Training Jiu-Jitsu / BJJ At A Big Vs A Small School
Training Jiu-Jitsu / BJJ At A Big Vs A Small School
by Ryan Young, Professor, Kama Jiu-Jitsu
Which is better for learning jiu-jitsu, a big gym or a small academy?
With the proliferation of BJJ, Jiu-Jitsu, and MMA, there have literally been a ton of folks entering the marketplace to open a school/gym/academy teaching the “The Gentle Art.”
Part of it, is that people who have achieved a lot in the art/sport want to share what they’ve learned. After all, if you’ve been training for years (or even decades as all our KJJ professors have) and have become proficient to the point where many seek your Jiu-Jitsu “wisdom,” it’s only natural you have opinions about how the art needs to be shared. Maybe, you have a particular methodology you feel will enable others to learn the art in the most proficient manner possible. It could also be one of those “If I were to do it all over again, I’d do it this way…” realizations. For me personally, it was that last reason that made the decision to teach Kama Jiu-Jitsu here in the Dallas Fort Worth area relatively easy.
Another part of it, is that people see a market opportunity to make a buck, and if people are willing to pay to learn what you know, why not, right?
At Kama Jiu-Jitsu, we have no opinion on which of the above reasons for creating a Jiu-Jitsu school is better. Everyone has their reasons, and we assume all are good reasons.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Good teachers teach for free (or almost free), and good teachers teach for exorbitant amounts of money. Likewise, bad teachers also teach for free, and bad teachers teach for money, as well.
For the sake of an apples to apples comparison for this argument, we will be assuming the school (big or small) is headed by a black belt, not by a junior belt (blue, purple, or brown belt). Having an “affiliated” black belt 100 miles away doesn’t count since it would not be where the black belt goes day in and day out.
(A side note on affiliations like that… Once, while I (Ryan) was still living in CA, I had a 1-on-1 student who lived far away ask me about a school close to him whose school was a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school and whose website listed “Rxxxxxx Gracie” as it’s instructor. However, I knew that particular Gracie family member lived thousands of miles away. When I called the phone number listed on the site, I asked when that Gracie family member’s classes were. The voice on the other end of the phone said he’s not in right now, but to come in for a free class. Told him I’d like to take private sessions from the Gracie family member (which I truly did, since I know his lessons are awesome), instead. He soon confessed to me he’s not regularly at the school. Then I asked who the black belt in charge was, if it wasn’t the Gracie on his site. Told me it was Prof XXX YYY (who I also know, and who also lives thousands of miles away). So I asked if I could take a private from that Prof, instead (which I really wanted, as well). Uh, he’s not here now (of course, he’s not), but please come in for a free session… Oh, by the way, have you trained before, and what belt are you? Yes, and black. Uhhh… well, I’m a purple belt, my (blue belt) girlfriend and I teach all the classes, own the school, and are affiliated under the Gracie family member (for marketing purposes, of course).
The Case For A “Big” School?
For the sake of simplicity, let’s make the break between the Big vs Small to be in the 200 member area. Anything at that size and above, it’s generally too large a membership for a single teacher to teach every class. While it is possible, with that many students, you’d have approximate average class sizes of around 40-50 per class and a minimum of 15-25 classes per week. With a schedule and class size that large, it is highly likely that the school owner (if he is also the black belt in charge) will have at least a few others in his employ, like other instructors, a receptionist, and maybe even an office employee or two.
From there, schools can get much larger (I’m told that a particular academy in Torrance and one in Miami run with about 750 members each). Once they get to that size, they’re running maybe 20-25+ classes per week, have 10+ instructors on payroll, and have a multitude of employees to keep the machine running smoothly.
Large schools will have classes that cover every niche imaginable. They will have classes for beginners, intermediate, advanced, competition, kids, teenagers, women-only, no-gi-only, street defense, etc. They’ll also have multiple level instructors teaching private sessions for those with the desire and the means.
Larger schools also tend to have more than one location and often many affiliate schools all over the nation, or even the world. “Affiliate” schools are generally schools that establish a relationship with a particular master that gives the affiliate the ability to market under the master’s name. They may or may not have the same quality of teaching, and in many cases, what you learn in the affiliate is way different vs what you learn in the Master’s headquarters.
Lastly, the hidden “benefit” of training at a big school is the result of a ton of spent marketing dollars; name recognition.
Really? What does that have to do with anything?
Actually, it has a lot of influence on us as individuals. For instance, how many of us train at a well-known place and we meet others and they ask, “Where do you train at?”
