Words: Budo Jake || Picture: Budo Dave
In my ten plus years of training BJJ, I’ve travelled to probably over 100 different gyms both in the US and internationally. If you watched my show “Rolled Up” on YouTube, then you too have seen some of these gyms.
Some of them are very familiar to me. Braulio Estima’s gym in England for example, felt much like my home gym (Gracie Barra HQ in Irvine). Other schools have a totally different vibe – such as Kurt Osiander’s, Erik Paulson’s, or Gokor’s gym.
What I have found is that all gyms have their own unique atmosphere. If you only visit gyms similar to your own you might not have much of a “culture shock” but you will also be missing out on some great learning opportunities!
They say learning takes place outside of your comfort zone and I for sure picked up many valuable lessons when I trained at places very different than what I am used to. I’m talking about going beyond even BJJ; to judo gyms, catch wrestling gyms, and MMA schools. There’s so much to learn out there!
That being said, I want to help you with your journey. No one likes making faux pas, or to put it more plainly, no one wants to make an ass out of themselves.
So here, in no particular order, is my list of top things you should or shouldn’t do when visiting a new gym:
1) Contact the gym ahead of time.
Let’s face it, no matter how often people throw around the phrase “leave your ego at the door”, there’s still a lot of ego in many grappling gyms. If you show up unannounced, you’re likely to be viewed as a challenger and will be soundly paired up with the toughest guys in class. Not always, but it does happen. A simple phone call or email telling them who you are and why you want to visit will make you much more welcome. Tell them a bit about who you train with and your rank as well.
2) Ask your instructor if there are any issues.
Some old-school instructors do not like their students visiting other gyms. Personally, I will not tolerate this attitude, but you still might want to run it by your teacher to avoid an unpleasant situation.
3) Ask about their gi policy.
For some academies, anything goes. Blue jacket, white pants? No problem. For other schools, it’s white gis only. I remember walking into Saulo Ribeiro’s academy with a grey gi, to hear him say, ‘that’s the ugliest gi I’ve ever seen!’ When in doubt, a white gi is always safe.
4) If it’s a nogi class, wear spats.
I don’t know what other gym’s cleaning habits are. Spats prevent infections by covering up your bare skin. Seems like a good idea to me.
5) Don’t wear your own patch.
This is not an issue if you are visiting a school under the same umbrella as your home gym. But for example, if you train at Gracie Humaita and you are visiting an Alliance school, don’t wear your Gracie patch. Some academies go so far as to make visitors wear their school’s gi. When visiting a new school, the plainer the gi the better.
6) Go to learn, not to challenge.
If you go in and rough the students up, you may not be welcomed back. On the first visit, keep things light and friendly. As you get to know the guys you can train harder and be more competitive.
7) Don’t coach the students.
It can be tempting to coach the students, particularly if they are lower belts and are making mistakes. I would recommend resisting this urge for your first visit at a new school. Remember, you are a guest. Unless you are invited to teach or you have a good relationship with the teacher, I would hold off on coaching. Just train and enjoy.
8) Ask about sparring rules.
This is probably one of the touchier subjects. Break their rules and you might find yourself making an enemy real quick! Some schools allow heel hooks from day one. Others never do! Some allow kneebars and toeholds after brown belt. Some students stop if they get close to a wall. Others, particularly MMA gyms, keep going, using the wall to simulate a cage wall. By simply asking the instructor “are there any sparring rules I should know?” you will be on track to a good rolling session.
9) Always wear sandals or shoes when walking around the gym.
Of course we never wear shoes (unless wrestling shoes) on the mat, but resist the urge to walk barefoot to the locker room or bathroom. This is how germs are spread. Don’t be that guy.
10) Respect the instructor’s teaching.
You might have been taught a different way of doing a move than the instructor shows. That’s fine, but keep it to yourself. There are many different ways of doing things. Take the opportunity to learn and be humble.
11) Offer to pay a mat fee.
Many gyms have a fee for drop-in guests. This is called a mat fee. Other gyms may have a policy of one free class, or a free week. If the gym is under the same umbrella as your home gym, there may be no fee at all, but in my opinion you should always offer. I also recommend giving the cash in an envelope; that’s how it’s done in traditional martial arts dojos.
12) Leave a review on Yelp or other such site.
The instructor will definitely appreciate this and it will go a long way to you being welcomed back.
13) Ask to take a group photo.
These make nice memories of your experience and it also conveys a message of appreciation to the instructor and his gym. Then post it on social media and tag me to let me know where you visited!
I hope these tips help you out. I have thoroughly enjoyed training in other gyms around the world. It’s a great way to make friends in a different place, even if you don’t speak their language!