Thanks to the meteoric rise of MMA promotions like the UFC, as well as increased visibility from social media, BJJ is more popular than ever.
As both avid fan and practitioner, I’m excited about the growth of our sport. Learning jiu jitsu has deeply enriched my life, and I’m happy to think that more people will have the chance to learn this amazing martial art.
At the same time, all of this rapid growth makes me a bit nervous.
The Downsides to A Growing Sport
When I was a young boy, my parents enrolled me into a Tae Kwon Do classes at a local school.
Being Korean-American, this was pretty par for the course. Many of my friends had already taken Tae Kwon Do classes, and my own uncle held a black belt. Still, I was excited by the thought of learning martial arts.
I was pretty chubby as a kid, which led to a lot of unwanted attention from some of the meaner kids. I won’t get into too much detail, but one of their favorite games was to either hit me or throw something at me and then run away. I didn’t like that.
Anyways, I was already fascinated by combat sports back then. My favorite movies and cartoons were always action movies where the main character would beat up bad guys using flashy kicks and punches. I remember watching the Karate Kid, and strongly identifying with the entire plot.
The thought of becoming like my heroes and fighting back seemed almost too good to be true.
To be honest, I probably would’ve had better results if I spent the time training to run faster because I didn’t learn jack from those Tae Kwon Do classes.
Here’s the thing, in the mid-to-late 90’s, MMA was still very much an underground sport. Most people in the US had no idea what things like Muay Thai or BJJ were. While there were definitely still places you could go to learn, they were much rarer than they are today. The only martial arts that were really known by the “mainstream” were: Karate, Judo, and Tae Kwon Do.
Because of their popularity Karate and Tae Kwon Do schools opened up all around the country — much like what is currently happening in BJJ. Unfortunately, this huge spike of growth also lead to the rise of what are referred to as “McDojos.”
The Rise of the McDojo
McDojo’s are to martial arts what McDonalds is to a restaurant.
They are generic, generally low-quality schools. Some of these schools are actually be run by legitimate black belts, but very often these “teachers” don’t give a crap about their students except for when it comes time to pay tuition.
Side Note: For some reason, this didn’t happen to judo — at least not to the extent that it did to TKD and Karate. My guess would be that judo is harder to market to the general public. Why? Well, judo is hard! In my opinion, way harder than jiu jitsu. It’s not necessarily more technically difficult, but it requires a lot more physicality and is rougher on the body. Karate and Tae Kwon Do, on the other hand, are easier to water-down for the general public.
Here’s a quick review of my experience at a McDojo.
- The schedule was pretty much the same every day. We would come into class, do a cursory warm-up, and then spend the rest of our time practicing the “forms” required to advance to the next belt level.
- When we weren’t doing this, we’d sitting against the wall, “meditating” while waiting for our turn to practice in front of the teacher.
- There was no sparring, barely any kicking practice, and my parents had to pay a fee every time the monthly belt tests came around.
- In 5th grade, I tried to use my Tae Kwon Do skills against a kid who was picking on me at school. It didn’t work. I got punched in the face a lot and in the end, we both got suspended.
After that incident, I kinda lost interest in Tae Kwon Do and other traditional martial arts. In my young mind, I thought, “What’s the point of spending all that time training when it didn’t even work when I needed it?”
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Tae Kwon Do is useless or that BJJ is better than traditional martial arts. I know that there are legit Tae Kwon Do schools still out there and that, when it’s taught properly, by a good teacher, it can be effective.
It’s just that these schools are few and far between. They are heavily outnumbered by crappy McDojos that are just looking to rope-in unsuspecting people and turn a profit.
This is what I’m afraid will happen to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as it grows.
Whenever something becomes popular, knock-offs and copycats inevitably follow. Just look around at the increasing number of “real” Karate and Tae Kwon Do schools adding “and BJJ” to the end of their names in an attempt to capture a piece of the market.
Here’s the thing though — to most martial-arts enthusiasts, fight fans, and people who have trained, these McDojo’s are pretty easy to spot.
The problem is, the people who fall victim to these fakes usually aren’t the martial-arts enthusiasts and fight fans, but the average guys and girls just looking to learn something new.
Hardcore fans at least have an idea of what real BJJ and MMA looks like. Given some time, they will most likely figure out they’re at a McDojo — at which point, thanks of their prior interest in the sport, they’ll probably move on to search for a more legitimate school.
