I’ve recently encountered a few people who asked if a certain jiu-jitsu gym or academy was a “good gym” or the “best choice”. I think that there is a lot of mixed messaging that goes around about what makes a gym the best choice for a given individual.
Often we gauge the quality of an academy by the quality of the competitors they produce. If academy A has 5 world champions and academy B has none academy A must therefore be the better academy. Similarly, we sometimes see the accomplishments or lack thereof of the head instructor used as a measuring stick for the quality of the academy.
Before determining what the best choice of academy is for you; you need to determine precisely what you are looking for. Namely you need to define your goals. Why are you doing jiu-jitsu?
The main reasons to do jiu-jitsu are:
- A fun hobby for exercise
- Self Defense
- Competitive grappling
If your intention is to learn jiu-jitsu as a fun hobby for exercise, find an academy with the best vibe, where you feel the most accepted and where you feel good. In this case it doesn’t really matter who the instructors or students are and it certainly doesn’t matter what kind of curriculum is offered. It’s all about how you feel in the environment. Some red flags to watch out for when it comes to being a hobbyist doing this strictly for fun are: the instructors are impersonal or disinterested in helping you, competitors don’t understand that you are not a competitor. Communicated your desires clearly to your instructors and training partners, if they don’t accept those desires move on.
If you’re doing jiu-jitsu strictly for self defense, find yourself an academy with a robust self defense program. Generally a good sign that they know what’s going on is if they have law enforcement students. To be honest with you, 99% of “self defense” is hokum BUT Gracie Jiu-Jitsu tends to be a tried and true self defense course. Bear in mind many of these types of academies will have rather weak grappling in comparison to competitive grappling focused academies but you will get a far broader skill set from training which may hold value for you. Some red flags to watch out for if you do decide to go into the self defense style jiu jitsu are: academies that flat out discourage competition or in other ways try to detract from the value of it. Far too often we see people go this route because of their own insecurities. Insecurity breeds lack of effectiveness in technique. The best self defense though comes from real time practice.
This brings me to MY personal preference: competitive grappling. If you want to be a competitive grappler seek out a gym that has the highest level competitors training there. Also determine if you want gi, no gi or both. Doing both can be challenging for a normal adult with a normal life, but there are some very talented competitors in gi and no gi who have real lives outside of jiu-jitsu. If your goal is to be a competitor you need to train with competitors. Sometimes this can be very difficult. Find a gym that has an accepting drop in policy because this will mean you’ll get different looks from visitors who come to town. Beware of cults though, this happens a lot in competitive environments especially ones run by legends of the sport. We see this at all levels but in high level competitive environments sometimes people hero worship and this can lead to major cultural issues in a gym. If you want to be a competitor you need an academy that will allow you to train several times per day. This can come in the form of classes or simply a mat space open to the members of the gym.
As a competitor expect a rough ride even in the best of gyms. If you are one of the lucky few worthy of competitive success expect your coaches to be exacting and demanding. Most people who think they are competitors aren’t and most who think they want to be competitors don’t. It’s a difficult, lonely and miserable experience but its rewards are well worth-it for those who do it. The head coach doesn’t have to be a competitor, though it often helps, but the head coach should have a track record of producing success. If not you’re being sold something and success isn’t it. Watch out for academies that pretend to be competitive but have no competitors training and discourage hard rolling.
Last but not least if your reason for doing jiu-jitsu is to train to be an MMA fighter there are some guidelines that I can pass your way, in spite of not being an MMA fighter myself. For starters: don’t. MMA is a brutal sport for its athletes and will almost definitely leave you with serious lifelong injuries with little to show for it outside of your memories which will fade as the CTE takes hold.
If you MUST do MMA and want to train jiu-jitsu for it, find a gym that has produced successful MMA fighters. MMA jiu-jitsu/grappling is quite different from competition focused jiu-jitsu/grappling. The technical focus and goals on the ground for fighters should be different because while playing guard can be a necessity it generally should not be a goal. Like with the competitive grappling world MMA can be a cultish environment. It is however important to know that in the cage you can’t hesitate or second guess your coaches so make sure to find coaches you believe in and trust.
The best jiu-jitsu academy in the world is the one that you will go to the most often. It doesn’t need to be a major competitive hub or have a big name as the head coach, it just needs to be a place where you can get what you want. Remember you are a customer. You owe these people nothing. If you develop a relationship and they earn your loyalty great, but you are allowed to and absolutely SHOULD find precisely what you want and are looking for.
Emil Fischer is a Jiu-jitsu brown belt competitor training under Pablo Angel Castro III at Strong Style MMA in Cleveland Ohio. An avid writer and competitor, Emil has amassed an extensive competition record. Most notably, Emil is a 2 time gold medalist at the IBJJF No Gi Pans, and has a submission victory record of 5-1 at Fight To Win Pro which includes purple belt no-gi light heavyweight championship