The recent changes to Gracie University’s belt system.

Recently, Rickson Gracie, Rener and Ryron Gracie and Pedro Sauer took part in a video to discuss their respective paths in the furtherance of jiu jitsu around the world. They also discuss a change to the Gracie University belt system, introducing a new ‘Gracie Combatives’ blue/white belt and the removal of the online promotion process for any other belt. (scroll to the bottom of this article for the video)

Now I’m sure many of you will know who Rickson Gracie is. However you may not know that he started the Jiu Jitsu Global Federation (JJGF) a few years ago, in an attempt to move away from some of the modern sport jiu jitsu practices (things like double guard pulls and 50/50 guard) that are becoming more prevalent. The JJGF is more or less in direct competition with the biggest jiu jitsu federation worldwide, the IBJJF. However in the first few years, for whatever reason, it didn’t really gain any traction. This is a pity because some prominent members of the jiu jitsu community where on the JJGF masters council and I was keen to see what they accomplished. What is important to note is during the first year of it’s inception the JJGF introduced a new belt between white and blue, the white belt with a blue stripe. As you can see from the link, all content related to that belt is no longer available on the JJGF website.

One of the reasons for this belt was to help keep students motivated to train jiu jitsu.

On average, in most BJJ schools, it takes about about two years to get your blue belt. It’s generally accepted that you need to have a good overall understanding of a range of techniques and a level of comfort in sparring. Some schools require you to pass a test of your techniques to get your blue belt, while others require you to compete and place 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in your division. (The next time you see James Smart, ask him how long he was a white belt and what the requirement for blue belt was, the answer may surprise you).

It is common knowledge that the highest drop out rate for jiu jitsu practitioners happens from white to blue belt. In my own experiences this typically happens within the first 6 months to a year. It also usually happens for one of two reasons. Either student gets discouraged at how long at takes to get their blue belt or, during the journey to blue, they are injured or otherwise negatively affected by being expected to roll too early. Some people are not ready to roll from day one and the negative effect of loosing all the time can cause the large majority to give up, feeling they will never be good at jiu jitsu.

So (I believe) the idea behind the white/blue belt was to give new students something to work towards in the shorter term while also not expecting them to concern themselves with rolling until they achieve the white/blue belt, in an attempt to prevent the high drop out rate of new students.

Now, on the other hand, Ryron and Rener’s plan by implementing the Gracie Combatives programme as the beginner programme at Gracie Academy and online through Gracie University took a slightly different approach. Instead of introducing a new belt, they implemented the requirement that a student need only know and pass an assessment of the Gracie Combatives programme to achieve blue belt. By taking the requirement of rolling out of the equation they effectively created a programme that can, given a focused training regime, be completed in a year. This change also gives the new student something to work towards in the shorter term, hopefully also preventing the high drop out of white belts.

The downside to this was the overall backlash from the greater jiu jitsu community. Gracie University was accused of commercialising jiu jitsu and selling belts online, including members of their own family. Even Rickson himself was opposed to the online blue belt, a fact was was reported on many popular BJJ websites. This caused Ryron and Rener to introduce the ‘technical blue belt’, to be given to those who pass the Gracie University online belt assessment for Gracie Combatives. A student would then be required to be tested for their official blue belt at a Gracie Academy Certified Training Center (CTC).

Some also argued that rolling is part of jiu jitsu and if you can’t take a beating on the mat and overcome your losses, you will never get better. By not expecting a new student to roll (for at least the first year) Gracie Academy and Gracie University were accused of watering down jiu jitsu. I’ve often posted my own thoughts on the topic online, but there is a small amount of truth to these arguments. However there are always those students who are just looking for a self defence programme and those students shouldn’t be required to roll to early on, unless they want to.

Effectively the Gracie Combatives belt is an amalgamation of the JJGF white/blue belt and the Gracie University technical blue belt. To achieve it requires the student to pass the usual Gracie Combatives assessment. Once that happens the student should then start learning the Master Cycle techniques from BBS1, as well as start gaining experience in sparring, for at least 6 to 12 months. Only then, by being tested at a CTC by an official Gracie Academy representative, can a student achieve the rank of blue belt.

In implementing this Gracie University is aligning itself with a more traditional approach to blue belt, while still giving the student a shorter term goal to work towards. It also ensures that the act of live sparring is part of the requirement to get a blue belt, but only when the student has gained a certain level of comfort in the Gracie Combatives techniques. It also (hopefully) provides the student a clear goal and therefore the motivation to keep on training. It also gives the new student a good fundamental base in self defense, before they tackle the rigors of rolling. Personally I think its a great idea and it brings balance to the Gracie University belt system.

What effect this will have on real Gracie Academy CTC’s is another thing. My guess is that the Gracie Combatives belt is exclusive to Gracie University. I am assuming that it will just mean that to pass your blue belt assessment at a CTC will require completing and passing the regular Gracie Combatives drills as well as a live sparring assessment, both gi, no gi and fight sim. If this is the case, I’m actually pretty excited about it. It will mean that Gracie Academy blue belts will be on a similar technical and rolling level as students from non Gracie Academy schools.

What is great about all this is what can be learned about both parties as well as what it means for jiu jitsu as a whole.

