By William Murphy, Ph.D., BJJ Black Belt 3rd Degree
Most BJJ black belts are hard working, good people, that spend a lot of time helping other people improve.
Sadly, just because someone earned a black belt in a martial art (including BJJ), does not always mean that they end up being a good teacher or business partner.
If your instructor is doing any of the questionable practices below, you don’t have to accept the explanation that “everybody does it, ” because not every academy does.
And, you don’t have to automatically accept the explanation that “this is how it was done in Brazil”.
Because there is a good chance that is not the only way it was done in Brazil, and also: we aren’t in Brazil.
Here are some ways to spot a black belt who may have the wrong habits to be trusted with your time, money, or development.
Claiming Medals Without Wins, and Entering Students at lower belt levels:
Some instructors advertise gold medals on their resumes when they or their student had no one to fight in their division for that tournament.
Some instructors advertise Silver Medals on their resumes when they or their student had only one fight in their division, which they lost.
This kind of instructor is teaching their students to lie, and is lying to the public.
Many BJJ tournaments do give out “participation gold or silver medals” to adults with only zero, one, or two others fighters in their division.
However, to advertise that you or your student won a gold or silver medal (without winning a single fight) shows the mentality of someone willing to lie about his or her accomplishments, abilities, and credentials.
Instructors that have their students enter tournaments as lower belts than they really are in order to maximize medals won, are also con men. This is a lie. Even worse, the instructor is telling their student to lie to the rest of the BJJ community, including the tournament officials and the other participants.
No one who teaches their student to lie, cheat, or claim false valor should be in the role of a teacher.
Black Belts Who Don’t Roll, and who also prohibit their students from rolling at Open Mats:
BJJ schools where the black belts do not roll with their students while simultaneously forbidding their students from training at open mats where other black belts do roll with lower belts, usually mean that you are dealing with someone without real mat skills, who is not a real BJJ black belt (because real BJJ black belts love to roll, except when they are very badly injured).
We make some exceptions for severe disability and old age. However, BJJ has always been a “show me” sport. The ability to show your knowledge — by performing the techniques, often against resisting opponents — means more than any certificate, no matter who signed it.
Outrageous Merchandise Mark Ups Combined with Mandatory purchases:
Some schools sometimes require that you buy Gi’s or merchandise from them. There is nothing wrong with selling merchandise from the school at a profit. However, if the school owner is selling the same Gi brands that you can get online, but they are selling them at 100% or 200% mark up over the normal retail price, that becomes a bit onerous.
If you want an expensive specialty Gi brand, they are usually cheaper online than buying them through BJJ schools. And, there is no practical reason that the $50 all-cotton white or blue Judo Gi’s from Amazon.com cannot be used for everyday practice. Walmart sells $5 all cotton long sleeve t-shirts that work just as well for everyday no-gi practice as $50 rashguards.
Excessive Promotion Fees:
Some instructors sometimes require excessive promotion fees.
A promotion fee becomes excessive when it exceeds both the cost of the belt they are giving you and the cost to get a certificate printed.
A variation on this theme is requiring you to pay for a seminar with the instructor in order to get promoted.
You already paid for the classes every month to get the skills for your belt.
If you are paying more than $20 or $30 for a promotion fee, or you have to take a mandatory promotion seminar for money, that is a sign that your instructor (or their network) wants to tax every penny possible out of the student’s wallets.
Required (or pressured) Private Lessons:
Some instructors pressure their students into taking expensive private lessons to speed their promotion progress. You can learn a lot from private lessons, but private lessons work best when they are the salt sprinkled on top of heavy servings of class, drill, and roll time.
The worst martial arts con men will sometimes get students to pre-pay for dues, services, and products that they never deliver. After getting the pre-payments, sometimes they close up shop. Or, they simply never get around to doing what they promised to do when they were given the money. These instructors usually count on the martial arts “family” relationship to keep the victim from prosecuting their claim to recover their money.
BJJ Violent Crimes During Practices
The worst BJJ instructors will punish those that offend him by popping their arms or choking them out. Or, these violent BJJ instructor will tell his “enforcers” to pop other people’s arms or choke other people out.
This behavior is especially cowardly when the person about to receive the punishment hasn’t been properly warned that hell is coming before the roll.
It’s one thing to throw the gauntlet of challenge at someone you have a problem with; to demand the satisfaction of resolving the matter via combat, or a roll.
It’s quite another thing to prey on someone who is simply expecting a friendly training-room roll and has not been given fair warning they have to really and truly defend themselves against an opponent who wants to really injure them, not just make them submit via a clean tap.
If you discover that your instructor condones, enables, orders, or executes violent physical enforcement, it’s time to leave the gym for good – no second chance to be given! It is true that many of us were part of the BJJ culture that did this twenty years ago, but those of us who were can tell you that nothing good ever came of it. The deliberate injury of others as a form of punishment is a criminal act, because of the intent involved. This is especially the case if these punishments are done without communication of the coming danger to the victim or are done in violation of the “let go on tap” rule.
Signs of Cultish Behavior and Other Red Flags:
Some instructors set themselves up as mini-cult leaders. They may tell their students whom they can and can’t roll with or drill with outside of the gym.
Some even tell students whom they can or cannot socialize with outside of the gym (ie, “you can’t hang out with the guys from non-affiliated local gyms, even when they are not at the other gym”).
This is a directive only a megalomaniac would be bold enough to give. But, it would be even more insane for you to actually obey the instructor who was willing to give his customers or friends these ultimatums.
Also, instructors that have sexual relations with their students do not take their role as a teacher seriously. If they do this serially, then that is a pretty good sign of how they view the students.
Pressured, Expected, or Required Free Labor from the Students
It is healthy for the students to take pride in the dojo. It is common for students of any discipline to want to show appreciation for their teacher. But there is a huge difference between everyone helping out with keeping the dojo clean and presentable, and the instructor routinely soliciting free professional services from his students. Asking students to perform what would be hundreds of dollars worth of labor in web services, or medical services, or mechanic services, (without trading back the equivalent in private lessons or some other quid pro quo), is also a very questionable thing to do, given they are supposed to behaving professionally, with professional ethics, as a teacher. As a rule of thumb, if the service takes more than a couple minutes, and has nothing to do training, the professor should pay the student for it, or at the very least trade back the equivalent amount of private lesson time outside of regular classes.
Other Red Flags
Some instructors also maintain other habits that are not congruent with being in a teaching position to the public. This includes hard drug use, serially cheating on their significant others, stealing, etc. Don’t condone it, don’t learn those habits, and don’t spend a lot of time with those that do, lest their habits rub off on you or affect your reputation.
Don’t Support Cons, Criminals, or Cults
Con men, criminals, and cult leaders in any industry can and will do whatever they can without getting busted by the authorities and whatever the market will bear.
You are the “market”. If you are supporting a con man, a criminal, or a cult leader with your dollars, then you are helping them to exploit the next group of marks and victims.
Don’t spend time around someone who will “rub off” on you in a negative manner.
Get away from relationships –instructors or otherwise- that are serially lying, abusing illegal drugs, cheating on their spouse, deceiving the public, stealing, trying to control who you socialize or do business with, sleeping with their students, or deliberately injuring other people.
You don’t want to spend much time with those people as your friends who have influence on you.
You certainly don’t want this kind of negative influence to be your martial arts teacher, who is supposed to help you reach your best self.