In my last article, I wrote about how to make your school more appealing to potential students; now, I want to focus on that next step for both the student and your school: The First Visit.
The first visit to a school can be a very intimidating thing for a new white belt; we don’t understand or know all the customs of BJJ and we’re afraid to break some sacred laws of tradition by doing something without thinking. For example, in my first class I realized I left my water bottle in my car after I had gotten on the mats, so I just ran out to grab it. I’m sure there are some of you already slapping your head; Yep, I did it barefoot. I ran across the wet parking lot, grabbed my water, tossed it next to my bag and walked onto the mats with my dirty feet. It was stupid and I see that now, but it was something I didn’t even think about because I was so focused on making sure I didn’t do something stupid. I got yelled at by a purple belt (I deserved to be talked to, but yelled at… not so much.) and I spent the rest of my first class hiding in the corner afraid to do the wrong thing. I never went back to that school.
I mentioned in my last article that I “shopped” around at different schools, not because I was trying to take advantage of the free classes, but because I wanted to find the right fit for me. I went to 4 different schools in my area from three different affiliations and after some time, I got to learn about what I really liked about some of the schools, and more importantly, what I really didn’t like about the schools. Sharing these experiences and ideas is really what inspired me to write these articles. So without further delay, let’s start with the good:
1) Have a higher belt watching the door before class for first time students. You could even make a rotation for them so they all know when it’s their turn. They don’t even have to be overly aware of all your students, we’re not hard to spot, look for the student with a deer in the headlights look when they walk through the door. Having someone walk up and say “Hi, I’m Caleb, is this your first time here?” Is so incredibly welcoming, it really helps him relax and gives him someone he can ask questions; he doesn’t have to do much, just show him the locker room/changing area, help him with the Gi if he has one, etc.
2) Have loaner Gis. The Gi is such a major part of BJJ that rolling without one gives a totally different feel, and for a first time student, they might not understand or fully grasp a technique without having the Gi on. Only one school I went to offered a “Loaner Gi” to students, and it was a game-changer. I got to fully experience BJJ while I was in the Gi, and I also didn’t feel like the oddball standing on the mats without a Gi on. There are however, two things about this that all schools should listen to if they go this route. Number 1 and most important; WASH THE GI. Again, WASH THE GI. I was mortified when I got done with class and I asked the purple belt that had greeted me where to put the Gi and his response was “Oh, just hang it back up. It’ll dry out.” The concept that I had rolled in someone else’s sweaty Gi without it being washed made me want to throw up, so please, WASH THE GI. Secondly, have different size Gis. A lot of people start BJJ to get in shape, so they’re not all going to be an A2 or A3. Have an A4 to fit some of the bigger guys, it’ll let them get the same experience without feeling like the fat kid in class.
3) Let them roll live. This was a 50/50 thing at the schools I visited; two of the schools let me roll live, and two of them only had me running drills and learning how to shrimp, break guard, and do different drills. While all of that is important, people want a chance to roll live; we want a chance to see how it feels in the heat of battle with someone who is trying to choke you. Not only will it give them a taste of what BJJ is truly about, but it allows them to use the concepts they learnt in a live situation, that way they can understand why shrimping is so important, or how much you actually have to do in order to break someone’s guard. This allows them to feel like they’ve accomplished something and actually learnt something from class, which is what they will need to fuel them to come back. Now, I’m not saying feed them to the wolves (One school literally showed me how to tie my belt, said “we’re learning leg-locks today, go roll”) have a higher belt roll with them for a round or two, just to show them some basic things. Let them roll with the other belts too, but try to make sure no one from your school is trying to use them as a grappling dummy.
Next time I’ll cover the 3 things NOT to do on someone’s first visit to the school. If you have any other ideas to help schools improve the way they handle firs time students please share them in the comments below!