BJJ like Zumba, Cross Fit, Magic The Gathering, Mac users or any activity with a devoted following can develop a cult-like nature. In many cults, devoted followers of a person or interest, will become very loyal to an alpha-male figure who is the leader of the group or sect. In most BJJ environments, the head coach is the unquestioned leader of the group and this is a weird dynamic since the students are the paying customers, but the coach is the one calling the shots. Not all cults are evil or bad, but there are definitely dark and negative aspects that we have seen in the BJJ community from sexual harassment and abuse of students to ostracizing a student who left a school under bad terms.
Here are a few signs of culty behavior at BJJ schools
Coach tells you who you can and cannot talk to outside of training: Your coach tells you who you can and cannot speak with and/or train with outside of the school. The rational response would be “Wait a second? As a student and customer, I am paying you $100 to $200 a month to teach me BJJ and then you have the nerve to tell me who I can or cannot associate with during my free time. ” However, there have been cases where coaches have some weird mind control over students and the students comply with the wishes rather than face any sanctions from the coach or other students.
Viewing BJJ Coach as life coach: All because your coach has worked hard and showed the aptitude to earn a Black Belt in BJJ doesn’t mean he or she is qualified to be a life coach. In some cases, your coach could be a 25-year old who never worked a real job, lives at home with mom, never gone through the ups and downs in life and relationships, or can even identify where France is on a map. However, you are going to assume that because your coach knows numerous variations of a kimura, that your coach, can also help you through a divorce or a major life decision. You need to look to someone else rather than a BJJ coach to help you through life’s winding roads.
Coach’s way is the only way: There are many ways to pass the guard or applying a choke. Every coach should want their students to apply correct technique rather than muscle or spaz their way to an escape or submission. However, a coach shouldn’t discourage or prohibit a student from learning from online tutorials and other instructors and practicing those techniques at the academy. Constant learning from multiple sources should be encouraged where your coach can then help answer questions and refine the techniques you learned online. If they are discouraging this practice, you have to wonder if they feel threatened by what you are picking up elsewhere.
Wants you to be rivals with other schools/affiliations: We all have our favorite sports teams and BJJ is no different. It gets a little silly with the teams and affiliation rivalries considering all of it ties back to some Gracie or a guy with roots to the Gracies. In the end, life is too short to have any heated rivalry over BJJ. If your coach is overly consumed by rivalries with other schools and wants you to do the same, then he might need to relax or you might need to find a new school.
Wearing same uniforms: The Heaven’s Gate cult that committed mass suicide all wore sweat suits and Nikes when they all drank their last sour tasting glass of Kool-Aid. Any school that wants you to only wear their storm trooper outfit and conform is kind of culty. Let your Shoyoroll flow and wear something different. That flamboyent purple $300 gi that you want to wear to class might outlast your BJJ gym membership
Guilt for Not Conforming: “What do you mean you don’t want to waste a Sunday afternoon spending $150 to attend my Master’s annual seminar? Everybody else will be there and there is a slight chance you might get a stripe on your white belt from my Master.” You should never be guilt tripped into doing something extra by your coach or school. There should be no pressure placed on you to lay out any additional money for a seminar, competition, or holiday party you are not up to attending. This is the same type of shaming churches do when they pass around the collection plate while someone talks about starving children in a third world country.
Hazing: Many time honored traditions like not allowing women to vote and slavery have been proven to be outdated and evil. Having a culture where lower belts are roughed up and rituals like gauntlets are mandatory are right up there. The bullying type culture is a sadistic way of maintaining order and control over students and there is no need to repeatedly whip a person as a rite of passage.
Calling Coach weird names like master: I can get calling your instructor coach or even professor, but it gets a bit weird when you start calling someone “master” or “grand dragon.” We are all grown ups here, is it really necessary to call you “master” considering I am the one paying for the services? I understand you are a master of BJJ, but can’t I just call you “coach” or Lloyd?
Cleaning and washing mats: “Everybody mops?” I am paying $100 to $200 a month to train at a school. I don’t mind wiping down the leg press machine at 24 Hour Fitness after I am done using it, but don’t you have staff that can mop the mats after class? Imagine if that fancy steak restaurant you had dinner at last Saturday was able to get you to go in the kitchen, wash your dishes and utensils and clean the linens after you are done with dessert while still charging you $200 for dinner. It wouldn’t go over so well, so why is making it mandatory to mop the mats somehow acceptable?
Treating the Gracies as unquestioned Gods: Many schools have images of Helio and Carlos Gracie hanging on the walls. They were likely two of the greatest innovators in martial arts to ever walk the Earth, but the Gracie family are also human beings and not infallible gods. We should be able to honestly assess the Gracies’ positives and negatives without being told by a black belt not to question their techniques, opinions, or business practices. While most family members are really nice people, you can’t blindly support some of the family members’ past acts of assaulting people, holding back techniques from non-family members or questionable business decisions.