Is your academy a sanctuary or a cesspool?

Is your academy a sanctuary or a cesspool? This question will likely provoke some very strong emotions in anyone who may be reading this particular article. Let me start with a disclaimer here. I am in no way pointing fingers at any particular academies or individuals and while I may touch very close to home on some particular topics and I may even vaguely refer to some high profile situations within the Jiu Jitsu community, I will refrain from naming individuals, affiliations, or organizations in any way. The matters that I will be discussing here are largely public information and to my knowledge most have yet to be settled either in court or privately. Now that the disclaimers are out of the way we can get on with the juicy and provocative stuff that you are probably dying to read.

Sanctuary! I will start with a brief definition as per Merriam Webster, Sanctuary is defined as: (1) a place where someone or something is protected or given shelter. (2) the protection that is provided by a safe place. (3) the room inside a church, synagogue, etc., where religious services are held.

That last one alone (3) is enough to stir a few relatively strong emotions. A brief look at some of the more outrageous claims to come out of various denominations of churches should provide some insight as to where this particular article is headed. I will make that connection in a bit.

Cesspool! Merriam Webster defines it as: (1) an underground reservoir for liquid waste (such as household sewage) (2) a filthy, evil, or corrupt place or state.

Now that we are clear on the definitions of the two terms I’m choosing to use here, we can move on to the content of the article. I have over 20 years of experience in the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I have had extensive experience in the business and personal aspects of the art. I have managed and owned academies and as such I currently own and operate an academy with over 150 members. I will tell you that the largest draw on any academy owner or staff is personality management. It is hard to accurately depict the level of drama that exists between that number of individuals. The reasons are many and exist between extremes such as: parent and coaching relations, athlete conflicts, parent conflict, business management and operational philosophies, and even moral and ethical conflicts. The fact is that the very nature of any business or organization has a direct correlation with a unique set of liabilities. Martial arts, dance, gymnastics and countless other activities for example, are uniquely predisposed harbingers of either exceptional success or monumental failure. The common catalyst of all are the owners or coaches of the organizations. More on my point follows, but I want you to maintain a mindset of openness and understanding. What will come in the next few paragraphs are my experiences, both good and bad. I suppose the proper millennial buzzphrase here would be “trigger warning”.

Coaches possess an unequivocal power to exploit or empower. The bottom line here is that you, the reader and consumer of the arts are tasked with ensuring that coaches or organizations are in keeping with your own personal values. It’s important for the consumer to understand that they are not only entering into a financial agreement with an individual or an organization but they are in a sense handing either themselves or their child over to another human being to be influenced. Coaches of any art or sport spend enormous amounts of time with their students. In that period of time, great strides or great setbacks can occur and I can say without a doubt that each and every coach knows immediately whether or not they are going to victimize a student the minute they lay eyes on them. Herein lies that predator mentality that so many of us find so distasteful that we don’t even want to think about it. We as human beings have a default that is set to “trust”. We generally want and need to trust other people. We desire a connection and in many instances we enter into these arts or activities looking for a brother/sisterhood, mentorship, friendship, or a multitude of any other reasons. Often we are looking for these fraternal qualities on behalf of a loved one or child. We are in fact fiduciaries acting as trustees of another person. Is it any surprise that so many people place blame squarely on themselves when a loved one is victimized? Any good predator knows that they must first eliminate any fiduciaries of their victims if they expect to see any measure of success in their venture. That is important for all consumers to remember. Their lack of attention or failures are directly correlated to the success of a predator. Period.

