First Day of BJJ Class - A BJJ Etiquette Primer (Part 1)
This article is part 1 of 2. Read part 2 of First Day BJJ Class.
So you’ve made the decision to start BJJ. You did all the research regarding various martial arts, looked into local academies and have decided to make the jump. Congratulations! If you’re anything like us and the thousands of BJJ practitioners worldwide you may have made a life changing decision. So now what? Well, like with any new endeavor you may be nervous before your first BJJ class. Hopefully, you’ve picked a solid reputable academy that will help you with your jitters but they may not be able to answer all of your questions. BJJ is unique from other martial arts in that the etiquette is not as well defined. Other martial arts often have more traditional customs and a well-defined hierarchy within their practice. BJJ may have its origins from Japanese Jiu jitsu, but it has evolved into its own unique craft often with less of the formality associated with “traditional” martial arts. What can make this even more confusing is that the etiquette at academies can vary wildly.
Most, but not all, academies will provide you with a new gi for your first class. The gi, aka kimono, will often be a basic white gi with or without the academy name sewn on. If it does not have the academy name on it or any branding, it will often be of lesser quality but adequate for your first few weeks/months. If the school has gone through the trouble of making a custom academy gi, it will often be of higher quality and should last longer. Regardless, if you decide that BJJ is for you and you decide to train regularly for any significant period of time, you will have to consider purchasing another gi, often more. The type of gi you can purchase may be dictated by the academy that you attend. Some academies require that you only train in their official academy gi(s). This often leads to a more formal look during class as all the students are wearing the same gi or gis. Other academies may allow you to train in a non-academy gi but require you to have the academy name somewhere on the gi usually with a patch. Most patches are easily sewn onto the back of the gi which is why we generally keep our Rolljunkie kimonos mostly blank on the back. It can cost anywhere from about $10-$25 to have someone sew the patch on the back for you. Most local tailors or dry cleaners will offer this service. Of course, if you’re able you can sew the patch on yourself and save a few bucks. Some academies also set limitations on the color of gis that may be worn. The three most common colors for gis are white, blue, and black. An academy may prohibit any of these colors (although we’ve never heard of an academy prohibiting white) or just some of the less common colors (camouflage, red, green, pink, etc). Or the restriction may be rank specific. For example, white belts can only wear white gis, blue belts can only wear white or blue, and only black belts can wear black gis.
Rolljunkie BJJ kimono top pictured above
Similar rules may apply to no-gi uniforms. No-gi training simply refers to training BJJ without the use of a gi. In its strictest definition, a no gi uniform can refer to anything that does not consist of wearing a gi. The most common uniform is probably the combination of shorts and a rash guard. However, it is common to see BJJ practitioners train with spats, aka compression pants, in addition to, or instead of shorts, and topless or with a t-shirt. Most academies generally frown upon training no gi in a t-shirt (and we agree) due to the increase risk of injustice from getting a finger or toe accidentally trapped in the shirt. Some academies go further and prohibit it entirely. Like with the gi, an academy may set strict requirements on what uniform is permitted for no gi training ranging from the the style, color, or requiring only academy gear.
What you wear under your gi may also be mandated by the academy. Personally, we prefer to wear a rash guard under the gi as it is comfortable and allows easy transition to train no gi in the same session. But your academy may allow a t-shirt or require you to wear nothing under your gi top (for males). This is usually to match the requirements of the IBJJF (the major governing body of BJJ competition in the world) which prohibits any apparel under the gi top. The idea is that one should train in the scenario which best replicates competition.
Regardless of your preferences for apparel you should ask your academy about their requirements BEFORE signing up. While many academies have virtually no restrictions, many do, especially the larger affiliations. If the academy only allows their apparel to be worn, you should inquire as to the pricing as it can be more expensive than buying apparel on your own from a third-party company like Rolljunkie. If you end up becoming a jiu-jitsu addict, then having to buy 3,4,5 or more gis from your academy can add up to big bucks.
Entering the Academy
Most students show up to the academy in street clothes and change into training apparel at the school. Almost all larger legitimate academies should offer a changing room and separate private areas for males and females. Showing up to train already wearing your gear is often frowned upon for two reasons. First, anything (think germs) that’s on your training gear can be transferred to your training partners and the mat (and therefore other students who may not have direct contact with you). If you came from work or home in your gear that means you sat in your car, walked outside and are theoretically bringing that stuff into the academy. Secondly, if you wear your training gear in then it’s assumed that you will wear the same gear out. And believe us, you don’t want to wear your trained-in, sweaty, gear in your car then into your house. Your best bet is to pack your training gear in a bag, take it off at the academy and put it into the wash as soon as possible. Along those same lines, you should shower as soon as you can after training to reduce the incidence of infection.
