dealing with nerves, cutting weight, and coming up with strategies against specific opponents? I’m pretty sure you don’t, because everybody – superstar coaches included – is learning new stuff in this area all the time.

So go ahead, ask your questions. If you’re wondering about something then probably someone else is wondering about it too.

And when you ask your questions at a grappling seminar, be specific.

  • Ask, “what is YOUR strategy when you’re in this specific situation?”
  • Ask, “what your highest percentage techniques to pass the guard?”
  • Ask, “what are the techniques I should learn first from this position?”
  • Ask, “can I feel you do that technique on me please?”

Another hint. Ask whatever you want, but at some point try quizzing your guest instructor about some of his bread and butter stuff.

I’m always most excited when I learn some new critical details from a high-level guy’s ‘A Game,’ because in my experience that’s when I have my own biggest breakthroughs.

In fact, I’d suggest that you prepare some questions beforehand. Before the seminar. Do a bit of research on the instructor and go there with at least ONE BURNING QUESTION that you must ask that instructor. Pretty much force him to help you with it!

Mark Laimon once wrapped up a seminar this way…

First he asked, “Does anyone have any questions about the technique we’ve just been practicing?

Then he asked, “Are there any questions about any of the material we’ve covered in this entire seminar?”

Then he asked, “Does anyone have any questions about anything in BJJ or submission grappling?”

It’s pretty cool when a teacher is this encouraging about asking questions, but not everybody does this. Most people need a tiny, friendly nudge in order to know how to best help you. So don’t be shy – gather up your courage and ask those questions that I know you have.

Have a good BJJ, submission grappling or MMA seminar! I hope you learn lots!!

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