On the other hand, people who are completely unfamiliar with BJJ end up with two, equally unappealing outcomes. They could either:
A: Waste months and even years getting training that they think is BJJ, but is actually something totally different.. Or
B: Have a terrible experience (much like my own time at a McDojo) and be turned off from ever learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Neither of these outcomes are good. They have a negative effect on both people who just want to learn and train, as well as the overarching sport itself.
The Importance of Finding A Good BJJ School
That’s why finding a good jiu jitsu school is the single most important factor that determines a beginner’s potential to reach their goals in jiu jitsu.
Having a place not only helps you to progress closer to your goals, but that you actually like training at is essential because it plays such a big part in whether you stick with it or not.
Who knows how many brilliant instructors and world champions the BJJ community has lost because of nothing more than a bad first experience?
I was extremely lucky to find Training Grounds when I did. Both Professor Wil and the other members at the school are a big part of why I stuck with Jiu Jitsu. Their support, and the fact that TG was a place that I liked to be at, helped me to persist when the going got tough. If it weren’t for them, I probably would’ve quit a long time ago.
So this one goes out to everyone out there who’s thinking about starting jiu jitsu. It also goes out to all of you experienced practitioners who have friends, family, and acquaintances who are on the fence about training:
Make sure that you take the time to find a good school. Do your research!
To help you on your way, I’ve come up with a list of the five most important things to look for on your search for a BJJ school.
These are things that, in an ideal world, every academy would have but, in reality, few really do. They are basic and simple, but nonetheless essential.
The Five Standards All Good Jiu Jitsu Schools Meet
1. They teach real Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
As I said before, there are tons of charlatans masquerading as black belts in jiu jitsu.
Let’s be clear: I have no problem whatsoever with people who train or teach other martial arts.
What I take issue with is when someone claims to be teaching BJJ, leads their students to believe that they’re learning BJJ but, if they have trained any martial arts at all, actually only know Karate, or Wing Chun, or Tae Kwon Do.
That’s a trick, and they’re trying to play you as if you’re a sucker.
If you’re looking to start training Jiu Jitsu, make sure that what you’re learning is actually what you wanted to learn. An easy way to vet your instructor is to look them up— what’s their lineage?
In other words, who did they get their black belts from? Who did their instructors get their blackbelts from? Most (if not all) legitimate black belts can be traced back to a member of the Gracies, which is the family of Helio Gracie, the man who invented BJJ.
At Training Grounds, our head instructor is one of a select few Ralph Gracie Blackbelts. Honestly, we hardly ever talk about it and it doesn’t really matter after the fact
Buuuut, when you’re looking for a place to start training, lineage is a great way to filter out the vast majority of fake jiu jitsu black belts.
2. They have a good instructor
Once you’ve made sure that the place you’re looking at actually teaches BJJ, your task then becomes determining whether the person teaching you is a good instructor.
This will probably be the hardest thing to figure out on this list.
So much of this answer depends on your personality and your own, individual learning style. An instructor that is great for one person may be a terrible fit for another. Also, as a complete beginner in Jiu Jitsu, it can be difficult to even tell the difference between good and bad instruction.
Here’s what I think. For me, good instruction comes down to three things:
Ask yourself: Do they have the technical knowledge to teach you Jiu Jitsu
People tend to go a little crazy over this one — it’s shocking how many soccer moms only want to train under world champions, even though they may not have any intention of competing at all.
It’s important to have a knowledgeable teacher — but the awards and accolades are important than you think. There are many elite level grapplers who teach jiu jitsu, but only a small percentage of them are good teachers. The skill of winning tournaments and the skill of creating skillful students are different things.
As a rule of thumb, if your instructor has a real black belt, they can have the technical knowledge teach you jiu jitsu. Whether they will do it well or not depends on the other two factors.
Ask yourself: Do they convey information in a way that is simple, and easy for you to understand?
This is super important. If they cannot explain it simply, it’s likely that they themselves do not fully understand the technique.
Even if the instructor is a world champion, unless they can effectively communicate their technical knowledge and experience to you, they will be lacking as an instructor.
Communication is a combination of people skills and teaching style. There isn’t just one best style of communication. However, instructors should strive to teach lessons that people can understand, not to impress their students with their “vast knowledge” of jiu jitsu.
Ask yourself: Do they give a crap?
The best instructors care about their students, period.
They care, not because of their morals or great personality (which are also important factors), but because it makes them better at what they do. Caring about their students is what drives them to go the extra mile for them.
Does the instructor take the time to watch you do the technique and give you feedback.. Or are they on their phone the moment they finish demonstrating the move?
Do they stick around after class to answer questions.. Or are they pushing you out the door as fast as possible?
Do they remember your name? Do they take you seriously? Do they respect you? Or are you just a monthly check to them?
