How the Theory of Multiple Intelligence Can Make You a Better BJJ Instructor

belts and brains

by Brendan Hufford

When you’re teaching, regardless of whether it’s BJJ or calculus, there’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In fact, any experienced teacher knows that different teaching methods are required to get through to different students.

Part of what is going on is that different people are good at different things, and consequently learn best in different ways.  This is perhaps best expressed in the ‘theory of multiple intelligences.’

Here’s what wikipedia has to say about multiple intelligences:

The theory of multiple intelligences was proposed by Howard Gardner in 1983 as a model of intelligence that differentiates intelligence into various specific (primarily sensory) modalities, rather than seeing it as dominated by a single general ability.

Gardner argues that there is a wide range of cognitive abilities, and that there are only very weak correlations among them. For example, the theory predicts that a child who learns to multiply easily is not necessarily generally more intelligent than a child who has more difficulty on this task.

In the concept of ‘multiple intelligences’ you can no longer use a single measure like IQ to indicate how ‘intelligent’ someone is.  IQ, in fact, only has a limited predictive ability of success outside of formal schooling (something written about at length by Malcom Gladwell in the book ‘Outliers’).

Gardner believes that the human mind has a range of intelligences and that we each have differing abilities within these intelligences.

Just as teachers apply this to educating students in the classroom, we can apply this to education on the mat. In this article we’ll see what each intelligence looks like in your students, some things they may ask or say to you, and what each intelligence means for you as an instructor.

Linguistic Intelligence

What this looks like in a student: This is the student who likes to listen to instruction and often talks about the techniques while they are training.

What they’ll say to you: “Tell me again

What this means for the instructor: As an instructor, you must make sure that you are not simply showing the technique and saying “Move here, then here, and here.” Your words must be as descriptive as your movements.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence

What this looks like in a student: These are the students who will want ask additional questions such as “But what if they block my leg? Then what do I do?

What they’ll say to you: “Tell me why

What this means for the instructor: These students will get a great value out of explanations of why we are doing what we are doing. If you break drills and movements into numbered steps, these students will pick them up very fast. In addition, they’ll be the critical thinkers in class.

Visual – Spatial Intelligence

What this looks like in a student: These are students who learn very effectively through seeing the instruction. They are also students who are very aware of the space around them including mat space, but also detecting whether or not they have room to execute a technique in a given situation.

What they’ll say to you: “Can I see that again?

What this means for the instructor: You have to make sure that you’re interspersing visual cues, with verbal cues during your instruction.

Musical Intelligence

What this looks like in a student: These students are very good at picking up rhythms during flow drills. These students may also struggle in a silent atmosphere.

What they’ll say to you: “Can we turn the music on?”

What this means for the instructor: Some instructors prefer no background noise while training, but these students will get a lot of value out of being able to train with music in the background. Having a stereo remote that allows you to pause music during times of instruction and then begin again during drilling will be very helpful. Also, snapping your fingers when you want the students to look at your hand is very helpful at allowing them to focus on what you want them to.

Interpersonal Intelligence

What this looks like in a student: These are the students at the gym who are friends with everybody. They’re very active on social media and will likely stand out from the crowd.

What they’ll say to you: “How did you do that?” (while rolling)

What this means for the instructor: These are the blue/purple/brown belts that you want to have help you teach / warm up the other students. They are fantastic at promoting the gym and interacting with others and can be a great asset to any instructor.

Intrapersonal Intelligence

What this looks like in a student: These are the students who are often very self motivated and self-reflective. They’ll often come into class wanting to drill a new move they saw at a tournament, on an instructional dvd, or on the internet.

What they’ll say to you: “Can you explain this after class?

What this means for the instructor: This student isn’t likely to ask questions in a large group setting, but would benefit a lot from private instruction. Also, they’re likely to have very well-thought out opinions and be very strong willed so trying to break them with conditioning or rolling hard with them isn’t going to motivate them further.

Body-Kinesthetic Intelligence

What this looks like in a student: These students are going to learn techniques by doing them. Also, they are going to be very aware of pressure, leverage, framing, and other parts of jiujitsu.

What they’ll say to you: “Can you demonstrate it on me?”

What this means for the instructor: Be patient with these students and allow them to drill for a while before correcting them. Verbally correcting these students may not be the best either. If you are observing your students drilling, join in with these students so they can feel the type of pressure and movement in the technique. Also, they are very likely going to be the ‘improvisers’ who like to try unorthodox things with their bodies, which should not be discouraged.

My greatest advice for instructors is to make sure you are addressing multiple intelligences in your instruction.

Here’s how:

  1. First explain why you are showing a technique and why it’s used (Logical-Mathematical)
  2. Demonstrate and narrate the technique (Linguistic)
  3. Show the technique 2-3 times without pausing to talk (Visual-Spatial)
  4. Have students all drill together at the same pace (Body-Kinesthetic)
  5. Have students drill as many high-quality reps as they can in a given time frame with music playing (Musical)
  6. Allow the students 5 minutes to talk, drill and troubleshoot potential problems with a partner (Interpersonal)
  7. Ask the students to think about one question they have about the technique for next class (Intrapersonal)

This may seem like a lot at first, but over time it becomes habit and really helps all of your students learn.

Finally if you have any thoughts about how you learn best, or horror stories about how you and an instructor were total mismatches, then please share them in the comments below!

In addition to being an intrapersonal learner, Brendan Hufford has a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration and is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu purple belt under Miguel Torres. He is currently writing at GiReviews.Net and


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