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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

22 January 2010

Article - BJJ Teams: Loyalty and Reason

Article #9, by Can Sönmez

When the average person looks for a place to hit the treadmill, they probably choose somewhere nearby that's affordable. Should another gym open up, offering cheaper monthly fees to use their exercise equipment, that average person would most likely take their business there instead.

Rationally, you would expect the same to be true at a BJJ gym. You are a paying customer, and therefore you want the best possible return on your investment. Should you find someone willing to offer you a similar product for less money, then rationally, it would make sense to move.

However, signing up at a BJJ club isn't just an exchange of cash for goods. When you join a team, you're entering into a relationship that is more than financial. In the vast majority of schools, what it takes to earn a belt rank is the subjective opinion of an instructor. Therefore, as soon as your teacher awards you a belt, you become their representative. The instructor is putting their faith in your ability to uphold their reputation, to demonstrate that belts from their team are worth something. That means that along with your performance on the mat, you normally also need to prove a certain amount of dedication.

Loyalty isn’t only about the instructor, because that belt doesn't just represent what you have learned from your teacher. It pays tribute to all those hours spent with your team mates. Every roll, you've been tested, and if you're lucky enough to have good training partners, you've also benefitted from their advice. They've pushed you physically, challenged you mentally, broken you down and built you up technically. Every new belt is an individual accomplishment, but it is also a team effort.

Competition is another important factor in the unusually 'team' focused mentality of BJJ. Unlike judo, where you compete for your country, in BJJ you compete for your team. It is comparable to football: a player for Real Madrid would receive a very hostile reception should he ever transfer to Barcelona and later face his old club. Similarly, there is absolutely no way either Real or Barcelona would allow a player to train at both clubs simultaneously. He would be dubbed a traitor, or to use the BJJ term, 'creonte'.

Then again, that same footballer would be well paid for his services. In BJJ, the players are the ones who pay in order to be part of a team. This is why it can seem bizarre to outsiders: moving home is about the only situation I've heard of where switching teams isn't an issue (unless there happens to be an affiliate in that new city).

Arguably, that attitude hinders the growth of BJJ, isolating everyone in their particular schools, unable to benefit from a broad range of instruction. On top of that, obsessing over your 'team' can lead to the 'gentleman's agreement'. This happened recently when Sergio Moraes and Marcelo Garcia, both Alliance, did not contest their middleweight final at the 2009 Mundials. Instead, they had a game of rock-paper-scissors to decide the victor.

Personally, I didn't put much thought into why I decided to walk into the Roger Gracie Academy in 2006 rather than, say, Carlson Gracie London. Nevertheless, I now find myself looking for either RGA or Gracie Barra when I move house. Stepping through that door appears to have been a more momentous decision than I realised at the time.

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  1. Interesting, Slideyfoot. I too didn't fully appreciate what I signed on for when I found my instructor, but my loyalty has certainly deepened and hardened over the years as I've come to develop the team mentality you describe (backed by a trust and belief in what and how I am taught). Any thoughts on cross-training between teams? You sort of touch on the strange economics of the BJJ world, with players paying to be part of the team. I'm aware of folk that have moved teams between each belt to quite advanced grade. I wonder if there is a point at which it becomes less acceptable to say, 'Hey, this club/approach isn't offering me what I'd like, I've got to change up'. Okay for whites and blues, but bit trickier as the belts get darker? I don't know, just putting it out there.

  2. From what I've read, the sticking point is competition. If you aren't a competitor, then it doesn't matter so much if you want to bounce around teams.

    However, once you choose to compete, you also have to choose who you are going to represent. That's when regular cross-training can become a problem: if you're training at two clubs, how are you going to pick? How is one going to feel if you decide to go with the other on the back of your gi?

    Interesting example of how it can be handled here, in the case of Renzo black belt Gunnar Nelson.

  3. I don't have much experience at other schools, but I know that at our school it's a big deal to cross train. Our school is part of a larger group of schools, Brotherhood BJJ, at inter-training between those schools I think would be accepted. But training outside of the group on any consistent basis is a big no-no.

    Part of that is what you talked about--representing a certain trainer/team. Part of it is just good, old fashioned loyalty. There is also the issue of rival BJJ legacies. I go to a Carlson Gracie BJJ school and I know that if I went to a school founded by another Gracie, or anyone else for that matter, it would be a big deal to my instructor.

