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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

06 November 2009

Article - BJJ Schools: Size Matters

Article #2, by Can Sönmez [FAQ Entry]

[This article is about the size of your school, rather than your training partner. If you're looking for advice on that, see here if you're small, or here if you're large]

Generically speaking, you can divide BJJ schools into two types, big and small. I began at the largest club in the UK, perhaps even the whole of Europe: the Roger Gracie Academy. There are several hundred students, with new white belts turning up every session, and a significant proportion disappearing soon after.

This is related to one of the disadvantages of a large school: with so many people, it can take a while to make social connections and feel a part of the team. However, in my experience this is not due to all the regulars forming a clique, but the rapid turnover of beginners. It's harder to invest time in somebody who you can't be certain will be there next week. Hence the tendency to wait until building relationships with newcomers.

In a large school, it's also difficult for the instructor to answer everybody's question. Even if there are several instructors present, there is only so much time to get round all the students. This conversely points to the major advantage of training at a big school: a broad range of experienced training partners of all shapes and sizes, who soon become integral to your development. That happens to an extent at every school, but especially if it has a lot of members.

In my case, I learned a great deal from Tran and Christina. Not only were they both much better than me, but also willing to answer all my never-ending questions on technique. As a result, much of what I try in sparring is directly influenced by them: what I refer to as the 'Tran side control escape' is something I use all the time.

At a small school, you don't get that same diversity of training partners, which is especially irksome if you're very small, rather large, or a woman. You have to make do with the same people most sessions, so you don't have the luxury of sticking to those around your size or skill level. The huge powerlifter known for neck cranks and injuring people, whose orbit you would have carefully avoided at a large school, suddenly becomes a regular opponent.

However, that also means there are less people competing for the instructor's opinion, meaning you can benefit from plenty of personal attention. Experienced training partners are a good thing, but easy access to an instructor is even better. I've really enjoyed taking full advantage of that where I am now, RGA High Wycombe.

Every lesson, I aim to put as many questions to Kev as possible (though naturally I don't want to get annoying, so I try to keep them sensible and concise). His brown belt knowledge has already been hugely helpful in the couple of months I've trained under him.

Having experienced both environments, I'm not certain I would pick one over the other given the choice. As with everything in life, there are both positive and negative elements to either option. However, I can say that I'm very happy where I am now: as long as there are people who can challenge you and help improve your game, you're at a good school, no matter the size.

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  1. My first ever BJJ lesson was at Carlsons, in their original Boiler Room. There were maybe 20-25 on the mat and it was heaving. It was quite intimidating for me, not only due to numbers, but the fact that only a few people could spar at one time, so if it was your turn, the majority of the class were looking at you - which is nerve-wracking for a beginner.

    When I joined EKBJJ, there were maybe 6-8 of us regulars with 6-8 newcomers who would pass through from week to week. The hall was large and Eddie took great time and patience. I really benefited from this environment.

    Currently, MHBJJ is an in-betweener sort of sized club. There are so many classes now that the members are spread widely so some classes are 5-6, some are 20-25. Collectively, there must easily be 50-60 active members. Obviously I'm happy here as it strikes the right balance between class size, variety of partners, time with instructor and flexibility of time-table.

    wonder what the smallest viable offical BJJ club is in the UK? Maybe in the Hebrides?

  2. Yeah, RGA HQ has a similar set-up. Most classes are enormous, but I can remember I once ended up in a semi-private lesson with Maurição, as only three of us turned up that night.

    The smallest club I've trained at is Combat Athletics in Coventry (John Will affiliate), where it was normally a maximum of six people on the mat.

  3. I've never been to a large school but you're absolutely right about small schools. My school has about 50 people that come regularly, though there are nights where it drops down to 15.

    Being a girl and being small on top of that, it does mean that I have to face-off against rough opponents that I would avoid like the plague if I could. And yes, there are very few people my size for me to grapple.

    But there is an advantage to that. Or at least I think there is. I've had to defend myself against people who are bigger, stronger and better than me since I started Jiu-jitsu. I think it has forced me to really learn the techniques. There's no way for me to out muscle these guys, so I HAVE to do it right or else they won't tap.

    And also, one really cool thing about going to a small school is that I've shown up for afternoon lessons a few times where there's been only two or three people. Private lessons with a black belt, anyone? ;)

  4. @Allie: 15 is small?! That's usually as big as our classes get! Typically 10-15. The largest class ever had 26. However, there are supposedly 50+ actually signed up for BJJ.

    I've also had class turn in to a private or near private lesson. Though, yeah, I do often have to roll with guys I'd rather avoid. Or, even when I can avoid them, I have to roll multiple times with the same guy.

    I suppose I hadn't really thought of it before, but larger schools are more likely to segregate classes by belt/experience, aren't they? We lump 'em all together.

    I like what you did with the pictures -- clever. :)

  5. @Allie: That's a question I might well have a go at tackling in its own piece.

    I do think that rolling with bigger, stronger people can help technique when it comes to escapes, as long as they have good control. That tends to mean they're a higher belt: if instead you're stuck with big white belts, the roll becomes less useful (at least in my experience).

    On Tuesday, I was with a much bigger opponent, but he doesn't rely on his strength: that means he's interesting to work with, due to the weight difference, but I'm not worried about injuries.

    @Leslie: In my experience, yes, they do. When I started at RGA, it was split into 'beginner' and 'advanced'. You could move up to the 'advanced' when you got a third stripe on your white belt, and were restricted to the 'advanced' class after blue.

    It is now so big and with so many higher belts that they've added an 'intermediate' class. That is for third stripe white to fourth stripe blue, with third stripe blues eligible for the new version of the 'advanced' class. Again, after purple, you can only do the advanced class (I think).

    As to pics, yeah, that's my first play with photoshop. ;)

    The top pic is just MSPaint copying people to beef up the class, but with the bottom one, I was trying out that clone stamp tool in Photoshop.

    Making the floor and ceiling meet properly was fun: ended up using the polygonal select tool thingy to create a box, so there would be a straight edge. Lots for me to learn! :D

  6. great topic! and the larger school is something i tend to shy away from in large part becauseof the instructor not being able to get to me for instance. I can get to Tim and Daymon without problem (my blackbelt instructors), and they also realize how serious i am about progressing so theyre always eager to help me and all aspects of training.

    And my classes range for 10-30 people which give me a broad range of sparring partners.

    I've fallen in love with my Academy but what isnt to be forgotten is that i am also aware that i need to switch up sparring partners when tournaments are near so Tim does not mind one bit if i hit up other schools, and i do plan to travel along the east coast of the united states during winter break =D

    again great topic!

  7. Thanks!

    Travelling to other academies to experience unfamiliar training partners is a good topic to bring up: it is also one of the big advantages of competition.

    Something else I'd like to write about, although I haven't been to enough schools yet (so far, eight) to really discuss it in depth. When I finally make it out to the US, that's an article I could really get my teeth into.