The thought of a coach having an immediate immoral or unethical notion toward a student is so provocative that we rather not think about it. The fact remains that we must be better stewards and judges of not only character of a coach but quality of environment. Why? The reasons are many but there are some very specific circumstances that the martial arts industry sees played on repeat. The first place award must go to improper teacher/student relations. The fact is that a teacher and student must spend an inordinate amount of time together. In that time, often we see blurred lines that exist between mental and physical realms and manifest themselves either verbally or physically. Understanding psychology and male female chemistry is extremely important for any coach or administrator that expects to operate a successful business and balance that with being a coach, friend or mentor. Admittedly, I have never been a trusting person. When it comes to my wife I have always been an alpha male with a nasty propensity for violence toward other men and a general distrust for their intentions toward her. My wife always accused me of not trusting her but I can assure you that if I had a dollar for every time I said “babe, its not you. Its other men I don’t trust”, I would be sitting in a million dollar home up in the mountains of Colorado somewhere. At present I’m sitting at a table in small town America worrying when my next paycheck will deposit. You be the judge of my success in that particular venture. I digress. Businesses of the above mentioned types operate in a proverbial mine field. Unfortunately, the deeds of the good majority are often overshadowed by that of their bad minority counterparts. When something bad happens its front page news (as it should be) and it often besmirches those of us who stand on solid moral and ethical ground. Take the recent earth shaking allegations within the jiu jitsu community against one of its more notable pioneers. As unfortunate as this is, its not alone. Only months later another large academy saw its top coach squarely in the crosshairs of one of its female members. This particular situation not only saw the coach under the gun, but also its assistant coaches as co conspirators in an organizational cover up. Shockingly, both of these particular cases involved the alleged victimization of a child by an adult. We see parallels to this in dance and gymnastics. Not even a decade ago now we can reflect on the allegations of a world renowned team usa coach and physician who were accused of numerous sexual assaults and crimes against minors. One of which only recently committed suicide, presumably over the legal proceedings. These types of instances are unfortunately common and I am confident in saying that they will continue until some significant changes are made. I always make it a point to draw a parallel between our private and public lives. I dare say that most people would not let just anyone walk in off the streets and sit at their dinner table for dinner without first qualifying them extensively. Unfortunately, that same attention to detail doesn’t seem to exist in the public venue. We seem to think that because someone operates a successful business that they are immune from having latent immoral, unethical or criminal characteristics or tendencies. This simply isn’t so. Consumers should qualify their coaches, or mentors with the exact same diligence as they would some stranger who happened to knock on their door. In fact, they should do so with even more tenacity. The absence of that particular element only leaves the door open for predators of all persuasions.

So we know that we must be suspect. We know that we cannot ignore the fact that victimization is always a possibility among blind eyes and deaf ears. As our childhood animated friend GI Joe said; “knowing is half the battle”. So once we are aware, can we ever really dismiss this as a possibility? Hell no! Complacency kills and death is a requisite of life. If that relationship holds true then we can never compromise on the topic of vigilance. That is not to say that trust can never be earned. What I’m simply advocating for here is that we have high standards of qualification that are reciprocal. Successful long term business relationships require a two way street of trust that can only be established over time. This process, if adhered to, becomes an insurance policy for both parties.

So we have explored the more nefarious of the potential pitfalls within this particular industry. Now we will explore the more likely eventualities. Improper or immoral relationships established as a by product of the art or activity is the most likely of the potential problems. These are usually of the adult variety and involve one or more married parties who venture into the realm of infidelity. These instances are also potentially catastrophic for business and often, they involve students, teachers or both in some very unique circumstances. Jiu Jitsu specifically has some very unique albeit provocative elements that require its practitioners to possess high moral principles and self restraint. Yes I said it. Self restraint. Unfortunately this is an area that most males seem to be lacking in. These days it goes without saying that women are far more aggressive than they used to be and the covenant of marriage just doesn’t seem to have the same meaning that it did in the venerated “great generation” and those before it. That doesn’t exactly add up to be a winning formula for the art of Jiu Jitsu. In my 20 years of experience I have seen countless relationships formed on the mats. Most of which are of the infidelity variety. The fact is that we spend so much time together and when you add the close proximity nature and often provocative positions (specific to opposite sex situations) of the art, its no surprise that these things happen absent two people with self restraint. Often we find that these instances are the perfect storm between two people and as they say, things happen. Most academies and coaches maintain a very hands off philosophy when it comes to these matters and I personally believe it is to their own detriment that they do so. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the head coach of an organization end up going through divorce proceedings due to a situation that evolved with a student or assistant. Often we see the academy completely destroyed in the wake of divorce court and the students end up being the true victim. Admittedly, student to student relationships and infidelities are the lesser impactful of the two but we must remember that each of those two people have a particular camp with totally different supporters and when the situation comes to light we often see an academies student base divided right down the middle. Lest we forget about the potential for estranged husbands or wives to slander the business or business owner for allowing or even worse participating in that type of improper relationship. Either way, it’s very damaging for business. In what amounts to a small percentage of the time we see situations unfold where two parents become involved in an improper relationship that came about as a result of their spending time in the art because their kids share interests. These instances are no less damaging to business than any of the aforementioned and should not be tolerated either.

