About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
When we start training jiu jitsu we are often overcome by how incredible it is. We marvel at how much power we truly have when we exercise the correct leverage, and soak up every detail as the instructor goes over new techniques. While some of that enthusiasm stays with us, over time, the grind of training starts to take its toll on our minds and bodies.
Whether it is injury, general soreness or just slower progression than we are used to from other endeavours, BJJ begins to feel like hard work. When that starts to happen, one of the key factors in determining our longevity in the sport is our training environment. By treating your academy as more than just a place where you train, you are increasingly likely to ride out the roller coaster ride that BJJ can feel like and to reap all the rewards that it has to offer. Taking the time to make where we train more than just a place to learn techniques is therefore an investment in reaching our long-term BJJ goals. That said, here are some tips we can apply to make our academies into homes that support and encourage us to stay the course in our BJJ journeys.
GET TO KNOW WHITE BELTS
When we start BJJ our imaginations are stimulated by new positions and we are inspired by the BJJ athletes in our academies and those we find on YouTube. As white belts, the BJJ world seems so large, shiny and new. As time goes on and we move up the belt ranks, some of that “newness” wears off as we discover that there are not any shortcuts to real BJJ proficiency. We come to understand that the day-in day-out training we do is more of a reality than the highlights we were so amazed by as newbies. There is nothing wrong with that understanding, but there is something to be said for retaining some of the wide-eyed view of BJJ that excited us in the beginning.
A very effective way to do this is to continuously develop relationships with white belts in our home academies. When we do this we set ourselves up to be constantly reminded of the natural excitement and enthusiasm that we all felt when we were relatively new to the sport. Friendships with white belts are just as beneficial when we are still white belts ourselves; these friendships support our own feelings as we have people with whom to share our new experiences. These types of relationships provide a steady stream of fuel for our own development, but also for our home academies, as they are the source of these positive relationships.
GET TO KNOW SENIOR BELTS
Developing a relationship with at least one senior belt also provides many benefits. From the time I was a white belt until I got my black belt in 2007, senior belts had a tremendous impact on my BJJ journey. Sometimes it was a piece of advice on a technique after class, or a tip on something I was dealing with on the mat that they had encountered. Many times it was simply taking notice of me, or something I did in practice, as I looked up to them as senior belts on the team and that made my day.
When I spent a year in Florida as a brown belt, one of the key factors in my enjoyment of my time there was the relationship I developed with Pablo Popovitch while training under him. Even as a brown belt, I benefitted greatly not only from his coaching and vast experience as a competitor but also his perspective on the BJJ lifestyle overall.
Senior belts at our academies are a fantastic resource and should be fully taken advantage of, as they have solved many of the problems that we find ourselves experiencing as we make our own way. There is a popular saying, “A smart person learns from their own mistakes while a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.” When we apply this in BJJ by “learning” from senior belts and sharing with them how they have helped us, we not only make our pathway of learning smoother but we enrich their experience as well. This creates a rich team dynamic, built on sharing and support of each other, which helps to make an academy a true team.
CONTRIBUTE TO THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
Coming together to give to the community brings people together. As a BJJ academy, there are many ways to contribute: free self-defence seminars, anti-bullying campaigns, donations to local shelters, etc. When we get together to pool resources to help others, we allow people to see that BJJ is about more than a workout. It gives people a glimpse into how BJJ can impact lives by inspiring us to think outside of ourselves. What it also does is empower the academy as a force for good in the local area. That kind of energy has a way of building momentum and generating further philanthropic ideas and projects. These are not only worthwhile in and of themselves but have the added benefit of strengthening the bonds that tie the team together.
Competitions can be a great help in bringing people from an academy together. As competitors we step onto the mat alone, but the sense of community that we feel from training partners coming to support us is palpable. Win or lose, we know we are not alone as we represent a team that has supported us in the process of preparation and as we actually compete. Training partners and supporters from the academy share the same sense of community that the competing athlete feels. Regardless of where we participate in this process, it inspires a greater sense of belonging and ties us to the team/academy more deeply.
Examples of this type of bonding can be found at regional level tournaments, as well as the Mundials. I remember going to NAGA tournaments in the mid 2000s and looking forward to witnessing our best from the Yamasaki Team competing against teams like Renzo Gracie, Maxercise, Gustavo Machado and Team Lloyd Irvin. One of the highlights of the Mundials every year is watching teams like Alliance, Atos and Gracie Barra battle it out for “team” bragging rights and honours. Competition clearly provides fertile ground for bringing teammates closer together emotionally and helping them more easily feel a sense of belonging to their specific team. When we participate in this in any way, we increase our sense of belonging to the group.
Providing feedback is not about “telling an instructor what to teach” or “coaching during class”. It is more about being willing to share your feelings and contributing in areas of expertise. In our academy, we do “weekly themes” where we cover a position or concept and approach it from different angles for that week. For example, we have berimbolo week, de la Riva week, tight-passing week, etc. Since we have implemented that, the overwhelming feedback has been positive. It has helped many of the students to process techniques and ideas more easily, while giving classes a natural flow.
The great thing about this is that it came from a series of conversations I had with a few of the students (one brown belt, one blue belt and two white belts). Their willingness to give me feedback and to share their ideas helped me to help them (and others) by adjusting my teaching pattern. Additionally, the fact that our environment welcomed open and honest dialogue reinforced their sense of belonging, making the school feel like a home to them. One student, being a technology professional, even came back with the idea to completely re-do our school website. He took on this labour of love specifically because of his love for the academy and his feeling that it was his BJJ home. When we contribute our feedback and expertise to our academy, it becomes part of us as we are pouring some of ourselves into it.
Again, training BJJ is a marathon not a sprint. And just like any long race, there will be times when we need a boost if we are to keep going. When we take the time to make real BJJ homes for ourselves, we are proactively helping ourselves stay the course so that we can finish the race.
See you on the mat!