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We got our hands on an old unpublished interview of Smash Gyms Head BJJ Instructor, Michael Jen a few months before Smash Gyms – Fitness and Martial Arts opened in 2011.
Michael Jen Interview
“Michael Jen began studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 1991 and holds the rank of Second Degree Black Belt which he received from 6th Degree Black Belt Joe Moreira. Michael is known for presenting his material in a systematic fashion designed to help students retain and apply new techniques quickly. Since receiving his black belt in 2001, he has become widely known for his seminars and DVD Instructional Series. Many people believe that Michael Jen’s DVD material arguably set the standard for beginner BJJ Instructionals.”
1) You’ve been in BJJ a long time, since 1991. What’s different about BJJ now and compared to when you started? How have you seen it change over the years?
I feel the biggest change has been the wealth of information that is available to students now in comparison to when I started. Back then, the only thing on the market was “Gracie Jiu-jitsu in Action 1” on VHS. There were extremely few schools which no one knew about unless you happened to walk by the location or knew someone who attended the school. Having information held back used to be a huge problem, especially for American students, but now you have the best teachers and champions showing you their favorite techniques in person, on your TV, or on your computer. With more information comes more business competition which means instructors are now teaching “secrets” that were once never taught to those outside their school or inner circle. Remember, I started in time which black belts did not want us to film them training or competing because they didn’t want us to figure out what they were doing and it was a sin to teach jiu-jitsu to anyone who was not a commited jiu-jitsu student.
2) Who are some of the most skilled practitioners you’ve trained with? What did you learn from each them?
The opinion on the skill of someone is pretty relative depending on your skill level at a particular time. For example, if you are a white belt, a good purple belt probably feels the same as a black belt. With that being said, here’s an interesting story related to your question. When I was a brown belt, I really began to work hard to get to black belt level. I had grappled with several brown and black belts and did well enough that I felt like I was decent brown belt. I then met a champion black belt that had just moved to the Milpitas Area from Brazil. When I first grappled against him, I got handled very easily by him which made me feel like I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I trained with him regularly for 3 months and by the end of that time, he and I were pretty evenly matched when we grappled which gave me a good boost of confidence.
Then I met a black belt named Marco Nascimento. Since hanging with the other black belt, I felt I ought to be able to do just as well against Marco. Marco manhandled me. Obviously, I went from, “Hey, I’m getting good!” to “Dang, I really suck!” Marco helped me a lot to get to black belt and it took me well over a year of training with him regular to have our grappling matches no longer being so one sided. Knowing that Marco was so good and now being able to hang with him, really made me feel good about how much I had progressed.
One day, Marco introduced me to his instructor Adilson “Bitta” Lima. Since I did well grappling against Marco, I thought I’d give Bitta a decent run for his money. Man, Bitta totally crushed me like a beginner even though I was now a black belt.
I know in the original question when asking what I learned from each of them, the expected answer was something in regards to technique. But what the real lesson learned was humility. No matter how good you are or how much you have progressed, there is always someone higher up on the food chain. Most experienced black belts tend to have more humility when it comes to their abilities than lower belts because we’ve been beaten down by someone higher up in the food chain a lot more.
3) You have a very systematic way of teaching BJJ. Can you talk a little about your system of teaching BJJ?
In my opinion, teaching a system of BJJ is no different than any other effective teaching system. Look at any academic subject, skilled trade, or sport. Good teachers have a systematic method that is logical and direct in progressing the student. The art of effective teaching has been around for a long time, so there’s no need to re-invent it for BJJ.
I feel the problem is that some BJJ instructors, and even some students, feel that what applies for every other sport, academic subject, and skilled trade somehow doesn’t apply to BJJ. Showing a bunch of random techniques and letting the student figure out what works best for them doesn’t work well in any other field, but somehow some believe it works well for BJJ. It may work for a small minority, but a good instructor teaches to the majority and not just to a small talented minority.
4) Can you talk about how your game has changed over the last few years?
Several years ago, I started to do a posture therapy exercise system called Muscle Balance and Function (MBF) in order to fix numerous problems I had with my body. I was so amazed at what I did for my body that I also got education in the system and became a practitioner. Improving my body with MBF and becoming a practitioner ended up having an incredible influence on my BJJ.
