About the author: Sam Joseph is a 2nd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
When I started training in the late 1990’s, all you could hope for was to find a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy nearby. Now, in most major cities, there are at least a couple of BJJ schools to choose from. Contributing factors for this growth range from the explosion of awareness due to the success of BJJ in the UFC to the positive experiences that thousands have had with the sport. Today, the question is more often, “Where will we train?” as opposed to “Is there BJJ in my area?” as there are usually options. This is a very important question as the right choice can springboard you into a lifetime of training, fun and fulfillment while the wrong one can see you quitting and leaving all those benefits behind. To that end, here are some key factors to consider when choosing a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy.
The coaching staff can have enormous impact on your experience both at the gym and with BJJ in general. With that in mind, here are some things worth thinking about:
Can you learn from the coaching staff?
This is less about the coaches’ credentials and more about compatibility in relevant areas. In today’s world, credentials are easily verified via google and the IBJJF. In a matter of minutes you can confirm someone’s rank, achievements in the sport and often find both instructional and competition video featuring prospective teachers. As indicated earlier, there are more qualified BJJ instructors than ever before so you can now consider compatibility in two areas: teaching/learning and philosophy.
To enjoy BJJ long-term, you have to be comfortable learning from your coach. Sometimes this will come easily as their communication style will seamlessly fit your way of learning, but often this is something that takes work. Great coaches do much of that work by proactively communicating different ways and testing for understanding, but this is not a one-way street. Great students can also participate in this process by taking accountability for their BJJ education and filling in whatever gaps there may be.
An honest assessment of the natural fit and how much work you are willing to put into the learning process will give you clarity as to whether the situation will be satisfactory over time or if you will need to look elsewhere. There needs to be a level of comfort in the learning relationship if you are to make the best choice of your BJJ home.
How do you feel about your coaches’ BJJ philosophy?
Also crucial is accord in BJJ philosophy. To be clear, I am not saying that you have to agree on EVERYTHING with your coach. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a part of life and not visa-versa. I mean to say that there should not be major divergences in areas like respect, overall attitude and behaviour as they relate to the sport.
A well-known example of how a conflict here can blow-up is the recent situation involving Marcelo Garcia, one of the greatest athletes and instructors in BJJ history, and the two black belts he had to suspend: Dillon Danis and Mansher Khera. As he explains in his public YouTube video addressing the situation, Marcelo felt like the fundamental differences between his BJJ code and the behavior of these two talented black belts made it necessary for them to part ways. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the fact is that there is division where there would not be if there were philosophical agreement. Early consideration of whether you can live with your coaches’ BJJ philosophy will help you avoid a painful future outcome.
Do you trust your coaches to invest in you?
The best coaches are not just excellent technically but also have a love for seeing their students learn and grow. Former UFC fighter and Renzo Gracie black belt, Paul Creighton, runs a highly successful academy, Creighton MMA, in Suwanee, Georgia. We have been friends for years and one of my favorite topics when we get together is the development of his students. I have listened to him gush about students from white to black belt, competitors to hobbyists…all across the spectrum. The common thread is always that they are growing in the sport and BJJ is enriching their lives. It is easy to see why his students are thriving as his love for and commitment to investing in them is obvious. When deciding on an academy, you would do well to find a coach as worthy as Paul Creighton of entrusting such a key role in your BJJ future.
The Environment and Community!
As influential as the coaching staff can be, the students will always outnumber them and will have just as much or maybe even more impact on your BJJ experience. Leaders will set rules and offer guidelines but your teammates will walk with you and share the daily ups and downs characteristic of the BJJ trek.
As you try out an academy, ask yourself if the atmosphere is one you feel like fits your personality and BJJ goals? Is it a “competition school” where all the focus is on the serious athletes while you are more of a hobbyist? Are the classes geared more towards self-defense while you are more interested in the sport? Is it a “formal” place where there are lots of rules about bowing and etiquette while you are looking for a more casual or intimate vibe? Questions like these will help you determine whether you will enjoy the place over time.
Also, can you see yourself making friends at the gym? I feel an under-appreciated aspect of BJJ is how “social” it is. Some of my greatest friendships have sprouted from the practice mat. Teammates are often more likely to truly relate to you wherever you are in real-time, more than your coaches. Taking the community and how you might fit into consideration early on helps you set yourself up for success.
You can find the best gym in the world but if you cannot make classes, due to schedule or distance, it will not do you any good. For an academy to have real impact on your life, you must be able to participate. Honestly look at whether the schedule and commute allow you to take enough advantage of what it offers. If not, you may want to consider another place to train. Self-deception in this area will only lead to an unfulfilling experience that may lead to quitting the sport all together.
Using these guidelines will help you navigate through what can be a difficult choice of where to train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The good news is that the hard work on the front end will ensure an incredible adventure in the sport and lifestyle. That reward is well worth the effort!
See you on the mat!