The Darkside of Cross-Training
Put the pitchforks and the torches away. I am not against cross-training. I have built a humble jiu-jitsu writing career around visiting gyms and working with instructors beyond the bubble of my home base, so in some ways, I am one of the tattered poster boys for the value of cross-training.
Here are the reasons why cross-training can be good for your jiu-jitsu:
- Meeting new grapplers and building community is fun and healthy for a lot of reasons that are jiu-jitsu-adjacent
- Training with a wider variety of grapplers exposes you to other techniques and approaches
- Different instructors have different specialties, so training with other teachers can give you access to more material that is not readily available at your home gym
I agree with all of the things, but what I disagree with is the rose-tinted, unicorns-and-rainbows perspective on cross-training that I often see on social media or in jiu-jitsu forums. There is this idea that cross-training is good. Period.
And that’s where I start to take issue.
Cross-training can be good. However, we need to acknowledge the potential darkside instead of preaching the gospel of cross-training with blind fervor. Just as cross-training can be beneficial for your jiu-jitsu journey, it can also be dangerous. It can ruin your technique, and it can weaken community.
I see the pitchforks poking out on the horizon again, which is why I wanted to devote an article to this issue. When I talk to students or other grapplers about looking at cross-training with a more well-rounded perspective, I am often treated as if I’m perpetuating Creonte culture--the old school Brazilian idea that if someone trains anywhere else, they are a traitor. That’s not how I feel, nor is that my intention. Instead, I want more students (not just my own) to have healthier, positive training experiences.
Here is what the darker side of cross-training can look like:
- New students are sometimes treated as challengers. If you have ever walked into a new gym and caught several sideways glances of the home-team sizing you up, you know where I’m going with this. Some gyms are incredibly welcoming, but other gyms see visitors as measuring sticks. They want to see how tough they are by seeing how tough you are. This can lead to injuries on both sides.
- The reverse can also be true. A visitor who comes to the gym purely to spar for his or her own benefit can be a detriment to a team. Not only can this lead to injuries, but it can also be bad for the culture of a gym if a regular visitor has no interest in the instruction of the teachers, the philosophy of the training, or in the growth of the community. Culture matters, and so does student-to-culture fit, even if that student is a visitor.
- Stealing students is a thing. Yes, jiu-jiteiros are adults who can make their own choices, but we also have to acknowledge that gym owners rely on memberships to keep the lights on. Where that motivates some instructors to improve their product, it motivates others to find ways to move students from one team to another, usually with big promises and sometimes even with promotions. Again, I love cross-training, but seeing a student whom you invested a great deal of time in jump to another team for an empty promise or a curiously-timed new belt is frustrating.
- Not all instructors are equal. Yes, there are bad teachers out there, and that can make cross-training a step backward for a traveling student. We can not assume that a class at one school will be just as productive as class at another. When we choose to travel to train, we have to take a few grains of salt with us or be more diligent about vetting the instructors or seminars we drop in on.
- Context also matters for instruction. When an instructor works with you every class over several years, that instructor builds a unique perspective on where you are and what you need to progress. If you insist on being a full-time nomad, you will miss out on this aspect of your development and may find it harder to make long-term progress. This also means that if you bounce back and forth between several teachers that you may run into issues with contradictory advice or differing perspectives on what path you should take with your technique.
Cross-training can be a healthy part of your jiu-jitsu experience. I am fully in favor of my students going to camps or going to seminars, but I have mixed feelings on them dropping in on open mats or other classes for all of the reasons I outlined above. I want my students to stay healthy, and I want them to grow as jiu-jiteiros, so I am often in the uncomfortable position of having to explain what I see as a non-binary BJJ issue.
I am for cross-training if the right criteria are met, and I think that more jiu-jiteiros need to adopt a balanced perspective on this. If we recognize that we have our own parts to play in making cross-training a more positive part of BJJ--how we run our schools, how we behave as visitors, how we treat visitors--we can start to undo the negatives and strengthen the positives. But that means that we have to drop the dogmatic praise of cross-training and put in some hard work.