There is quite possibly, no family name more famous, in all of martial arts than Gracie.
The Gracie family has made famous nine letters that have come to define modern martial arts in the public consciousness: BJJ, MMA, and UFC. Known as being creators and innovators, it is no surprise then to find out that the Gracie organization was the best prepared for what was to come.
Rener Gracie is the Co-Owner and Head Instructor at the Gracie University of Jiu-Jitsu Headquartered in Torrance, California. There are 196 school locations around the world. However, even with such a large physical presence, their digital reach has made them a true standout from any competition. Rener Gracie spoke to me about the challenges of the pandemic and why Gracie University was ready for anything.
As schools and gyms closed, most school owners were scrambling to find a way to provide instruction and keep the lights on. Rener Gracie was way ahead of everybody. Gracie had been honing a model for online instruction and already had it ready and waiting. Perhaps even more impressive was that the origin of the concept came from personal adversity, Gracie explains, "When I was about 19 years old, I injured my back. As a result, I thought to myself: How can I create a teaching medium and opportunity, so if I ever can't train, or if I'm ever disabled such that I can't teach for a period of time, at least people can learn my knowledge through the internet? That injury sparked the motivation to create what is now called GracieUniversity.com, which is our interactive online learning center. We launched that in 2009."
With such a massive undertaking the devil is in the details. So how does it work? Is it a bunch of lectures online? A glorified YouTube channel? No. It's a very well-thought-out program. Gracie describes how it works, "So what we did is we launched an online university, the first of its kind, in which every single lesson was presented in a progressive linear format. So if a beginner came in and wanted to do Gracie Combatives, lesson one was truly the first lesson. Lesson two builds on lesson one, lesson three builds on one and two, so that someone could climb through the curriculum, and get progressively better at these techniques from home, with a single training partner or two, in their garage or their living room."
Feedback on student progress is done through a video evaluation process, Gracie tells how it works, "So through our website, someone could train for a year learning Gracie Combatives, our beginner Jiu-Jitsu program. At the end of that year, they could digitally record themselves, upload their performance of that evaluation to the Gracie University online testing center, and that evaluation would then be passed on to an evaluator at HQ, that would assess their performance, and be able to send them timecoded specific feedback for any errors, or deviations, or significant mistakes made during their evaluation." Testing is done by Rener and his brother Ryron, along with a team of certified instructors within their organization.
The Gracie Challenge and Covid-19
Unlike opponents stepping into a ring or walking into a dojo, Covid-19 materialized fully formed, formidable, and gave everyone a challenge, including the Gracies. However, Rener Gracie was already on the mat, warmed up, and ready for it.
How did Covid-19 affect the Gracie organization? Gracie elaborates on the reality of facing the pandemic both as a martial art and a business dedicated to their student's success, "All of our 186 locations around the world had to close down. It was a manageable situation, because every member at every one of our locations, as part of their membership at the schools, gets online access to Gracie University's linear online curriculum. So when Covid struck, and the schools had to close down, we let all of our licensees know. We said, look, you know we're going to give all of you guys a break on the monthly dues for your membership for your licensing affiliation fees. And we're going to allow you to keep the online access for your students unlocked so that they can continue to practice from home during Covid, and they don't have to worry about going to class, but they can still continue to grow with their progress."
With vaccinations increasing, and restrictions loosening, the world now seems to be slowly wandering back to its pre-pandemic activities. Now with two viable options for instruction, the future is bright. Gracie University currently boasts over 300,000 members, and the brick and mortar locations, though initially hit hard, are returning, "Many of our 186 schools had to close. I'd say about 95% had to close due to Covid, and right now we're right at about 50-60% that have reopened, and we look forward to the rest of them reopening."
The year 2020 will not easily be forgotten by anyone. Gracie has shown that laying the groundwork for the unexpected situation, whether in business or martial arts, is not something to be neglected. Rener Gracie sums up 2020 best, and the lessons learned, "It's been a crazy ride, and I would rather have done without it, but I can say that we were very strongly positioned to withstand the turmoil that Covid brought us, and we're better because of it."
Learn more about Gracie University at GracieUniversity.com.