Navigating unspoken rules in BJJ

Recently, a teammate and I spoke about one of her first BJJ classes where she felt that she’d done something wrong, but didn’t know what.  After hearing her story and then giving my take, her jaw dropped.  “I wish I’d known that when I first started!” she exclaimed.

So let’s talk about some common “unspoken rules.”  Most of them center around dealing with upper belts – which makes sense when we think about the origins of BJJ.

It’s said that BJJ came from Mitsuyo Maeda teaching judo to the Gracie family. Judo is a product of Japan’s hierarchical culture where formality and tradition are signs of respect.  For example, there’s a specific way folks in Japan are expected to speak to those who are “higher” than them, called keigo.  To use another form of Japanese in a work environment could get you in major trouble. 

While many BJJ gyms are not as outwardly strict in adhering to this cultural hierarchy as, say, judo gyms, there are some BJJ gyms and practitioners who do expect this kind of behavior from others. Some BJJ gyms more strictly adhere to these cultural traditions more than others; therefore; it is sometimes an expected type of behavior.. However, since these are cultural behaviors, most people don’t talk openly about them, but instead expect these norms to be innate in individuals.


Let’s clear the air

Below, I share four “unspoken rules” that I’ve noticed in the 10 years I’ve been practicing BJJ  across several states and two foreign countries. I address what may have been the origin of each rule and my thoughts on following each rule.

Don’t ask an upper belt to roll

Possible origin: Going back to our discussion on cultural hierarchy, this likely stems from the idea that those lower in rank should be humble and await any offers from those higher in rank.


Recommendation: To avoid any awkward interactions during sparring, at the beginning of class ask the instructor directly if it’s okay to ask higher belts to roll.  Even then, it may be a good idea to watch what other lower belts do – not to mention the reactions of the higher belts.


You’re not allowed to refuse an upper belt’s request to roll

Possible origin: Similar to the above, this is likely due to the expectation of respecting the hierarchy, where having someone higher requesting to interact with someone as “lowly” as you should be seen as an honor.


Recommendation: You have a choice in whether or not to follow this rule.  Personally, as a female who is always the smallest in the room. I reserve the right to say no, even to a black belt.


Don’t touch a higher belt’s belt

Possible origin: There’s a myth that the experience you accumulate is not merely represented by (the color of) your belt, but is actually housed within your belt (and why some folks say you’re not supposed to wash your belt). So to touch this physical manifestation of someone’s sacred experience could be seen as you dirtying that experience or even threatening to take that experience from them.

 Recommendation: Personally, I don’t like touching other people’s gear in the first place.  Unless the belt isn’t a danger to anyone. This unspoken rule may be worth following.

White belts should be seen not heard

Possible origin: Once more going back to hierarchy, this likely stems from the idea that an opportunity to learn from someone higher than you should be taken with deep, silent, and unquestioning gratitude.


Recommendation: While I agree that you can learn more by teaching others, at white belt, folks simply don’t have the knowledge to fully teach a technique.  As a white belt, the best thing you can do is  soak in knowledge, rather than try to dispense it.


There you have it! Hopefully this helps you navigate some of the unspoken cultural aspects of BJJ. Now that you have a better grasp of the rules, you can judge for yourself if and when to break them.


Have you experienced any other unspoken rules in BJJ? Share them in the comments below! 


Jess Bertubin

Staff Writer

About the author: Jess is a light feather purple belt based in Brooklyn, NY. Read her Training Without A Gym series for mental exercises to keep your skills sharp even while off the mats. More thoughts can be found on her blog, Rolling With the Big Boys.


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