It blows my mind that there are still jiu-jitsu academies out there that either don’t let their students cross-train or heavily restrict their visitations to other academies. Truly, I am shocked that with all the readily available instructionals (both free and expensive) that are available online from some of the world’s most elite BJJ athletes, there are still small-town coaches who believe that the material they teach is so exclusive that it would ruin their business if their students inadvertently showed it to a practitioner at another gym’s open mat. It all comes across as culty — like a controlling, abusive relationship in which your partner doesn’t let you have friends. And it’s even more ridiculous that gym owners are paid to enforce this kind of control.
Maybe I’m naive. As someone who is not a gym owner, I’ll be the first to agree with anyone who tells me I don’t “get” the struggles of being a gym owner. But I do get the struggles that many jiu-jitsu students feel when they’re forced to train at one academy and prohibited from ever attending an occasional class elsewhere. Aside from the obvious fact that you miss out on training with people whose styles and strengths differ from your teammates’, a gym that prohibits cross-training isolates you from the rest of the community. You meet people at tournaments who invite you to come train with them and then feel like a child with a helicopter parent when you tell them “Yeah, for sure!” knowing that you’ll either have to go in secret or never go at all. You miss out on potential friendships and learning opportunities in an already-small sport because you’re confined to one gym (perhaps with the occasional team outing to an affiliate academy) while members of other teams attend each other’s holiday open mats and occasionally drop in for each other’s weekend classes.
Prohibiting your students from cross-training doesn’t just limit their learning potential — it limits their jiu-jitsu experience as a whole. Part of what makes BJJ so addictive is the social component, and enforcing a rule that your students have to stay in your academy unless they venture out on your terms can dampen their impression of the sport. If they feel like they’re being overly controlled by the person they’re paying, they may quit not only your gym, but the entire art of jiu-jitsu.
It’s fine to put healthy boundaries in place for students who wish to venture out for the occasional roll at another gym. For example, if your students are missing your classes and getting left behind because they’re consistently spending that time at another gym, there’s nothing wrong with a reminder that your own classes should still be the top priority in your students’ training routine. Similarly, if an academy, coach, or association goes directly against your ethics, it’s not an egregious request to ask your students to avoid training with them as long as such a request is the exception rather than the rule. However, it’s crucial to walk the line between establishing boundaries and putting a leash on your students.
Ultimately, coaches and academy owners are free to set their own rules, and if students don’t like them, they can train elsewhere. But my own enjoyment of and progression in jiu-jitsu has dramatically increased when I’ve trained with instructors who not only permit cross-training, but encourage it. The culture of trust that these coaches have built creates a healthy, open academy environment. What’s more, the coaches project confidence through this decision — they show that they truly believe that they offer the best instruction in the area and they aren’t scared that their students might discover a better option and leave. While heavily restricted training and “secret techniques” may benefit academies in the short-term, a gym culture that encourages students to explore everything jiu-jitsu has to offer will benefit both the students and the sport in the long-term.
Featured image by Trinity SP Photography