If you are new to Grappling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, also known as BJJ, how do you choose the right school to join? I’m going to assume that you may not live near our Mount Dora location or any future location we may open. Grappling Mastery opened in 2013 and since then, running my own school (previous to that I helped run a Gracie Barra Jiu Jitsu Academy in Orlando), I realized a couple things. These things are important to check into before joining a new academy. Choosing the right BJJ Academy is important to your ability to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu effectively. Joining the wrong school can waste your time or even get you hurt. Sometimes it can even set you backwards in your progress as you learn improper techniques and strategies.
Your Perspective is your own. The main thing is that “you”, potential members, are coming in blind. You may or may not have ever trained in martial arts before, particularly, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). This means a few things. First, you have no idea what “good” technique, or for that matter, what “Great” technique is. If I put a legit blue belt (2nd belt after white) to “roll”, or spar, with you and said they were a “Black Belt” you wouldn’t know the difference. It’s all a matter of perspective. As a new martial artist you would simply be overwhelmed by the blue belt, and assume they are excellent. Don’t assume someone being good or better than you means they are good enough to teach you. This person will be your mentor for a very long time and the decision is very important.
Skill level of the students. The students are a reflection of the instructor. Don’t believe everything you are told. The mats don’t lie. There are huge gaps between the skill level of each belt. You shouldn’t see lower belts beating higher belts regularly. A White belt tapping a Purple Belt or higher doesn’t mean the white belt should be promoted, it means the Purple Belts rank should be questioned. Belts aren’t to be handed out like candy. Belts are earned. Does the instructor compete. Do the members compete. Do research on the tournaments. Are they small, in house, or local tournaments? Or are they larger, more prestigious tournaments, where more challenging competitors choose to test themselves?
Research the Instructors Lineage. Where did he learn his skills. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was developed by Carlos and Helio Gracie after being taught by Mitsuyo Maeda (Count Coma). The lineage should start there and be able to be traced to your instructor. Usually the closer to the source the better the lineage. An example of a good lineage can be found in Grappling Mastery. After Carlos Gracie Sr. is his son, Carlos Gracie Jr., then Marcio Simas, who is Brian Ruscio’s Instructor. If an instructor doesn’t have a solid lineage that is a red flag. Again, do your research. Another red flag is when someone “bounced around” and hasn’t been with the same instructor. There are cases to be made for when someone moves out of state, etc. But if the person in question has been local the entire time, why wouldn’t he stay with someone from beginning to end?
Teams & Affiliations. Similar to lineage, an Instructors team or affiliation should go hand in hand with their lineage. The Professor who awards your Instructor with his belt is his lineage and they are usually part of a team. Some examples are Gracie Barra Jiu Jitsu, Alliance, Fight Sports, among many others. There are exceptions, like costs of being affiliated or franchising, however, other than that an instructor should be proud to represent the team that taught him everything he/she knows. For example, here at Grappling Mastery, Professor Brian Ruscio is a Gracie Barra Jiu Jitsu Black Belt under Master, Marcio Simas in Orlando, Florida. We have had offers from several other schools to become affiliated with them and turned them down immediately without question. We feel there is no reason to claim affiliation with a team that didn’t have a part in our Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lineage and education.
Affiliation hopping is a red flag! Did the instructor get his Black Belt from the team they claim affiliation from? Affiliation hopping is when a person doesn’t stay with the same instructor or affiliate without a legitimate reason. This is usually because they have done something the instructor of affiliation doesn’t approve of and they get kicked out or even stripped of their black belt! Beware of affiliate hoppers. People will sometimes pay for an affiliation just to display some sort of credibility, even though they didn’t get their Black Belt from that lineage.
Research the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation. Local and Federal Government doesn’t keep track of an Instructor who claims to be a Black Belt. The could literally lie about it their rank just so they can run a school, or be rewarded rank falsely by another just to collect affiliate fees from them. So who is here to protect consumers? It’s the IBJJF, International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation. They are established to keep track of a Black Belts lineage. The only way to be accredited by the IBJJF is to have an accredited IBJJF 2nd Degree Black Belt sign off on your application. So each person in the instructors lineage would have to be an Official IBJJF Black Belt for them to appear on the IBJJF Black Belts Database. The academy should also be registered with the IBJJF in their Database of IBJJF Recognized Schools.
There are Black Belts, and then there are BLACK BELTS. Huh? what? Basically, getting a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu should never be an easy feat. Or what is it really worth in the first place? However, even at that level, there are “normal” Black Belts, “good” Black Belts, and “Great” Black Belts. This goes back to competition. Do your research. Try not to go in blind. What has your potential instructor won. Has he proven himself against other Black Belts in actual high level tournaments? This is not a must, but the mats don’t lie.