    Fortunately, I have no desire to change schools. IF they want me out they'll have to drag me out kicking and screaming. Wouldn't be too hard at this point. ;)

  4. When I started training, I was at one school. After an unfortunate incident, I switched to another. However, while traveling I make every effort to train at other schools, get privates from other instructors, and generally try to broaden my perspective. However, in our town, it is really frowned upon to cross train. I think it's a shame, really-- a rising tide lifts all boats, and improving your game (even if you "give away" some moves while you're getting some of theirs) would seem to result in everyone getting better.

    I have more thoughts on the matter... perhaps will save for an anonymous comment!

  5. @A.D. McClish: What if you moved to a different city, and there was a Gracie Barra next to your house, but also a Carlson Gracie affiliate an hour drive away?

    Personally, I would have to think carefully about that situation, if the teams were reversed. I like being a part of a team, with a network of instructors and students who quite likely know eachother (especially in a small country like England). But it would be awesome to have a club nearby: almost everywhere I've trained, I've had an at least 40 minute journey to training.

    @Georgette: That raises another pertinent question (though I've no idea what happened in your specific case, nor do I wish to pry): what if you're loyal to your instructor, but they aren't necessarily loyal to you?

    Let's say they start doing something shady, like charging for belts or promoting people online. I'd again have a tough decision to make if that was me, as I'd want to be with an instructor whose integrity I could trust.

  6. @ Slidey: I've thought about that scenario before and know it would be a difficult one to sort through. I would probably ask around in my school and see if anyone knew of a good school wherever I was going.

    I'm sure everyone feels this way, but our school is almost like a big family. Everyone is pretty close. For me, it's not so much about money or distance, but about the quality of the BJJ I know I'm learning and the people I'm training with. I don't know if I could find another place like Fabio's. Like yours, his school is a 35-40 minute drive. But it's completely worth it.

  7. I think moving away to another location is fine reason to join another (even rival) team. I did so when I left Hackney (and EKBJJ) and joined MHBJJ. Mind you, I had not competed by then.

    The 'rival' instructors I have met in my Academy Tour travels have been nothing but massively welcoming. Even now that I am competing, whenever I turn up to comps, the opposing team instructor and guys who know me all smile, exchange handshakes and friendly banter, then they scream and holler for their guy to beat the crap out of me on the mat...then afterwards we're all friends again. That's what I love about the current state of the BJJ scene in the UK.

    I suppose what I do - visit and report on other clubs - is not really like switching teams or cross training. However, it does give me a very useful insight into how other clubs train and their 'style' plus I've learned some really cool techniques along the way that maybe do not get taught in our academy or I've missed that lesson. So in a way, I am gaining from these experiences that could be to my advantage in a comp situation.

  8. Great piece, Can. From my time in BJJ, I will say that loyalty is critical. Leaving a school for another is viewed as turning your back on your coach.

    Moving away, as you mention, is really the only way to change camps without a rift. That, and maybe getting plastic surgery (or, maybe growing a mustache)

    So, grapplers must choose wisely and stay loyal (no one likes a creonte).

    I'm half-kidding.

    Seriously, it does seem odd from some perspectives, but it's a custom and practice in BJJ that is taken very seriously. I've seen it play out this way many times over the years.

  9. @A.D. McClish: Heh - I should note that the 40 minute distance has only been almost everywhere, like I said. At the moment, I'm pretty close: I get a lift, and it takes 12 mins at most. ;)

    I'm not sure if there is a cut-off point. I think personally, I would be willing to travel up to an hour each way (presuming I could afford the transport cost, time doesn't bother me, as by train I can play on my laptop), as after all I'm used to doing 40 minutes or more.

    @Meerkatsu: I think travelling around to other clubs is a very useful way to improve your jiu jitsu, especially if you're not big on competition (like me). Recently I've moved around a lot: since Jan 2009, I've been through five different locations and five different clubs.

    But yeah, I would agree that's very different from regularly cross-training at two different schools.

    @DSTRYR: Thanks, and it's always good to have the black belt perspective. I may be misremembering what I've read in your excellent blog, but I seem to recall you've been at Street Sports all the way through your belts.

    If so, I wonder how common that is, given how long it takes to get a black belt and the manner in which a lot of people will tend to move at least once in the course of a decade.

