With sessions geared to white belts, Maui Jiu Jitsu Academy seeks to offer instruction that’s First Class

Maui Jiu Jitsu Academy instructor Joel Bouhey gives instruction during a white-belt class last week. • The Maui News / BRAD SHERMAN photo

It’s been awhile since Joel Bouhey could be called a martial arts beginner.

The black belt remembers that time, however, and has seen the challenges newcomers face.

It was with that in mind that Bouhey, an instructor at Luis Heredia’s Maui Jiu Jitsu Academy in Haiku, helped create a special type of class — one just for novices.

“Talking with my instructors, they kind of put in my head a little bit that it would be a good idea to maybe start a class where the only people who could come in are beginners — white belts only,” the 36-year-old from Wailuku said last week after the conclusion of one of the sessions.

The hour-long classes take place Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and put an emphasis on basic self-defense maneuvers.

Orion Wallace (right) and Justin Andrade take part in a drill. • The Maui News / BRAD SHERMAN photo

“The way it started for me — and many people who have been training jiu jitsu for a while, how it started for them as well — you kind of get thrown into the lion’s den, so to speak,” Bouhey said. “That kind of environment kind of breeds survival of the fittest. … You end up training only the sophisticated moves, and then you have a beginner come into the class for the first time, and their first class is sophisticated moves that are hard to learn, and then you’re thrown into the lion’s den at the end of class, just rolling, just sparring. It’s hard to retain students this way.”

That’s a problem Maui Jiu Jitsu has been able to avoid since the introductory lessons began about a year ago — Bouhey said they are the academy’s fastest-growing classes, starting with a core group of about five attendees, and now up to about 20 consistent participants.

Some of the graduates have become assistant instructors.

“It was more of an honor,” Kahului’s Ricky Supnet, who attended the first class and is now a blue belt, said of being asked to help.

Bouhey has taken part in tournaments around the world, and while his competitive resume is impressive, that alone wasn’t going to guarantee success as a teacher — especially at the introductory level.

Moxie Dubois and Edwin Santos practice a technique during a Maui Jiu Jitsu Academy class last week. • The Maui News / BRAD SHERMAN photo

Bouhey said his goal, however, isn’t centered on being a champion. He wants to spread information about jiu jitsu, and teach not only academy students, but future generations of his family.

That focus on education seems to be working.

“You can be an amazing athlete, and you can do incredible feats in anything — strength, power, jiu jitsu. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you can transfer that understanding, that has gotten you so many achievements and success, to other people,” said one of the white-belt students, Kale Kaalekahi of Kula. “Joel, that sets him apart. … His ability to translate all of that is a special thing.”

Kaalekahi summarized that skill by saying: “He distills all that complexity and sophistication to very tight principles and fundamentals people can see. He makes it very easy for people to comprehend these things that may seem out of their reach. Joel is a great teacher. He makes it engaging, and he knows how to mix in humor with everything, and he keeps you wanting to listen for more.”

Another of the students, Moxie Dubois of Haiku, also works as a manager at the academy, and sees firsthand the difference between the white-belt class and other offerings.

“It’s really great to have the step-by step breakdown, 1-2-3 kind of instruction,” she said. “I really think it’s invaluable. It’s been invaluable to me, the white-belt class. … It’s the talking and doing at the same time. It’s the immediate breakaway to the groups, and then it’s the comeback, quickly.”

The quick switches from talking to drilling are by design.

“At the end of the hour, if you look in there right now, there’s still guys in there wanting to roll,” said Bouhey, who is confident the class can keep building momentum.

“Now that it’s up and going, as long as I keep doing what I’m doing, I don’t see any reason for the to be a cap,” he said.