And you say, “ABC Jiu-Jitsu.”
They say, “You train there?! How awesome is that?!”
Big name schools/teams draw large memberships from nothing more than name recognition. In fact, there is a local school in the Dallas area that went from small and obscure to large after offering shares of the school to a known pro fighter and changing the sign on the door to include his name. In exchange, the pro fighter teaches a wrestling class or two (when he’s around). Otherwise, nothing else has changed. The same instructor (the owner) still teaches all the jiu-jitsu classes.
Is this school better to the point of tripling their membership in three months by adding one wrestling class? Maybe, maybe not.
But, there are benefits of training at a large big-name school. When I moved to SoCal and began training at the Gracie Academy’s old location (on Carson St), Grand Master Rorion Gracie was already stepping out of daily teaching duties. His backup however, was none other than Royce Gracie. I only saw Rorion teach a class once when Master Royce was out of the school. Otherwise, the classes then were run by Master Royce (5th degree at the time), Master Fabio Santos (4th or 5th degree at the time, before he moved to San Diego), and occasionally, Professor Richard Bresler (brown belt at the time).
The Case For A “Small” School
Small schools tend to be your “one man shop” type of jiu-jitsu academy. The owner of the school is typically the teacher, the bookkeeper, the janitor, the “everything else.” Typically, these are part time “boutique” schools that is owned/run by a person with a day job doing something completely different, with jiu-jitsu being a hobby that happens to pay its way (sometimes not, I know a professor who actually consistently loses money running his school). This is how each of our Kama Jiu-Jitsu campuses in Irvine, CA, Laguna Niguel, CA, Flower Mound, TX, and Trophy Club, TX are run. None of our four black belts teach jiu-jitsu full-time. We all have day jobs and teach Kama Jiu-Jitsu as a hobby.
Small schools are usually the best at preserving the “family” atmosphere, since everyone from every different category are thrown into “mixed” classes; beginners have a lot of contact with the more advanced members, women train with and alongside male members, and high schoolers are also often in the classes.
Small schools also have the main instructor in charge teaching all the classes. If the school is run by a black belt, of course all the instruction will be done by the black belt in charge and not by a student. If you went to a particular school for a particular instructor, you are taught by that individual, not someone else. That’s exactly how it was for a number of years at Master Rickson’s Pico Blvd Academy in the early 90s. Rickson taught all the classes. It wasn’t until he began fighting in Japan a lot in the mid-90s that he began to have his assistant Luis “Limao” Heredia teach the bulk of the classes (Dave Kama had already moved down to OC to run Rickson’s Laguna Niguel (which became Kama Jiu-Jitsu Laguna Niguel in 2012) Academy).
More often than not, classes at a small school also tend to be small, allowing the students to receive a lot of personalized attention and interaction with the black belt in the group classes. As a small school in 2012, it wasn’t uncommon for Kama Jiu-Jitsu to have 3-4 black belts in a class of 10 total members. For lower belts, there’s nothing like having a school’s entire “braintrust” on the mat with you at the same time!
Cons Of A Big School
Big schools, from a member’s perspective, are all about options. Big schools primarily give their members options such as more available class times, more programs, more membership options, more instructors, and (sometimes) more locations.
However, big schools are like being part of any other large organization (gym, school, church, company, etc) in that the “cozy” feeling of a small intimate environment is usually non-existent. Cliques develop more easily among members and there are good chances that for every class you attend, you’ll see different faces and won’t know anyone all that well. Some people like that anonymous feeling but in jiu-jitsu, it’s a little different; close physical contact is not only possible, it’s unavoidable.
Also in a big school that lacks the familiarity among members of a small school, the trust factor (if you have a chronic injury that needs to be avoided, for example) among your fellow members is low. Remember injury avoidance in jiu-jitsu is the responsibility of both you and your partner. If your partner doesn’t do his part in protecting you, the chance for injury for you is multiplied exponentially, especially if you are relatively new to the art.
One important part of effective learning in jiu-jitsu is having a regular instructor who is aware of your issues, your shortcomings, and your triggers to get you going and motivated past your sticking points and emotional lows. Having a revolving door of instructors from day to day makes that impossible. That revolving door of instructors in your classes also tends to make what each teaches you different. This is especially true if this large academy treats their instructors as “hired guns” who have trained under entirely different systems and teach their classes differently from the instructor in charge. It’s not uncommon for a school to be established by an old school “self-defense” guy only to have all his classes taught by a new school “competition” guy. It’s all done to “put a black belt” on the mat to teach, even if that black belt does jiu-jitsu completely different from the school owner. At a good school with a good curriculum and teaching system, black belts are not interchangeable.
