Here are the top 10 signs your jiu jitsu gym may be a cult.
Think cults are only for dumb people? Believe people in cults are nut jobs with supernatural beliefs about Nike sneakers, $900 dollar foot reading sessions, nude yahtzee, Star Trek and a polyamourous union with a guy in Lulu Lemon pants named, Swami Dylan?
Think you’d never be the type of person to be sucked in by a cult? Think again.
The truth is, cult like behaviour isn’t always as extreme as what you see on Netflix, and often, many operate under the radar. And unfortunately, sometimes even jiu jitsu can be affected.
Have no fear, because in this article, we’ll break down 10 warning signs your jiu jitsu gym may be a cult, so you can quickly deprogram yourself and avoid destruction.
10 Culty Things You Need To Be Aware Of At Your Jiu Jitsu Gym
Before we jump in, I just want to point something out.
This article was written with new jiu jitsu practitioners and non competitors in mind.
Some of the points below, however not all of them, may not apply to those who receive free training, housing, sponsorship or the like from their coach and their team.
Obviously, some nuances exist and it is important that you consider your situation and the situation of the intended target I stated above before sending me your BS hate mail that I 100% won’t be reading. Check it out…
… I don’t even read messages from people who like me 😉
Ok, now that’s out of the way, let’s begin.
1. Instructors Who Feed Off The Appeal To False Authority
This is a very common problem not only in jiu jitsu the community, but every area of life, that is less the fault of the person who acts as the false authority, and more the fault of the person feeding them.
Let me explain.
The appeal to false authority is when a person leverages their expertise in one area to give advice dressed up as expert opinion in another area.
Person X is an expert in A, and comments on issue B.
Person X is not an expert on issue B.
People who admire person X for issue A are now influenced on what to think about issue B.
According to person X, the statement about issue B is true. Therefore, that statement must be true.
“Jack would be perfect as head of the state treasury because he once owned three successful hardware stores.”
“The movie star, Steve Rockheart, says the secret to getting shredded is to use a shake weight while wearing a gas mask every morning and to only eat a specific root vegetable farmed from ancient soils sourced somewhere in the Andes, a root vegetable that my doctor doesn’t want me to know about, and it’s definitely, definitely not the steroids. Honey, what’s my Amazon password again?”
“Mary is a psychologist with a PhD and says the best way to correct shortsightedness is to funnel piping hot coffee into my rectum. Be a sweetheart: fire up the Keurig and throw my glasses in the trash while I warm up with some stretches.”
As you can see, this fallacy centres on people who believe their credentials and accomplishments in one area legitimately make them an expert on everything else in life and gives them the right to tell you what you should and should not be doing.
Now, I stated at the start of this section that the problem doesn’t necessarily come from the person acting as the irrelevant authority, but rather the person feeding them.
After all. Anyone can offer their advice and their opinion, it’s their right. And most of the time it does come from a good place, as they often hold your best interests at heart.
However, the problem actually lies in the person receiving these opinions: the person who takes it on blind faith to be true, just because they’re hearing it from their instructor.
Without second thought, this person accepts these opinions as fact, based solely on their instructor’s previous accomplishments and standings in jiu jitsu. Therefore, conditioning the instructor to feel validated for doing so; making them more confident that their opinions, however outside the realm of their expertise, are more than just opinions — they are, ‘facts’.
All I’m saying is, just think twice if your instructor comes to you with an investment tip that can’t fail, tells you to leave your better half, quit your job, take this pill, or tells you that you’ll never have to wear glasses again as you see an order of 4 Venti Americanos arrive via Postmates.
Fool me once…
2. Gyms That Go All In On The Us Vs Them
Cults rely on many things, however, the strong almost unbreakable bonds between its members, bonds that will make individuals hold beliefs and act in ways they would never act normally, are truly the life blood of a cult’s success.
The cult leader is needed, however, if this leader fails to create a bond between his or her followers, both to himself and to one another, the cult will inevitably fail.
And one of the greatest ways to bring a group together, and hold them together, is by the creation of an enemy.
The Us vs Them mentality is the superglue tactic employed not only by cults, but by politicians, sporting franchises, and marketing teams.
Ever wondered how hooligans got into soccer?
Or what would make someone spend less time playing their new Playstation 5 and more time making memes about why Xbox users suck?
And while jiu jitsu is a competitive sport, where friendly rivalry between gyms is a given and often fun, it’s the cult like attitude towards this rivalry that can transform harmless fun into fundamentalism.
And this usually comes in a variety of ways…
“No member of this team is to ever train at another gym, even if on vacation.”
“You can’t be friends with XYZ! He trains at ABC!”
“We’re hosting a seminar with world champion XYZ at our academy and all are welcome, but no patches of other teams are allowed.”
