By William Murphy, Ph.D.,IBJJF Black Belt 3rd Degree, USJA San Dan Judo
Not all schools are open every day of the week. Some schools offer open mats on the weekends instead of structured classes. In some cases, there may be an open session on the weekend at the local college, YMCA, etc. Some open mats are open to players from any school, and any style of grappling.
Some instructors encourage their students to go to open mats with as many other schools as possible to maximize the variety of warm bodies with different styles to train with, while other instructors have a policy that they only want their students to train at affiliated academies.
It’s fairly reasonable for your instructor to prefer that you come to their class, if they are holding a class that day.
A full mat is often a better experience for everyone. So, that is a very logical and reasonable request from your instructor.
But, if your instructor or school does not offer a class on a particular day, and they forbid you from ever training at open sessions on the days they don’t offer a class, then it’s a little more difficult to justify their policy, except as a controlling one.
First, if the instructor wants to keep you from training somewhere else on the weekend or Friday night, than they should make the investment in time or trust to have someone open their gym so you have a place to train within their network on that day.
Further, if they can’t offer a class on the weekend that fits your work or family schedule, but there is an open mat that does fit your schedule, it’s a little more difficult for them to justify not allowing you to go to an open mat in those circumstances.
It’s a little sad, but in some cases, instructors are afraid that if you go to open mats where other black belts roll, you will be tempted to switch schools and begin training under those other black belts.
However, instructors who are really confident in their own skills and the value they provide their students will have little fear of this.
If your instructor tells you that you cannot go to open mats, then you should ask yourself a few questions.
Are they asking you not to go because they have gone to the time and trouble to offer morning and evening classes on those days, and they want to do your part as a member of the group to make sure the mat is full of training partners that day?
Or, if they do not offer a class on the weekends, or do not offer one in a slot that you can make, are they so insecure in their own skills, and the value of the experience they are providing to you, that they would try and tell you that can’t train elsewhere?
If the instructor’s policy is strictly to control you, then you should also ask yourself why you would give anyone that kind of control over what you train and who you roll with outside of their class.
Generally, Wrestling, Boxing, and Judo are very open models, that work just fine even though they encourage cross training at various gyms, clubs, and dojos (especially if the home club is a non-profit, as many Judo clubs are).
And, in real combat training, you train with whomever will maximize your chances of surviving that encounter. Can you imagine a self-defense firearms instructor saying to you: “if you practice shooting at that other gun range, then you are disrespecting your shooting coach”? Ridiculous! A self-defence instructor who is truly concerned with your ability to defend yourself, wants you get in as much training as possible to survive an encounter.
Now, some instructors will have the honesty to tell you that their policy against training at open mats on the weekends at non-affiliates is a business decision. And, in a way, that kind of direct honesty is admirable.
But, other instructors really count on your naiveté when they feed you these rationales:
1) “If you train at the open mats at the other local schools, they will have an advantage over you in competition.”
- This is obviously false because you will learn as much about the other players as they will about you.
2) “They will learn our secret techniques.”
- There are plenty of world champions that put their entire game on DVD. Their students do fine in tournament.
- Marcelo Garcia puts every class he teaches online. His students do fine in tournament.
- Further, once the techniques get performed in tournament, they are immediately public; if they work with any kind of high percentage, in today’s world of phone video cameras and the Internet, there are very few secrets that stay secrets.
3) “It will lead to people competing less, because it provides an alternative to competition that provides a similar local function.”
- Not everybody wants to spend $50 to $100 on an entry fee to compete.
- Not everybody wants to spend all day waiting for their name to get called and end up short-changed; in some cases, only getting one or two fights even if they win their division.
- Not everybody wants to give up an entire day away from their family when there are local alternatives.
- Not everybody cares about $2 medals. The instructor might, because a lot of instructors market their academy based on the number of $2 participation medals their child students won, or even how many $2 medals their adult students won.
- Serious competitors are not going to compete less just because they also get the benefit of training at the local open mats to hone their skills. Competitors that have the heart to compete and win at the major tournaments (Mundials, the Pan-Ams, the NAGA nationals, etc.) will continue to compete. High level competitors are not preparing to beat local recreational players at open mats; they are training to beat national and international semi-professional competitors at those events.
4) “The people at that open mat will just try and hurt you.”
- How is this different from the risks we take at tournament?
- Don’t we usually have some of those same hard rollers within our own academies?
- Isn’t the whole point of learning Jiu-Jitsu to learn what our deficiencies are and how to defend ourselves?
- Does your instructor really think that he is the only decent human being in town?
However, the concern that someone may try to hurt you is the only concern that is not self-serving.
Sometimes students from other schools will roll hard with their own teammates, and really roll hard with players from other schools. It happens, whether it is because they don’t want to “lose” to someone from another school, or because they want to “beat” the players from the other schools.
If you go to an open mat where they try to injure you, and you don’t like that level of testosterone, then find a different open mat. Some open mats roll hard, some roll “chill”, but usually the intensity of the roll is determined by the two individuals rolling.
In my experience, most schools that offer open mats are very welcoming to players from other schools. Occasionally, you will get some schools that like to pound on players from other schools. That is pretty rare, however. Also, in those cases, they usually pound pretty hard on their own students too.
If your instructor tells you that you should not go to any local open mats, and it isn’t because they are also offering a weekend class on that day, then they are probably either afraid of student drift, or are insecure about their own skills. Or, in the worst case, they’re worried about both.
Referring to my previous article, if your instructor tells you that you shouldn’t go to open mats and he does not roll with you, then this is even more of a red flag regarding their credibility as an instructor. There is a high probability that you have an instructor that does not want you to find out that they really are not that good on the mats. They probably don’t want you to experience the real deal when you roll with the other black belts.
If your instructor does roll with you, doesn’t offer weekend timeslots, but still tells you that you cannot go to the local open mats at other locations on the weekends, then you are probably learning from someone that has set themselves up as a cult leader, and wants to feel like they can control you.
I received all of my belts from white to black belt from the same two instructors, who were partners at the academy where I trained at coming up the ranks. No matter what other training opportunities I had, there was zero chance that I would ever switch academies because I was getting to learn from two of the best BJJ instructors on the planet (Mestre Sergio Penha, now 7th degree, and Professor Marcio Simas, now 6th Degree). To this day, even after 20+ years of doing BJJ, I have no doubt that there is much they could teach me. But, I am confident enough in what they taught me, and what I have to teach my BJJ students, that I always encourage my students to train at as many academies as they can, and to learn from everybody.
The “fun” part of Jiu-Jitsu is getting to roll and make new friends. For recreational players, who do Jiu-Jitsu for fun and not their career, there is no reason for an instructor to try and diminish their fun by telling them that they can’t train with their friends from other schools at open mats – unless they are also offering a timeslot at that time and want to keep the mats full to maximize the training experience for everybody.
Half the reason to continue to play sports as adults is to network with other people in a sporting environment. It leads to more job opportunities, more friendships, and a better quality of Jiu-Jitsu life.
Plus, let’s be honest: when you roll at open mats, you tend to get better, more quickly, than if you only roll with your own incestuous circle of regular training partners.
As my friend and former BJJ student Rob Villetto (now a fine IBJJF Black Belt in his own right) likes to say: “Let’s just roll…”.