If your instructor doesn’t give a crap about you — about whether you’re getting better, have any questions, or even enjoying yourself at the school, then why are you there?
Find a school with an instructor who cares, it makes all the difference.
3. They have good hygiene
This is an important one. If you didn’t know already, jiu jitsu is pretty physically taxing. All of that exertion means there’s A LOT of sweat being spilled.
Unfortunately, bacteria and fungi thrive warm, wet environments. This isn’t really a problem if the school you attend keeps rigorous hygiene standards. However, if they don’t, you may wake up one day and discover that you’ve picked up a nasty case of Staph or Ringworm.
Furthermore, if the staff at the school don’t make an effort to keep the place clean, what does that say about their attitude towards their members?
Lacking good hygiene is a sign that the school doesn’t really give a crap about it’s student base. It’s not only gross, but also a health risk to train at unclean gyms. Besides, who wants to shower in a dirty bathroom after class. Not me.
At TG, we use an industrial grade cleaner (as opposed to just bleach) to disinfect the mats AT LEAST twice a day and provide antibacterial and anti fungal soaps in our showers. A clean school is not always a great school, but great schools are always clean.
4. They have good training
When I say “good training,” I’m mostly talking about training methodology.
Good schools have a structured, well-thought out curriculum designed to take you from white to black belt, and specific training methods to fit each skill level.
The most common example of this is offering multiple levels of BJJ classes. If a school doesn’t offer them, it’s definitely a cause for suspicion.
In the past, a lot of Jiu Jitsu schools were more like glorified fight clubs. There was no distinction between skill levels, so beginners were often thrown to the wolves. Not having the option for a beginner’s class could mean that you’ll be in the mix with veterans on your first day of training.
This is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s probably preferable for some people, but this a tell-tale sign that the school doesn’t have good training.
“Good training” can also refer to the level of sparring you’re getting. It can also refer to the kind drilling being programmed into the classes. The latter requires structure, which has already shown to be lacking by the lack of beginners classes.
As far as the former: high level grapplers generally prefer to train with other high level grapplers. If a school doesn’t separate beginner and advanced students, it’s likely that they don’t have many advanced students in the first place.
If you’re a beginner, or are simply looking to start training BJJ — make sure that the school you’re looking offers classes appropriate for your level.
5. They have a good vibe
Last but not least, after checking out the authenticity, level of instruction, cleanliness, and the quality of training at a potential school, there’s only one thing left to consider, and that’s the vibe.
Out of all of the standards we’ve discussed, the vibe is the hardest to quantify.It’s not dependent on any one thing, but more like amalgamation of many factors. It’s abstract and, as a result, hard to pin down an exact definition of a good vibe.
At the same time, it’s also possibly the easiest thing to figure out.
At the core, the vibe is about the feeling you get from being there. The vibe that fits you best will depend on you. After all, it’s you who will be training there, day after day.
For me, the best kind of vibe is focused, yet playful, with a healthy dose of “giving a crap” about one another.
At Training Grounds, we’re obsessed with getting better, but not at the cost of becoming overly serious and not enjoying BJJ. We’re also trying our hardest to tap each other out, but that’s just our way of showing love. We all love jiu jitsu and want to keep doing it for a long time, so we take care of each other. It’s great to have a place where everyone respects and supports the people around them.
Before you decide to commit to a BJJ school, make sure you like the vibe.
Our sport is growing every day. This is a good thing. If you ask me, the more people who learn to be confident and competent at defending themselves, the better.
However, as BJJ becomes increasingly popular, it’s important that we are intentional about maintaining the quality of our martial art. We cannot let McDojos take over our sport, diluting it as they have done to other martial arts.
One way we can do this is by holding Jiu Jitsu schools to a basic, yet essential set of standards. If you already train, share the wealth of knowledge! Educate your friends and family about what they should expect from a school.
At Training Grounds BJJ & MMA, we hold the line. We may not always be perfect, but you can be sure that we’re trying go above and beyond for our students on a daily basis. Our goal isn’t to just maintain the standard, but to push it to new heights. We don’t do this because we’re better than anyone else, but because we care — both about our students and about the amazing martial art of Jiu Jitsu.
A true martial arts school isn’t a 24 hour fitness. It’s about more than beating people up or even getting a good workout. It’s a path to refining who you are. If you’re ready to change your life and the way you see the world, try Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! If you’re located in Bergen County, give us a shout and come by the academy. Otherwise, do your research! Make sure you’re training at a good school.
Share this with someone who’s thinking about training.
Have a powerful day,