Evaluate a gym in 5 minutes or less.

This post came about because of a series of discussions I had with people at the gym. I’ve been thinking about diversity on the mat ever since a big stink was made about Keith Owen and his comments about women not being able to make it in his classes. Georgette Oden did a nice job refuting his statements. I’ve been thinking about this ever since. Here’s what I’ve concluded.

You can step into most any gym and tell most of what you need to know about coaching and curriculum in about 5 minutes. Don’t look at the coaches. That’s not where you’ll get the information. Look at the students. Really, look at the students and observe what you see. Not their technique or how good they are. Look at their age, race, sex, body type, athleticism and general overall fitness. Done that? Good. Here’s what you should know.

If all you see is young strong athletic guys then the coaching sucks. If all you see are nonathletic geeks then the curriculum sucks. If you see a wide range of body types, ages, athletic abilities and a mix of women and men then you might just have found a place with good coaching and curriculum. That’s it.


Let me explain further. I’ll use an analogy. Suppose you had a math class. In order to stay in the math class you have to maintain a B average. There are 3 different math teachers and students can move back and forth between them every 6 weeks. Class one has very tough tests. The textbook is college level. The tests are college level. The teacher doesn’t really teach the kids though. Instead he assigns them chapters from the book and reads magazines during class. He administers tests every 2 weeks. What do you think will happen in that class by the end of the year? I’ll tell you. Students will self select. The only students who will be left, the ones who will thrive, are the ones who were already good at math or they had a natural ability to learn it easily. If an administrator went into that class towards the end of the year they’d see a class full of very good math students.


The second class is very different. The teacher is actively engaged. He plans detailed lessons and teaches actively every class. He wants his students to succeed. He teaches low level math. Students get full credit for “effort.” How well you do on tests is irrelevant. As long as you are “trying” you get good grades. The teacher believes that high stakes testing is bad for self esteem and students should feel good about themselves and not feel pressure from rigorous testing. What will this class look like towards the end of the year? I think what would happen is that all the good math students would leave. Anyone interested in actually learning math would not find this environment satisfactory. Students in the class would have a false sense of their math mastery.

The third class has an active engaged teacher who plans detailed lessons. The teacher prepares kids thoroughly for rigorous testing. If kids don’t do well on the tests the teacher will re-evaluate his lesson plans and make adjustments. He’ll reteach and retest students as needed. The focus of the class is on performance but the teacher builds in scaffolds for students so that they get the support they need to gradually build their performance levels over the course of the year. I don’t have to tell you what this class will look like at the end of the year. Everyone will be successful.


What does this all have to do with Jiu Jitsu? It’s exactly the same. My gym has evolved a lot over the time that I’ve been a member. When I first joined SBG it was known as a very tough gym. If you went to class you had better expect to get your ass kicked. We were proud of that. We had the belief that if you trained hard and realistic you’d get good fast. That was partly true. We were much like that first class though. The only students who survived that tough training atmosphere were those who were athletically gifted and young. Women came and went. Nonathletic people lasted a class or two. If you walked into the gym during those days you’d see that everyone on the mat was a beast. It looked like we were a great gym. In fact we were not. Now mind you we were still better than most. Most schools were the second type. They were full of nonathletic geeks. The schools did no real testing. We were what I call a “meathead” school back then. It suited us fine and we loved it. The problem was that it wasn’t a good learning environment for 95% of the people who wanted to learn BJJ so our classes remained small even though our guys were consistently better than anyone else in town.

The second type of school from the analogy above is what most martial arts looked like back then. No real testing. Belt rank was awarded for effort. The coaching was good but the curriculum sucked. This is more rare in BJJ schools now. You see it some. Mostly in schools that have BJJ as an add on curriculum. If the coach won’t roll with students and students don’t do much rolling themselves then you get a school full of nonathletic geeks who think they know what they are doing but rarely have the opportunity to test it live to know for sure. Think Kenpo gym with a BJJ add on curriculum.


So, if you walk into a gym and see only “young meatheads” it’s a good indication that they train really hard and test everything live, but they don’t know how to teach the vast majority of people. Unless you fall into the category of being very good at BJJ already or maybe you are a gifted athlete this school will not be for you. It’s deceiving because everyone is very good when you look around the room.

If when you walk into the school and look around you only see geeky nonathletic types it means that they coach well but the curriculum sucks. They aren’t teaching the right things in the right way. No real testing. Athletic students won’t stay at a place like this. Gifted athletes crave high level testing. If it’s not happening they’ll go away. There may be diversity in this gym but the diversity doesn’t include athletic types.

