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Be It Ever So Humble...

In a lot of ways, my jiu-jitsu school is more of a gym than a dojo. There is no bowing. Students can wear whatever gi they want. There is no formal lineup or recited student creed. Class begins when the teacher starts demonstrating and ends when no one wants to roll anymore. It seems, although I have never done this, that you are perfectly free to go to workshops elsewhere or to visit your buddy who owns a school out on Long Island. We occasionally have "pop in" students who know my teacher from somewhere else or who are just visiting NYC and want to train for the day.

Despite all this informality, there is plenty of loyalty there. Many blue and purple belts speak of my instructor with the same reverence that Daniel-san gives Mr. Miyagi. They clearly respect him, and not just for his many jiu-jitsu titles, although winning does not hurt. True the mat sometimes feels like the locker room after a big game, but there is no missing the camaraderie. These guys like training together. And for the most part, they don't mind if newbies join the party.

I came up training in karate in a world where you picked one teacher and stayed with him forever. Ironically, this same environment that constantly preached the message of never ever leaving your master was full of students who did exactly that. There were more than a few times over the years where suddenly one of the high ranking black belts from the headquarters of our style suddenly disappeared. Later on we discovered they had in fact opened their own school.

If you are a large organization with many dojos expect this to happen to you eventually. Maybe it is about money or teaching style or philosophy or simply ego. Whatever the reason, at least one of your students will eventually leave you and start their own place. People always do what they know so they will call their new style Ai Shi Ken, a made up Japenese word that means absolutely nothing or perhaps it means peaceful fist, either way, they will have white gis and patches and hold promotion every three months. They will call themselves an innovator, say they are doing martial arts the "right way" when in reality they are doing the exact same thing their teacher did but without the years of experience. And that is ok,  there is plenty of room in the martial arts world for everyone. And if he is lucky that guy will get smarter and better and his school will get bigger until eventually he gives someone a black belt and they leave him to open a Ken Ai Do dojo down the block. This is the way of the world.

But until that day, there is loyalty.

Some schools demand loyalty right away, a practice that I find a bit awkward. You may be the best teacher in NYC but most of your new students chose your dojo simply because they live nearby. To pretend otherwise, and then be angry at the idea of students trying other schools, is just silly. Loyalty is earned. Give them 6 months, a year, ten years. If they are still dojo hopping, then you have the right to be pissed off.

That being said, there are many problems with dojo hopping, especially for newbies. First of all it can be confusing. All karate terms are basically the same and a triangle choke feels awful everywhere, but instructors styles vary wildly. Some schools are very competitive, others, like us, feel that a tournament is ok occasionally, and still others ban it entirely. There are sport karate schools and full contact ones. Where we hold our chamber is different. Some stances are lower. The katas are different. Even the uniform varies. And jiu-jitsu is the same.  Sure you can learn a lot from everywhere, but you will also be confused as hell.

Also it is hard to develop relationships when you are splitting your time between schools. There is a valuable shared experience, one of blood and sweat and frustration and success, and you will miss half of it. That thing that happened in class last week? When the instructor showed everyone an awesome submission he learned in Rio when he was fourteen? Yeah, you missed it. And now everyone is talking about it and don't you feel silly that you were out in Queens working on your X guard.

What about cross training? Go ahead. You want to lift some weights, by all means find a personal trainer to help motivate you. And if you have the desire to get up early every morning and run as if the devil was chasing you, more power to you. (Really, I mean that. I am terrible at jogging and I despise it more than a root canal but I am fully aware of how good it would be for my training if I did it. So good for you.)

Also if you are a black belt in Judo and you want to learn how to punch and kick, awesome! If you have a lot of free time on your hands and feel like studying one martial art in the morning and another in the afternoon, that's ok too.  But please, if you are brand new to the martial arts, do not take "MMA" classes.  You cannot learn how to properly punch, kick, block, shoot a double leg and successfully pull off an arm bar all at once. It is like the corner deli that sells pizza, bagels and gyros; a little bit of everything usually means a lot of mediocrity. I am not saying these teachers are not good and I am sure MMA classes are great exercise.  But it just isn't possible to learn anything of substance this way unless you are being paid to train all day. And even then. Most professional fighters started off somewhere, they were wrestlers first, or karate guys. Then they branched out.

I am so sorry to burst your bubble but the next Ultimate Fighter is probably not going to be you. Maybe next year.

I have been at my BJJ school for over a year now and there has been a lot of soul searching. There were issues with the place and even more issues with me. For awhile I was pretty sure I actually despised jiu-jitsu and was only still doing it because I do not know how to quit training once I have started. But then something miraculous happened, I actually started to learn jiu-jitsu. New students joined and suddenly I realized that I knew a bit more than they did. I started to look forward to seeing certain people in class.  The school moved farther away and instead of going less I somehow ended up going more. And now its too late. Now I'm stuck. I'll be rolling at this damn place for the rest of my life!

If you are looking to start training somewhere I recommend doing a bit of research first. Who is that guy who runs the dojo down the block? Who was his teacher? What kind of place is it? Try a class. Feel free to try a few classes. But when you finally pick a place stay there awhile, long enough to get past the initial sales pitch. Make some friends. Get beat up. Maybe even beat up someone else. At least stay long enough to see if the teacher and the place are worth your loyalty.

Remember although the grass may be greener somewhere else (hell they may even have a whole garden!) there is something to be said for that small patch of flowers that stubbornly pushes through the weeds every Spring, flowers that you planted yourself. Wouldn't it be a shame if you didn't stick around long enough to see them bloom?


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