Interview with Terrence Yu, head coach at Liverpool BJJ Academy

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Terrence Yu who is a brown belt in BJJ and head coach of Liverpool BJJ Academy. We discuss Terrence’s start in BJJ when we might see BJJ in the Olympics, and much more. Enjoy!

Kieran – Okay. Let’s start at the beginning. Where did your journey begin and what got you into BJJ?

Terrence – I started jiu-jitsu back in 2012 (age 32) at my local MMA gym called the MMA Academy. I got into jiu-jitsu because I wanted to learn MMA after a confrontation with a guy who claimed to be a jiu-jitsu black belt! I wanted to learn MMA so if he ever confronted me again at least I could defend myself.

Kieran – Did you ever find out if he was an actual black belt? And had you participated in any kind of martial art before this time?

Terrence – Well some years later, I found out that he was a Japanese jiu-jitsu black belt so he was telling the truth about his rank in martial arts! And yes I did. I did some martial arts when I was younger when I was in school, back home in Malaysia. I did a little bit of judo and taekwondo but never really stuck to it.

Kieran – At least he was telling the truth, some people like to go around and claim they are black belts. So can you describe what it felt like when you stepped on to that mat for the first time in 2012?

Terrence – Exactly! But to be honest, after a few years of enjoying jiu-jitsu I kind of forgot about him! So, you could say thanks to him I got into BJJ. That’s right, May 2012, I remember it very well. It was an intimidating experience, but I was excited at the same time! I remember my first session after the induction class. I didn’t know I was put into a mixed level class and after a technique drilling session the coach told us to be ready for rolling and I had no idea what rolling was. so the next thing I remember, this guy was smashing me. I was just trying to survive, but I got through the session and I went home thinking – this is it, this is what I want to do!

Kieran – Yes, thank you, stranger, whoever you are for bringing Terrence Yu to BJJ. Did you ever have the chance to roll with Jason Tan at the MMA Academy?

Terrence – I did sometimes roll with him. Jason is a top instructor and although I couldn’t attend his classes most of the time, as he was the Head MMA and advanced coach, and I was a beginner. So, the only times I got to train in Jason’s classes or roll with him was when I got invited to intermediate or mixed level classes.

Kieran – What was that experience like when you did roll with him? being a beginner at the time and rolling with a black belt.

Terrence – I was a spaz! I can’t even remember If I did well or not, most likely very badly, but he was cool with it. He is known to be a very technical jiu-jitsu guy so it was a privilege to have had that moment back then. I still use some of the techniques he taught me though.

Kieran – I can imagine it to be quite the learning experience and a reality check. How long into learning jiu-jitsu did you decide to try and compete?

Terrence – I think about one year after! I saw many of my training partners doing well in tournaments and I wanted that experience, but I never got to represent MMA Academy before I started to compete. I had already moved on to another team then, Gracie Barra Manchester under Lucio Sergio Dos Santos.

Kieran – So you see your teammates doing well and decide you want to try it. How confident are you in your skills at that time? Is it just something that strikes you suddenly like “I need to try this, I’m not too worried about my level at the moment” or… talk to me about the thought process of wanting to compete?

Terrence – Well, at this point I was pretty confident in my basic skills, so I thought the hours and efforts I put in I felt I would do okay, or at least in my first attempt in competing. I asked my coach if I could compete and he said yes, so I did! My first tournament was the British no-gi where I got a bronze medal, winning one fight and losing one so I was pretty satisfied with that outcome! After that, I went on to compete in more tournaments mostly local or regional tournaments, but I never won a single fight since the British no-gi which was pretty sad for me. I didn’t give up though! I kept going and competing in as many tournaments as I could! To be honest, I wanted to be good at jiu-jitsu so much that I thought if I compete all the time, I would eventually get good.

Kieran – So even though you weren’t successful in competition, did you feel your jiu-jitsu had evolved and gotten better?

Terrence – I started to think I’m not made to compete, but I really enjoyed it especially the whole occasion like preparations, travelling to different places, meeting new people etc. And yes, I definitely felt my jiu-jitsu had gotten better from competing. It’s just different intensity to normal training and dealing with my self-confidence is a massive improvement as well. I really enjoyed competing.

Kieran – You said you moved to Gracie Barra in Manchester, but now you have your own gym in Liverpool. When did that move back to Liverpool happen and how long after that did the gym open?

