10 Ways to Identify Legit Instructors at a BJJ Academy

Finding a great BJJ school is like dating; you want the school that is going to be the best fit for you. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to find out a BJJ instructor’s credentials. In fact, thanks to the magic of the Internet, it usually only takes a matter of minutes.

Here are 10 ways you can feel confident that the person you’re planning on training under is qualified and legitimate:

1. Instructor’s Belt Rank

When looking at the school and class schedule, look to see which instructor will be teaching your class. What is the instructor’s belt ranking? Black belt is the highest belt given based on skill. When a BJJ practitioner achieves black belt status, this is usually after 10 years or more on the mats. Typically, nowadays, most Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools will have at least a black belt level instructor.

Black belts earn degrees for time in their black belt ranking. Often instructors are described as “Black Belt 3rd Degree” etc. and these degrees are the time in black belt rank and are represented by tape stripes on their belts. To be awarded a black belt (from brown) this must be done by a black belt with 2 degrees on their belt. Becoming a black belt takes a long time and only other BJJ practitioners who have dedicated a lot of time to the gentle art can promote others to this elite level.

If the instructor is a first-degree black belt or above, you should be able to find them on sites like International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (https://ibjjf.com/). Each IBJJF-certified academy is led by a Head Professor who is a member in the IBJJF with the rank of Black Belt. All IBJJF-certified academy students can participate in IBJJF events, the highest level of Jiu Jitsu competition worldwide. If the instructor shows up here, they’re usually legit

2. Check their lineage.

The instructor’s lineage is another important factor. Who did the instructor learn Jiu Jitsu from? Who were his/her teachers? Who did their teachers learn Jiu Jitsu from? This is very important as the skill level, game (the way the instructor plays or uses their BJJ skill), style, and type of techniques they use will derive from their teachers as they were coming up the ranks. This is so important to instructors that frequently in marketing materials and in conversations, lineage is often raised as a point of pride for the instructor and school.

3. Instructor’s Competition Record

This is important. If the gym’s instructor is an active competitor (or was recently an active competitor) the gym’s instruction, drilling & overall class structure will reflect their competition mindset. They will teach from a standpoint of what works in a competition setting. If you want to compete eventually, this is something you will want to consider.

4. School's Association or Affiliation

The vast majority of BJJ gyms will be affiliated with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Association. A BJJ association is like the headquarters of a multinational business and the BJJ gym that you are looking into is a member of it. If you may be asking “What does this have to do with picking a BJJ gym that is right for me?” – and the answer is there is a lot depending on the parent association of the gym. Along with uniform policy, each association may dictate training regimen, belt promotion procedures, etiquette in training (bowing and more formal behavior only permitted) and other daily details of the gym. There are advantages to belonging to an association like having access to world class instructors, having structure around training, learning, and rolling, feeling like you are part of a team and a larger organization.

5. Student Belt Depth

What do we mean by Student Belt Depth? Simple; how many students are in each belt color ranking at the school you are looking at? Now ideally you will want to see at least a few or more black belts, quite a few brown belts, a good number of purple belts, a large number of blue belts, and even a larger number of white belts. Having depth in the belt ranks of the academy will be like having depth on a sports team. It is a sign of a healthy gym that has been operating for a while.

If, for example, you go to check out a school and the only students you see in the academy are white belts with some blue belts, this is typically not a good sign. It may be that the gym is new and not well established. Maybe there are not a lot of students who have been training long enough, or there is a toxic culture in the gym. Maybe the training is not compelling enough for upper belts to stick around. So, if a healthy school will have depth in all its’ belt ranks, seeing the opposite in a school should make you pause to think… and you should assess for yourself why that may be before deciding.

Another reason that belt depth (especially in the upper belts) is so important is that often you will be learning a lot from the upper belts. In a sense, they may mentor you from time to time, distilling wisdom and training know-how to you. They will also have a stabilizing effect on the gym and help if the gym instructor/owner cannot teach class. 

6. Make sure he has the right attitude.

You’re going to want to go to the instructor’s school for this one. Once you get there, ask to speak to the instructor. You may have to wait if he/she is teaching class. Once you get a chance to talk to the instructor, ask whatever BJJ-related questions are on your mind. While they are answering you, ask yourself if you feel comfortable asking these questions and if they seem eager to answer you. If the answer is no to either of those questions, find another school. Remember: your instructor is the one who is going to teach you BJJ (obviously!), and you’re not going to learn much under them if you don’t feel comfortable talking to them or if they show little to no desire to talk to you. Your instructor should be eager for your business. If they’re not, find someone who is.

7. Are they white belt friendly?

If possible, watch the instructor teach class. Assuming the class is reasonably small, she should be spending about as much time helping white belts as she is helping upper belts. When she is helping white belts, she should be patient and look like she’s eager to help. At the very least, she shouldn’t look like she’s bored or annoyed.

8. Look for a clean gym.

The instructor should be obsessed with keeping his gym clean. A dirty gym is not only a paradise for germs, but it shows the instructor neither cares about his gym nor his students’ health. While you’re visiting the gym and asking the instructor questions, glance around at the place. Does it look clean? Would you be embarrassed to say you trained here?

Here’s a tip: after you’re done talking, ask if you can use the bathroom. The bathroom is the hardest room in most buildings to keep clean. If the gym’s staff is taking the time to keep the bathroom tidy and germ-free, you can feel confident that the rest of the gym is also clean.

9. Expect a professional appearance.

No, this isn’t superficial. Your instructor’s appearance is important. Poor personal hygiene, an improperly tied belt, and a dirty uniform suggests the instructor doesn’t care much about herself and probably doesn’t care much about her students. But the instructor of the academy is the standard that all students should be expected to measure themselves up against. If she’s an unkempt slacker who cares nothing for her appearance, how exactly are her school and students going to be?

10. WARNING – Don’t be misled!

Would you train with someone who has never competed before, has never put their skills on the line either in MMA or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition at Brown or Black Belt? LOOK OUT for any martial arts school that claims they received their certification ONLINE or VIA A WEEKEND TRAINING COURSE. BJJ is a complex and sophisticated art and takes many years to be able to teach and execute during a live grappling scenario.

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