Training Etiquette 101
By: Emily Kwok
“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” – Rudyard Kipling
We all know the smell of a ripe BJJ gym.
The smell might give us a clue about the school’s cleanliness, frequency of use, or characters at play. It can tell us a lot, but not everything. A school that’s squeaky clean on the surface might have a rotten core. To me, the culture of a school is integral to its success and health. That being said, culture is often rooted in a greater message or purpose — the school owner’s vision, which may not be obvious. In the past, I’ve erred in making assumptions, and these errors have shown me that the rules and sign posts are not as apparent as we’d like them to be.
In 2004 I moved to Tokyo for a year to broaden my horizons. I often describe this time as the worst, yet most worthwhile year of my life. I learned many things and the biggest takeaway that I observe to this day is, my normal is not your normal. I had gone to Japan assuming that my sense of the world, consisting of morals, values, and etiquette, would be observed there too. I naively believed that because I had grown up in an Asian household, that I would easily fit in and enjoy Japanese life.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I rapidly discovered that though basic civilities were shared, there were many deep cultural differences that I was not privy to, and they almost ruined me. This is a rather extreme example of how a harmless, hopeful visitor found themselves in a strained position, but the overarching lesson of my normal is not your normal has shaped much of how I view and navigate the world today.
It’s a lesson that many of us could use when we visit or switch training environments to avoid unnecessary blunders, conflict, or injury. If we try to have a little more awareness of the new territory we are exploring, we may find that we have a smoother journey. After all, we are the aliens in someone else’s land. Being able to have some perspective so that you can respect and adapt to the circumstances around you will take you a long way.
Here are some ways that I try to behave when I’m not in my own house:
1. Always express gratitude
Thank your host for inviting you in or allowing you to train there. If it’s a student that invited you to come train, seek out the head instructor/business owner, shake their hand, and say thank you. A beautiful introduction will leave the host with a positive impression of you so that you can maintain open doors for years to come.
2. Value your experience
Always offer to pay for services rendered. Never assume that class is for free because, “I’m with Joe.” Unless the school owner tells you that you are their guest, don’t ignore the front desk person, don’t help yourself to a cold beverage, do not collect money as you pass go. It’s rude and disrespectful to show that you take the opportunity for granted.
3. Never lead with your ego
No one cares who you are, what belt you have, how long you’ve been training, or how many NAGA titles you’ve won. If they did, you’d be there teaching a class. Be humble, be a student, and don’t act like the school is blessed with your presence.
4. Respect the training etiquette of the school
Every school you go to may train with a different set of norms. Some places will teach according to IBJJF rules, others may change rule sets according to upcoming competitions, some might just be no-holds-barred fight clubs. It’s not a bad idea to ask the front desk as you come in if you should be aware of a particular governing set so that you don’t open yourself up to risk of injury, or potentially injure others. This also extends to formalities like bowing on and off the mat, knowing if the instructors should be addressed a certain way, or tying your belt facing away from the class.
5. Roll as the Romans do
Unless you’re heading into a room of beasts expecting to train like beasts, as a guest, it’s not a bad idea to match the pace of your training partners. Heading into a class looking to show everyone up when you’re the visitor is generally in poor taste and you will be lucky if you don’t get your ass handed to you midway. If you’ve ever walked out of a class feeling like you got wrecked, 9/10 times it might have been because you trained like a maniac or you said something stupid like, “I tapped out all the blue belts here tonight, don’t let me get you!”
6. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it
If you find that the environment you are in is unlike the one you’re used to, just grin and bear it for the short time you are there. As a guest, it’s not your place to criticize the way they do things. While being instructed, follow the instructions. Don’t conduct your own clinic in the corner on an irrelevant position. And when the instructor gives you instruction, don’t be combative or defensive because it isn’t how your instructor teaches the technique. There are dozens of ways to learn one technique, and what makes BJJ so beautiful is that by maintaining an open attitude to learning things a different way, you may pick up an effective detail or two. On the other hand, if you are a student at a school and you find yourself allergic to the culture there, then you may want to reconsider where you are training and whether it’s the best place for you. If you think there is a better fit, find a way to leave on as professional and graceful terms as possible.
7. Understand that you represent your instructor
That means show up with a clean gi and do all of the above. Instructors talk to instructors and if your teacher is well connected you can bet 100 percent that they will hear about this “douchebag that walked into my gym.” BJJ is a lineage-obsessed sport and you are an ambassador of your instructors school whether you like it or not. If you don’t like it and don’t respect it…you may find yourself on your own!
I try to follow these guidelines myself, no matter where I go and no matter how long I’ve trained. It’s how I’ve worked to maintain great relationships with the growing BJJ community. I’ve learned these things over the years and recognize that everyone is different and that we don’t all share the same training values. These are the sort of things that aren’t taught, but possibly should be — to keep the world a kinder and more enjoyable place!