    Moustache plan sounds good: my father's Turkish, so being able to quickly grow a bad ass moustache is part of my genetic structure. ;p

  10. I am grateful I have such a good instructor close. My next choice is nearly 2 hours away by car. When I move there will be two things on my mind when I choose that next house, who teaches BJJ in the area and what kind of Internet connection can I get. BJJ and blogging about BJJ, I just can't live without them. :)

  11. I go to a Carlson Gracie school, and while I have never been forced to move from one school to another...(that is what it would be.... forcing) but I know one of out brown belts moved across state lines and had to find a new school.

    He said he spent almost a year trying to find another Carlson Gracie black belt to train under.

    If he was willing to spend that kind of time looking for one, it must have been important.

    I am very new to BJJ, and I don't quite understand the whole 'teams' thing, but I know that I am loyal to my coach, Fabio, and I trust him 100%. So, I will do what he thinks is right, and clearly, training across team lines is a no-go. So, I wouldn't do it... but I have no desire to anyway.

  12. @Stephanie: Was he a brown belt at the time? As that makes me wonder whether it feels more or less important to stick with a particular team once you reach the higher levels.

    I'd assume more, but then I'm only a blue belt myself. I like being with Gracie Barra/RGA, but I wouldn't miss out on a year of BJJ if the choice was between going to a different team or not training at all.

  13. He was a brown belt when he moved here, and is still.

    He has been training under my instructor for about a year and a half now.

  14. I forgot to also mention that when I scouted for new homes in the area, I had already ear-marked MHBJJ as my dojo of choice, and luckily, everything worked out with the move so I was able to find a place that was near a good school for the kids, easy to commuter links and easy to get to my BJJ class.

  15. I fall into that same camp of people that just showed up at a gym, took the introductory class, liked it and just kept going. I'm fortunate to live in an area with a lot of choices school wise, but I'm starting to wonder if that even matters.

    I really like where I'm training (even though I think they charge for belt tests and I'm not sure how that sits with me). I'm curious to see how team-hopping and pricing practices change as the sport goes more mainstream.

  16. This is a very timely issue for me, as a lot of people have been switching in my city, wanting to be in the "super team." I've lost four of my "brothers" because of this. But what I don't really like is that the "super team" actually seduces the top players from other teams, talking to them in some shady deal. I think it was really done in poor taste.

  17. Yeah, that does seem rather underhand. Healthy competition is one thing, but actively trying to poach people from the other teams is quite another.

    Then again, sometimes higher belts need to move on to a greater challenge. I know that when I was at RGA HQ (which I guess could be called a "super team"), there was at least one brown belt who had moved over from another club, due to the much greater number of purple, brown and black belts at RGA.

    Still, that isn't the same as poaching: that brown belt joined of his own volition, AFAIK, rather than being convinced to switch.

  18. Interesting blog slideyfoot ... Ive been researching bjj clubs and academies and am soon starting at a local gracie barra academy. A little delay due to badly twisting my ankle and an operation ... Which would love your view on. I went abd had a peek at this gb academy and was instanly blown away drom the greeting i had from the other students with handshakes from the students whom ive never met before but felt so overwhelmed. The instructor (black belt under braulio estima) told me he runs the acdemy like a family and everyone respects all.

    I should be starting in 3 weeks ... Fingers

  19. @Zip: Gracie Barra varies a lot, which is unsurprising given it is such a huge organisation. The uniform rule and general formality puts some people (including me) off, but if it's a black belt under Braulio, that's a very good sign.

    I trained at Braulio's academy in Birmingham for about six months in 2010 and met a number of students who are now black belts, all of whom were excellent teachers. Of the ones I've trained with, I'd especially recommend Chiu, Norbi, Kevin Webb and Rob Stevens. I'm not sure all of them are with GB these days, but either way they're all top notch teachers.

    In terms of badly twisting your ankle, it is possible to train around it if you can avoid using that leg. I've done that a number of times when I've been injured, such as the months I spent with injured knees, wrists and neck.

    However, you'll need to be very careful if you've got any kind of injury, make absolutely certain you tell the instructor before class and only pair up with mature, experienced grapplers. Also always be ready to sit out: some injuries will require you to completely stop training in order to heal.

    As ever, the best advice is to go see a professional (preferably a doctor/physio who has dealt with BJJ/judo/wrestling etc injuries before).