A Matter of Culture: What to watch for when searching for a jiu-jitsu school.
Six Big Red Flags (and a few good signs).
My good friend and Serafin Sloth teammate Chris Wojcik recently wrote a great blog called Thoughts on Building a High-Quality Training Environment As a Teacher/Instructor. It’s worth the read even if you don’t practice jiu-jitsu, sharing some great lessons and things to look out for in any workout or training environment. My dear friend Sophia McDermott, Australia’s first female black belt, is also very vocal on the topic, especially for women training in jiu-jitsu.
Chris’s article inspired me to write this post. Being aware of a school’s culture is something I’ve been wanting to address for awhile, especially since so many new people are discovering our amazing art. My partner Jay Ferrari and I co-own a mixed martial arts gym, Capital MMA & Elite Fitness - Team Takoma, and while we come from different jiu-jitsu lineages, we share a commitment to creating a place that works to balance solid, intense training with a supportive, safe environment.
We are both jiu-jitsu black belts, which means we've been at it for a minute, teaching, training and being a part of great teams. We take plenty of pride in where we’ve come from separately, and in what we’ve built together. Based on that accumulated knowledge and experience, we created a quick list of healthy and not-so-healthy traits a school might possess. Think of these as means of measuring whether or not a school is providing the kind of training environment you want so you can best pursue your training goals!
Three Good Signs
The Right Vibe
Is the energy welcoming and inclusive, or do you feel like an intruder who will have to fight their way into some kind of inner circle? As a beginner, you can’t expect to be best friends with the upper belts on day one, but you shouldn’t feel like an outsider either.
This can vary based on your goals. You might be eager to compete and want that lion’s den vibe, a room packed with killers. You might be focused on self defense, or just want a fun new way to get in shape. Some schools focus on one or the other exclusively. Some offer dedicated classes that speak to different interests. See what’s offered!
When you pay dues to train, you should expect not only good instruction, but also genuine interest in your improvement. Are instructors approachable? Do they respect your goals? Look for enthusiasm as much as expertise, interest as much as intensity!
Six BIG Red Flags
Cross Training is Prohibited
Some schools are very insular. They don’t welcome students from other schools, nor do they encourage their students to attend other schools’ open mats. This is suspicious and suffocating. A good school welcomes interaction. Good instructors are eager to grow through interaction with other good instructors.
Loyalty is Demanded
Here’s the thing: Nobody can demand loyalty. Loyalty is earned. You can only demand obedience. If you feel like you spend more energy constantly proving allegiance to an instructor or lineage and less time learning an art, ask yourself if you’re in a healthy situation.
Control freaks are found in every industry and interest. If you are humiliated, blamed or dressed down because you can’t get a technique right, lose in competition or aren’t interested in competing, or any number of other reasons, it’s time to seek greener pastures. We’re adults and nobody should pay to be belittled -- unless that’s your thing.
This speaks for itself, but it remains a huge issue in martial arts and jiu jitsu in particular. Instructors can abuse power, or look the other way when a senior student makes inappropriate advances. It might take a ton of courage, but that has to be addressed head on. That’s not to say romantic relationships can’t happen, but they should be mutual, consensual, and be the result of genuine attraction, not intimidation.
Exclusionary Self Defense
If a school promotes a self-defense curriculum, it should be geared toward everyone. Some schools focus only on techniques that are helpful in a street attack. That’s great, but there are other circumstances such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and bullying that deserve attention. Look for a school that can accommodate the concerns of every student.
Too Much Drama
There can be big personalities in martial arts, and within schools you’re sure to find instructors with differing approaches to how they teach moves, run their classes, and prioritize lessons. That kind of diversity is great, but if you hear instructors trashing one another, telling you not to take someone else’s class, or to only train with them, you're in the midst of a soap opera not a school.
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