A few days ago there was an article released at BJJ Eastern Europe about a 16 (now 17) year old kid who opened up an academy in Mississippi. Specifically the 17 year old, Houston Cottrell is a blue belt under Ryron and Rener Gracie and has opened up a “Certified Training Center” (or CTC). There are a lot of opinions that can be had about this situation, and the Gracie Academy grading system has recently come under fire by some of the community.
Houston sat down with me last week to discuss his academy, his perspectives and what his CTC means to him and to Jiu Jitsu as a sport/art.
Houston first started training martial arts when he was 5, starting with Kempo Karate (in which he earned a black belt by the time he was 11.) He started training BJJ in 2009 (which means that he has been training for 6 years.) Many people are under the impression that Houston randomly decided to start teaching one day, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth, in fact he has been preparing to run a martial arts academy since he was only 9 years old
“I am 17 now. The article (At BJJEE) was taken from information on our website. We opened in January of this year. I have always wanted to teach. I love it. When I was taking Kempo I was given the opportunity to help with the kids classes. Even though I was 9, I knew that teaching was what I wanted to do. The process of becoming a Gracie Academy Certified Instructor was one that took a lot of time. It is an intense process that began with me traveling to Torrance to Headquarters when I was 12 and learning everything I could for the next several years before I was eligible to apply to the program.”
When I first read about a 16 year old blue belt owning an academy, my first thought was that it must be a town with no competition, namely how was a kid going to be able to compete against other schools run by adults. It turns out that there are two other schools in town and that Houston is still managing just fine
“We offer a structured curriculum in a clean, safe, family oriented environment. While I am the one teaching the classes, there is always an adult present. My parents fully support me and are always at the school. It is a family business. We truly want everyone to learn. We welcome everyone regardless of their physical ability. I only teach what I am certified to teach. If someone is looking for something different, I refer them to the other schools.”
The notion of referring people to other schools indicates a level of professionalism. The fact is that at this point Houston’s scope may be limited (alas he is only a blue belt, someone looking to move past blue to purple or brown would need to go elsewhere.) However, he has found a niche in which to start his business.
Houston offers a variety of programs to meet his clientele’s needs, and generally that clientele is in search of specifically self defense training
“Competition or sport Jiu-Jitsu has its place. I teach Gracie Combatives, Gracie Bully Proof, and Women Empowered. My first priority is to teach children and adults how to defend themselves. If later on they want to compete, then that’s something we can do. Having trained in a sport school for several years, I respect it but it is not my love. Time limits and points do not apply on the street.”
When I first heard of Houston’s personal situation my mind immediately went to an instance that we discussed right here at Jiu Jitsu Times involving a gentleman who had been awarded his blue belt by mail by Gracie University, Houston’s thoughts on this construct are very interesting
“Gracie University is a phenomenal tool that has allowed thousands of people to access Gracie Jiu-Jitsu who might not otherwise have the opportunity to train. A technical blue belt is all that is awarded through the mail after they video themselves doing all 36 Combatives moves and score a passing grade. An official blue belt requires live evaluation/sparring. There are many people who just want the basic understanding of how to survive should they find themselves in a fight.” I personally find the distinction between technical blue belt and official blue belt to be a bit hazy, but if it’s a tool to keep people interested, so be it.
In spite of his young age, Houston teaches both children and adults, I was curious as a young person if he’d find teaching adults or kids easier
“I enjoy the energy and passion of the kids. Connecting with them is super important. But, it is easier teaching adults. I have students that come from all walks of life from professionals to high ranking military. They want the techniques to be taught to them so that they can implement them. That’s my job! Many of my students knew me outside the school through business and community organizations. They spent time around me and know how passionate I am about teaching.”
As you may have noticed, Houston’s responses are very mature for a high school student. That is because he hasn’t been a high school student for a while. “I finished high school last December. I am currently enrolled at Tulane University. I completed my first semester in May.” In spite of having the tasks of a college student on his plate, Houston still focuses his energy on his school and handles all of his classes personally “I don’t have other instructors at the moment. In order to teach these programs, you must be certified through the Gracie Academy. I teach all the classes, go to college, serve as an Ambassador for the Chamber of Commerce, and am a member BNI. It can get challenging but it is also rewarding.
Many people are probably now wondering about the significance of the “CTC” and what it actually MEANS, Houston’s answer clarified it for me “Anyone can open a school and call themselves a teacher. Just because you can do something, does not mean that you can explain it and teach it to others. The preservation of the way Grandmaster Helio taught is extremely important to Ryron and Rener! They want the teaching methodologies to be adhered to 100%! For me, knowing that they have given me their approval to teach the courses I am certified in is super rewarding. If you have ever walked into a BJJ school that you didn’t normally train at, you understand that the way things are taught can vary from school to school and instructor to instructor. When you visit a CTC, you know that the way it is taught in one school will be exactly the way it’s taught at any CTC.”
For Houston, his academy is special to him because it allows him to engender an environment in which he can help others learn “We are a place where everyone regardless of age, gender, or physical ability is made to feel welcome because our program does not rely on any of these in order to learn. You only need a willingness to learn.”
I asked Houston if he had any last remarks for this article and this is what he had to share with our readers “I just want to clarify a few things. First off, I don’t do this by myself. It was my dream and my parents have supported me. They did not give me a school. We built it. Long hard hours were spent. It was part of a plan that began several years ago. I am not an online blue belt. I trained at a CTC. I teach white to blue belts. I do not yet teach advanced belts. I have respect for what everyone is doing to further Jiu Jitsu. I have been blessed to have some amazing instructors who have helped me get this far. Special thanks to Ryron and Rener for believing in me years ago and supporting me to achieve this dream. There are too many people to name but every person I have rolled with has taught me something!”
Has reading this changed your perspectives on Houston’s ability to successfully run an academy? For me, it certainly cleared a lot of things up. The initial article that I read indicated to me a child opening up what was akin to a BJJ lemonade stand rather than a basic BJJ based self defense program started by a college student. Regardless on your opinions on Gracie University, I think everyone can learn something from Houston’s ambition and desire to share the gentle art.