10 Survival Tips for Visiting a New Grappling Academy
One of the many cool things about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and grappling is if you travel to a different city for work or pleasure, chances are you’ll be able to find an academy to visit during your trip. Visiting a new academy can be fun and enlightening, as every place has its own personality and perspective on grappling technique and philosophy. Plus, those of us who are borderline (or completely) addicted may not be able to go for more than a couple days without rolling around on the ground with other people, so a different academy can help us get our fix.
I have had the opportunity to visit numerous academies around the United States and the world, and I like to think I’m a pretty respectful guest, with a fairly good sense of how to have a successful, positive visit. I don’t, however, own an academy myself. Thus, this article benefits greatly from input my coach and friend, Ryan Hall, was kind enough to provide about what a visitor can do - and not do - to make sure to be eagerly welcomed back.
Many of the guidelines covered here fall under the category of “common courtesy” that would make sense in most venues of life, and though they aren’t terribly complicated, they can make a huge impact on the way you will be received during both your current visit and any future one(s).
Of course, you should always get your instructor’s permission before you train elsewhere. Though you are a paying customer at your own academy, you are also a member of a team, and demonstrating respect to your coach by informing him or her of your plans is always appreciated. If you do decide to visit a different academy during your travels, consider these suggestions:
1. Do your research.
Find out as much as you can online about schedule, mat fees, dress code, location, and the like from the academy’s website.
2. Contact the staff ahead of time.
Many websites have an email address or a web form you can fill out to inform the staff you plan to visit. Or simply pick up the phone. Include in your message an indication of where you train, how long you have been training, and when you would like to visit. Do NOT offer any opinions about which classes you should be allowed to attend (e.g., “I have been training for about three weeks in my back yard, so I’d like to attend your double top-secret advanced class.”). ASK which classes would be appropriate for someone of your experience level.
3. Arrive early.
Usually, academy staff will want you to sign a waiver and give you the lay of the land (dressing room, rest room, where you can put your stuff), so make sure to arrive 15-20 minutes before the class starts. That way, you can do the paperwork, pay the mat fee, and get dressed with plenty of time to spare.
If at all possible, don’t fly your home academy’s flag (in the form of patches on your gi or a rash guard that sports your academy’s logo) when you visit a different one. Supporting your own team is a respectable behavior and would not be thought of as inappropriate at most academies, but this again falls under the category of “tread lightly on uncertain ground.” If you must wear a patched-up gi because it is your only one, for instance, clear this ahead of time with the instructor at the academy you plan to visit. Along the same lines, consider wearing a gi in the basic white, blue, or black as opposed to your lucky purple velour leopard skin number. Imagine a salmon-colored shirt with accompanying triple-popped collar and an upside-down, backwards visor. Now imagine the guy wearing this at the bar - you don’t really want to be the Jiu-Jitsu equivalent of that guy, do you?
5. Don’t offer your insights.
Assume that if a grappler who has more skill and experience than you wants your opinion about BJJ, s/he will give it to you. It is not a visitor’s place to offer up his/her perspective on grappling to people who outrank him/her, especially in their own house. Similarly, do not “drop knowledge” on people you outrank. Even the most well-intended unsolicited teaching in someone else’s academy is often not well-received, as it generally comes from people who should be spending their time learning instead of dispensing advice.
6. Don’t praise people who outrank you.
It is cringe-worthy, for example, when someone who has been training for three months says “Nice job” to someone who has been training for much longer after they have finished a roll (or worse, during the round.). The more experienced the person, the bigger the cringe. (Refer to "Don't offer your insights" for further details.) Humility is an underrated quality these days, so before doing anything, always ask yourself why you are about to do what you are about to do. Is it because you’re adding something that others will find valuable, or are you just trying to boost your own ego? If it’s the latter, it’s almost certainly best left unsaid.
7. Don’t record instruction or training without permission.
You are a guest in someone else’s academy, not a roving reporter. Take notes. Ask questions. But don’t record instruction or training. Jiu-Jitsu may be the livelihood of the instructor in question and recording them without consent is tantamount to stealing from them. If you DO decide to record surreptitiously and manage to escape notice, even after you have been asked not to or you have decided not to ask, don’t be dumb enough to post the evidence on YouTube or try to sell the techniques as your own, which has been known to happen. The grappling world is a small, self-policing community.
8. Wait to be told what to do. If you don’t know, ask.
Different academies line up, address the instructor and the mat, and take breaks differently. Ask about these issues ahead of time if you can. If you cannot, err on the side of caution by bowing to the mat, bowing to the instructor, waiting to be paired for drilling and training, and waiting until the instructor dismisses the class before you take a water break, etc. This may be overkill, but while some academies are more informal, others are far more traditional and stand more on ceremony.
9. Play nicely with others.
Tap early and often. Keep the spazzing to a minimum. Remember nobody will be impressed with you if you power your way out of a submission against someone half your size, especially if you hurt that someone in the process. Far more impressive is the person who can get tapped out and then regroup with a smile on his/her face. While Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art, training in a foreign academy is not a good place for you to go aggro or show everyone how tough you are, both because people will think you’re a jerk and also because you will be outnumbered.
10. Say please and thank you.
It’s a simple thing, but it makes a huge difference. So do it. Even consider writing a thank you note after the fact. It only takes five minutes and can’t possibly hurt your standing with the people you just met.
Visiting a different academy can be lots of fun. The key to having a good time is to follow the Golden Rule and to use common sense. As a general rule, one will find what one is looking for when visiting a new place. If you come to train, you will almost always find new friends and walk away a more learned grappler. If you come for a fight - you’ll probably find one of those, too, but you may not like how things turn out. It is far better to treat a visit to a new academy like camping in the woods: Enjoy your time there, but be respectful of others and attempt to leave it a better place than it was than when you arrived.
So go forth and train in a foreign land. Just make sure to respect the local customs!
This article was co-written with Ryan Hall - in addition to being a highly decorated competitor and masterful technician, Ryan is also the owner and head instructor of Fifty/50 BJJ in Arlington, VA.