For every good BJJ gym you find, there’s another one nearby that’s basically a cult and it can often be hard to see the signs that would help you determine which one you’re training at. It’s usually difficult for people to take a step back and see the issues with what they’re doing, while they’re doing it, because they’ve grown accustomed to the way things work. In many cases, things didn’t start out as bad as they ended or the bad aspects were steadily introduced as time went on. That’s partly why it’s so difficult for people to notice, because they don’t get hit with all the red flags at once.
10 Signs Your BJJ Gym Might Be A Cult
Just like most other things in life, it’s always easier to see the flaws in something as an outsider or with the benefit of hindsight. Rather than just relying on your own intuition to spot that the BJJ gym you’re training at is a cult, use the fact that others have gone through something similar to your benefit. Don’t panic too much if your gym does one or two of the things below, as many perfectly normal and safe training environments might have a single practice you’re not happy with. These are all just signs to look out for and if several of them crop up in the same gym, maybe step back for a moment and think about how you really feel about the experience.
The Coach Doesn’t Actually Roll
There are some pretty obvious exceptions to this, as nobody reasonable would demand that a 75 year old coach have intense sparring sessions with his ultra-heavyweight students. Some coaches might have a debilitating injury too, something that famously effects John Danaher and he’s still one of the best coaches on the planet. If your coach is at an age where he would be able to train and doesn’t suffer with any serious injuries, it’s reasonable to expect him or her to train with the class some times. If the physically-capable coach of a BJJ gym doesn’t roll with his students, that’s a sign that he might be afraid to tap and lose some of the mystique that helps build the cult environment.
Mandatory Dress Code
A lot of BJJ gyms have mandatory dress codes unfortunately, and it’s a sticking point for a pretty wide section of the community. There are plenty of fantastic gyms out there that require a specific color gi like Studio 1908, or even a branded gi like many Gracie Barra affiliates. This could easily be done purely for aesthetic purposes, but it can also have a much darker logic behind it. Forcing a uniform also helps force the membership to act as a unit, and it’s part of why large institutions like the military and police have uniform policies. When everyone in a BJJ gym looks the same, it’s easier to make them think the same and guide them into becoming part of the cult.
Deference Extends Outside The Gym
Most gyms will have a different idea of what constitutes ‘showing respect’ to your instructor. In some laid-back gyms this can be as simple as being polite, in more strict gyms this usually takes the form of a specific title being used to refer to the coach. Many people will feel a little strange using terms like Sensei, Professor, or Master; but generally this isn’t a big deal within the confines of a BJJ gym and doesn’t indicate anything about whether or not it might be a cult. This practice can easily become cult-like though, when those titles extend beyond the gym’s walls. No coach should ever expect their students to call them Master when they bump into each other in the supermarket.
Questions Aren’t Allowed
A BJJ gym is a learning environment first and foremost, so any place that isn’t a cult will welcome and even encourage questions during training. For many people questioning is part of the learning process, and advanced students might find that questioning leads to other alternatives. If students aren’t allowed to question the logic or reasoning behind a decision or a technique, that should be a huge red flag for everyone. Obviously silly questions can be frustrating at times and coaches are only human, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect an instructor to answer questions regardless.
The Coach Requests Free Services
The relationship between an instructor and a student can be difficult to navigate at times, particularly when the lines are blurred and a legitimate friendship forms. It’s natural for friendships to form over time, and friends will obviously do each other favors and help each other out. There’s nothing wrong with a BJJ coach asking for a favor as a friend and that doesn’t mean they’re running a cult, but there’s something very wrong with a coach using the position they have as leverage to get those favors. It can be tricky to distinguish between the two, but generally cult-leaders will aim to get free goods/services from students that they barely know.
Members Act Unified At All Times
It’s statistically impossible for a large enough group of people to have the same opinion on something, unless they’re being pressured to do so. If a gym has 5-10 members then it’s not crazy for them to have the same opinion on some news-item or on a particular member. If a gym has 50-100 members though, it simply doesn’t make sense that they would all be in agreement on a topic. A BJJ gym isn’t the place for cultural or political debates of course, but if something does ever come up in conversation then only a cult would have a perfectly unified opinion on that topic.
Cross-Training Isn’t Allowed
A successful cult will always aim to keep it’s members isolated, and in a BJJ gym this often takes the form of isolated training. As we explained earlier, it’s only with an outsider’s perspective that many of these warning signs become obvious and a cult will do anything to stop it’s members getting that perspective. If a member visits another gym and sees how things are done there, they might suddenly realize how strange their gym actually is. Any healthy BJJ gym would allow and even encourage it’s students to train elsewhere, because this is good for their development and can enable them to bring back new skills for the rest of the team to work with.
The Idea That Something Else Isn’t ‘Real’ Jiu-Jitsu
This is an idea that runs central throughout religious cults, that they are the one ‘true’ religion. This attitude can be seen in some BJJ gyms too, where other gyms or affiliations are seen as not practicing ‘real’ Jiu-Jitsu. This is one of the clearest warning signs that your BJJ gym is a cult, because the success of someone’s Jiu-Jitsu should always be self-evident. A gym might not be the best in the area, but if what they’re doing is working against other practitioners then it’s very clearly still real Jiu-Jitsu. This attitude is simply another way of trying to isolate students from other gyms; after all, why learn ‘fake’ Jiu-Jitsu when you can learn ‘real’ Jiu-Jitsu instead?
Members Who Do Leave Are Criticized
No matter how good a BJJ gym is, a certain number of members will leave. Some people move locations and need to train elsewhere, some people find gyms that better suit their specific needs, and some people just stop training altogether. None of these are bad things, and any self-respecting coach will be comfortable with students leaving so long as they don’t burn bridges on the way out. When a BJJ gym is run like a cult, everyone who leaves is seen as a traitor. Some people genuinely do leave on bad terms and that’s part of life, but if everyone who leaves seems to be an enemy then that says more about the gym than it does them.
The BJJ Gym Is ‘Totally Not A Cult, Trust Me’
One of the biggest warning signs that a BJJ gym is actually a cult, is that they make a concerted effort to reassure you that everything they’re doing is perfectly normal. If something feels off to you, then trust that feeling and investigate it with outside sources like social media or other gyms. Asking the cult if they’re a cult is never going to work, and many gyms will try to pre-empt this reaction by reassuring their students that the cult-like practice they’re introducing is something that gyms do all around the world. If you ever hear this when you’re being told about something, that should send off some alarm bells immediately.
For more of our opinion pieces on various topics, visit our opinion piece archives.