“I heard they warm up at their gym by kicking puppies and eating kittens. Seriously, a friend of mine saw a video about it on YouTube.”
Classic insecure boyfriend behaviour.
I get that, in the past, gyms and instructors were working hard on developing techniques and gameplans to give their students a competitive edge in competition that they didn’t want their rivals knowing about.
But now, with the internet and instructional courses, almost every move, every game plan and every thing you could ever want to know on the mat is at your fingertips.
Sorry for the shameless plug. Where was I? Oh yeah…
So why does this reluctance to outside contact persist?
I mean, there are many instructors out there who encourage their students to train at other gyms, to test out their skills, learn things they couldn’t learn in their home gym and accelerate their development as a grappler.
“You have to look at what is best for you, look for the best coaches. You can add more coaches but do not forget where you came from.”
This quote from Wallid above makes sense. If you wanna learn more, seek it out and learn from the people who can teach it to you. As long as you stay a member of your team, you’re still loyal.
But I think Josh Hinger said it best below…
“Is the “no cross-training rule” actually still a thing in 2017? How does this benefit anyone?
Living in an isolated bubble never helped anyone grow. If your coaches are telling you that they don’t want the rival teams to learn “your team’s jiu jitsu secrets,” they are full of crap.
The only secret they are trying to keep is that their jiu-jitsu sucks and they don’t want you to realize that by going somewhere else.
Starbucks didn’t become a super corporation because they banned their customers who drank coffee at Coffee Bean. Amazon doesn’t ban customers who shop on other websites.
This medieval times bullcrap needs to go.
“Loyalty” isn’t an idea that you can use to control people. If your coaches want to put a leash on your neck and tell you what you can do, you should ask yourself if being treated like a dog is okay.”
3. Gyms Where Superstition Is Real
Ever had an instructor or a higher belt tell you not to wash your belt because you’ll ✌️lose your power✌️ on the mat…
I know it’s fun to have superstitions sometimes, but a staph ridden belt that smells like Rudy Giuliani’s bottom row of teeth (Google image search that exact phrase, I’ll wait) being wiped across your face from underneath half guard is just, well it’s just nasty.
And I know there are ballplayers who have lucky jockstraps, and you too probably have a lucky pair of red undies you wear for that extra boost of confidence at tournaments, but to legitimately believe in a magic power like this is ridiculous.
And especially ridiculous when the person telling it to you gets angry when you question them or giggle about it.
The truth is, many cults espouse magical beliefs.
And even though superstitions like not washing your belt are trivial compared to some of the hardcore beliefs of other cults like the Heaven’s Gate or The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, you still need to ask yourself questions about them.
Questions like, if you have a belief related to jiu jitsu that does not hold true with beliefs you would normally have in everyday life or that do not reflect what you would normally consider possible, i.e. losing all the skills and techniques learned up until the day you washed your belt, then maybe that belief is a silly thing to have.
4. Gyms Where The Freedom To Pursue New Techniques Is Ridiculed
Free thought is also frowned upon in cult like groups.
There is no room for questioning moves or free-thinking, and if you ever try that berimbolo shit in my gym again I’ll whip you with my belt.
It is true that even if you’re not in a cult like environment, your coach will advise you against certain techniques and strategies with your best interests at heart. After all, that’s what a coach does: they ensure you develop in the most efficient and effective way possible based on their experiences and expert observations.
However, there are instructors who will irrationally deny moves and systems, proven to work at elite level of competition, from being used by their students – ridiculing them as BS maneuvers that would…
… never work.
These are people who say leg locks don’t work. These are people who say lapel guards are a waste of time. Heck, there are even people who said jiu jitsu wouldn’t work at one point too.
Here, the person often engages in a practice of deception to “prove” their point by deliberately withholding or distorting information.
For example, they will tell a student, maybe a white, blue or purple belt, trying out the move for the first time to try it on them.
Obviously, the lower-tiered belt is barely adept at the move as they most likely only saw it on YouTube that day. The instructor will proceed to crush the student, claiming, “See, told you it was BS” as if that were irrefutable proof – case closed.
And what’s the one thing all of these people have in common?
They refuse to teach, and more importantly, they refuse to learn these techniques themselves.
Even if you feel a particular position or technique isn’t the best your student can do, the least you can do as a coach is learn and teach how to defend it – especially if almost every other gym in the world is using it.
When it comes down to it, most of these cult like coaches, deep down, are actually worried about losing face when someone catches them with a new position, technique or system in front of other students.
This is a problem because it conflicts with their delusion of grandeur and god-like status among the group (we’ll get to that in the next section) and as a cult leader, this is the Wizard of Oz “man behind the curtain” they simply cannot afford to expose.
To make matters worse, they’ll often encourage their students to be closed-minded too, branding new moves as impure or not ‘real jiu jitsu’. An informal fallacy known as the appeal to purity or “No True Scotsman.”
