Don’t Harsh My Vibe

My professional life straddles Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and perhaps the more traditional career of working in marketing. As a result of both of these things, I’ve been inside of dozens of gyms and dozens of businesses. In those adventures, I’ve seen some stuff.

On either side of the line, for as different as a jiu-jitsu school and a corporate office might seem, both groups are impacted by culture.

Culture matters because it influences the way a group thinks and behaves. Culture guides individuals to making choices when there is no direct leadership input. In a business, culture can influence how an employee steps in (or doesn’t) to help when a co-worker is ill. In a jiu-jitsu school, culture can influence what a student does when he hears a fellow student say something derogatory about another student.

Whether we want it to or not, culture forms wherever groups gather, and as people settle on their culture we start to see choices made consciously and unconsciously because of the tone and expectations set by the culture.

I’m not a guru on this material myself, but when we talk to a business about why their marketing is failing, you probably would not be surprised to learn how often we trace the problem back to disgruntled sales associates working the floors and the cash registers. They’re miserable because of how the company treats them, so they treat the customers accordingly. And sales start to decline.

In jiu-jitsu, you likely see that each gym has its own “vibe.” I’d argue that this is a jiu-jiteiro way of saying culture, and I’m fine with it. If the majority of students from one school are regularly hurling insults on social media, that says a lot about the culture at the school. If you step into a new school for the first time and are greeted only by sideways glances, that also says a lot about the culture.

Culture is one of those words that is thrown around so often that it is in danger of losing its meaning. BJJ bloggers and corporate gurus are both quick to talk about the importance of culture, but the depth of the conversation is usually shallow. They may talk about the value of having a supportive and inclusive culture, and how important it is to be friendly and outgoing and to work like a team, but they rarely drill down into the roots of culture.

That’s where the hard conversations happen, and that’s where the real work needs to be done.

Culture will form whether you want it to or not, so you might as well be deliberate about building the kind of culture you want to train in. Even if you are a student and not an instructor, you have some power to affect your school’s culture. Here’s how we can improve:

  • Be the change you want to see. Yes, that’s a cliché, but it’s true. If you want your training partners to be friendlier and less serious, be the person who shakes everyone’s hands, who smiles after every roll, and who takes the time to make new students feel welcome. Positivity can be contagious, so lead the charge.

  • Decide what kind of culture you want. Do you want a hardcore competitor culture? Do you want a more casual family environment? Do you want your upper belts to actively reach out to help lower belts? When you decide what you want your culture to be, you can start exemplifying the behaviors you want to eventually become the norms and actively encourage others to follow. Warning: If you are going to direct others, you should probably be the head instructor or at least have a serious leadership role.

  • Be explicit about what your culture is. Corporate manuals are full of nonsense fluff about values and missions, but in the right hands, these things can have a real impact. When you decide what kind of culture you want your school to have, write it down so that everyone can see it. Again, this probably a school leader scenario, but students can influence this informally.

  • Hold everyone accountable. Every person in a gym is responsible for upholding the culture or a school, from the top to the bottom. If someone starts to upset the balance, address it. Your response can be gentle, a simple “Hey man, we don’t do that here” or it can be a more serious conversation if the situation warrants it. This also means that you have to own your mistakes and to be transparent when you’ve made them.

  • If you can’t build it, go find it. I genuinely believe that every school has the potential to adopt a culture that is both positive and unique to the instructors and students who train there. At a certain point, however, you as a student can only do so much to improve an academy’s culture. If the instructors are building a culture that doesn’t match your values, you should probably think about training elsewhere.
Culture is a living thing. It will evolve and change over time, and it’s up to you to nurture the way that tree grows. Prune and trim it, give it the right nutrients, and protect it from the elements when you can. With diligent effort, you can build a culture that is truly remarkable.

What kind of culture does your school have? How does your school build and maintain that culture? Share your stories in the comments!