10 years ago, when I started, Jiu Jitsu was still a budding martial art in the US and wasn’t readily available everywhere. The team you chose was based primarily on proximity. I was in the Inland Empire and visited Pedro Carvalho’s gym. When you’ve been around martial arts your whole life, you learn to recognize when someone is a talented athlete or martial arts practitioner. Pedro was talented. The gym was small with an average of 5-10 people training and a special occasion drawing up to 30 people. After receiving my brown belt, I moved for work and had the opportunity to join one of the largest and most successful competition teams, Alliance. Both teams were an indelible part of my BJJ growth and development and were great for different reasons. If you’ve ever wondered whether you should be a part of a big or small team, here are the pros and cons of each.
For the sake of this article we will refer to a small team as any group that has 1-3 gyms and/or a total gym size of 75 people or less. A large gym is one you can find in multiple countries. The best example of some of the biggest teams in no particular order are: Gracie Barra, Alliance, Atos, Checkmat, Nova Uniao, Gracie Humaita, Cesar Gracie, and GFT.
Some people say you cannot win if you’re a part of a small team and that is absolutely false. No one in my gym had ever won worlds when I won as a purple belt. Abraham Marte is another good example of someone at a small gym in a country with very little BJJ being successful on the big scenes of competition. At the end of the day you will get out of BJJ what you put into it.
- Personal Attention: When there are less students it is inevitable that you will get extra attention. Your coach will know your game inside and out and will be there when you need them to correct details and guide you.
- Inclusion: My original gym evolved into a tight knit group. We beat each other up and we helped each other in all things. If there was a UFC fight on, we watched it together. After training, there were frequent BBQs and dinners. The level of support was exceptional.
- Frequent Rolls with the Professor: The side benefit of a smaller gym is more chances to train with your instructor. Pedro rolled with me virtually every day and that training, along with watching him roll with others, helped my jiu jitsu evolve rapidly.
- Lack of Training Locations: If you are in a small gym and travel you will have to fend for yourself to find places to train. Your instructor may know some people but it won’t be plug and play and you may or may not be welcomed with open arms.
- Homogonous Style: Another possible downside of a small gym is that people may have similar fighting styles that emulate the head instructor. You may develop holes in your game. If you intend to compete you may be surprised by a different style of guard or attack that no one in your gym does.(The first time I fought a guy from Paragon I had no answer for the deep half guard because no one at my gym even knew what it was) You will likely have to supplement your training at some point with tournaments or gym visits to grow.
- Lack of Varied Training Partners: Similar to the style challenge, you may get very used to fighting people of a certain size. If your gym is all small individuals you may be ill-equipped to fight an ultra heavyweight. Females may find themselves alone or with minimal training options.
Large gyms often have vast networks and nice facilities. You may not know everyone on the team but you can build very strong relationships with a large and diverse group of people.
- Network of Experts: When I joined Alliance I Immediately had access to Bernardo Faria, Lucas Lepri, and Marcelo Garcia among others. If you want to learn more about a certain style of passing or guard, there will be a multiple time world champion in your network that you can visit and learn from or that your instructor may bring in for a seminar.
- Experience: One of the greatest things about being a part of Alliance is that Jacare, Gigi, and Fabio have literally been through it all before. Any experience, from competing to opening a gym, they have done and can help you with. It will help you avoid many mistakes and advance quickly.
- Varied Styles: On a large team you will have the chance to frequently roll with all body types and styles. If you have a competition coming up and you need a specific body type or style to practice against, it will be easy to find. Kids classes, Female Only classes, and other specialty training classes for competitors or law enforcement are more likely to be available as well.
- Just a Number: Big teams have a lot going on and you could be lost in the shuffle. It’s not that your instructor doesn’t care about you, but they may be stretched thin. There will be many high level students that can help you but if you’re looking for a personal connection with the head instructor, they may not be as accessible.
- Open Class: Most competitions only allow 2 people from the same team to compete. If you’re on a big team you may not be selected to fight in the open weight if there are others who are more likely to win team points. You may have to close out or concede a win or spot in a competition. At the end of the day it is about the team as a unit, not you as an individual.
- Politics: It has improved greatly over the years, but on a big team you may run into politics. You may not be welcomed with open arms at another large gym because you may fight some of their teammates in an upcoming competition. Gyms are less and less like gangs these days but there is certainly still some rivalries that exist.
On a small team you will have flexibility and a deep relationship with your instructor and team mates. If you’re looking to be a black belt world champion, you may need to build alliances or join a larger team. If you’re part of a larger team there will be certain rules and norms you will simply have to accept. Like a large corporation, you can rise in the organization via networking and experience. It may take longer to build relationships but over time you will have an empire of resources around you. Whatever your selection, you’re doing the right thing by training. At the end of the day, the gym you choose will depend largely on your personal preference and your long term goals.