I got to visit a lot of schools over the last 10 years. While every school is different, I feel they all tend to fall into three categories: traditional, formal, and informal. Before I go into my criteria for these categories or why I'm even making these distinctions, I want to point out how interesting it is that the same sport—we all do the same thing, wrestle in pajamas—can produce a wide spectrum of school and teaching styles.
The amount of rules and customs some schools choose to follow can be completely foreign to a student from an informal school, and a student who has known nothing but the structure of a formal school can be equally as lost at a school where students don’t bow when they come in the door and students don’t line up according to rank.
Let's break down these categories.
Traditional: Lots of these seem to fall on the Gracie lineage side of things. Traditional schools have carried over many practices from traditional martial arts—bowing on and off the mat, lining up in belt order before and after the class—and some have strict rules in the way lower belts interact with upper belts. No asking an upper belt to roll, turn around in order to not face a black belt while tying your belt, keeping your belt and gi on at all times while on the mat, white gis only, call the instructor "professor" and so on.
Formal: Formal schools still hold on to some of the more traditional rules but are much more relaxed overall. While they may line up before and after class, you are allowed to wear different color gis, ask upper belts to roll, and you can call the instructor by his or her name. If your belt falls off during a roll, you’ll be allowed to continue and tie it once the roll is over. You can take your jacket off and stretch at the end of class too.
- Informal: Informal schools have much more of a club feeling to them. No pictures of Helio looking out over the classroom, the atmosphere is relaxed, there are no special rules about rolling with black belts, and for the most part everyone is treated as an equal, so no need to move to make room for the upper belts next to you.
Personally, I find myself gravitating more and more towards informal side of things. I still feel weird when I am called "professor" or "sir", specially from people older than me. I don’t mind being asked by lower belts to roll, just like I don’t mind turning them down if I am nursing an injury or am too tired. And I don’t think there is a need to line up by belt color every single class when sitting around on the mat we are able to talk just as well.
When visiting a school—and this is where thinking about schools in terms of categories has been really useful for me—knowing what category they fall into makes things much easier so you know the answer to questions like "How should I address the instructor? Do we line up before practice? Can I wear a blue gi? Can I ask an upper belt to roll?" Knowing those things can make your visit much more enjoyable. You can outright ask an instructor or an upper belt at a school some of these basic questions to get a sense for the school’s decorum, or you can take a few minutes to observe and pick up on the hints that reveal what category your school for the day falls into.
This isn’t about right or wrong, as I said before. This is about being a respectful visitor. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any school style and the variety is good for the sport. If you’re visiting, however, being aware of how a school does things can save you a few awkward moments and let you focus more on training.
What category does your school fall into? What category do you prefer, and why?