Jiu-jitsu gyms often feel like a weird middle-ground between a business and a home. Though a BJJ academy, at its core, is a location where you pay money to receive a service, there is also a sense of belonging and family there that you likely won’t get at most other businesses you frequent.
As a result of the connection that many students feel that they have not only with jiu-jitsu, but also their teammates and coaches, there are sometimes unique interactions and rules (both written and unwritten) that take place inside jiu-jitsu gyms. Students may be more willing to volunteer their time to help clean the academy or offer financial support in tough times, and coaches may be willing to let students train for free for a certain period of time if they lose their job and can’t afford membership fees.
However, sometimes, coaches and gym owners overstep. And many students who don’t know any better may fall into the trap of believing that their coach has the right to control their lives inside or outside the gym.
This, of course, doesn’t refer to basic rules that are in place to keep members safe and the gym orderly. For example, your gym isn’t being overbearing if you’re not allowed to train in jeans and a tank top — that’s just a basic safety and hygiene requirement. However, I always raise an eyebrow whenever I hear of academies that require you to wear their academy logo whenever you train.
Even though your team may feel like family, it’s important to remember that you are paying to be there. No matter how often your teammates and your coach meet up for wings and drinks on UFC nights, you are still a customer. And you have to ask yourself if the rules imposed upon you and the other members are fair given the fact that you are, again, paying to be there.
Sometimes, the rules are written out when you first sign up. There are gyms, for example, that place strict limits on cross-training. This is something that I’ve always found a bit ridiculous in an age where you are always a few clicks away from getting a BJJ education from the top athletes in the sport, but I digress. If you’re an adult, you can choose whether or not the value you’re getting from your gym is worth the rules that must be followed in order for you to train there (though my recommendation is to follow the Coffee Shop Principle if you’re ever unsure if a certain rule is “normal” or not).
The big red flags will start to pop up when your instructor starts creating and enforcing rules that you never explicitly agreed to. You shouldn’t be getting chided for cross-training when you never agreed to a specific rule about cross-training. And while it’s good to have a sexual harassment policy in place at the gym, you shouldn’t feel like you have to ask your coach’s permission to date another consenting adult student.
I’ve even heard of coaches who try to control their students’ habits outside of the gym. It’s one thing if you’re in competition mode and have agreed to let your coach help you modify some lifestyle choices to perform at your best, but if you’re a hobbyist who’s just training for fun and self-improvement, your coach shouldn’t be dictating your dietary or conditioning choices unless you specifically ask them for help.
Basically, your coach shouldn’t be assuming the role of your parent, and you should never consider it normal if your coach does step into this role unsolicited. And if they do, it’s okay to leave. Just as they have the choice to ask you to not return if you choose not to follow their rules, you have the option to find somewhere else to train.
This overexertion of control isn’t just irritating — it can be legitimately harmful and contribute to the “god complex” that many coaches unfortunately have. The tighter the hold a coach has on their students, the easier it is for them to escalate the abuse of their position of power.
Again, having some rules is good; if your coach doesn’t care if students walk onto the mat while wearing shoes, they’re probably going to be lax about other detrimental behavior. But if you’re not sure, ask yourself, “Who benefits from this rule?” Is it in place to create a mutually beneficial experience for students and stakeholders alike, or does it only benefit the business? Or, worse, does it only serve as another way for the coach to control the people who look up to them?
If you’re ever unsure about a rule — written or unwritten — ask why it exists. You have to keep your nails short because it’s a poke and scratch risk? Fair. You have to avoid speaking to the upper belts unless spoken to because… respect? Look, you can make your own choices, but that’s a bit culty to me.
Jiu-jitsu can be weird enough as it is. Don’t pay to train under a coach that makes it even weirder.