The walled garden

I came across a very skilled high-level BJJ black belt, coach, and gym owner who made a lot of very interesting points about why it is necessary to have certain "bully boys" at any serious martial arts school to handle some of the idiots who come through and act like assholes:

Now, that video is probably more relevant to BJJ, judo, and wrestling schools than it is to most of the striking arts. In my experience with a couple of different Krav Maga and muay thai schools in various places, if you join as a completely new face, the really good schools simply don't give a damn about what you have trained in before and whether you can talk a good game.

All that matters is that you start where everyone else does - right at the bottom. That is the only fair way to treat newcomers, even ones who have multiple black belts in other striking arts.

The thing about Krav Maga or muay thai or kenpo, or any other striking art that you care to name, is that each of them has unique techniques and skill sets. Someone who is good at muay thai, in particular, may well adapt quickly and easily to Krav Maga, because the striking techniques and repertoire are very similar. The Art of (Breaking a Man into Pieces Using) Eight Limbs utilises punches, kicks, elbows, and knees in vicious and deadly fashion, just like KM does.

But there are more strikes than merely these things within KM. Most of those strikes are completely illegal in a competitive environment. Some of them are flatly impossible if you are wearing boxing gloves.

The same is true for anyone who walks into a BJJ gym and expects to be treated differently just because he has a black belt in another grappling art. There are techniques in BJJ that go far beyond anything used in other arts like judo and Graeco-Roman wrestling. In fact, when early wrestlers went up against elite BJJ black belts like Royce Gracie and many members of his family, they were completely flummoxed by fluidity and speed of their movements, and were rapidly and thoroughly submitted.

They learned and adapted, eventually, and over time it became clear that BJJ's emphasis on complex ground-fighting techniques was actually far more than was really necessary to succeed in most combat sports beyond a certain level. UFC fighter Beneil Dariush put it rather well in an interview of his from a few years ago - I can't find the link right now, so if I misquote him, that is very much my fault - in which he said something to the effect that in BJJ, you learn like 10 different armbar submissions, but in MMA, you really only need a couple of reliable tools that are very effective.

The point remains, though, that a wrestler walking into a BJJ gym needs to remain humble and understand that he doesn't actually know BJJ very well, no matter how good a wrestler he is. In the same way, every Krav Maga black belt, no matter how elite, needs to be humble about walking into a muay thai or tae kwon do or Shotokan karate dojo.

And the same applies in reverse. I cannot even count the number of times that the manager of my school had to tell off newcomers for being arrogant entitled assholes. Those people would arrive on the mat and basically act like they deserved special treatment, even though they were just taking a free introductory class.

The broader point that Coach Chewie (great name) makes is that the gym should always be a "walled garden", where the outside world is left behind and students can train safely, comfortably, in a relaxed and happy family environment.

This is vital to understand. Even the toughest, most brutal, most uncompromising full-contact martial arts schools know that ultimately, the school always stands or falls based on whether its members truly feel like they belong there.

And when you have arrogant jerks throwing their weight around, being dicks, and actively hurting people during training, the family atmosphere that is so important for true martial arts development is immediately lost.

In order to get good at doing martial arts, you have to train. And in order to train, you have to want to be there. If your school offers up a shitty environment where the instructors do not police people who are egotistical and stupid, then you're going to walk out of your school with a bloody nose, at minimum, pretty much any time there is serious sparring involved.

You do not get good at fighting by getting injured frequently.

You get good at fighting by fighting. And it takes a lot of time to do this. It takes time to understand how and when to use certain techniques or combinations. That good judgement comes, as always, from experience - and most experience comes from very bad judgement.

But if the penalty for even the smallest amount of bad judgement is swift and severe pain in the form of a broken nose, or a deep tissue injury, or a hyperextended elbow, or a popped knee joint... it should not come as any surprise when people simply stop showing up to train and fight.

That is why enforcers are so badly needed at any martial arts gym. They perform a vital and necessary role in handing out severe beatings to those who really need them.

The thing is that most students at a martial arts school don't really need such a lesson. Most of them are weak, inexperienced, unskilled, or afraid - and often a combination of all four. But they put their egos in check and try hard to learn within the limits of their abilities.

There are always a few students, though, who need to be taught some humility by way of a swift kick up the ass. And that is true of any school.

These are the asshats who put on gloves and pads, and then stand and bang at full speed and power even when their sparring partners tell them, "hey, dude, slow down, that's too rough". These are the jerks who get hit in the face lightly, with a good clean punch that they never saw coming, and then see red and immediately go into berserker mode.

