Overlooked & Underappreciated Students of Jiu-Jitsu

Unity through JiuJitsu fivegrappling

Every Jiu Jitsu school owner strives to build a large student population.

Retaining students is a major component to achieving this goal. Students will leave a school for various reasons beyond the owner’s control, such as new job, changes in their families, and financial conflicts. However, students also leave because of reasons that may not be affecting the rest of the student population.

For many school owners, white males compose a large portion of the student population while women and people of color make up the remainder of the population. Although deliberate discrimination does occur, which goes against the values preached in BJJ, it is not the focus of this article. Unconscious bias plays a role in how the owner treats the minorities in the school. Being unaware of one’s biases leads to misunderstandings, and in this case, animosities between the students and the school owner.

The goal of this article is to paint a picture, that some school owners are blinded by their own biases to see, using experiences from various Jiu Jitsu practitioners. The goal is not to point fingers and accuse anyone of discriminatory behaviors, but to bring awareness to an underlying issue in our Jiu Jitsu community.

This is a message from the overlooked and underappreciated students of every Jiu Jitsu school.

I have been part of the Jiu Jitsu community for over six years and had the pleasure of knowing female Jiu Jitsu practitioners from various parts of the country, and the world. Regardless of the location, teams, and affiliations, we shared common experiences with one another that made us feel like an afterthought, nuance, or unwelcomed guest.

The women told stories of having to change in the bathroom because the only locker room space in the school is for “the guys”. If a locker room is available for the women, it is sometimes used as a storage space as well because “you ladies don’t need that much room”.  This sets the tone for the women and they did not even train yet. During class, women are often consistently paired with smaller white belts or teens because the higher belts want to “roll hard” or “they just don’t know how to deal with women” or “they want useful rolls” [side note: yes. Those are exact quotes].

Women have told me stories of how their male teammates of similar stature turn the women down for rolls even though they are of same rank or higher. Now, I understand some men are uncomfortable rolling with women because of personal preferences or religious beliefs. Hypothetically speaking, we can expect to have 1-2 men with those restrictions in a room of 20 people. That does not explain how one woman can only get 1-2 rolls in said room. After scrounging for rolls in their academies, some women decide to compete and learn the hard way that this is an individual sport.

I have seen women compete without a coach, instructor, or teammate in their corner. Maybe their 8-year-old kid is sitting in the coach’s chair to film the match but beside that, the chair is empty. In the coaches’ defense, there are numerous competitions and attending every tournament is not possible. But what about the female competitors I see without a coach at every tournament? Yet, the male competitors walk around a local tournament with an entourage.  

If that is not sending a message to the female students, the next one definitely will. A close friend of mine competed the same day as her male teammates. After the tournament, the school owner and head instructor posted on social media, giving a shout out to the competitors for a job well done. He did not include her. This was repeated the next time she competed. In addition, some women have said their instructors do not include them in competition training or prep. Why? Each was given a different reason that honestly sounded like an excuse a child would make on the spot to get away from an awkward situation.

Women are not the only minority on the mats though. Black Jiu Jitsu practitioners are also a minority on the mats. Let’s go beyond the looks we get when we walk into a room and the questions that make it clear that we are “the spokesperson” for all black people. We are described as strong, big, and athletic. From testimonies students from various teams, that I have encountered over my time in the Jiu Jitsu community, it is rare that a black student is described as technical. We are often paired with the bigger students, or the “spazzy” students, because we can handle it.

Although black Jiu Jitsu practitioners are more than capable of having a technical roll with anyone regardless of size, we are not seen that way. We are not given credit for using technique rather than brute strength, as Jiu Jitsu preaches. This bias is also seen among the champions celebrated in the sport. If you ask the average Jiu Jitsu practitioner about famous world champions and a technique they are known for, they will name a few who are most likely white. It is not because black champions do not exist or that those champions do not have outstanding technique. It is because unconsciously their victories and successes are seen as a result of their strength and not their technical abilities. This bias undermines the black student’s abilities and makes them feel overlooked.

It is prudent for every school owner to be aware of unconscious biases and be able to address them in order to optimize their students learning and experience. Working to correct those biases will not only retain students but will earn the school owners their students’ loyalty, which is a huge concept drilled into every Jiu Jitsu post. Here is some earth-shattering news: loyalty is a two-way street and blind loyalty is the fundamental concept of a cult. As a female and person of color, I have experienced deliberate discrimination on and off the mats.

I removed myself from that situation because it was beyond reasoning. In addition, I experienced unconscious biases on and off the mats. On the mats, I attempted to bring attention to the issues I saw but not all parties were receptive to understanding a different perspective. So how can I swear loyalty to an organization/team/affiliation that does not treat me as an equal to my counterparts? That treats me as an afterthought? A second-class citizen? That’s not what is preached in Jiu Jitsu. “Jiu Jitsu is for everyone” is written in every welcome packet, on school walls, in Jiu Jitsu memes, on Jiu Jitsu shirts, etc. And it is. But not everyone is treated with the same respect and priority. As a Jiu Jitsu student,

I pay for a service and have the right to leave when I am not satisfied with a service. I should not be expected to tolerate mistreatment and remain loyal to those mistreating me. No logical person would tolerate that. I also should not be shamed for leaving a situation that could not be resolved after multiple attempts.

There are conscious school owners out there. They ensure all their students experience the same quality of training. They adjust to their students needs as much as possible. They expect loyalty because they provide unconditional loyalty. You can always spot those unique school owners/instructors/coaches. You will find them at BJJ events surrounded by their students. They would not all be wearing matching shirts to display their loyalty. Why? Because true loyalty does not need to be showcased through matching shirts and daily poetic posts declaring allegiance. They do their bests for their students and their students appreciate and respect that. Those are also the same school owners who have high student retention rates. So next time you, school owner/instructor/coach, wonder why you are losing students, try seeing yourself through their eyes.

By Guest Author: Khadija Wokman