Lastly, we explore the cultural reputation of a particular academy or organization. That reputation is established through the actions and philosophies of its members. Verbally or non verbally, our actions make us what we are and it gives way to the publics definition of us not only as individuals but as a group. We often find that one individuals actions or words give rise to a general perception of an entire culture of loosely associated individuals within a greater group. This can touch all areas of life including but not limited to: civil litigations, criminal arrests, public appearances and behavior, narcotics use – both public and private, alcohol use – both public and private etc. In our industry, we are who we associate with. Our entire organization can and will be judged by each of the individuals who are a part of it. Let one person be seen out participating in the drug culture and everyone in the organization develops a reputation for it. If a bad situation involving public drunkenness or even a DUI/DWI arrest were to come about, rest assured that every single person including the coach will be looked at crosseyed.

Now that we are armed with knowledge, how best to proceed? Should owners and consumers approach the situation differently? It is a conundrum for sure, but I advocate that both should behave similarly and have the same expectations. Owners should expect that their students and extended family members uphold the highest ethical standards. They should in kind, hold themselves to the same standard. The high standards of the organization and its administrators should be clearly communicated to the rank and file under threat of penalty.  A successful business must concern itself with not only its image but the reputations of those who patronize it. Maintaining a transparent and clearly communicated moral and ethical code will help to ensure that the business is self sustainable into perpetuity.

Dismissal is the golden key to the city of immorality. Ask around and see when the last person was dismissed from an academy. As strange as it might sound, most owners would likely say never. Yet if they were speaking truthfully about when the last truly “dismissible” incident occurred they would likely say fairly recently. Managing hundreds of people is difficult and often distasteful. Drama is a constant and there is always something going on. In my career both as a business owner and practitioner I can say that there have been dozens of instances that we may not have even discussed here that should have resulted in the dismissal of one or more students. I like to call it the bjj “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. Its relatively simple in the regular business world. A set of rules are established and if a patron breaks one of those, a business refuses service. Yet strangely, we see bjj academies seemingly ignoring those instances where dismissal was a necessity in favor of maintaining an account. We see academies compromising their integrity or the safety of their students for financial security. Admittedly, the financial side of martial arts is particularly volatile, especially at certain times of the year. Herein lies the reasoning behind contracts, (another discussion for another time) which I completely disagree with. Dismissal becomes the nuclear bomb that most owners are afraid to drop. They fail to see that reinforcing their position as a moral and ethical organization will have an immediate negative impact but in the long haul, should result in a greater return than a loss. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees and unfortunately as business owners we often err on the side of caution, even to our own demise. I have made the threat of dismissal a reality to not only my students but to my coaches and outside family. Setting the standard and reinforcing it with the threat of dismissal is a massively powerful sword to wield against a student. Most fail to understand that a students personal investment in this art is so massive that being dismissed from a coach or academy for ethical or moral reasons is likely a setback that results in a decade or more of delays as far as belting or ranking in the art goes. Coaches are just not easy to turn over the keys to their castle. They are not quick to trust and even slower to rank a new student. Personally I have a two year probationary period for all transferring students of the rank of blue or above. This means I won’t touch them for two years. It gives me an idea of their true dedication to me and mine and provides them an insight into the things to come between us.

I make it a point to set a standard of environmental quality for all of my prospective students. It is a directive of not only myself but of my assistant coaches to adhere to a sales menu when they have their first contact with a prospective student. Our mission statement is to first describe the foundation, and subsequently to describe the environment. What follows then is to formally introduce the prospect to the assistant coaches and staff. Fundamentally, I believe that a bjj academy must have a successful youth and women program as its foundation. Everything else will build off of that accordingly. A husband must be secure in knowing that while his wife is training at her chosen academy, her return home as his committed wife is a guarantee. A parent must be secure in knowing that while their child is training at that their chosen academy, their moral and ethical code is being enhanced and not compromised. They must be secure in knowing that their child is in a safe learning environment and that their investment is going to produce an equitable position in the future. Ultimately it is down to the owners and administrators to set the standard for what is acceptable and what is not. A written policy of acceptable and unacceptable standards with a clear procedure for investigating and prosecuting violations of said policy is a non negotiable business practice for any owners who are serious about operating a successful business. That policy should be then made accessible to every member or patron. Consumers must seek out and affiliate with only those academies who embrace and uphold the highest moral and ethical standards. In doing so, they will help to choke out those who seek to use the inherent weaknesses of the industry to exploit others. I maintain that if the above circumstances are known and consequently avoided, success is not a possibility but a guarantee in an industry that is naturally volatile and prone to failure.


Professor Coy Clements

Sidewinder Jiu Jitsu

3rd Degree Black Belt