Agency as Students in Dysfunctional BJJ Gyms

Recently a popular coach at my current gym was kicked out for continually making untoward comments toward a female student. There was a fair amount of due process and considerable rumination before the decision was finally made including testimonies from other students.

As both BJJ and MMA continue to grow, addressing the dysfunctional aspects of gym culture seems more important than ever. A recent piece of mine addressed the unwarranted grandeur we sometimes ascribe to our coaches. /u/Aesopian, a moderator on r/bjj and a well-regarded coach throughout the BJJ community, followed up with an insightful, detailed post on how to deal with the manipulations and abuse that sometimes occur in gyms around the world as well.

It’s also vital as students that we don’t disregard our own agency in these volatile circumstances either. Sometimes as students and as customers we turn a blind eye, avoid confrontation or dismiss issues as simply not our problem. Sometimes this disregard does more harm than good.

World Class Instruction and Its Discontents

Quite often we hear about folks rationalizing the many excesses of a particular coach or gym because of the profound technical knowledge offered and/or their success in tournaments or fights.  In fact, I’d argue, that the more successful a coach is at BJJ or MMA the more excuses get made about any aberrant behaviors they might possess or commit. Obviously, that’s not always the case, but it seems more common to rationalize a successful gym or coach as ‘eccentric’ rather than dysfunctional.

I have some friends and acquaintances that continue to train at gyms ranging from dysfunctional to notorious because they consider it a worthwhile trade-off. They argue that the instruction is too valuable to pass up regardless of rumors or even actual facts. Now, of course, they are grown men and women who ought to make their own choices. Still, one can’t help but think that they might be contributing to a toxic environment on some level.  

Higher belts, purple belt and up, sometimes approach their training at dysfunctional gyms similar to disgruntled Ph.D. candidates with insufferable advisors. They may dislike their coach, but switching gyms seems far too laborious given the possible regression they may face at a new gym in their journey toward black belt. I mean it’s certainly understandable to a degree just not when the dysfunction veers toward actual abuse.

My Own Private Idaho

Looking back at one of my old gyms, I feel somewhat complicit in the dysfunction and certainly how some students were treated. As much as I found my coach’s sociopolitical diatribes and patently weird brow-beatings of grown men sometimes older than himself ridiculous, I either disregarded it as just the way things were or even rationalized it to some extent as Old School coaching (Old School being a favorite excuse in BJJ/MMA. “Yeah, my coach threatens to beat me up and holds subs even when I tap. Don’t worry though. He’s just Old School.”  

Most dysfunctional people in our lives engender both pity and contempt. My particular coach was no different. He had a harrowing upbringing that he often recounted to me in casual conversation. I was, at times, a confidante of sorts as I explored his issues on a personal and philosophical level.

More to the point, he treated me incredibly well, particularly off the mats. That’s perhaps the most difficult thing to admit. It’s also partly why I stayed almost two years longer than I ought to have.

Worse, while I didn’t necessarily turn a blind eye to some of his antics I didn’t exactly take my proverbial business elsewhere either. I’d even sometimes apologize to other students like some typical enabler, particularly newer ones, when he would go off the rails.

I can remember a conversation with him about yet another philosophical query on existence or whatever. Another student, James, an Iraqi vet with a certain fragility about him, interrupted us to say goodbye. Our coach lost it on him, called him a few choice names for his apparent lack of respect. It was insane to witness. Again, all James did was politely interrupt us to say goodbye.

Still, I just sat there on the mats dumbfounded and silent. Later that night, I sent James a message apologizing to him and letting him know that he was, in no way, in the wrong. I also alluded to the fact that he deserved better. Sadly, James took our coach’s verbal attack as a sign that he needed to do more to earn our coach’s approval. It’s really, really nuts when I think about. I mean James is an Iraqi vet and a family man suffering from PTSD.

Unfortunately, It’s Hard to just be a Customer in BJJ

For many of us, BJJ is a kind of catharsis from the daily travails of our lives. Training becomes, by default, a form of active therapy. The physical exertion alone can be enough of an antidote to the ennui that sometimes hounds us. Camaraderie also becomes an important aspect of training. After all, we share sweat, frustration, bruises and sometimes blood together (figuratively I hope unless that’s your fetish).

As a result, it’s not easy to view membership at our respective gyms as some equivalent to Costco or something (although Costco parking lots are often battlefields on the weekends as well). By choice or happenstance an intimacy forms that often clouds our perception.

That said, it wasn’t hard to leave one of my former BJJ gyms, it was incredibly hard to leave my friends. We shared so many stories on and off the mats including marriages, divorces, addictions alongside a myriad of other ordeals large and small over the years. Still, I made what felt like a very hard, but correct choice at the time though it took me longer than expected.

© 2019 Gable Gripes All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “Agency as Students in Dysfunctional BJJ Gyms

  1. I feel lucky to have a good coach. The laid back atmosphere is perfect for someone like me, who’s into BJJ as something akin to therapy, as you said, but not trying to compete.

    1. I feel similarly at my current gym. It’s incredibly laid back with plenty of humor though there’s still a strong competitive element. It’s a good balance for me. It kind of reminds me of that famous quote from Oscar Wilde: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

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