by Samuel Franklin McCoy Jr.
The year was 2005 or 2006 and I was a blue — maybe purple belt at the time; when this hulking 6 foot 5, 265 pound giant visited our academy. After beating the brakes off of a couple of our white belts, he stood up in the middle of the mat and screamed, “Who’s next?” Fast-forward a week, this big guy insulted my instructor by saying he wasn’t getting anything out the class. My instructor turned to me and spoke two words that I will never forget. He said, “It’s time!”
This big guy and me started to roll and shortly after, he was snoring from a pretty tight guillotine. We never saw that big guy again.
Do you know the proper mat etiquette when visiting a new academy? If not, you could have a very unpleasant experience.
But, the good news is that if you have the right information, there’s a high probability that you’ll be invited back. Let’s face it. If you weren’t made aware of how to act before stepping onto a mat, how can you be held accountable for incorrect form? That’s why it’s so crucial to make sure that you know you’re doing all the right things with a general idea of correct conduct.
If you’re an ambitious practitioner who likes the idea of visiting other gyms, I urge you to continue reading. After reading this, you’ll be able to:
- Feel confident in your knowledge of proper mat etiquette.
- Avoid injury and humiliation.
- Visit any gym you desire.
- Make new friends
- Get invited back.
Many improper behaviors can be corrected when detected. Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. But when you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to learn. So, let’s learn how to approach the mat.
Step 1: Some “old school” instructors aren’t open to their students training at other gyms. While the validity of this topic is widely debated in the BJJ community, it is still best to talk with your instructor first to make sure it won’t become a problem. Regardless of your opinion of the anti-cross training position some instructors have, it is best to keep the peace at your home academy if you plan on staying there long term. Talk to your instructor and just explain your reasons for wanting to add some cross training into your schedule. Most instructors now days are cool with it, but don’t let your instructor find out about it by seeing a pic of you on social media training somewhere else.
Step 2: It is always a respectful gesture to call ahead first and make sure that the academy you plan to visit is open to having visitors from other gyms. Again, some instructors have mixed feelings about this but, for the most part, you will find that the BJJ community is pretty open and accepting. But it is best to check ahead of time. Also, many academies require students to wear a white gi. Be sure to ask about this policy before showing up in your sweet canary yellow or camo gi!
Step 3: Arrive early. No instructor likes it when people are late to class, and if you are a guest you certainly don’t want to come strolling in late and holding things up. Arrive a little early because you will need extra time to sign a waiver, meet people and then change and get warmed up.
Step 4: Make sure your hygiene is on point. Shower before class, trim those nails (hands AND feet), brush your teeth and make sure your gi or no-gi apparel are washed and smelling fresh. Also, bring flip flops! Many schools do not allow bare feet off of the mats, so come prepared for then you walk through the lobby, to the water fountain or to the bathroom. One of the greatest signs of respect in Jiu-Jitsu is having a high level of hygiene.
Step 5: Many academies have different cultures. Some are very traditional where it is necessary to ask permission to enter the mat and to bow on and off the mat. Some require you to bow to the image of the founder on the wall as well and have a strict policy on profanity. Other academies are very informal, don’t practice any sort of bowing or permission to enter and don’t have any restrictions on how students talk on the mats. Most academies are somewhere in the middle, so it is always best to check and observe how the other students are behaving. Also, most academies that have rules will list them somewhere on the walls. Pay attention to what the signs say if you see them.
Step 6: It is always proper to ask the instructor to leave the mat once the class has begun. If you need to use the restroom or get water, be sure to inform and ask the instructor first. Again, some schools don’t require this, but it is a good display of respect.
Step 7: When you enter the mat to warm up, shake hands and introduce yourself to EVERYONE in the room. This is a common practice worldwide for visitors in an academy. It shows that you are there on friendly terms and it avoids making you seem stand-offish. If you appear stand-offish, it can be misinterpreted that you have a chip on your shoulder or that you’re there to challenge people. Which creates a bad vibe in the room. Be polite, be friendly and introduce yourself to everyone.
Step 8: Practice the techniques being taught by the instructor. Don’t drill anything that isn’t part of the lesson. Also, it is best to avoid “teaching” anyone any techniques. The instructor is there for a reason and his curriculum is in place for a reason. Don’t teach your partner a variation you know of the technique, just practice it the way the instructor showed. Save the sharing of information and techniques for open mat after class.
Step 9: Asking a black belt to roll could be considered a sign of disrespect. Do not ask the instructor to roll with you. It is typically a good idea not to ask for a roll with anyone of a higher rank. Allow them to invite you to roll. On the flip side, unless you’re injured, never decline a black belt’s request to train with you — this could not only be a valuable opportunity to learn something new, but also an opportunity for you to be humbled.
There are several other nuances related to demonstrating proper mat etiquette when visiting a new academy, but they depend completely on the academy.
Allow me to give you a few:
- A proper-seated position while receiving instruction. — c’mon folks, don’t lie down in the middle of the mat.
- Be sure that you tie your belt before and after rolling and leaving or returning to the mat.
- In some schools, it’s customary to face away from the instructor when tying your belt.
- Don’t walk onto the mat with your shoes on, nor off of the mat without them.
- Wearing a white gi is always a safe bet when visiting another academy — avoid crazy colors and patterns such as a pink or camouflage gi.
- Train competitively but don’t be a douchebag. Nobody wants to roll with a guy who thinks it’s the final match at the Worlds. Keep the intensity at an appropriate level for a training session.
- Paying a mat fee is a very common practice when visiting a school. Don’t be surprised if they charge you to train. Fees typically range between $10 to $30 depending on the school.
- Be polite!
- Don’t come off as a know it all, keep your opinions to yourself and absorb instruction. As my old man used to say, “How can you hear anything when you’re talking?”
Like the great American musician Bob Dylan expressed in one of his songs, “The Times They Are A-Changin,’ “ so too are the rules of proper mat etiquette with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and grappling becoming more and more popular. That being said, having a basic knowledge of proper mat etiquette couldn’t hurt.
Heck, it could prevent you from getting hurt.
With a general knowledge of how to respectfully arrive to a new academy, you’ll be welcomed just about anywhere with open arms.
Stay Humble! – Samuel Franklin McCoy Jr.
Sam “Big Chocolate” McCoy is a BJJ Black Belt, Author, Pro MMA fighter and Bellator veteran who has competed and taught around the world. He was also the guest of GCP episode #149