  1. Rener and Ryron are willing to listen to the wisdom of their uncle in understanding their grandfathers jiu jitsu better.
  2. Rickson is willing to work with Ryron and Rener in preserving the traditions of jiu jitsu while also focusing on the future.
  3. Having someone like Rickson help guide the path of Gracie University brings trust in the system from the greater jiu jitsu community. Rickson is well respected by most BJJ schools and his guidance and support of Gracie University will not be missed.
  4. Ryron and Rener are now part of something that could unify the larger jiu jitsu community.
  5. The positive effects of this change have already been felt.
  6. This may also have a positive effect on the rift between members of the Gracie Family. Seeing Rickson and Rener and Ryron together like this was amazing.

In short, I am very excited about this turn of events. I hope to see more members of the Gracie Family and the larger jiu jitsu community working together like this, keeping the legacy of Grandmaster Helio Gracie and his jiu jitsu alive, while looking to the future of the art and how it can be spread to become a positive force in the world.


Interview with James Smart

James Smart is the owner and head instructor of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Cape Town, the only certified Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school in South Africa, as well as the owner of STREETSMART, a provider of real world self protection /combative training to Civilians, Law Enforcement, Military and Security. James has been my Gracie Jiu-Jitsu instructor for 8 years and his experience and opinions on self defense and self protection are always insightful and thought provoking. I recently chatted to James about the realities of self defense training.

Hi James, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

My pleasure, always great to talk to you, you always throw some really good questions out there.

Thank you, I guess its because I had a good instructor who taught me the value of questioning what works and what doesn’t 😉

First off, for those who’ve never met you, could you give us the short history of your Gracie Jiu-Jitsu journey?

Well, its hard to give a short history of a very long journey, and as you well know, I’m not that good at keeping things short, I tend to get carried away. But here goes, I started Japanese Ju Jutsu way back, when Gary (my training partner) heard of these Gracie guys from Brazil, in particular Rickson. So we went on holiday to LA to train with them and see what it was all about. We got to the Gracie Academy and met Rorion, Ryron and Rener there. It blew us away not only how great they were at fighting but how cool and chilled they were as people. Coming from a TMA (traditional martial arts) background it was quite a shock to not have to bow. We traveled back and forth to LA for a few years then in 2000 I decided to leave my job with Philips Electronics and travel to LA and train full time. After LA I went to Brazil, in total training full time for 1 year. Actually, you could say I have been training / teaching full time ever since. I am now a Black belt under Ryron and Rener Gracie and still learning as much, if not more, today as I did as a blue belt.

There has been a lot of debate about the ‘street vs sport’ schools of jiu jitsu. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Cape Town is probably more of a ‘street’ jiu jitsu school. What in your opinion are the advantages of training at a ‘street’ school vs training at a ‘sport’ school?

I’m not really sure there are any advantages, unless of course you count not getting beaten up as an advantage 😉 What do I mean, well I think BJJ (lets use BJJ to define the sport and GJJ to define the street) is a great sport, it has now evolved so far down that road and the guys and girls that are top of their game are no doubt athletes. Can they defend themselves in the street? Yes, more than likely. Is it possible because of the way they practise the sport that they’ll get punched out? Yes, it is. We have seen many times how BJJ guys have had to significantly change their game just to get into MMA, it’s all about punch protection. In GJJ we learn punch protection and dealing with the psychology punches being thrown at you first and then worry about the sport later. Does that handicap us when it comes to sport? Yes, I think it does in the short term but I believe it all evens out in the long run. If you’re a great grappler, you’re a great grappler! I guess my philosophy as an instructor and GJJ students is – why did I and most people walk in my door? To learn to defend themselves. If I teach them BJJ am I fulfilling that in the shortest time possible? No. If I teach them GJJ and get them into the fight sim class, am I fulfilling that? Yes, 100%.

Gracie Academy (and specifically Rener) have taken some heat recently in regard to Gracie Academy Blue Belt instructors misrepresenting their rank. As a certified Gracie Academy black belt and owner of a CTC how do you feel about what’s been going on?

First off, I think it was one instructor, I stand to be corrected though. With regards to Rener taking flack, I 100% support Rener and Ryron and what they do. The Gracie University is simply the best on-line learning available for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. I know some don’t like on-line learning and I get that, clearly its not preferable to learn a martial art or any fighting style for that matter on-line. And yet, there are 100,000’s of BJJ DVD’s out there. DVD’s that don’t give feedback, don’t cover all the angles, don’t even have instructors that can speak English and yet they don’t get slated. I can tell you right now, there is something in the pipeline with the Gracie Uni that will change most if not all of the complainers.

Now regarding the whole belt thing, I have to tell you I’m well and truly over it. There are people in all martial arts that have fake belts. We have seen many, many videos recently of people who have claimed to be BJJ black belts and been shown not to be. If something is worth having people will try and find a way to get it and not always honestly. There are instructors out there who give belts out like they are going out of fashion, in my opinion buying loyalty. I know why belts are there and I fully get the value of them, but getting my black belt didn’t change anything, I’m still learning, I’m still training. The day I got my black belt  I didn’t all of a sudden become better. Much more important is, who have I learned from? How long have I been training? What different experience do I have (BJJ tournament, Street, MMA) to offer to students? Come to a class and let me teach you, roll with me, then judge me. But even then always feel free to question me. Don’t listen to someone who has conviction and just believe them. As people we tend to be very very easily fooled by someone who “sounds” like they know what they are talking about.

