In any type of classroom setting, you’re bound to see three categories of people: the superstars, the strugglers, and the folks who fall somewhere in the middle.
Your average jiu-jitsu academy is no different. When you step onto the mat, you’re likely going to roll with a few people who are at your level, a few people you can easily beat, and a few people who can twist you into a pretzel without breaking a sweat.
When you’re a white belt, chances are you’re not going to be that person beating up everyone else. You might be half decent for your belt level, but unless you’re one of those people who seems like they might have tried to pass their mom’s guard as they came out of the womb, you’re going to have to accept that you’re going to be living life as the struggler for a while.
Most of the time, that’s just a part of the uphill road that is Brazilian jiu-jitsu. You’ll work your way through it, and if you stick with it, you’ll belt up and eventually start being the person to tap more than you’re being tapped.
The problem comes in when you have a coach who plays favorites.
In any industry, there’s bound to be at least a little favoritism. Restaurant servers will have customers they love and customers they would secretly like to poison, veterinarians have patients they love and dogs they wish would go somewhere else for their yearly vaccinations, and jiu-jitsu coaches have students they love a little more than all the others. It doesn’t become an issue until servers start spitting in the food, or veterinarians start hurting dogs, or coaches start ignoring the strugglers in favor of the superstars.
Unfortunately, there are far too many academies in which the coaches do practice blatant favoritism, and the people who suffer as a result of it are usually the white belts. Sure, you might get some blue, purple, or even brown belts who don’t get the same love as the other people at their rank, but it’s not nearly as common as it is for beginners.
Why the lack of love for the newbies? Well, many of them haven’t competed yet. Many also can’t even tell the difference between a kimura and an Americana. For more than a few white belts, rolling consists of flopping around and doing everything they can to just not get submitted. Unless they get caught on film submitting a black belt, a white belt is usually not going to be the one to bring attention to an instructor or a gym, and sadly, many of them end up being put on the back burner because of it.
I’ve seen this favoritism in many of the gyms I’ve been to, and I’ve heard complaints about it from a shocking number of my jiu-jitsu friends. The story always goes a little something like this: The instructor won’t roll with the white belts because they don’t “challenge” him anymore, or the instructor will fine-tune the purple belts’ omoplatas without even checking to see if the white belts are doing it correctly. Some white belts say the instructor heaps praise onto the third-place blue belt for the post-tournament Facebook update while not even mentioning the two white belts who took home gold in the same competition.
If it were one instance, it wouldn’t be a big deal. It would seem like spoiled whining for these people to complain about an isolated class in which they weren’t given as much attention as the higher ranks.
The issue comes in when they are given unfair treatment every single day in class. If you feel ignored for a day, or even the week leading up to a tournament that you’re not competing in, that’s one thing. But when you feel like you’re virtually invisible in your coach’s eyes, that’s not okay.
I’m not a coach, so I’m not about to give advice about the best way to divide your attention amongst twenty students. If you’re a professor, you should run your academy and treat your students as you see fit.
But if you’re a student, you need to decide whether the treatment you’re receiving at your academy is conducive to your jiu-jitsu journey. Do you feel like your coach sees you as part of the orchestra, or just background noise? Do you regularly come out of class feeling like your questions and concerns were treated validly, or do you get the vibe that your coach doesn’t think you’re worth his time? If you brought up the potential of looking for another gym, would your coach’s main concern be losing your monthly membership fee, or losing you as a member of the team?
If your gut is telling you that your coach sees you as a rock among diamonds, the first thing you should be doing is talking to him. Nobody is perfect, and it’s possible he got caught up in the thrill of having potential champions in his gym and inadvertently let other students lag behind as a result. It might also reveal that your perception on the matter is flawed, and everyone really is getting the same treatment. Even if you’re past the point of reconsideration, speaking openly and honestly with your coach can help him avoid making the same mistake with future students.
If talking doesn’t work, it’s time to find a different gym. Jiu-jitsu requires a huge investment of time, money, and energy, and you’re throwing all that away if you’re staying at a place that makes you feel like a second-class citizen. I say this all the time, but this is your journey, and you are the one who gets to choose which path you take. It’s going to be bumpy no matter what, so you’re better off having a coach who is willing to guide you along rather than leaving you behind to chase after the car.
No matter how white your belt is, no matter how much you suck at jiu-jitsu, no matter how unlikely you are to become the next world champion, you deserve to be taken seriously if you’re taking your training seriously. Please don’t give up on jiu-jitsu as a whole just because of one or even multiple coaches who wouldn’t give you the time of day. There is certainly a professor out there who recognizes that white belts and strugglers are the future of jiu-jitsu, and once you find her, you’ll wonder why you ever settled for anything less.