This isn’t quite so much about being cool as it is minimizing any awkwardness we might inadvertently cause. I don’t really know how to be cool, so to say I can pass that skill on to you would be a wild and spurious claim on my part. That said, I’ve sat back and watched, sometimes cringed, while people come, go and stay at the gym. Some people know what they’re doing in a team setting and others need some help. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym is home to all walks of life. Men, women, gay, straight, married, single, young, old and so on. Sometimes it’s tough to navigate all the corners of a heterogeneous team sport. This barely-cool blogger is coming to the rescue! I’ve laid out a loose dos and don’ts of how not to make people feel awkward, based on my own experiences (I’ve been aaaaaawkward!) and observations in and around BJJ.
Do: be friendly and personable on and off the mats. We’re not all chatty and smiles all the time. If you’re a reserved person, don’t feel pressured to come out of a shell you’re not ready to emerge from, but being friendly and approachable will go a long way. Likewise, if you’re an extrovert, small doses of your charm can draw out even the shyest student, and help to create a really inviting environment.
Don’t: be overly personable. This sounds a bit contradictory considering the previous ‘do’, but being too friendly too fast makes people on the mats feel uncomfortable. I’ve seen it over and over again: A new student joins, then they’re immediately trying to be best friends with everyone, and posts YouTube videos on the coach’s Facebook wall daily. Basically, don’t smother your new partners! The overly-friendly individual is always a really great person, but they need to let people figure that out for themselves. The alternative is that folks start thinking there’s something a bit off about them, which sucks and probably isn’t very fair. The new student’s intentions are good, but the approach was messy. Take your time when you first start and let people warm up to the awesomeness of you in their own time. Generally people in a gym (mine, at least. Can’t vouch for every other one, but most should be fine) are pretty friendly already, and will make you feel right at home in no time anyways.
Do: have a full and wonderful social life that includes Jiu Jitsu and the friends you’ve made through it. Keep in touch on social media with the people you’re friends with through BJJ. The community’s pretty small; you can end up in huge and often hilarious online discussions with people who share your passion for Jiu Jitsu. And then go do something else for the rest of your day because you have a life outside of Jiu Jitsu.
Don’t: make Jiu Jitsu your sole identity. It’s really easy to get caught up in the lifestyle and hype around Jiu Jitsu. Lots of new white belts Instagram their kale shakes, tweet about their full-shin lockdown bruises or mat burn and join every BJJ related Facebook page they can find. That’s fine and actually, par for the course. But don’t be one-dimensional about your love of Jits! After a few months of hammering your social media with nothing but bjj memes and your opinions on everything involving Jiu Jitsu and BJJ politics, people can start to think you’re either really boring or a know-it-all. No one likes a white-belt-know-it-all, and I’ll be frank with you: it’s embarrassing to watch. Use restraint when you dive into the BJJ online community. Remember that it’s small and people talk. Don’t overdo it and definitely don’t be overly familiar online with other Jits folks that you don’t really know. Like I said, people talk. It’s best they don’t talk about you at all, and if they do, make sure you give them good things to talk about- like the crazy good baseball choke you posted from your last competition- rather than have them quietly agreeing that you’re being annoying, or worse, creepy.
Do: work to become part of the team. Come out to class, roll, roll, roll and when you have no more left, roll again. Mat time is the quickest way into everyone’s heart, and the only way to get better at BJJ!
Don’t: get sour if you don’t feel like you’re ‘part of the team’ after a month of training. Yes, mat snobs are a thing (we’ll address those cats another day), but if after a month you don’t feel like you’re on the team or accepted, don’t panic, quit or give everyone stink eye for being exclusionary jerks. It isn’t that your team doesn’t like you, they just don’t know yet if you’re going to quit tomorrow. This was something I personally struggled with in my first few months. I began at a college drop-in BJJ program that had a handful of vets who watched as dozens of new faces came and left in a two semester period. I felt ignored and disliked, but after displaying my dedication (I travelled five hours round trip three times a week to train…no biggie), I was part of the team! Give it time. BJJ isn’t for everyone and mat vets know that. They’re just waiting until it’s safe to get attached to you.
Do: be respectful to everyone. Always. In the gym, online, at competitions, at the bar, the bus stop…I could keep going. Think before you speak, and consider other people’s feelings and experiences before you say something you’re not sure about.
Don’t: be a crude and disrespectful person, especially on the mats. Race jokes are not kosher. Rape jokes are never okay. By calling your buddy on the mats gay, you meant he was totally fabulous, right? You get the picture. I’m not going to proscribe what you can’t say in life, I have faith in you. Don’t be a jerk. If you absolutely must be a jerk and tell a stupid, offensive joke, save it for your stupid and offensive friend’s ears only, m’kay? I once heard an Eddie Bravo quote: “Jiu Jitsu is the ultimate douchebag filter”. That isn’t always true, but it’s one of the better jerk filters available. We see through jerks quickly.
At the end of the day, just be as naturally you as you can. Sometimes a little insight into how an unfamiliar social setting functions is helpful, though.