In this fallacy, a person seeks to protect their argument by essentially moving the goal posts to include classifications like pure, real, etc in the face of contrary evidence.
Instructor: No one is to do leg locks in this gym, they are BS moves that don’t work in jiu jitsu.
Student: But, people have used them to win in ADCC matches and in jiu jitsu supermatches.
Instructor: Those aren’t real jiu jitsu matches.
5. The Head Coach Has Delusions Of Grandeur
This is no doubt the biggest red flag associated with a cult leader, however it often provides them the confidence to attract and maintain their following.
While it may seem trivial to worry about a person with an inflated sense of self importance, a cult like leader with delusions of grandeur can fester a serious dark side.
This is usually due to the fact that they are incapable of thinking anything they do is wrong. After all, they are perfect.
So, how does a perfect person harbour a bad side?
It usually comes down to the narcissistic need to never lose face or appear less than dominant in front of others.
If you’ve ever scored a sweep, a guard pass or even tapped your instructor who then put everything they had into f*$king you up for the rest of the round, or worse: injuring you, I’m afraid to say that’s only the tip of the dysfunctional iceberg.
Narcissistic revenge isn’t the only sign that points to a god complex or a need to be in control of others with their greatness.
Instructors who ONLY seek to dominate their students, often those with less experience, during sparring by smashing their guard, taking mount or the back, crushing them and making life hell before submitting them is also a sign of something sadistically wrong.
I know it’s important for instructors to show their students what it’s like to roll with black belt for real, and from time to time that may be beneficial.
However, when this is the only experience a student has, they never have time to think or benefit from opportunities to try out the techniques their instructor actually taught them.
Just keep an eye out. If your instructor only seems to crush white and blue belts, but sits rounds out against brown belts, black belts or even visitors, you may need to find another gym.
6. Arbitrary Rules That Are Solely There To Support A Hierarchy
Before you pull out the red flag and call me Karl, let me clear something up.
I do believe hierarchies, in specific cases, are both natural and necessary.
I’m not going to sit here at my computer desk drinking coffee and eating organic blueberries, while my dogs sit on the floor next to their bowl of kibble and pretend otherwise.
Which situations do I think hierarchies are natural? Practically all of them to be honest. Let’s say I was playing basketball against LeBron James. No way am I going to think that in the realm of B-ball should he or I not be in any form of hierarchy (The kids are still calling it B-ball, right?).
Which situations do I think hierarchies are necessary? Well, if my wife and I are driving down the road and we get a flat tire, guess what, there’s going to be a clear hierarchy in terms of who’s expected to fix the tire – because I sure as hell don’t know how to do it.
(Ok I may have embellished that last story a tad to prove my point. I don’t actually have a wife.)
But, situations where I absolutely do not believe the hierarchy card should be drawn is when it comes to bullying others.
And I seriously can’t believe I have to say that.
The whole idea that some gyms still have rules based solely on belt hierarchy, without any other benefit, in 2021 is crazy.
If a black belt asks for YOUR drink, you have to give it to them.
Black belts use the showers first, regardless of whether the lower belt is in a hurry to get home because their babysitter will be leaving soon or they have to get to work.
There are even gyms that won’t allow lower belts to talk to higher belts or ask them to roll out of ‘respect’.
This positioning of a person as ‘lesser than’ because they started their jiu jitsu journey at a later date compared to others within a 20 foot radius is crazy.
7. Gyms That Act Like The Military Rather Than A Place Where You Spend Your Free Time
Look this is a tricky one.
I get that martial arts are deeply rooted in discipline. I get that instructors want to make their students tough and to make them the best jiu jitsu practitioners they can be.
And I get that, without discipline in class, there are bad actors who will mess around while the instructor is trying to show a technique, distracting people, and ruining the learning experience for everyone else trying to concentrate.
But sometimes over application, or abuse, of disciplinary procedures just gets out of hand.
Going to great lengths to publicly scream at, shame, belittle and berate someone in class for a minor error such as forgetting their belt is less of an appeal to discipline and more of a way for sadists to get their rocks off.
When it comes to competition class, I agree, everyone should be there totally focused on drills and sparring and 100% committed towards winning gold and doing their best.
However, when John or Jane arrives at beginner’s class 10 minutes late and is told that they can’t join in, because “they know the rules”, and will have to go home is a bit silly.
Especially when most people, who aren’t competitors, may have – what are those things people have? I’m drawing a blank here. Oh yeah! – a life outside of jiu jitsu.
Who knows, John or Jane may have been trying to find a sitter for their kid, or maybe they were told to stay at work late by a boss who had been riding their ass all day, only to come to a class that is meant to be their hobby, their escape from their various obligations in life, a way to lose weight, get healthier and build confidence; a class they pay for, only to be scolded like an ungrateful child.