Quality of Instruction. Just because someone wears a “Black Belt” doesn’t mean they are good. Just because they are “good” doesn’t mean they are a great instructor. I’ve had over a dozen wrestling coaches and met some great jiu jitsu instructors and athletes in my life. Through various housing moves as a child and have seen the good, great, and downright bad coaches in my life. The best coaches explain everything in detail. All the way down to finger positions and which way to look with your eyes (yes, it can be that important of a detail). Does the instructor give each member individual time or does he get on his phone in between techniques? How well does he answer questions? Does he get upset when someone questions a technique or does he take the criticism and give a satisfactory response?
Reputation in the BJJ Community. Ask people who would know firsthand. These are people who already train in neighboring cities that would know about your potential instructor. Don’t ask schools that are close enough to be competition. But make sure they are close enough that it’s possible they have old members that have moved there or from there and have heard stories about the gym and instructor. BJJ is a tight community and they want new people to have the best experience possible. They will be happy to recommend where you should or should not train.
Research if the instructor has a criminal record. The IBJJF makes this easy since every potential Black Belt must pass a background check. However, it still doesn’t hurt to make a quick search for “Instructors Name Here, Mugshot” or take it a step further and do your own background check. Remember, this person is going to be spending time with you, your wife possibly, and your kids. He or she is a role model, whether they like it or not, and should represent what you want yourself and your family to become. A black belt with a criminal record is a red flag.
Feeling Good about a potential school? Give it a trial. Call and ask about their trial classes. Go try it out. See what the members think. Most should be happy and friendly. If they are not, that’s another red flag. They shouldn’t be trying to prove anything to you. Remember you are a newbie. Why would they have to show you how fast they can beat you. Remember, anyone can put on a show for one day. At Grappling Mastery we offer a Free 30 Days to everyone! You want to go back at different times. Watch classes, participate in classes, get every perspective you can. If members are not ecstatic about training there, it’s a red flag. I mean, they pay to be there. Which brings me to the next subject.
Class Format and Curriculum. Are the classes organized and can the instructor provide a curriculum and/or list of moves that you will be learning? Is there ample time to drill techniques or are students thrown into sparring scenarios without a chance to get a few moves under their belt first. This is a quick way to get hurt. Imagine doing takedown training and never being shown how to perform any takedowns or even worse, not knowing the proper way to break a fall.
Contracts? It’s normal for gyms and martial arts schools to have contracts. If they offer a month to month plan, it’s generally a good idea to go with that so you don’t get stuck in something you need to get out of. At Grappling Mastery, we only have a month to month, no contract option. That’s because we know you will love it and stay. We don’t need to keep anyone bound to us by paper, just great classes!
Friendliness & Trustworthy? BJJ is addictive. You will experience improvements in your confidence, fitness, stress levels and so much more. You will want to spend more and more time at the academy. You will end up developing relationships with your teammates and meet new people all the time. For this reason, it will be important that the people you meet at the academy are sincere and genuine in their intentions. Someone seeming like a nice person is not enough. BJJ is a martial art that deals with very dangerous positions and if you are “rolling”, or sparring with someone they have the opportunity to severely hurt you. You need to have 100% trust in your partners at the academy. I’ve heard numerous horror stories about people rolling with someone and was injured by them, later realizing that the person was sent by the instructor to “teach them a lesson”.
Beware of Toxic Environments and Cultlike Atmospheres! It’s an unfortunate fact that owning a martial arts business gives manipulative people a powerful position to find victims. I’ve heard countless stories of instructors doing inappropriate things to younger students. Instructors sending their “disciples” to hurt students that made them unhappy. Coercing students to pay for things the instructor should be paying for, lending money to them, or even promising quicker promotions in rank/belt by doing favors for the instructor. There are certain codes or conduct, or rules of etiquette in any martial art but schools with a cult-like, or manipulative mentality take this many steps too far. Forcing you to feel outcast, or “not part of the team” if you choose not to follow along. Rules that seem simple and harmless can lead a manipulative instructors “subjects” into a downward spiral of feeling under their thumb, and helpless, and likens itself to an abusive, toxic relationship. The student even fears leaving the school for the chance they may see their old instructor around town.
Environment. How do the students treat each other? Are there cliques? Or does everyone get along. Do they respect the instructor and each other. How do they treat new people. How do experienced students treat the inexperienced ones? Do they dominate them, or do they try to help them get better?
Cleanliness! This is a contact sport. The mats should be extremely clean! No shoes allowed on the mats, no food, no drink. Members should have clean uniforms (Gi) and should never stink. There are many skin conditions that can be shared between people in close contact. I’m proud to say that I’ve been told many times by visitors and sponsors of athletes at Grappling Mastery that we have the cleanest gym anyone has seen. We keep a foot cleaning station at the door before people get on the mats and one by the bathroom for people on the way out.
Visit 3-5 schools and don’t accept any hard sales pitches. They should be confident enough to let you explore your options and think about whether you want to join or not. Like stated above, you may want to visit some that are not in your area just to get a good image of what there is out there or even see what they know about the one you plan on joining.