When I started BJJ, my dojo’s philosophy was that martial arts is a lifelong pursuit that we undertake for the sake of acquiring knowledge and constantly honing our skills. This philosophy attracted a wide range of students. Our youngest martial artists were five and our eldest was in his 80s. Some students came to the dojo to try something new, others came because it was a fun way to get fit, and still others came because they wanted to master “the gentle art.”
At our gym,we didn’t focus on competition in our regular classes. Competition was only mentioned in passing comments about how many points a position would get. There was never any pressure to compete, and belt promotions were completely separate from competition.
Higher belts were always available to stay after class for all our students, casual or competitors. When I decided to compete, I realized that this dojo wasn’t the right fit for me anymore. I started cross-training at a competition-focused gym in my area, and eventually switched to that gym. The vibe at the new gym was completely different. While competition wasn’t a requirement, it was the focal point of most of our training. Promotions weren’t strictly tied to competition, but competition factored in heavily.
Our regular classes centered on competition. While our instructor taught technique he/she went into detail about how it could be used in a competition setting. When we drilled and rolled, we were encouraged to take care of our partners, but go as hard as we safely could to simulate competition. In the weeks leading up to a tournament, every class turned into a competition class and we devoted extra time to hard rolling.
At the time, I loved that my gym made competition a priority. I wanted to compete as often as I could, and I wanted to win. I felt like my instructors and my teammates were pushing me to be my best. These days, I’m at another academy where I had the opportunity to teach yoga, train BJJ, and be a part of the leadership team.
We want to create a school that focuses on the love of martial arts. We wanted to make our classes welcoming to newbies, but engaging for seasoned practitioners while fostering personal competitiveness. We wanted to build a collaborative community based on the goals and passions of all our students, casual or competitors, hence the name, Green Mountain Martial Arts Collaborative.
My three distinct training experiences have given me some insight into how we can all make our dojos more welcoming for the BJJ hobbyists.
Technique for the sake of technique
Every so often, try teaching techniques without mentioning points or competition strategy. Place the technique in the context of a self defense situation. Explain how it fits into the overall concepts of BJJ like posture, maintaining position, pressure, and hip movement. Show how the technique can be used to advance a roll rather than set up a “win.”
Focus on fundamentals
While it may seem a bit boring, go back to basics. Keeping a consistent focus on the fundamentals also creates a welcoming atmosphere for the newbies and hobbyists attending your classes. Most of us know from experience how intimidating BJJ can be. There are lots of ways to keep the focus on fundamentals at your dojo. You might have a separate fundamentals or beginners class. Or maybe every class starts with fundamentals and then there’s an advanced technique toward the end.
Don’t split regular classes into competitors and non-competitors
If the goal of your dojo is to foster high level competitors, that’s great! Hobbyists probably aren’t a great fit for your dojo anyway. But if your dojo’s goal is to welcome all students, regardless of their goals, then giving more attention to the competitors creates the vibe that newbies and casuals aren’t as important.
Instead, try having a regular competition class or a workshop-style competition class that runs for six to eight weeks prior to a specific tournament. Alternatively, you can just have higher level belts commit to staying after class to work with groups of competitors.
Encourage everyone to roll with everyone
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat out of rolling so that the more competitive students could get in “good competition rolls” or how many times I’ve been skipped over for rolls because people would rather roll with someone who wants to “go hard.”
Sometimes, especially when we’re preparing for a tournament or a belt test, we can forget that every roll has value. When we flow roll with lower belts we have an opportunity to analyze our game and fix the finer details of a technique. Rolling with hobbyists or casuals also gives us the opportunity to practice being a good, respectful training partner who can dial it up or down based on their partner’s cues. Those opportunities don’t always present themselves when we’re going hard or focusing on our competition strategies.
Making our dojos more welcoming and comfortable for newbies and hobbyists requires intentional action, but it’s not hard. And it’s totally worth it to pass the art on.
Robin Zabiegalksi i is a writer and editor from Vermont. Her work has been published in several digital media publications and literary magazines. She’s been training BJJ for several years and she is a 2 stripe blue belt, currently training at Combat Fitness MMA in Winooski Vermont. When she’s not writing or training, she can be found playing with her toddler, hiking or snowboarding depending on the season, or bingeing her latest TV obsession.