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Holding Higher Belts Accountable

Updated: Apr 1

Black and white image of a person holding their palm up giving the non-verbal direction: stop

This is the first part in a three part series on unwanted behaviors in a BJJ Academy and how to manage them. In this post I discuss the problems gym owners face with holding their highest ranked students accountable for bad behavior, in the second post I outline the behaviors that gyms owners should try to eliminate, and in the third post I go over how Groundworks addresses behaviors we don't want.

It's hard for BJJ instructors and gym owners to hold their highest ranking students accountable for bad behavior. In the short term, BJJ instructors are incentivized to overlook bad behavior from their higher belts for three reasons:

  1. It's emotionally difficult to risk losing the student

  2. It's hard to risk losing the student's knowledge & experience

  3. It has the potential to financially hurt the gym

Let's look at each...

Emotional Pain

As instructors we spend years (sometimes decades) investing our time and energy into our students. Unfortunately, a Black Belt doesn't make us immune to the sunk cost fallacy. When a long time student repeatedly behaves badly, it can feel like we've personally failed as a coach and mentor. It's easy to think, "maybe if I just give him a little more attention, he'll change" and it's hard to acknowledge that he won't change no matter how much more attention he's given. This is doubly true when the student apologizes for their behavior and seems genuinely remorseful.

You're likely friends with the student, you've been through a lot together, and you've shared blood, sweat, and tears over many years. You feel like an uncle or big brother to him, and you've made multiple personal sacrifices to support and encourage him over the years. If you restrict his training or kick him out of the gym, he will feel betrayed by you and you will likely feel guilty about it regardless of whether it's the right decision.

Loss of Knowledge & Experience

Everything else being equal, higher belts are better training partners. They have more knowledge, offer tougher/more technical rolls, and pull the level in the gym up. Losing higher belts hurts your gym by reducing the number of good training partners available to your other students.

Financial Pain

It's normal for a group of higher belts to be friends and train together all the time. If you kick one out, you run the risk of his friends leaving too. This amplifies the loss of knowledge and experience at your gym. It may also have a substantial impact on your income.

There are probably some lower belts who like training with the problematic higher belt. You could lose them too as the problematic higher belt might take them to his new gym.

What happens in the long term if you don't remove problematic higher belts?

In the short term instructors have little incentive to remove problematic higher belts, but in long term it's a different story. Allowing problematic higher belts to continue their bad behavior:

  1. Fosters a toxic gym environment

  2. Reduces new student sign-ups

  3. Exposes you to legal and PR nightmares

Let's take a look at why...

Toxic Environment

When you don't remove the problematic student, your efforts to maintain a positive gym culture are thwarted because other students see that the rules/norms/etc don't apply to the highest ranking students. Lower ranking students are show that they can do whatever they want if they just get good enough at Jiu-Jitsu. This attracts assholes and predators who eventually cause your quality students to leave. After a few years of this you're left with a toxic gym full of jerks.

Reduced Sign-ups

If your problematic higher belts are teaching classes or if they are allowed to interact with prospective students, they can cause new people to not sign-up. One of the hallmarks of a problematic student is their unwillingness or inability to change their bad behaviors after you've brought those behaviors to their attention. They might manhandle timid students, berate students who've made an innocent mistake, or hit on students they find attractive.

Over the course of several months or a year, this causes more financial harm to the gym than losing the problematic higher belt and any students that choose to leave with him.

Legal & PR Problems

Problematic people get bolder in their bad behavior when there are limited consequences. At worst this can lead to them to commit crimes against your other students, exposing you to legal liabilities and possibly a spot on your local evening news. At best your gym will develop a poor reputation within your local BJJ community.

In the short term it makes little sense to remove a problematic student, but in the long term it's critical that you do. There's never a good time to remove someone. If you have a problematic student that hasn't changed their bad behavior after you've repeatedly tried to get them to address it, you need to get them out. Call them today, schedule a meeting, and have that conversation — your gym will be better for it.

What behaviors should gym owners not tolerate? I'll discuss that in the next post in this series.

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