It is at that point that a senior black or brown belt gets called over by the master instructor and told to put the polish on. Or, as was frequently the case at my school, the instructor himself would "do the needful" (to use a rather irritating phrase from these parts of the world).

Now, this is where I have to put my hand up and admit that this is precisely what happened to me, on more than one occasion, in my old school. I remember one particular occasion when a senior black belt - he is someone I consider a friend, actually, and have a lot of respect for - put on gloves and told me to come and spar with him.

He absolutely kicked my ass over the course of that one three-minute round. That day, he didn't fight the way he usually does, light and lithe and graceful in the way that his goju-ryu karate background taught him to be. He fought the way I typically fight: planted, heavy, putting a lot of weight behind his punches.

I outweighed him by a good thirty pounds, but he had vastly greater skill and experience, and knew how to use all of it.

I came out of that round rather shaken by just how badly outclassed I was. And then, when the next round came up, there was nobody else to work with - so I ended up sparring with him again.

Midway through that round, he landed a very hard clean straight right and caught me flush on the nose. Inevitably, my nose started gushing blood and I had to get off the mat to get cleaned up. He hit me so hard, in fact, that I could feel a slight creaking in the bone. In hindsight, that indicated a likely microfracture.

Afterwards, I asked him why he hit me so hard. I thought he was being rather unfair, since I had not hit him anywhere nearly as hard. He told me that I needed to change my fighting style - I was too heavy, putting way too much weight behind my strikes, and as such was absorbing too much damage while letting my defensive skills atrophy.

It was a hard lesson to learn. And in my case, I wasn't actually trying to be a dick. I just happened to be one from time to time without even knowing I was doing it.

That is why you need enforcers. You need senior-level instructors who can get in with the students, beat down the assholes, and make it very clear that shitty behaviour will never be tolerated on the mat. And that is because the environment has to be kept a true "safe space" for other students.

Now, before anyone goes accusing me of turning full SJW, let's be very clear about what I said.

I said that a sparring mat has to be a "safe space". That DOES NOT make it a hugbox full of teddy bears and emotional support dogs where you never get told to your face that you are useless and inadequate. A serious martial arts gym is the exact opposite of a modern university campus. If you can't hack it, you find out, in no uncertain terms, extremely quickly.

But there is no call for making a training environment unsafe and unpleasant for students. While instructors should never, ever coddle their students - and I thank the good Lord for the fact that all of my instructors at my old school, bar none, were absolute hardasses about proper and intelligent application of technique and skill - they should also do their best to make sure that students feel like they are in a supportive, family-like environment.

That is what makes martial arts schools interesting and fun.

The schools that succeed, which genuinely create great martial artists, are the ones that create that kind of environment where you feel like everyone around you genuinely wants you to succeed - but never, ever panders to you. You trust your friends, and they trust you.

The schools that fail either are belt factories, McDojos, that generate hundreds or thousands of arrogant assholes who could not fight their way out of a paper bag, or simply lose students too quickly because they keep getting hurt too fast.

It is a fine and difficult balance to keep. But that is the only way that I have seen in 5 years of training that really works.

Oh, and on a related but tangential note - one can never, ever, EVER make too much fun of CrossShit:


  1. The concept of "Gym Cancer" affects more than gyms. In my field, technology, it happens as well. I've had know-it-all doofuses cause me to spend all night working, or endure a rabidly pissed off customer. Any group's dynamics can be ruined by a prick.

    When my son was in Karate, I was watching him spar with a woman greenbelt (He was probably 16, and a red belt). She was kicking him in his side way too hard, and at the same time, leaving her guard down. If she were a dude, she'd have had her head kicked (his signature move). I asked him why he let her get away with that, and he muttered something about it being a girl. I told him he wasn't doing her any favors. Funny thing, his sister was in that dojo for awhile and would never have tolerated that. I've seen her take care of business when that happened to her.

    1. I asked him why he let her get away with that, and he muttered something about it being a girl.

      I've had many similar experiences. It's true that we do women no favours by letting them get away with putting their guards down and hitting men too hard. They get an inflated ego and a sense of self-belief that is not justified.

      At the same time, men always treat women more gently in sparring, because we know that they cannot take the same level of punishment as we can, and cannot move as fast. And, of course, sparring with a woman is a no-win situation for a man.

      If we lose to her, we are weak and emasculated. If we beat her, we are overbearing bullies. There is no honour in beating or losing to a woman, at all, in any capacity, whether on the sparring mat or off it.


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