New Years is just around the corner and starting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or changing gyms could be on your list of goals and resolutions. Picking the right BJJ gym is very important in setting yourself up for success, enjoying your new hobby, and being around a fun and positive environment. Picking the wrong school could be on par with taking a bunch of hundred dollar bills and flushing them down the toilet while taking a few punches and elbows to the face. I have had both experiences of finding a school I love and a school I simply loathed.
When joined my first Jiu Jitsu gym in my old hometown, I felt like I was a naive animal that fell into a trap. I tried out a MMA/BJJ gym that had been to my company’s health fair for a free workout. I thought I was in shape at the time. I was jogging 4 miles 3 to 4 times a week and lifting weights 3 to 4 days a week. Additionally, I had wrestling experience from high school, although most of that experience was staring up at the gym lights while I laid on my back while a much tougher guy was pinning me down.
I arrived at the gym a half an hour before class and filled out some paper work and signed a waiver. Then I nervously attended the 90-minute class where I couldn’t complete all of the warm up exercises and was completely beat down during the instruction and drilling phase of the class. Afterwards, there was a rolling session after class where I grappled against other brand new white belts. It was a mess and I am surprised they allowed a bunch of spazzy newbies to roll around with reckless abandon like we did for 30 minutes.
At this point, I was tired, dehydrated, and sweating profusely. The class was exciting, fun, and new. It was definitely something I wanted to do again. I thought I would be able to go home and think about my options, but instead I was taken into an office where I was given a hard sell by a sales rep from the gym. In my fatigued state, I succumbed to the hard sales pitches of “If you join today, we will waive the initiation fee and give you a $100 worth of gear,” and “if you liked it so much, why wouldn’t you join.”
Before I knew it, I signed a 2-year contract for a gym that I only tried once at a cost of $70 a month. My experience at the gym was more regretful then memorable. The head instructor put me an Americana and cranked it for no reason during a rolling session when I did not even know enough to roll. His attitude set the tone for very aggressive rolling sessions among his students. He was constantly on his cell phone while we were drilling, and did not have a fondness for less athletic guys like me that had little potential as a BJJ or MMA competitor. When I couldn’t execute a triangle due to my short legs, he simply told me the move wasn’t for me, which I later learned at my new academy wasn’t true. It was all about technique and angles. In the end, I spent much of my contract injured from training, unmotivated to attend and not really enjoying BJJ the way I do now at my current academy.
I was recently recovering from a cold and sat in on my current instructor Shawn Williams’s classes at 5 Star Martial Arts. Observing the class from this perspective on the bench allowed me to see not only how he teaches his students, but also how the students behaved when he spoke, how fast they were able to correctly execute the moves and flows taught, how the students treated each other in class, and a feel for the overall vibe and culture of the school. This is insight that could give somebody a better feel for a school then by just diving in and trying out a class as a prospective student.
If you are looking to join a Jiu Jitsu school, I would recommend just showing up unannounced and asking to watch a class. Pick a class that takes place during the time slot where you will most likely be training so that you can get a feel for the instructor, class size, techniques, and culture of the academy. Take notes on these key points
- Teaching style of the instructor
- Does he/she explain technique well? How many times does he demonstrate the move?
- Can you understand what the instructor is communicating?
- How well does he teach beginners?
- Does he/she walk around and coach during drilling or does he/she just silently sit against the wall?
- How well does he/she answer students’ questions?
- Is this a person you think you can get along with on a daily basis?
- What is the coach’s demeanor? Friendly? Drill Sargent?
- How does the coach act when the student can’t complete or doesn’t understand a move during class?
- Is the instructor patient with his students?
- Does the instructor favor the better athletes in the class while not spending enough time with students who are struggling?
- How many instructors are the at the school and who will be teaching the beginner classes and the classes that fit your schedule?
- Are the students paying attention to the instructor?
- Are the students respectful to each other?
- Do the students look happy to be there?
- What is the quality of the follow-up questions from the students?
- Can you be friends with these students?
- How do the experienced students treat white belts while rolling?
- How aggressive are the students when they are rolling?
- What is the ratio of colored belts to white belts in the class?
- Is there enough space for all of the students?
- Are the mats clean?
- Does the school look clean and organized?
- Does the school location have enough parking?
- Is it close to your job or home?
- Is the neighborhood safe?
After the class is over, feel free to introduce yourself as a prospective student to the instructor or speak to the front desk person with these questions.
- How do promotions work? Is there a fee for getting promoted?
- Do you have to buy the school uniform and are there any restrictions on uniforms?
- Is there a curriculum at the school? If yes, How is it structured?
- What is the instructor’s linage?
- What are the monthly fees and what are the contract lengths? How many classes can you attend per week?
- Are there beginner classes?
- Are there additional classes such as Cross Fit, Kettle Bells, Muay Thai, MMA, or Cardio Kick Boxing? If yes, are there additional costs to attending?
- What is the class schedule?
If the head instructor, front desk person, or sales reps ask you to sign anything or gives you a hard sell, tell them that you are just looking. Since you didn’t work out, you won’t be in a beat up and tired state like I was. If you thought the place might be a good fit, tell them you will need to check your schedule to schedule an actual free workout. Also, you did not sign a waiver of give them any contact info in most cases so you can just walk away without expecting to be badgered with numerous follow-up calls.
It is also important to ask yourself
- How is the location relative to my work and home and can I realistically make the classes on a regular basis?
- What does my gut instinct tell me about each school?
- Do I go with a name brand that might not have been impressive as a small independent school?
I would recommend 3 to 5 school visits to observe classes before selecting a school. Score each of the school’s attributes against each other. This is not an exact science. It is just one way to evaluate schools that differs from the traditional method of taking free classes. The benefits of observing is that it gives you more depth to the teaching, students, and culture of a school that you might miss as you struggle through your first class.