Jiu-jitsu is a specialized sport, and as such, it’s expected that you’d have to wear a (somewhat) specialized uniform when you train. For most academies, uniform rules are based primarily on health, safety, and practicality – a rashguard and spats/shorts for no-gi, and a properly fitted gi for gi class. Always clean. No buttons, zippers, or pockets. Easy enough, right?
Some academies, though, are a bit stricter with their uniform rules, requiring students to represent the gym or affiliation through gi patches, rashguards, shorts, or entire kimonos that bear the name and logo of their gym.
Some people in jiu-jitsu are fully supportive of this, believing that it promotes team unity and gives the academy (or entire affiliation) a cleaner, more professional “look.” Others think the practice makes the gyms in question look “culty.”
The issue that I take with strict uniform policies isn’t about how the gym is perceived but rather the unnecessary barrier it poses to students. Is jiu-jitsu really for everyone if students have to pay hundreds of dollars extra for academy-specific gear instead of being able to find less expensive alternatives? Is jiu-jitsu family-friendly if families changing gyms have to sell off their old gear for cheap so they can pay for new, much more expensive gear? Is jiu-jitsu accessible if students have to choose between adhering to a strict uniform requirement or not showing up to train at all?
It’s not that I’m against any sort of uniform policy at all. Some academies prefer their students to wear any standard IBJJF-approved gi colors (black, white, or blue) to maintain a certain aesthetic. While it’s not a policy that I would implement in my own hypothetical academy, it’s easy enough to find inexpensive or used gis in any of those three colors.
I’ve also seen gyms that want their students to at least wear an academy patch or rashguard when they compete, without requiring it in standard training sessions in the gym. This rationale, again, feels reasonable to me. If your coach supports you by cornering you at a tournament, you can, in turn, support the gym by making sure their logo is being represented on the podium or in a highlight reel.
If you’re a gym owner or coach developing a uniform policy for your academy, ask yourself these questions:
- Why is this policy in place? Does it benefit the gym and students beyond serving as a way to make more money for the academy? Does it improve the gym’s reputation? Will it leave a positive impression on prospective new students?
- How might this policy negatively affect my students? Will it inconvenience them to the point of reducing the number of training sessions they can attend? Will it serve as a barrier to prevent some students from training at all?
- How might this policy positively affect my students? Does this policy contribute to the students’ growth in the sport? Does it keep them safer, healthier, or cleaner? Does it increase their comfort or the comfort of their teammates on the mats?
- How does this policy affect accessibility? Is there a high financial cost for students to adhere to his uniform policy? Is it reasonable to expect students to have enough “approved” gear to train five times a week?
If you’re a student, don’t be afraid to ask these questions if you’re switching gyms or your home gym is adopting a new uniform policy. You’re not an employee, and you have to pay for your own stuff when you sign up for jiu-jitsu. Just as most restaurants require you to wear shoes and a shirt while you’re inside, and some restaurants have a stricter dress code, it would be strange for a restaurant to require you to pay to wear a suit with their name on it while you ate a meal (which you also paid for).
Ultimately, both restaurant and BJJ academy owners have the right to make their policies, and clients have the right to determine for themselves if the product they’re paying for is worth the requirements to obtain it. If a strict uniform policy at your BJJ gym is worth the instruction, you’re getting, then hey, more power to you.
Gracie Barra, which has possibly the most famous example of a strict uniform policy in the sport, has built a jiu-jitsu empire. Many smaller academies do just fine with similar standards in place. We’re fortunate that jiu-jitsu has grown enough in recent years that many people have options and can be a bit pickier about where they train. Still, in smaller or more rural areas, this may not be the case.
When I look back at my own BJJ journey, I can very clearly see how strict uniform policies would have kept me from training entirely. I was living paycheck to paycheck, unable even to afford a gi of my own. The first six months of my jiu-jitsu journey were kept afloat by teammates who let me borrow their old, worn gis and coaches who didn’t care what I was wearing as long as it was safe for training. I paid my membership dues and showed up nearly every day, and that was enough for them.
It’s not that I don’t want gyms to make money. I just think that making students pay for hundreds of dollars in logo-emblazoned gear that they have to wear during every session is a lazy, classist way to do it.
Charge more for additional perks, classes, or online content. Hire better instructors and adjust membership costs accordingly if needed. But don’t draw prospective students in with the familiar mantra that “Jiu-jitsu is for everyone!” and then reveal to them that at your gym, jiu-jitsu is only for people who can afford to constantly rep the academy where they already pay to train.
Averi is a brown belt under Nick Hughes of Trinity MMA and an ambassador for Grapple Apparel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bjjaveri.