I think I might have got off of subject a bit, sorry!

Not a problem at all.

You’re one of the few people I know who has actually worked the doors at bars/nightclubs in the UK. How did your martial arts experience help/hinder your ability to deal with the types of fights that go on in the nightclub scene?

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was the single best thing i did for being able to work on the doors, actually that and conflict management. That said, I really didn’t need to know all of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, just the Rear Naked Choke. Interestingly I lost my faith in some of the other martial arts around then when I realised pain compliance (wrist locks) don’t work on guys that have been taking acid all night. I restrained someone once using a wrist lock, he stood up into it, felt no pain and shattered his wrist. I let go and put him to sleep. I realised then that mechanical compliance or choked unconscious was the way forwards.

A few years ago, you also started a company called STREETSMART. Tell us how that came about?

Having been involved in martial arts for nearly 30 years I am always evaluating different fighting styles. About 7 years ago I met a guy who is highly trained in Combatives, not Gracie Combatives but what’s known as Combatives/CQB/CQC etc. Anyway, we started training together and I started learning all about the world of solving problems quickly and based on concepts. As time progressed I was fortunate to train with some of the world’s legends like SouthNarc and Lee Morrison. I realised there was a place, in fact a very significant place, in my self protection universe that all of the martial arts I had done, including Gracie Jiu Jitsu, was not able to look after and Combatives could. Everything kind of grew organically from there, my knowledge and experience growing and demand for people to learn growing if not faster. In STREETSMART we now have a team of instructors who teach everyone from Armed Reaction Officers through to Anti-poaching units. We teach ALL new ADT recruits throughout South Africa, with our program only last week being described as “the most valuable part of the Reaction Officers training”. Our team is made up of me (obviously) doing all of the unarmed and extreme close quarter fighting, an Ex UK and SA special Op’s members and a highly trained medic and a risk assessment specialist. We have lots of big plans on the horizon.

What would you say is the core difference between what you teach as a Gracie Jiu Jitsu instructor vs a StreetSmart one?

Gracie Jiu Jitsu is for solving social fights or what I would call ego driven fights. One guy cuts another off on the road. The one who got cut off gets annoyed and the two guys start to fight. It’s ego driven, these fights normally operate on a subconscious moral code of, “I won’t kill you, I just want to show you who is the man”. STREETSMART Street Survival (our civilian course) is for criminal interactions, the situation where there is desperation or a lack of moral compass rules and you stand a risk of dying. Another way of saying it is, imagine your fighting abilities are like a dimmer switch. You can’t go 100% all out every time, you’ll end up in jail. You want to be able to deal with a fight with necessary and reasonable force. A combination of Gracie Jiu Jitsu and STREETSMART give you this.

In your opinion, from a self defense perspective, what is the benefit for a regular individual in taking up Gracie Jiu Jitsu instead of other martial arts styles.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu will work, other martial arts might work if you train long enough. I guess that’s a bold statement but it’s been proven way too many times before to say anything different. I guess to clarify it I could say, with Gracie Jiu Jitsu, you have a plan of what to do when the fight starts (close the distance safely), you have an objective (get the fight to the ground), you have a goal (control and submit your opponent). All of this is done with relatively simple, easy to remember, forgiving if you don’t get it 100% correct, techniques. In most other martial arts, you wait and see how the fight is going to start and then react, there is no objective and no plan. And its usually with either hard to learn, requiring great body mechanics and conditioning strikes or hard to remember, complex and un-forgiving techniques.

I’m glad you said “in your opinion” in the question. I’d hate to be taken that I’m stating fact! 😉

20 plus years ago Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was heralded as the most effective form of self defense. Do you think this is still true today?

To go back to my previous answer, it’s the most effective form of self defence in a street, ego driven, one on one fight. Is it the most effective in a criminal attack? It’s sure better than nothing and a million times better than a lot of stuff that is taught. But, if there are multiple attackers or weapons involved, you must stay on your feet, do enough to create space and get out. And no, that is not Gracie Jiu Jitsu, that’s STREETSMART Combatives.

A topic that often comes up in self defense circles is the one of weapon defences and how they are taught across various styles of self defense. You’ve had some extensive training in this area, give us your thoughts on weapon defences.

Don’t unless you really, really have too. When do you really really have too, when you or someone else will lose their life if you don’t. I have to be honest here, I am not going to go into the how to of weapon defense. It’s just too big a topic and open to too much misunderstanding. What I will say though is, if you learn a weapon defence and for one second think “hmmmmmm this is super cool”, stop learning it and find one that isn’t super cool. The super cool ones are far to complex and far too likely to either not work, require far too much training or you just won’t remember it when someone is stabbing you or has a gun in your face. What ever you learn MUST be blindingly simple and uncool.

Finally, do you have any last words on self defence you would like to leave with our readers

Yes, I’d like to re iterate a post that I put on Facebook the other day –

Ask yourself – how many people do I know who have been involved with / victim of a criminal interaction?

Then ask yourself – how many people do I know who have been in a building fire.

I’m guessing the answer is far more in question one to question two.