The problem here is that, like cults, when hard rules are blanketly applied without nuance or consideration to the legitimate possibilities of why the rule was broken, it can garner a great deal of criticism from others in the group about the offender.
Unfair criticisms about how uncommitted that person is, how much of a loser they are, etc, can often lead to that person being shunned and/or gaining an unfair reputation within the group.
Many times in the past people have arrived late to my classes and I’ve joked with them, cupping my hands over my mouth like a megaphone, yelling, “Ladies and gentleman, put your hands together this years homecoming Queen, [enter name here]”, as they scurry from the carpark through the door to the change room. I joke a lot, probably too much, but I always let them get on the mat, even if they’re late, and even if they’ve forgotten their belts.
Because, it’s always better they come to class late or without a belt, then not at all.
8. Gyms That Force You To Wear Their Gear Only
OK, here’s another tricky one and I know I’m gonna get hate for this.
I totally understand that the owner of a gym doesn’t always make a killing with memberships and needs to make money by selling gis, patches, shorts and rashguards, and they’re totally right to do so.
And I totally get that branding establishes the gym as a team at tournaments and gives the students a sense of belonging to a group, which I am 100% down for.
However, I feel that when students are restricted from wearing gis and rash guards they bought outside of the gym or even gis and rashguards from a company they were fortunate enough to earn a sponsorship from, we start venturing into murky waters.
Again I know there is an argument that keeping every gi and rash guard the same creates uniformity in class, but I do feel that the group identity will start to devour the individual.
100% go ahead, sell and provide your students with branded gear, create the team of your dreams, and get the name of your academy out there.
But when you start telling people, who already pay you good money for your services, ie jiu jitsu classes, that they can’t set foot on the mat until they pay over a $100 for your gi and rash guard combo, even though they already have a bunch on hand, well, all I have to say is…
And again, I know I’m going to get a lot of hate from a bunch of people more than capable of kicking my ass in a fight, but…
9. Instructors Who Use Their Gym As Substitute For Tinder
Seriously, do I have to write why this is a bad thing?
If your instructor has ever suggested your next belt may rely on certain favors or has hit you up for ‘massages’ via text, you need to get the hell out of that environment as fast as you can.
This is not to say that a romance or relationship can never blossom in the gym. After all, when your life and your job resides solely on the mats, where else are you going to meet people?
But, like I stated above, if you start dropping hints regarding quid pro quo exchanges or you’re a serial creep who abuses your status in the gym over people who in fact kind of fear you for your fighting capabilities…
… you need to stop.
10. Instructors Who Believe You Owe Them Your Life
When it comes down to it, you’re paying for a service and when payment is made for those services the transaction is complete.
Unfortunately, narcissists don’t always see it this way. Instead, they often believe that you owe them more, and their goal – in their words and in their actions – is to make you believe that too.
This is what cults do. Figureheads make their group members feel as if they couldn’t be anything without them.
Once this belief is instilled in one group member, who then notices another group member with the same belief, it strengthens that belief in their mind. And soon, the figurehead need not be so proactive or overt in pushing this belief, because the group members will do that for them.
And this creates a dependence on that figurehead that can bleed well outside the realm of reality. Kind of like Charlie Brown’s friend in the Peanuts cartoon who always carried his security blanket.
This perceived dependence works to unravel the self-confidence a martial art like jiu jitsu is famed to provide. In that, if one believes that everything they are, their self-worth and what they are capable of, is solely caused by one person or persons within a group, that self confidence becomes exactly like that aforementioned security blanket.
Out of fear, you’ll never want to leave it.
And this gives the figurehead leverage. They may expect you to do things for them you wouldn’t normally do for anyone else.
They may ask you to do something that a friend would do, but these requests become numerous or at inconvenient times, and even worse expected to be completed without question, and any inclination on your part to point that out is met with disappointment.
After everything I’ve done for you?
Sure, there are nuances here. Some instructors do go above and beyond for their students and can often provide them with free training, a place to stay or even a job.
However, this is a different situation. This isn’t a relationship between a coach and a student at a gym. This is a relationship between friends, and it is important to see which of these relationships you are in.
If your coach is someone you meet up with for coffee, someone you play call of duty with or was the best man or maid of honor at your wedding, you can probably see why they would be hurt if you left them to train with someone else.
But, if your coach calls you Dave when your name is Robert, ritually hands you their sweaty gi after class expecting you to wash it, sends you to the 7-11 three blocks down to buy them a Gatorade (even though there’s a 7-11 right next to the gym) or constantly makes fun of you in front of the whole team but has never sat with you for 10 minutes to help you out with a technique or a gameplan on the mat, I’m afraid to say…
… you ain’t friends.
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