This is a subject that has held my interest for a while now, but I have been holding off discussing it since I haven’t yet been able to try it out extensively and form a solid opinion. But it is an interesting topic and shows enough potential that I’m willing to share it with you. You should be familiar with two concepts: Aliveness and the I-method.

Aliveness is a term coined by BJJ black belt Matt Thornton of the Straight Blast Gym. It is a quality of training which contains realistic timing, energy and motion. Alive training is what builds functional skills. You can read more about it here, or watch this video.

The I-method is the system SBG uses to instruct their classes. A quick review:

  • Introduce: Demonstrate and explain the material being taught, let them drill it to get a basic understanding and put it static reps.
  • Isolate: Work on the material in isolation, usually with drills or restricted sparring with progressively increasing resistance/difficulty.
  • Intregrate: Have the students incorporate the material into their whole game, usually in free rolling/sparring.

This is a pattern that functional arts have naturally developed and use simply because it is what works. For example, you can find many isolation drills in arts like BJJ, judo, wrestling, boxing, MT, etc.What I want to discuss here though is the application of the inquiry method to the I-method. What is the inquiry method? In short:

Inquiry education (sometimes known as the inquiry method) is a student-centered method of education focused on asking questions. Students are encouraged to ask questions which are meaningful to them, and which do not necessarily have easy answers; teachers are encouraged to avoid giving answers when this is possible, and in any case to avoid giving direct answers in favor of asking more questions.


(It is well worth searching Google for the inquiry method, inquiry education and the Socratic method for more about these.)

What I find very unique is how SBG has taken this and applied it to training martial arts such as BJJ. I was introduced to the inquiry method over on by Christian Graugart, admin of the site and BJJ instructor for Combat Sports Copenhagen. He was coming up with some great material and solutions to problems using what he called “inquiry based training”, so I asked him about it. Here’s what he said:

Aesopian asked me to make a post about this training method, so here we go I learned about this inquiry method from Matt Thornton ( who has in a very short time implemented it as the most used training method in the SBG combined with the I-method. Also it is a big part of the Coaching for Performance program which I plan to take at the fall camp in Florida this year.It’s quite simple. As an instructor, instead of giving all the answers and teaching in a one-direction manner, you create a framework for your students to explore and teach themselves.

I am not an expert in this, but have experimented a bit with it in my gym, and must say it has worked amazingly. People come up with new (good) moves every time and best of all, they really seem to remember things better when they have explored them by themselves.

Best way to explain how it is done is by this flowchart made by Cane from SBGi Portland:

(Aeso: Redone by me. Click to view at full size. )

Here are some examples of things we have come up with using the inquiry method:

What is really cool about this approach to training is, that I don’t act as an instructor in a traditional way. In fact, may of the questions that arise, I don’t even have an answer for them, but the people in the gym together can come up with some really good answers, so I learn a lot myself. I don’t teach, I just provide a framework for people to learn by themselves.

When discussing the use of inquiry education in BJJ, I’ve run into several main concerns and questions that people have (which I also had at first). I’m going to have to just relay the answers, since I cannot speak from firsthand experience, but here is how coaches have answered them.

What if students come up with bad techniques?

You’re surely tired of hearing this term by now, but the solution is… Aliveness. Once they start developing a solution (technique), they have to perform it against resistance and show that it really does work. If it doesn’t hold up under pressure, it’s dropped.

Another aspect to consider is that by allowing students to invent “bad techniques” without correcting them, but making them try it in an alive environment, the student should eventually learn an important lesson: not everything will work. This then leads them to thinking more critically about the functionality of future solutions.

Won’t this lead to poor fundamentals?

One of the most important rules of coaching at SBG is “Drill the fundamentals endlessly”, so they are not sacrificed. In fact, their instruction may be aided using the inquiry method so the students come to personally understand and appreciate them through actual testing and practice.

Maybe this would work for a blue belt or above, but not a white belt, right?

Obviously the more advanced a student is, the more experience they’ll have to draw from when figuring out solutions, but this is not to say that a white belt cannot benefit from this type of training. Often the best solutions come from white belts who have a completely fresh view of the problem, which gets fleshed out by the rest of the group. The next question and answer explains this further.

Isn’t it a waste of time for students to reinvent what their instructor could have just taught them?

Many people feel they would rather just be taught techniques by their instructor, which is understandable and expected. But another aspect to consider is that how one of the goals of inquiry education is the improvement of the students’ ability to think for themselves and solve their own problems. This philosophy is often summed up with the proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

Matt Thornton wrote about something about coaching and learning that I’ve found to be very true, and I feel it is relevant here:

As a coach I feel it is just as important for me to help the students in my classes to understand both these things as it is for them to be able to perform them.I am often asked what defines great performers or fast learners. Why do some people get very good, very quickly, while others take years? And I have given that subject a lot of thought.

I have been coaching now for well over ten years, and in that time I have noticed some common points with athletes who excelled and gained a high level of performance very quickly. Most people think that athleticism, being stronger or faster then others, would be the common trait. Others might say work ethic. But in my experience it is neither.

It is true these athletes tend to put in their time on the mat, and it is also true they take care of their bodies. But they do not necessarily work harder than others, and they have not been, in my experience, more “athletic”. In fact, these athletes have often never played sports previously, don’t lift weights, etc.

So what is the common trait?

The fact that they think about the game as a whole. They think about their own game, they think about why things work a certain way, and they think about why things arise in a certain order. And in that process they gain an understanding of the game, BJJ, MMA, whatever, that others just don’t have.

There is absolutely no doubt that this introspective trait is the one thing I have seen as a common factor amongst all the athletes who have rapidly gained a high level of technical skill. In fact, I would say it is the only common trait I have so far been able to identify.

I usually end the quote here, but what he goes on to says after this offers some insight into why he would find the inquiry method so important in instructing:

Having said that you can see why I place an emphasis on asking the students questions in my classes, on encouraging critical thinking and questioning. I don’t just want the athletes in my class to perform the skill sets well; I also want them to understand why these skill sets are the core fundamentals, and why they happen in a certain order when working against resisting opponents.I know that gaining that understanding will rapidly increase their own level of performance, and also it will help them be better coaches when it comes time for them to pass along what they have learned.

By removing the instructor as the sole source of all knowledge, the students and the group also become more self-sufficient. For example, when Matt Thornton used to leave his gym for seminars, attendance would drop since he wasn’t there to teach. But once the inquiry method was implemented, he could leave and just as many people would show up to train since they knew they could learn and improve together, and not just get fed all their answers by the instructor.

That ends the Q&A.

In closing, I wanted to share one more aspect I found intriguing about inquiry education in martial arts and BJJ: it can be used to create techniques where none existed before. For example, a SBG coach has been having success using the inquiry method to help someone with cerebral palsy develop techniques they can do with their disabilities. I believe another is working with someone who has multiple sclerosis. Due to the personalized nature of the training, it allows them to find and create techniques that suite them better than ones developed for people of greater physical ability.

Food for thought.