My questions to you are –

Doesn’t it seem odd that we are most prepared for the least likely event and least prepared for the most likely event?

My next question is – do we learn simple, effective easy to remember, proven skills to deal with and escape fire?

If so why do we “try” to learn complicated, hard to remember, unrealistic, ineffective, stay there until it’s finished techniques to defend ourselves?

Thank you for your time James, it’s always interesting talking to you.

Get the most out of an open mat

In a few weeks we will be celebrating our 1 year anniversary with an open mat sparring session. If all goes well we will have all available students (and some visitors) sharing the mat and testing their jiu jitsu against each other.

However, if you have never sparred before (or a little) or you only do jiu jitsu for self defence but you don’t want to miss out on a training session, the idea of an open mat can be a daunting one.

Here are some tips to get the best out of an open mat session.

1) You do jiu jitsu for self defence and you only have a few classes under your belt.

Great, go an find other students like yourself (you know who they are) and spend as much time as you want reviewing your techniques. This is a great opportunity to drill the techniques you already know or ask someone about a new technique they have previously learned.  Think about the reflex drills we often do at the end of a class, string some techniques together and practice the drills. Pair up with a more experienced student or your instructor and see if you can learn some new details that increase your proficiency in your already learned techniques.

This is also great advice for women who want to drill their self defence techniques.

2) You only have a few sparring classes experience

Take it easy. An open mat can be tiring if you spend all your energy in your first roll. Work on conservation of energy. Remember that it’s OK to tap, especially against experienced opponents. Use the time to see how to defend against common attacks and where the openings are. Ask questions. If someone does something cool let them show you how they did it and then ask them if you can try it on them. Seasoned jiu jitsu practitioners love sharing their cool tricks.

3) You are have been rolling for years.

Your job is very important. Besides having a huge amount of time to roll and (hopefully) new partners to roll with at some point you may partner up with someone mentioned above. Take this time to share your knowledge with others, or help them drill techniques, even if they may seem ‘boring’ to you. Remember that the foundation of a good practitioner is mastery of the basics, so reviewing the beginner techniques will only improve your game. Feel free to show off a cool new technique or two you have learned. People love to learn new, cool stuff!

If everyone respects the various levels of experience they may come across on the night and acts accordingly, not only does an open mat become a place to have run and roll but also a place where lessons can still be learned and your jiu jitsu can grow.

See you on the mat.

Interview with Moshe Kaitz

Moishe Kaitz is a Royler Gracie Black Belt who runs Gracie Humaita Israel. He was recently featured in two articles on the BBJ Eastern Europe website, showcasing his self defence based jiu jitsu. He graciously gave us the opportunity to chat to him about his jiu jitsu story.

Hi Moshe, thank you for taking some time to talk to us

Tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Moshe Kaitz, I am 37 years old and I live in Israel.

I teach Gracie Jiu Jitsu under the original Gracie Academy from Rio de Janeiro, Gracie Humaita.

I am a black belt under Royler Gracie and David Adiv.

I also have a professional MMA record of 6-2 with my last win over UFC title contender (and WEC world champion), Hermes Franca.

How and why did you get involved with Grace Jiu Jitsu?

As a kid I used to train Karate and even got a black belt.

I never felt good and confidence with Karate, in terms of self defence. I never felt that I could really handle against a bigger and stronger attacker.

One day I was watching TV and came across a show called UFC. it was UFC number 4. I saw Royce Gracie defeat Dan Severn and I was hooked!!

Actually I opened the TV when this fight, which was the final fight, was starting, at that time I didn’t even see the entire event.

I started training and soon realized that it would be the best to go to Brasil.
Went there, met Royler Gracie and since then I have been traveling every year to Brasil and USA, to train with Royler and David and all my friends from Gracie Humaita.

What do you like the most about Gracie Jiu Jitsu?

I do believe that Gracie Jiu Jitsu is the best martial art and it can really gives a chance to a smaller guy or girl against an attacker.

You have been promoted to Black Belt, perhaps you could share that story with us?

Over the years I was trying to stay as close as I can to my teachers,
take as much private classes with them, join them to as much seminars I can and of course, train in the academy with everybody, from white belts to the champions
It was a great honor to get the black belt from the legendary Royler Gracie.

You were recently featured in a few articles on the BJJEE website, specifically related to the self defence aspect of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. How did this come about and what has the reaction been like?

I believe in the old way. the real Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the Gracie way.
Those who follow Helio Gracie methods are doing the real Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The aspect of self defence is the real essence of this art and should be the essence of every martial art.

Sport jiu jitsu at the end of the day is a game with rules.
Of course the top competitors are tough and strong enough to handle themselves on the street even without knowing self defence, but these are a very small percentage of the general public.

The majority needs to learn the proper techniques in order to survive street aggression.
You could combine sports. It’s fun and actually can help you sharpen your fighting instincts, but you should try to use positions which make sense in a real fight.
The berimbolo, 50/50 worm guard and other “sportive” positions, will only get you in trouble.

In South Africa, the Israeli art of Krav Maga is gaining popularity as a self defence art. You are from Israel, but you chose GJJ. Why is that?

Krav Maga is nice and has its advantages & disadvantages, like everything else.
Personally, I don’t like it too much.