Montgomery BJJ in Montgomery, NJ before class.
What to do After Changing and Before Stepping Onto the Mat
This depends a lot on the setup at your school and whether or not there is a class taking place before yours. Often adult classes are scheduled after kids classes (since kids get out of school earlier than adults usually get out of work) so the mat may be occupied. If your academy has a large mat space or additional mats then you may be allowed to warm up prior to your class. This can include anything from stretching, light rolling, drilling, or just getting mentally prepared. Some students prefer not to do anything and just talk to other students or stay to themselves. It’s a matter of preference, comfort level, and culture of your academy.
Beginning of Class
Most academies (but not all) have a formal beginning of class in which the instructor will line up the students and conduct some type of warmup. The line will vary from academy to academy ranging from rows and lines in a grid pattern or just a line against the wall. Often the lineup will be in rank order. Some academies promote a formal acknowledgment of the instructor either verbally or physically (in the form of a handshake, fist bump, or bow). In addition, schools may have a formal acknowledgement of one or many of the original BJJ founders who are often pictured somewhere. If you are late, you may not be allowed to step directly onto the mat. Instead you may have to wait until the instructor acknowledges you. Some academies do not allow students to participate in class if they are even a few minutes late, although this is rare if the student is infrequently late. This is something you should know before committing to a school. If your work or other commitments don’t allow you to get to class consistently on time you should factor that into your decision especially if the academy has a strict rule regarding this. Many academies track attendance by the use of cards which mark the classes you have attended. The instructor may collect your card individually at the beginning of class at which point you would address him/her (see Addressing the instructor below). Alternatively, you may leave your card in a pile with others. Recently, more academies are moving to electronic tracking either via phone apps or by registering at a kiosk when you enter the academy.
Addressing the Instructor
Like everything else we have discussed, this varies considerably among schools. The instructor will almost always be a high-ranking practitioner. You may have to address him/her as Sir or Ma’am, Mr./Ms. last name, or first name/nickname. If the instructor is a black belt or higher you will often have to address him/her as “Professor” which is a title of respect. Don’t sweat this too much though as it will become immediately apparent what the protocol is in your gym.
Structure of Class
Usually there is some type of formal warmup. This can include running, jumping jacks, squats, shrimping, rolls (forward and/or backward), or functional warmups (such as light drilling or more BJJ related movements like Kimura sit-ups, air triangles, etc. Some instructors allow their students to conduct their own warmups and don’t become involved until that is completed (one of the best known may be John Danaher of Renzo Gracie Academy). After warmups, the instructor will usually demonstrate a technique, move, or series of moves. This may follow a formal weekly or monthly academy schedule. For example, week 1 may be guard passing, week 2 side control, week 3 back takes, etc. Curriculums may range anywhere from a few weeks to many months at which point they typically restart. Alternatively, there may be no formal academy schedule and the instructor is free to teach whatever he or she wishes. After the instructor shows the technique students will usually pair up to drill the technique. You may be expected to find your own partner or the instructor may assign one to you. Drilling is a very important part of BJJ and which many consider the most important part of class. It is during this time that you actually get to physically attempt the technique. Do NOT expect to get it right away! It will often take many hours to learn one technique well so all you’re trying to do is learn the basic principles of the technique so that you are better able to drill it next time (or maybe even try it during live training). It’s important to be a good partner during this time (and to find a good partner). You want to give enough resistance to be somewhat realistic (practicing against a limp non-resisting partner doesn’t do anyone any good) while not going too hard. Going too hard does not allow your partner to adequately learn the basics of the move and focus on technique - instead it often leads to muscling the move and not learning the important points. Remember BJJ is ultimately about technique so that, in theory, a weaker person can beat a more powerful opponent. Finding a good practice partner is an essential element of becoming better at BJJ and unfortunately there is no magic bullet. You simply have to train with a number of different people and find the ones that you work the best with.
The instructor will have you and your partner each try the move on each other a few times. It may be done by a specific number of repetitions, a set amount of time, or whenever your instructor feels you’ve done it enough. The instructor may focus on one move or a variety of related or unrelated techniques.
Randori at NJ MMA Academy in Lake Hopatcong, NJ
After the demonstration of the technique and drilling the live training will begin. This is also called “Randori” or, informally, “rolling”. To many, this is the best part of BJJ. The part when you get to try out your new moves against resisting opponents to see if you can execute them correctly. These live sessions are frequently, although not always, broken down into timed rounds often indicated by a timer that sounds loudly to indicate the start and end of rounds. Usually your first live round will be with the training partner you drilled with. After the first live round there will usually be a short break before the next round begins. This break is when you will pair up with someone else for the next round.
This article is part 1 of 2. Read part 2 of First Day BJJ Class.