Terrence – I have always lived in Liverpool anyway, so I did a lot of travelling to and from Manchester every day for training at GB Manchester! Before Manchester, I was training briefly at GB Preston and that was where I met my then professor Lucio Sergio and when he opened GB Manchester I decided to follow him there for several years! It all started in 2014 and as I said, I’ve always lived in Liverpool, so I thought it would make sense to minimise my travel time if I could have my own open mats closer to home. I started hiring mats space at a local gym and inviting a few mates to open mats a couple of times per week. My initial intention wasn’t to start my own academy, but just open mats sessions to get extra rolls in. Soon after, more mates wanted to join in so I decided maybe I should do part-time teaching BJJ to a handful of people, and here we are some years later still going strong.

Kieran – That’s amazing, were you surprised when more people started to turn up?

Terrence – I was a bit actually. I had no idea people were interested in BJJ. I guess UFC had something to do with it. To be honest, I felt I wasn’t ready to take on more students because I wasn’t sure I could commit to it, but because they were mostly my mates I didn’t feel pressured to deliver a good class. It was just showing a couple of techniques and rolls.

Kieran – How much pressure is there on coaching, at least from the start anyway? Can that be difficult knowing you’re teaching someone else and not just solely learning?

Terrence – At times I felt pressured because I didn’t want to get it wrong or they couldn’t understand me, but luckily all was good and everyone enjoyed my classes. Some of the guys who were my first students are now my assistant instructors. I’ve recently promoted two of them to purple belts and had one of them promoted to the brown belt! I am thankful to them for giving me their time to help me improve as a coach too and staying with me all these years. We are all really good friends and enjoying our journey together.

Kieran – That’s an incredible journey, for all of you. I saw an article which I believe was in 2017 and it was regarding kids who you taught that had won medals at a competition. I wanted to ask you how important it is to get kids into BJJ? especially in these days with bullying, online or otherwise.

Terrence – Ah yeah, We’ve had several kids champions. British champions, junior national champions, and world junior champions! Plus all the others who won titles all over the UK. It was such a pleasure to be part of their progressions and that makes me proud. I think it is important to start them young, it will help not only against bullying but also their confidence around new people. It will help them be strong mentally, give them motivations in other areas of their lives like schools etc. I preach jiu-jitsu in a way that jiu-jitsu is not everything, but if they can make jiu-jitsu part of their life it will help them overcome obstacles and hard times that they may face in the future. This applies to adults too. So yes 100% I recommend jiu-jitsu to children.

Kieran – Would you like to see BJJ be taught in schools, maybe in P.E?

Terrence – Absolutely! And I hope it does happen one day.

Kieran – Me too as I think it covers the physical side and you can educate yourself about the body and how it moves. We should start a petition, Terrence.

Terrence – Yes definitely.

Kieran – What has surprised you the most on your journey with BJJ?

Terrence – The unpredictability! When I started jiu-jitsu I thought it was all about fighting and submitting opponents. It is but, what surprised me most is up to now, I never would have imagined I would be working with high-level people in jiu-jitsu especially over the last few years working as referee and tournament organisers. And now I am the president of the “Sport Jiu-Jitsu United Kingdom Federation” I never could have predicted that! Jiu-jitsu has taken me to places I’ve never been before and met some amazing people on my journey who would allow me to explore another dimension of jiu-jitsu or sport jiu-jitsu. Sport Jiu-Jitsu United Kingdom Federation is a federation under the sport jiu-jitsu International federation who are actively working hard to implement sport jiu-jitsu into the Olympics. We are kind of under the radar at the moment in the UK as we are only a new federation in comparison to the more established federation like IBJJF or AJP.


Kieran – What is it like being able to referee and organise tournaments?

Terrence – It’s rewarding. Besides getting paid to work, I get to meet a lot of high-level jiu-jitsu people in every tournament. Some have become my friends. For me the most satisfying thing about refereeing is I get to get up close to the actions! I’ve learnt a lot from being in the action. Organising tournaments can be stressful at times as you can imagine, everything has to be spot on, but once the job is done it is some of the best experience I’ve ever had working in jiu-jitsu. Not to mention travelling and I love travelling! One week I could be refereeing in a local tournament and the next in Barcelona or somewhere like that!

Kieran – It sounds interesting. How long does it take to become a referee?

Terrence – I started when I was a purple belt. I had no prior experience and one of the tournament organisers “All-Star BJJ” invited me to help them with refereeing and it all escalated from there really. So I went from one event to another and the next thing I was working with IBJJF and the years to follow I was being employed by almost every event in the UK. Since 2017, I’ve worked for almost every local and national tournament, but more recently before lockdown, I was working for IBJJF, AJP and SJJUKF.

Kieran – There some great achievements, refereeing at some of the biggest events. You mentioned the sport jiu-jitsu UK federation and the fact that it still flies below the radar. How can people help to support the federation to help it grow?