Does your school take part in competitions?

Of course, if someone likes to compete, we always support. Some of my students are doing very well in competitions.

What is your favourite Gracie Jiu Jitsu technique.

My favorite move is Mata Leao

Finally, do you have any last words for our readers?

Keep training, have fun and don’t forget the roots of this amazing art.
None of us started training to learn how to score points!

Thank you

Jiu Jitsu, the antidote to bullying.

If you have met me or heard my story, you will know that it started way back in primary school, where I was a victim of school yard bullying.

Mine was not the atypical, Hollywood style ‘give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up’ bullying. I don’t actually recall the full reasons, but to me it seemed that my circumstances were the cause of the taunts, name calling, pranks and beat downs. Based on who and what I was and probably various other factors I wasn’t even aware of, I was picked on and often beaten up by fellow class mates. Maybe I wasn’t ‘cool’ enough. Maybe I was a nerd. Maybe my sense of humour wasn’t understood or appreciated. Honestly, I can’t remember.

What I do remember was how if affected me as a person, both my confidence and my desire to fit in. It also lead me (eventually) to Jiu Jitsu. It is one of the main reasons I become an instructor, to be in a position to reach children who are experiencing the same things I did.

As an adult, I can look back at the (some vague, but still there) memories of bullying attacks and each time I can see how knowing Jiu Jitsu as a boy would have helped me in these situations.

  1. Jiu Jitsu techniques (especially the Bully Proof programme) are taught in a fun, safe, playful environment, so that as a child you not only learn how to defend yourself, but get some good healthy exercise at the same time.
  2. Jiu Jitsu teaches you how to control and subdue an attacker without inflicting any injury on them while doing so.
  3. Once you know how you can deal with a bully, physically if you need to, you now have the confidence to stand up to them.
  4. This confidence leads to the ability to shrug off any taunts that are directed at you in the first place, never having to place yourself in a situation where you have to defend yourself anyway.

If I had one wish, it would be to have enough time and resources to teach every single child in the country the art of Jiu Jitsu.

For now, I’ll happily settle on reaching every child in my community.

Jiu jitsu, the best form of self defence for women?

Walk into any GJJ/BJJ gym/club/school and take a look at the split between genders. I’ll guarantee that it’s probably a male to female ratio of something like 1 in 10. Perhaps more. Why is this the case? If jiu jitsu is supposed to be a good form of self defence for women, why don’t more women take part?

The answers to this question lie partly in the following article by Eve Torres, a model/actress/performer who also trains Gracie Jiu Jitsu, is currently married to Rener Gracie and teaches the Gracie Women Empowered programme at Gracie Academy in LA.

In my short experience as an instructor some, if not all, of the following reasons are common.

  1. Ladies don’t want to take part in a sport where you willingly allow someone, possibly a strange man, into your personal space.
  2. Jiu Jitsu tends to attract males to the sport, and it can be intimidating for a women to train in this environment.
  3. It’s not really fun or feminine rolling around on the ground getting sweaty.

In the old days of the original Gracie Academy in Brazil, the idea of a group class didn’t exist. All lessons were done in a private class format. As long as the student felt comfortable with the instructor, the lesson was held. This would have made it much easier for a woman to learn the defensive techniques of Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

For those ladies who want to learn some form of self defence, but find it hard to make that first step, I have some advice I can offer.

  1. Take the first class with someone you trust. A husband, boy friend, good friend, cousin, brother, sister, mom, whoever. There is nothing easier than attempting something strange and scary with a partner.
  2. As much as it is hard to allow someone into your personal space, remember that a would be attacker will not have a problem with it. You are better off having already experienced this with someone you trust, than your personal space being invaded by an unknown attacker.
  3. Make sure you ask any and all questions that come to mind. The instructor is there to help you not only learn the technique, but also to tailor it to your specific strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Ignore the rolling. I’ve said this before, but if you search ‘Brazillian Jiu Jitsu’ online I guarantee you will come across a bunch of links of sweaty men rolling around in pajamas. This is only one aspect of jiu jitsu. Do yourself a favour and take a look at the Gracie Women Empowered programme to see how jiu jitsu can be applied in real life situations

Finally, if you do take the big step in trying out jiu jitsu, and it really isn’t for you, then don’t give up. There are many other martial arts/self defence programmes out there that may suit you better.

The old saying, ‘rather be safe than sorry, applies. Rather learn some self defence and not need it, than not learn anything and need it one day.

5 Tips to get ready for your Blue Belt assesment

The blue belt is probably the most important and, I believe, coveted belt in Jiu Jitsu. It is the first belt you have to ‘grade’ for and indicates that you have progressed from the rank of beginner and can now start your journey towards mastery of the art.

I’ve had the opportunity to take my blue belt assessment three times. Not that I failed any of them, the first was my actual blue belt test, the second was to qualify to be accepted into Gracie Jiu Jitsu Cape Town’s Instructor programme and the third was to be accepted into the Gracie Academy’s Instructor programme. As such I feel I can confidently say I am qualified to advise what is required to pass your blue belt assessment with flying colours.

1) Get a good bad guy.

