Applying Teaching Games for Understanding to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Coaching

Jan 30, 2023Jiu-Jitsu

Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) is an instructional approach to sports coaching and physical education that focuses on developing tactical awareness and decision-making skills. Originally developed in the 1980s for team sports, TGfU emphasizes learning through playing games that have been modified to isolate specific skills or tactics. In this article, we will explore how Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) coaches can apply the principles of TGfU to help students master both the technical and tactical aspects of grappling.

The Spectrum of Teaching Styles

In order to utilize TGfU effectively, it is important to understand the “Spectrum of Teaching Styles” framework developed by educational theorists Muska Mosston and Sara Ashworth. This spectrum identifies 11 different teaching styles based on who makes decisions during an instructional episode – the teacher/coach or the student/athlete.

The styles on the left side of the spectrum, known as the Reproduction Cluster, involve the teacher/coach making most of the decisions. These include Practice Style, where the coach demonstrates a technique and has students repeat it, and Reciprocal Style, where students observe and provide feedback to each other using criteria provided by the coach.

The styles on the right side comprise the Production Cluster. Here, students are involved in discovery learning through problem-solving. Guided Discovery allows the coach to lead students to discover a new concept or technique through questioning. Convergent Discovery involves setting a problem that has one correct answer. Divergent Discovery encourages students to brainstorm multiple solutions to a tactical or technical problem.

BJJ coaches can analyze their lessons through the lens of this spectrum to determine if they are providing enough opportunities for athletes to make decisions and engage in discovery learning. While reproduction styles are necessary for developing technical skills, adding production styles allows students to develop tactical understanding.

Applying TGfU to BJJ

The TGfU model involves six steps:

  1. Game – The coach sets up a modified sparring activity that isolates a specific tactical problem.
  2. Game Appreciation – The rules and objectives of the game are explained.
  3. Tactical Awareness – Questions are asked to guide students’ understanding of tactics needed to succeed in the game.
  4. Decision-Making – Students recognize opportunities to apply tactics and determine appropriate techniques.
  5. Skill Execution – Necessary techniques are practised to perform chosen tactics.
  6. Performance – Students apply skills and tactics in full sparring and are assessed on the appropriateness of decisions.

Let’s look at how a BJJ coach could use this model to help students learn to escape and recover guard from mount:

Game: Modified sparring starting from the bottom of mount. Top player tries to hold mount and submit. Bottom player must escape in 15 seconds.

Game Appreciation: Explain rules and objectives – the bottom player must escape mount quickly by shrimping, framing, and using hip movement.

Tactical Awareness: Ask questions – “When is it important to create space from your opponent in mount? How can you make space?”

Decision-Making: Recognize the need to create space and decide when to hip escape or shrimp.

Skill Execution: Drill hip escapes, frames, and shrimping technique.

Performance: Full sparring – observe and provide feedback on guard recovery decisions.

Teaching Styles Within TGfU

While TGfU is often described as utilizing guided discovery and problem-solving styles, analyzing the steps through the Spectrum of Teaching Styles makes it clear that it actually incorporates a variety of styles:

Game & Game Appreciation – Usually Practice Style as students utilize already learned techniques and rules. Could be Guided Discovery if introducing new rules.

Tactical Awareness – Convergent Discovery – questions lead to one tactical solution.

Decision-Making – Divergent Discovery – students brainstorm multiple ways to apply tactics.

Skill Execution – Practice Style and Reciprocal Style – The coach critiques the technique and the student observes and provides feedback.

Performance – Practice Style – students execute learned skills and tactics in live rolling.

Recognizing that TGfU engages students through a range of teaching styles – not just discovery learning – allows coaches to fully leverage the model.

Integrating TGfU Into a BJJ Curriculum

Here are some final tips for integrating TGfU into your curriculum:

  • Vary teaching styles to address different learning needs – some students benefit more from Practice Style.
  • Use TGfU when introducing new positions or situations.
  • Focus on one tactical problem at a time.
  • Be patient – it takes time for students to develop tactical awareness.
  • Use games and modifications that isolate skills and tactics.
  • Provide scaffolding through effective questions and feedback.


Using TGfU in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Teaching Games for Understanding is an excellent way to develop technically skilled and tactically minded grapplers. By utilizing the full spectrum of teaching styles and following the TGfU framework, BJJ coaches can create enriching learning experiences for their students. Here at Apex MMA, we incorporate many of these ideas into our curriculum through our use of positional sparring, problem-solving drills, and student-centred coaching. We believe TGfU provides the perfect balance of guided discovery and systematic skill development, leading to happier and more successful students. Now get out on the mats and start playing some games!

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Team Apex MMA Martial Arts Coach
Apex MMA is a specialist mixed martial arts gym focusing on Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Led by an experienced team of instructors, Apex MMA offers comprehensive training programs for students of all ages and skill levels. With Apex MMA's systematic teaching methods, passion for martial arts, and strong community relationships, you will gain the tools to succeed in the gym and beyond.
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