You’re an aspiring martial artist, and you hop onto Google to see what gyms are in your area. You’ll likely find that the market for martial arts is, well, oversaturated. Indeed, gone are the days of the massive monolithic karate dojos of the 80s and early 90s. However, martial arts schools are still as prevalent as ever– even if they might be renting space from a yoga studio or corporate weightlifting gym these days. But, the most important thing is the quality of instruction, not whether the owner of a school can afford to have a massive painting of a venomous snake on the wall (looking at you, John Kreese).
But that can also be difficult to discern, the quality of a jiu-jitsu instructor. Of course, you have your extremes, which are pretty rigid and well-defined. On one end, you have legends like John Danaher and Murilo Santana. You’d have a hard time finding anyone that would downplay their abilities as instructors. Then there’s the other extreme opposite end of the martial arts instruction spectrum, which is pretty well covered on the McDojo Life Instagram page.
That’s both ends of the bell curve, though. Most of us are somewhere in the middle– not exceptional or exceptionally bad, but somewhere in the gray zone. How can you tell, though, if an instructor leans more toward the Danaher extremity or the McDojo Life one? There are a few factors to take into account. Some are only spotted by people with prior experience in jiu-jitsu looking to change gyms, and some factors are just general knowledge for newbies looking to get their journey off the ground. That stage is equivalent to Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit,” where he tells his fellow shire folk that he’s “going on an adventure” without yet embarking.
That said, in digression, there should be something in there to help you out.
Not Every Great Competitor Is A Great Instructor
This inconvenient truth is apparent to a lot of more seasoned practitioners. Still, a newly minted white belt– or someone that just signed up for jiu-jitsu– would likely go on a gym’s website, see the owner’s various competitive accolades, and choose that gym over another with a less distinguished owner.
The logic is clear, at least ostensibly: If someone is very good at jiu-jitsu, to the point where they’re winning big tournaments, they must also have a deep understanding of the art as well. And the transference of that skill set is more straightforward than with someone who is less decorated.
There’s a clear line of reasoning here, and it’s not necessarily wrong. Some great competitors are equally great instructors. Like him or not, Gordon Ryan is an excellent instructor and his abilities as a competitor you’ve likely heard of. And if you haven’t started jiu-jitsu yet, you will soon.
That said, competitors who open schools are sometimes split between two worlds, competing for themselves and raising their students. This struggle creates a conflict of interest in some regards. I’ve been at some schools run by top-level competitors, but the owner of the gym– the high-level competitor in question– was never there, usually because he was traveling for competition and focused on his career as an athlete. It’s hard to fault the competitors that do this; competing doesn’t pay a lot of money, at least in jiu-jitsu. Teaching pays the bills. But staying on top as a competitor often requires devoting all your time and energy away from your students.
There is one way, though, to figure out how good a teacher is. And it’s not looking at their hardcore competitors…
Want To Figure Out How Good A Teacher Is? Look to Their Hobbyists.
Competitors are often self-motivated. They’ll make time to drill, develop variations on a technique that their instructor teaches, cross-train, and all the other insanely obsessive behaviors associated with jiu-jitsu athletes. An instructor, in this case, is more like a mentor, similar to Mr.Miyagi (last Karate Kid joke, promise). These habits are essential in a competitor’s life, as competition nerves and how to deal with them can be the difference between a gold medal and a first-round loss.
And an instructor’s technique is undoubtedly essential for competitors, but other self-motivating factors make competitors great; Gordon Ryan might have one of the best teachers in the world in John Danaher, and he often attributes his success to him. But Gordon also speaks of his obsessive work ethic, which isn’t something that can be taught– at least not by external forces.
Hobbyists, though, are more or less the product of their teacher. If someone comes to train three times a week and then goes back to their family, the only jiu-jitsu technique information they’re absorbing is that of their instructor– nobody else’s. They don’t cross-train. They don’t drill on their own time.
They don’t make time to go to intense pro-training sessions. They just go to three evening classes a week taught by the same instructor– sometimes a little bit more, other times slightly less. Sure, some people catch on quicker than others. But if, in general, a teacher can have their hobbyists executing jiu-jitsu-based movements at a competent level, it’s the most significant mark that their instruction is good. It’s why you see teachers so often proud of their hobbyists and posting about them; firstly, you probably don’t know who their hobbyist students are, so it’s cool to get a shoutout among all the talk of ADCC and IBJJF worlds.
Secondly, though, you know that the extent of their skill is based solely on your ability as a teacher– with little to no efforts to improve beyond that. Kurt Osiander once boasted about his hobbyists being “lethal,” which was more of a boast about his teaching ability than most people likely acknowledged at the time.
Make Sure It’s a Good Fit
The last part about this that most people don’t consider is personality. You’re not going to like everyone you meet, and not everyone is going to like you. You can have a great teacher, but if you don’t feel like they like or care about you, whether you’re a hobbyist or competitor, you might want to leave and find a different gym. At the very least, have a conversation with your instructor to see if there are any personal ill feelings between you two.
Whatever level you’re doing jiu-jitsu at, it should be fun and something you love to do. If you don’t, find something else to do. For hobbyists, jiu-jitsu is time-consuming, and for competitors, it’s incredibly more time-consuming, with a modest financial payoff. There are better things to do if it makes you miserable.
Jeff Nelson is a brown belt under Danilo Cherman of Team Nova Uniao. He started training jiu-jitsu in 2014, and he always complains about Star Wars on his personal Instagram account.