The most important aspect if your assessment is not how well you know the techniques, but how well your bad guy does. The assessment is aimed at testing your reflexes against the most common forms of attack, as detailed in the Combatives programme. If your bad guy does not know and understand all the attacks, as well as how to effectively and, most importantly, realistically present them to you, you stand as good a chance of failing as you do if you don’t know the techniques well enough.

The best kind of bad guy is either someone you have trained with extensively, another blue belt, or your instructor. Remember however that your instructor may not be available to be your bad guy as he will probably be the one filming the drills, so rather make sure you have someone else in mind.

2) Know your techniques.

I know this sounds pretty obvious, but it actually isn’t. I’ve had the opportunity to assist a few students over the course of the past 3 years with their assessment preparation and believe me, a lot of people who think they know the techniques well are surprised at how many key details they have missed or forgotten (myself included).  The human brain can only process so much extra information so unless you are training techniques for 1 or 2 hours every day, some pieces of information get lost.

Not only that, but knowing the descriptive names of the techniques will go a long way to assisting your execution of them in a timed drill.

Your best course of action, if you can’t train every day,  is to review the Combatives videos (either via DVD or online) as much as possible. Even to this day I often review techniques when preparing a lesson and I pick up little details I have forgotten.

3) Use your time wisely.

We all love rolling. It’s one of the most fun things in Jiu Jitsu. But there is ample time to roll once you have your blue belt. While you are preparing for your assessment use any spare time (even rolling time) to practice and review your techniques or assessment drills.

When I took my first assessment, my training partner Duncan and I gave up our rolling time to practice our assessment drills. Even if it is only one rolling session per class you give up, it will be worth it in the long run.

4) Time yourself.

Each of the five assessment videos needs to be filmed within 5 minutes. Trust me, you don’t want to find out on filming day that you can’t do the techniques for a drill within that time. Before you even book your assessment day, make sure you have at least completed all 5 drills within the time limits.

5) Instructor input.

This is not a requirement, but once you have completed all 4 steps above, I suggest booking one (or two if required) private classes with your instructor. Often he/she will be able to give you pointers in areas that you haven’t thought of, or pickup critical errors you aren’t aware of, just because they a) know the techniques well and b) are seeing your execution of the techniques from a different perspective.

If nothing else, it will help break that fear of doing the drills in a timed environment while someone else is watching. Stage fright can be a game changer come assessment day.

And finally, above all else, remember to always, always, ALWAYS stand up in base!

Excerpts from my self defence talk at the last Girl Geek Dinners in Cape Town

I recently had the opportunity to do a short self defence talk at the March Cape Town Girl Geek Dinner

Below is an abridged version of that talk.

“Hi my name is Jonathan, I am a developer, gamer, geek, husband and dad. And from the age of about 5 to about 13, because of my nature and circumstances, I was bullied at school. This led me in my adult life to find something that would give me the tools to defend myself and the confidance to be to do so. I found these answers in Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

Before I start I want to ask two questions

1) How many of you have a plan for backing up your data/work files

2) How many of you have a plan for if you are attacked in the street/driving home/in a mall

Isn’t it sad that most of the room have a plan for question 1, but only a handful of people in this room have a plan for the question 2.

Because I am talking specifically to ladies tonight I want to talk about the reasons that women typically dont do self defence. I refer to the following article, where Eve Torres, WWE performer and Gracie Jiu Jitsu student talks about why she didn’t want to ever take a self defence class :

1) I didn’t think it would happen to me. I thought I was pretty vigilant and aware of my surroundings.

2) Even if it did happen to me, I wouldn’t really be able to defend myself. All the kicking and striking in the world couldn’t incapacitate a larger attacker, especially since I couldn’t even hold my own against my younger brother at the time!

3) I didn’t want to look stupid, or get hurt training. I was already putting my body at risk with the work I was doing in the ring with WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), and I couldn’t afford an injury.

4) It didn’t appear that fun or feminine. I would much rather take a dance class or hit the gym on my own.

The truth of it is that Gracie Jiu Jitsu is the only self defence program that I have found that requires no previous experience, that deals specifically with being attacked by a larger, stronger assailant, that will not result in injury during training and that is loads of fun.

Before I end off, I’d like to list the reasons why I, as a geek, think Gracie Jiu Jitsu is the ultimate form of self defence for other geeks:

  1. We like elegant solutions to problems
  2. We don’t like to reinvent the wheel
  3. Mostly (pause for sarcastic smile) we are not the biggest fans of exercise regimes
  4. We are methodical and apply a methodical approach to our work and lives
  5. We like structure and a structured approach to problem solving

Gracie Jiu Jitsu fits into all of these criteria

Thank you and good night”

KeepItReal vs KeepItPlayful

Very recently, Ryron Gracie, head instructor of Gracie Academy has started being promoting something he has called the KeepItPlayful Movement.

In essence, the ideals of the KeepItPlayful movement are aimed at teaching students of the art of Gracie Jiu Jitsu to never allow egos to dominate their sparring/training. By keeping it playful during a sparring session, one’s aim is never to dominate your opponent with the goal of submissions only. Instead you and your opponent allow each other to experiment with jiu jitsu, or as Ryron calls it, to ‘play’ jiu jitsu. In this manner both of you learn something new about yourselves/your opponent/the techniques, while at  the same time you are able to train with a vast majority of opponents, without running out of steam or injuring yourself.