Terrence – I think by participating in activities that we do! We are not only organising tournaments, but we will work towards helping with charity projects as well. For instance, mental health awareness and promoting jiu-jitsu for disabled athletes aka para jiu-jitsu. We help host a sport jiu-jitsu event at the world martial arts games (London) 2019, and it was a massive success! So going forward now we are planning on establishing territorial federations. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland help with our mission. It’s early days yet, but we are working on it behind the scenes. Oh! I almost forgot to mention, we have our first pro event in February 2021 with over 50 athletes invited to participate, but depending on the current covid situations, if all is well, we should have a good show. There’s a possibility if restrictions intensify we may have to postpone the event.

Kieran – So, realistically, when do you think we will see BJJ and MMA also in the Olympics?

Terrence – Hmm great question! I don’t know fully how to answer that, but in my opinion, at the moment the main obstacles in getting sport jiu-jitsu into an Olympic sport is probably getting jiu-jitsu recognised as a sport. Although we do consider it as a sport, however, it has to be recognised by all national sports governing bodies in each country and that could be the first step. After that jiu-jitsu outlook has to change in terms of spectators sport because at the moment it is only a sport enjoyed within the jiu-jitsu communities. I believe it is a work in progress right. We will hopefully get there one day! The problem is also that BJJ is derived from judo! Therefore, BJJ has to have its own recognition as a sport on its own to be included in the Olympics. Judo is already an Olympic sport and you could say they would clash because of similar styles or rules sets. Hence, the SJJUKF are trying to establish continental federations, country federations, and territorial federations.

Kieran – That is a great answer. Do you think with Judo already being an Olympic sport with similar styles and rules to BJJ, that jiu-jitsu could suffer or take much longer to be recognised by the governing bodies?

Terrence – I think so yes! And with IBJJF as an established federation with long-standing ownership of BJJ rule sets, it would have to take a lot of adjustment to make BJJ a spectator-friendly sport and not just another judo tournament with submissions. Our mission is now to make those changes for instant rules sets! We now have 3 different rules sets – team events rules, pro rules, and submission only rules – all of which can be found on our website.

Kieran – It’s a shame that it will take some time to get BJJ into the Olympics but that why things like SJJUKF exist to help push that.

Terrence – Hopefully we can get everyone on board and help us all to get there! And just so u know I’ve not mentioned that I’m no longer representing team Lucio Sergio. I have moved on and created a new affiliation in the UK with my good friend Juliano Rocha. He’s a 3rd-degree black belt out of Atos jiu-jitsu Brazil.

Kieran – And Liverpool BJJ Academy is affiliated with Atos Jiu-Jitsu?

Terrence – Well technically not, but our head professor is a 3rd degree under co-founder of Atos jiu-jitsu, Ramon Lemos. Our club belt certificate has Atos on them, so who knows maybe we are. Maybe we’re like a 2nd cousin to Atos. The opportunity is there for the future if we decide to be an affiliate with them, but it’s not necessary at this moment. Our affiliation is called Juliano Rocha jiu-jitsu the UK.

Kieran – okay at least we cleared that up. who is the biggest joker at Liverpool BJJ Academy?

Terrence – Oooh that has to be Matthew Pickering! He’s my assistant coach the now newly promoted brown belt.

Kieran – What is the funniest and weirdest thing you’ve seen in the gym and/or in competition?

Terrence – Well now that you’ve mentioned weird and funny! There was a time at the London open a few years ago. A guy was alone in his division and to make himself look good, he borrowed a silver and bronze medal then got two random guys to stand on the podium with him as if he beat them both for the gold.

Kieran – What? Let me get this right. So there was some fella alone in his division because no one turned up to compete?

Terrence – Yeah. True story. A lot of people were laughing at him but he didn’t care.

Kieran – And to make it look like he competed he got two random people to stand on the podium with a bronze and silver medal?

Terrence – Yeah and the medals he borrowed were from the medals desk too.

Kieran – Okay, that is weird and funny. Do you still compete and if so, when would you like to do it again?

Terrence – Yes I do still compete! My last competition was the AJP Grand Slam in March, I got a silver medal, but I do plan to compete when possible or when tournaments are back up and running again.

Kieran – Last question. So you have the gym, your referee and organise events, and you have SJJUKF. Where would you like to be in five years with each of those?

Terrence – I think my focus now is to rebuild my academy and help sustain my student’s confidence in keeping them training especially with the ongoing lockdown restrictions. As for refereeing? I may have to step away from it altogether. I’ve had so much fun working as a referee, but I must now turn my focus on my academy and turn it into a successful business as well. With SJJUKF, hopefully, we can reach our Olympic goal and have a fully established recognised federation for years to come!

Kieran – I wish you all the success in those endeavours mate.

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