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How Can You Tell You're At the Right BJJ Academy?
In the journey to black belt, you will spend many, many hours and years on the mats honing your skills. Over that time, many things can impact your ability to remain at the same BJJ academy or gym you may have started at. Often times, we are forced by work, family, school, or some other reason to make the always difficult decision to find a new academy. Or if you are currently contemplating starting BJJ, you may want to take a look at some of the things that will make sure you find the right place that will help you reach your goals and support you on your way.
What is the overall vibe of the academy or gym?
As unscientific as it may sound, I have walked into many different BJJ academies and gyms, all with unique and varied aesthetic elements making them up. There have been gyms that have been brightly lit, with brightly colored mats and those that have had more of a dark, underground feel to them. This is not meant to be a commentary on any specific style of decor or physical layout, but instead speaks to something more subjective and more based on intuition than intellect.
In the vast majority of places, I have visited and trained at over the last decade, I have felt at home there and not out of place. Almost like a strange BJJ deja vu, it was as if I had been there before. Whether the instructor or students were overly friendly or welcoming didn't matter, each location had it's own vibe. I still remember clearly walking into my current academy almost four years ago and within minutes, I felt as if I had been training there for years.
Though not scientific, the overall vibe of a jiu jitsu school or academy must be positive. There will always be things that could possibly be improved upon, but how the place feels to you will ultimately decide how willing you are to spend the number of hours it takes to learn BJJ in the first place, so don't discount it.
Does the academy foster a supportive environment?
Does the academy foster a supportive environment for you and the students? Does it offer programs that fit your goals and needs? If focusing on self defense is your prime motivation and the school is a hotbed of preparation for the next ADCC, it may not be the type of environment that best supports your needs. And vice versa, if you're goal is to become the next IBJJF or ADCC World Champion, a school that doesn't have other competitors or doesn't promote that aspect of the martial art, is probably not conducive to your goals. Is it possible? Perhaps, but highly unlikely that you will reach the podium in ADCC at that school.
It's important to see that the academy is also supportive to others. Does the school offer women's classes or classes for youth? How the academy supports each and every student is very important. Support means creating a space where everyone can be successful regardless of their individual goals. It is truly the sign of a great academy or BJJ school, where everyone can feel that they are becoming the best version of themselves whether they want to compete, lose weight and get into better shape, or simply want to learn self defense.
Does the academy promote learning BJJ?
This goes without saying, but if you find yourself questioning whether or not your academy is actively promoting the students learning, you may want to step back and take a look at the situation. Ideally, you spent some time doing your due diligence and checked out the credentials of the school and it's instructor(s) and coaches.
Things to look out for are things like the lineage of the instructor and their current belt level. I have had great teachers of all belt levels, but chances are the higher the belt, usually the more knowledgeable they are. Again, this is something you need to research. There have been several relatively high profile 'fake black belts' outed on the internet in recent years. Sit down with the instructor and talk to them. If you feel like someone is talking to me like a used car salesmen and you're just asking them about their experience in jiu jitsu, you may need to keep looking.
Does the academy have a good balance of classes versus live training sessions? Are there plenty of opportunities for you to get to class? Part of this is also inherent on your own work and family commitment schedule as well. If there is no way for you to get to at least 2-3 classes each week, the chances of you truly learning BJJ goes down. If nothing else, BJJ requires a commitment from it's practitioners and the absolute best thing you can do is ensure you have plenty of opportunity to be on the mats absorbing the material.
Does the academy challenge you?
Does your academy challenge you doesn't simply mean are there tough people to roll and train with? The best academies are the ones that will take the time to get to know its students and their personal goals. The truly great instructors will find a way to uncover the goals of their students and try to find a way to guide and shape them, even off the mats. At his home academy, Ocean County Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Tom DeBlass will often message students who he knows are working on goals like weight loss to see how it's going, to offer encouragement and guide back onto the path when necessary.
Do you enjoy going to the academy?
This might be going back to the idea of the vibe, but you need to ask yourself. Do you enjoy going to the academy and spending hours there each week? Or do you dread it? If you dread it because you are getting back into physical fitness and you feel like you're out of shape, that's not what I'm talking about. Overtime, you will learn to push yourself, even if you're body is tired, you're feeling stressed, or you don't feel like you're improving, because at the end of the session, you will feel better, more accomplished and no matter how challenging it was, you will be enjoying it.
In the end, why spend so many hours pushing, sweating, and tapping, if you didn't enjoy it. Whether you are looking for a physical challenge, a mental challenge, or simply to be around a group of positive, like-minded and some might say crazy individuals who are all seeking that black belt version of themselves, jiu jitsu has you covered and will change and enhance your life in so many ways. It is crucial to find the best academy to fit your goals and if you're lucky, you may also find a new family while you're at it.
We mentioned Tom DeBlass in the article above. Besides being a world class competitor and having a thriving academy with over 400 students and a growing affiliation, he also has world class half guard skills, something he's been honing since he's been a blue belt. Take advantage of this knowledge as he shares all of his secrets in his 4 volume "Half Domination" instructional from BJJ Fanatics available here!