This is a mindset that I have been in agreement with for some time now and anyone who has read this blog will attest to that. In all my sparring sessions my goal is to keep it as relaxed as possible, so that I can learn more about my jiu jitsu and the jiu jitsu of my opponent.

However it is important to remember that sometimes when keeping it playful you can often forget that you also need to keep it real, a sentiment that both Ryron and his brother Rener Gracie have installed in many jiu jitsu students who have watched their videos or participated in a seminar or class with either of them.

Keeping it real shifts the focus of jiu jitsu to the self defence applicability of the techniques and ensures that you are also spending some of your training time in honing your self defence skills. Does this technique ensure that I am preventing a knock out punch? Can I maintain this position against a larger, stronger opponent? Would this work if my life depended on it?

In my humble opinion both mindsets are valid in the right circumstance. I think it is great the Ryron is promoting the KeepItPlayful Movement.

However we should never forget the importance of KeepingItReal. In my/an ideal world, Rener would be promoting the KeepItReal movement in parallel to Ryron’s KeepItPlayful movement, reminding us all of both sides of the Gracie Jiu Jitsu coin…


Helio Gracie fight philosophy backed up by science


(by James Smart, co owner and head instructor at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Cape Town)

In the Jiu Jitsu world, we know about the changes that Helio Gracie made to Japanese Ju Jitsu. By using leverage he made it more useable by a smaller weaker person and he incorporated live sparring. Some also know that he had a strategy of not losing the fight.  Helio figured that if he did not lose the fight, then in by default his opponent in his attempt to beat Helio would defeat himself, either through exhaustion or through making a mistake.  Others may know that Helios’ sense of preparation or planning for the fight gave him and his family an edge. At the stage of creating these philosophies some 80 years ago, what Helio could not have known, is that in years to follow science and research would prove  that his strategies where sound.

I will now attempt to break down each element of Helio’s strategy and thinking, to show how it makes 100% sense scientifically.

Changes to Japanese Ju Jitsu

Having done Japanese Ju Jitsu for many years, when I started Gracie Jiu Jitsu I found the difference to be subtle but significant. In Japanese Ju Jitsu there are many small joint lock and locks that require great accuracy of finger and thumb placement to be able to make them effective, in Gracie Jiu Jitsu this finite manipulation was excluded. The joint locks are on larger body parts i.e. the elbow, knee, shoulder and use much larger body parts to do the lock i.e. the whole arm, two hands etc. Another marked difference I found was that in Japanese Ju Jitsu, a very lager number of techniques had to be “set up” with a series of other movements and to “soften your opponent”. In Gracie Jiu Jitsu this did not seem so necessary.

So how does this apply to being able to fight more effectively and to science?

In a fight situation it is well known that the fighter’s heart rate goes up and you become stressed. How stressed will be talked about later, but your stress levels will affect many psychological and physiological abilities. At just 115 Beats Per Minute (BPM) your Fine Motor Skills deteriorate, at only 145 BPM your Complex Motor Skills deteriorate. What does that leave you with…………..Gross Motor Skills!

Now might be a good time for me to clarify what the different Motor Skills are that are relevant to this article.

Fine Motor Skills – Skills that are performed by small muscle groups, such as hands and fingers and frequently involve hand-eye coordination. In a fight situation a fine motor skill would include an action requiring hand-eye coordination such as catching someone’s moving hand in a wrist lock.

Gross Motor Skill – These are movements that generally involve large muscle groups or large movements. In fight, a gross motor skill, would include pushing, pulling or two handed gripping.

Complex Motor Skill – Complex Motor Skills are skills which involve hand-eye coordination, timing or tracking and have multiple technique components. An example of a Complex Motor Skill in a fight would be a Double Leg takedown.

So how does all of this relate to Gracie Jiu Jitsu – Gracie Jiu Jitsu in general, is made up of Gross Motor Skills. An Arm Bar, a Body Fold Takedown are all largely Gross Motor Skill techniques. Whether by Genius or by instinct, Helio Gracie when creating Gracie Jiu Jitsu, must have realised that the fine motor skills required for many martial arts to work, were simply too hard to do in a real fight. Yes, there are some Complex Motor Skill techniques in Gracie Jiu Jitsu, and to be able to solve all problems there has to be, but as for Fine Motor Skill, I can’t think of any.

If you take into account that Jogging is considered a 60 to 65% of maximum heart rate activity (with no stress) which means your heart rate will be somewhere around 130 t 140 BPM. In fight, you would have already lost or seriously diminished your ability to use fine and complex motor functions. I added “with no stress” in there because stress does play a part that I will explain. So, consciously or subconsciously, I can see that Helio thought, (maybe not using these terms) it is guaranteed in an attack situation that my heart will elevate, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be above 115BPM. So in a fight, if all I have will have at best is gross and complex motor skill, it makes sense for me to only train techniques that include complex and gross motor skills!