Jiu-jitsu is not always jiu-jitsu. I’ve seen it many times in the large BJJ school chains. I train at one, and they teach one way, another teaches another way, and a third teaches an entirely different way. As a result, students at each location are learning completely different curriculums, different methodologies, and different philosophies.
In other words, the larger the school, the greater the possibility of greater variances in teaching and learning. And, that difference gets larger as you get geographically further and as you go from company-owned locations to franchise locations. For example, if one master is located on the west coast, how likely will his east coast affiliates (who never actually did all their training in the master’s west coast academy) be true to his teaching curriculum, style, and methodology? Once out from under the thumb of the master/founder, consistency in teaching, as well as results, can go out the window.
Another unavoidable characteristic of a larger school seems to be the teaching of many classes by non-black belt instructors. I’ve been told my many students who have previously trained at large academies that the class time they regularly attended was taught regularly by a purple belt, even though that school had black belts available to teach.
Often, to get better through more individualized attention, members of larger schools must supplement their group training with more expensive private sessions, since an instructor in class doesn’t have much time to answer individual questions (imagine how long it would take to answer questions from all 40 class attendees!).
Cons Of A Small School
Now, all stated above is not to say that a small school is better than a big school. After all, small schools tend to have much fewer classes and programs to offer.
A women-only class? Maybe.
A kids program? Probably, but maybe not.
An advanced only program? Possibly.
While a big school tends to breed too much anonymity that makes it obvious any single member matters little in the grand scheme and ultimate success of the organization, a small school is just the opposite. A small school’s culture is determined and shaped by its owner and its few members. Every member is an important piece of the ultimate success of the school. If a particular member requests a change in program or schedule, there’s a great possibility the change can/will be made, since it’s easy to run such requests among the small member roster. However, if a couple/few members pull out of a particular program/class time, that could kill that program.
One thing that particularly affects small boutique schools in a volatile way, are its kids programs. At one time, Kama Jiu-Jitsu’s Dallas Fort Worth Campus had two kids programs; one for younger kids, one for older kids. All went well for a few months, but once club soccer/swimming/football/volleyball season begins, the mass exodus occurs. Both programs went from full to virtually empty within 90 days. As our current market is for more adult classes, we revamped our schedule to accommodate the changes, and moved our kids and juniors jiu-jitsu programs to our semi-private campus in Trophy Club.
Recently, parents whose kids were previously enrolled in our kids programs came back (after the other sports seasons ended) asking when they could re-enroll their kids in the group classes in Flower Mound.
They couldn’t. The kids’ group classes no longer exist at our Flower Mound location.
Now, we still do teach kids, but only in smaller (and more costly), semi-private sessions. For the time being, regular group kids classes in DFW are a thing of the past (although we still have them in our SoCal campuses).
So, for those parents who wanted a Kama Jiu-Jitsu kids program to be able to come back to… because of the small boutique nature of the school, the program was not around for them to come back to. A large school though, would still likely be teaching classes for their kids, albeit in much larger, less intimate group classes. Large schools can also absorb the repeated enrolling/dropping of kids from the program if another sport is their ultimate priority.
Both of our geographical areas also had women-only classes, only to succumb to the same fate as the kids classes in DFW. There are undoubtedly a need for women-only classes, but the numbers are just not there for KJJ at the current time. So for the time being, women learn alongside the men in the Adult classes, which is ok for some, not ok for others.
We hope this post is helpful in your determination of a choice of BJJ school. An easy to see whether you’re speaking with a large or small school is to simply ask what their approximate enrollment and schedule is. Then, you can evaluate all the criteria mentioned above and make a choice that is most appropriate for what you’re looking for.
Kama Jiu-Jitsu, established in 2012 by Rickson Gracie Black Belt Professor David Kama, began in Laguna Niguel, CA as the successor school to Rickson Gracie Academy Laguna Niguel, CA. Professor Dave was running the campus for Master Rickson for 20 years prior to the establishment of Kama Jiu-Jitsu upon Master Rickson’s formal retirement from running his schools. Kama Jiu-Jitsu has since expanded to include three (3) more campuses (Kama Jiu-Jitsu Irvine, CA, Kama Jiu-Jitsu Flower Mound, TX, and Kama Jiu-Jitsu Trophy Club, TX) in California and Texas.
To find out our current new member specials, please contact us at KamaJiuJitsu@gmail.com, or call us at 682-233-0721.