If when you walk into the gym you see real diversity, athletes, people with all different body types, ages, and athletic abilities. If you see good representation by women as well as men, then you could be in a pretty good gym. A gym that knows how to teach a class that will satisfy the high level athlete and the nonathletic geek will be a special place. That gym needs quality coaching, good curriculum, and effective testing methods. If you have all 3 then it will work for every body. This is more rare than you think. Ask Keith Owen.


One of the things I’m most proud of is that we made that transformation at my gym. It took a lot of years but we are there. The diversity on the mat is astonishing. I can’t tell you how much richer the BJJ experience is for me to have that kind of diversity. I love being able to have BJJ world champions, elite army special forces guys, and slightly out of shape computer programmer geeks on the mat at the same time. As a coach being able to effectively challenge all those groups in a class is super rewarding. And to watch them all grow together towards the same goals is really a thing of beauty.


On a personal note I’m really fond of those nonathletic geeks. They make me a better coach and BJJ student. They ask great questions and if you can coach them to better performance you know you are doing something right. There isn’t much on this earth that I find more rewarding than watching someone come into the gym a nonathletic geek and watch them transform themselves into an elite athlete. It’s a really powerful thing. I am always humbled by that experience and thankful to be a small part of it. If you want to see that firsthand stop by SBGi Portland any night of the week. You will see a beautiful cross section of the city on the mat. That and lots of smiling content athletes, and yes Keith Owen, lots of women.


  1. The diversity is exactly what we were looking for when we came to SBG. Thank you for responding to the impressions regarding women in martial arts. I recently read an article stating that many gyms do not want couples. I couldn’t believe some gyms couldn’t see the value of couples who train together.
    Great site!

    • Thanks Ellen. We have quite a few couples at our gym. Choking each other out is a great bonding experience. 🙂

  2. My experience exactly. As an instructor I have to learn. The easy ones are easy the tough ones are tough. And amazingly they have all learned and progressed. That is what I want in a gym.

  3. I think you’re on to something here, even if only as a helpful rule of thumb for choosing an academy (which I think was your intention). And I appreciate a smooth analogy as much as the next person. But there might be one important caveat.

    Self-selection between math classes WITHIN a school is easy and presumably seamless. You pick up your books and move. Mission accomplished. But self-selection BETWEEN different BJJ academies is “sticky”. Sticky because there is a time lag for self-selection. The desire to change academies must be greater than the actual or perceived cost of doing so (including the cost of being labeled a creonte–“traitor”). Self-selection then has a time lag or may never happen if the cost is greater than the desire to move. Maybe it depends on where you train. In the U.S. BJJ is probably more of a commercial transaction than in Rio de Janeiro where I live(and where creonte labeling is alive and well).

    That being said, as a student (not a teacher), I certainly see self-selection WITHIN academies where different classes are taught by different instructors. In this instance, your analogy is perfect. Thanks for the great article!

  4. My experience has been the total opposite. I started at a school that was very diverse; different ages, backgrounds, motivations, and a high ratio of female to male. I changed schools and now train at an academy with only one female and most guys are 18-30yro athletic beasts. The difference is night and day. The quality of coaching now is far superior, my skill set has completely transformed, and 6 months later I’m just now feeling like I deserve the belt that I arrived with. My old school represents at local tourneys but none of us/them made it past the first round at Pans. My new school is decorated at the major events and we never bother to compete in the local tourneys. (side note, local tourneys always feel like crap marketing events anyway!)

    I believe that the difference is that a school that seeks diversity has to make concessions about how and why they train students. If you are training a certain way for the sake of diversity, or more specifically to get as many students to sign up (which will certainly increase your diversity), then one should expect that to be reflected in the curriculum (which is what I believe I experienced at the first school). That doesn’t mean that females are drawn to a curriculum that promotes crap jits (or not-the-best-jits), but from a business POV its a heck of a lot harder to sell a membership to a female, let alone anyone, based on the experience of “Sign a contract and expect to get the crap kicked out of you every practice by man-imals”

    • It doesn’t have to be that way. We have multiple world champions at my gym and a very diverse mat. If you do it right you can have world class Jiu Jitsu and a diverse mat. It’s not too hard to have a mat full of young athletic guys and do very well at tournaments. Any mediocre coach and accomplish that.

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