Becoming educated in MBF allowed me to understand how the biomechanics of techniques worked on a deeper level. Not did I see techniques in a completely different light, but it allowed me to see things I never noticed before. It allowed me to understand the underlying principles and gave me the ability to apply those principles in other areas. This took my ability to figure out techniques on my own and turbo charged it. This understanding was more on a conscious intellectual level.
As a improved my body with MBF, I developed an awareness that I never had in the past. I began to feel very subtle things when I did techniques or when technique were done on me. This also gave me a much deeper understanding techniques and how they worked, but it wasn’t along the lines of conscious thought but rather like an instinctive feel.
5) How do you “test” the new changes in your system?
That’s pretty simple. Get on the mat and try it on people of different skill levels and sizes with full resistance. Having a system means that the same core moves are done repeatedly. This allows my students and I constant opportunities to find the weaknesses in new techniques and theories. My students and I will also visit other schools or invite students from other school to train with us in order to test things out on people with a completely different game.
Evolution in my BJJ system is just like evolution in nature. Some evolutionary changes survive and some do not. There have been many times in which I figure something out, but then I end up changing it weeks or months later because we end up figuring out the flaw or something better. I don’t hold anything sacred and my ego has no problem with lower ranking players finding the flaws something I figure out because it’s all about improving.
6) Traditionally, BJJ instructors teach a wide range of techniques and let the students develop their own game. You’ve been very clear that you only teach your system or your “A” game. Can you talk about why you chose to teach that way instead of the more traditional teaching method?
My goal as an instructor is to provide the student the tools to progress their skills from point A to point B as quickly as possible. By teaching my “A” game, I am teaching my students what I do and know the best and what I do against people of all skill levels. The problem I found with the traditional teaching method of teaching a wide range of techniques is that, if, from the very start, the student chooses a path is different from the instructor’s game, the instructor will be limited in how far he will be able to help that student. Despite how great one may think their instructor is, the fact is that no one is an expert at everything. Basically, I prefer to teach my students things that I am really good at and I refrain from teaching them things that I am not good at. Let me give you an example. I pass guard with tight pressure. I don’t play a fast loose guard passing game. So if a student of mine wanted to ask me how to pass the guard on a higher level skilled player with a loose fast method, I wouldn’t be able to give him the knowledge to do so because I don’t have a high level of expertise in that area.
7) Do you have any students that actively compete? How have they done?
A majority of my students are business professionals who train for fun and exercise. However, many of them have competed at least once or twice just to see what it was like and they have done very well. I do have a few students who are very active in competition though.
One of my brand new black belts, Seo Perales, was very active in competing as a purple and brown belt. He did very well in and medalled repeatedly in major competitions such as the Pan Ams, Worlds, and the US Open. He’s a young guy full of fire and I laughed when he told me that one of his main reasons for competing was to prove to people the effectiveness of our system.
One of my brown belts, Lee Livingstone, is in the UK. Though he has competed in sport BJJ before, he has been pretty active in MMA competition over the years. Lee competing in MMA was a complete surprise to me. During the time we spent training together, he had never mentioned an interest in doing that. He has been very successful in the local MMA scene over there and is now training a crop of upcoming people for MMA.
Several of my students are also instructors and many of their students actively compete. My purple belt in Indonesia, Martin Hartono, has a small club, but he has many students who actively compete. Because BJJ is in it’s infancy over there, competitions tend to no gi in order to attract more participants such as wrestlers and judoka. In addition, people of all rank tend to matched up against each other, so I am often proud to hear when Martin’s students not only win, but do so against opponent’s of higher rank.
One thing to keep in mind is that that I never encourage or discourage my students to compete. So when they choose to do so, it is totally through their own choice and self-motivation. Preparing and training for competition is a big commitment, so I don’t feel any student should do it because of pressure by the instructor or their peers. First and foremost I want my students to enjoy training and to truly enjoy something, the motivation must be intrinsic.
8 ) For years your BJJ Instructional Series has been among the best reviewed in martial arts. Why do you think they’ve done so well?
Though I am an instructor, I forever will be a student of the art. I also remember what it was like to be a beginner. So when I made my instructional videos, I made the videos in a way that I would have wanted to be taught when I was starting off in BJJ. I guess the “Golden Rule” of “treat others as you would like to be treated” seemed to guide me in producing a product with information that many people liked. Plus, I think it helped that I was never one to follow every short term trends and stood my ground on what I believed was important, especially for beginning students.