The next of Helios strategies, that I believe came more from Judo than Ju Jitsu (but please don’t shoot me if I’m wrong) was Sparring or what today we commonly call Rolling. During a fight our cognitive ability (think, prioritize, understand, plan, remember, and solve problems) deteriorates at about 175 BPM. Only using gross motor skills will combat this deterioration to a degree due to the fact that they do not require so much cognitive ability to bring into operation. However, many skills and even more situations do require a cognitive process. The question then is, if we know our stress and heart rates are going to rise. How can we make the cognitive process easier? In many martial arts we are taught a technique and then we drill it 20 times, 50 times, 100 times, often depending on how dedicated you are as a student. The problem is that in most cases, the drilling of a single technique does not teach us when that technique should be applied in a real environment. This means that, when the day comes that the fighter is “in fight” has a heart rate of 175BPM and sees an attack, the process of selecting the correct technique is very slow due to the fact that it is the first time the brain has had to process that information and make that selection.

Helio incorporated Sparring into the learning process, and in fact in more recent years, Reflex Development and Fight Simulation has also been included in the training process by Ryron and Rener. How does this benefit the student? In sparring and even more so in Reflex development and Fight Sim, we are not only practising the techniques, but we are incorporating them into a cognitive learning process. Our brain is processing the information, recognising the problem, building pathways for that program to be recalled quickly and solving new problems all in a relatively comfortable environment. In fact, studies have show (known as the Inverted-U Hypothesis) that between 115BPM and 145BPM cognitive processing is working at its’ best. So by doing a Fight Simulation and not accelerating the heart rate too high, we are able to optimize that learning process and give the brain and the body the reflexes to respond quickly when being attacked.

Not Losing

In Helios strategy of not losing he had 2 tactics. Firstly, it was to not make a mistake, to allow the opponent to do all the trying to win and eventually for the attacker to make a mistake. The second tactic was about being comfortable no matter where he was. Helio was comfortable underneath the mount on anyone. He had been under the mount on some of the best fighters of his day and not lost. If he was comfortable under Ricksons mount, then how could he not be comfortable under anyone’s.

Both of these strategies link into the same effect. Helio by being comfortable underneath was able to stay calm, keep his heart rate and stress levels at a level where he could use his Gross Motor Skills, Complex Motor Skills and Cognitive processing at its’ most effective. Conversely, his opponent by being on top, unable to beat Helio and not comfortable underneath, resulted in frustration which would send his heart rate through the roof. The fighter would be losing his Fine Motor Skills (which many martial arts rely on) deteriorating his Complex Motor Skill and have diminished Cognitive processing, resulting in a mistake, leaving the Calm and relaxed Helio to finish the fight.

We have all felt these effects when sparring normally in two ways. Firstly when we roll with someone we think we should be able to beat, we then try harder, stressing more and putting pressure on ourselves to be the victor. As a consequence, our brain freezes and we end up not being able to beat that person. Secondly, when we roll with someone we think can beat us. We get mounted, are not comfortable, get stressed, try to escape when we shouldn’t, make a dumb mistake that we would not normally do (this dumb mistake is the result of extreme stress and called Hyper Vigilance) and get tapped out.


Preparation can be seen in two main ways in Gracie Jiu Jitsu both ways giving the same very important result. Firstly we see that Helio prepared for a fight by having a plan. He knew he was not going to exchange punches, he knew he was going to close the distance, take his opponent to the ground, maintain and or improve his position and then submit his opponent. Having a clear plan gave Helio confidence, it decreased his stress before and during the fight. Stress level has a direct affect on the heart rate, the greater the stress the more elevated the heart rate. Reducing this had the effect of reducing his heart rate and as we now know, this resulted in him being able to perform better in the fight.

Preparation also has another benefit, in Fight Simulation classes we prepare by exposing ourselves to a simulated stress of our opponent trying to hit us. More recently we have included some “stress drills”. Both having our opponent trying to hit us and the stress drills has one main effect. It changes our perception of firstly that we can protect our self against the punches and secondly we become comfortable with how exhausted we will feel in a full on fight.

When someone learns to swim they learn in the shallow end of a swimming pool. Once they can swim in the shallow end they move to the deep end of that same swimming pool. Nothing has really changed in the swimming part, the only thing that has changed is that the student knows they can’t touch the bottom. However, the students stress levels will elevate because there perception of the associated danger of not being able to touch the bottom is greater. Once the student can swim in the deep end confidently they may well move to the Ocean. What happens to their stress level? It goes up again, simply due to the associated danger of the open ocean. Now if the student goes back to the deep end of the swimming pool, they have significantly less stress, simply because the perception of the danger has changed.

Fight Simulation and planning has the same effect of swimming in the Ocean, it changes our perception of the associated danger, decreases our stress level, decreases our heart rate and in turn makes us more able to use our Complex and Gross Motor Skills and our Cognitive processes.

Bringing it all together

Helio was not only ahead of his time with regards to the development of Gracie Jiu Jitsu Techniques, but also with his mindset. Somehow, Helio may have figured out that his ability to learn to defend himself in the shortest possible space of time, revolved around not only leverage, but a number of other key elements. He majored on techniques that used Gross Motor Skills. He created training methods that keep stress levels low enough to use cognitive abilities and strategies to speed up cognitive processing. Helio  kept the heart rate low enough to be able to use Complex Motor Skills and finally, he developed methods to change his perception of the of danger he was in.

This information was collated and transferred into a Gracie Jiu Jitsu context by James Smart. The main source of information and scientific studies was Bruce K. Siddle excellent book – Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge.