Hey, Coaches — Your Former Students Aren’t Bad People Just Because They Left Your Gym

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Image Source: Issys Calderon Photography

For as much as people (including me) like to preach about how “jiu-jitsu is for everyone” and how tight-knit our community is, there is still a certain cult mentality that permeates some circles of the sport. And that mentality is never so prominent as when a student decides to switch gyms.

Joining a BJJ academy can feel like acquiring a new family (or at least a new social circle), so it makes sense that the decision to leave the school for a different one can sting for both the student in question and their coach. At its root, though, an academy contract is a business transaction that’s signed in ink, not blood. If you, as an instructor, take it too personally, you could end up driving away current and potential future students.

While there are some cases in which some bitterness may be acceptable (such as a dispute between a coach and a student), there are many instances in which students leave academies simply because they feel they aren’t getting the experience they want for the money they’re paying. Maybe they want to train somewhere closer to their home, or they found an academy that offers a training environment that will help them achieve their personal or competition goals. Or maybe you aren’t as great of a coach as you think you are.

Regardless of the student’s reasons for peacing out and finding somewhere else to train, this is the nature of the business you’re involved with. Just as university students will sometimes transfer schools, jiu-jitsu students may start off at one gym as white belts and decide as more experienced purple belts that they need more than what you can offer them. And while it may hurt, it doesn’t make them “creontes” or bad people. Your students are paying you their hard-earned money, and just as you’d probably rather spend your own cash paying for goods and services you need and want, your students feel the same way.

It’s very normal to have students come and go from the jiu-jitsu scene as a whole, and having one or two students leave your gym for another local one is commonplace. If, however, you find that your students are consistently leaving your gym for a different one (or ones) in the area, it’s time to let go of your ego and ask yourself how you can offer your students a better experience. Don’t post passive-aggressive memes about wolves and sheep on social media, don’t tell your remaining students that they’re never allowed to cross-train, and don’t convince yourself that they (not you) are the problem. Assume that the departures are your fault, and whether it’s true or not, use that assumption to self-reflect and examine how you can adopt better business practices to retain your existing students and recruit new ones.

From a student’s perspective, the growth and availability of jiu-jitsu is a blessing. They no longer have to feel trapped at one academy if they find themselves unhappy with the coaching they’re getting there. But from an instructor’s perspective, the fact that there are BJJ gyms popping up seemingly around every corner is all the more reason to stop being complacent and start holding yourself accountable. You can’t afford to consistently show up late to your own classes, teach ineffective techniques, or be creepy with your students because just twenty minutes away, there’s a coach who’s always on time, teaches moves that work, and treats everyone with respect. If another academy offers something that you don’t, you’re doing yourself a disservice by blaming your former students instead of yourself.

If a student comes to you and tells you that they’ve found somewhere else to train, assume that this is just as awkward (and possibly sad) for them as it is for you, and try to make it better for both of you. Let them know that you appreciated your time with them and that they’re always welcome back if things don’t work out at their new gym. If they give you their reasons for leaving, even if you don’t agree, put the feedback in your pocket and take it seriously. If you and your student weren’t on bad terms before they left, don’t provide a reason for either of you to develop bad blood on their way out. Create the culture (not the cult) that you want to see in jiu-jitsu.

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