Today’s question is a big one that touches on every aspect of someone’s life as they decide between college and a career or their jiu-jitsu dreams. While I give my perspective, this topic is too big to be tackled fully by one person. Even my answer shares contrary opinions. Whether you agree or disagree, leave a comment with your perspective.
Q: I would appreciate advice on finding a direction in BJJ. To be honest, I
have tried to approach my instructor with this topic, but it’s a pretty
heavy conversation and with the growth our gym has been seeing he isn’t
really available to talk too much. I’m at a point right now where I am
unsure as to what BJJ will hold for me in the future. In the past BJJ has
meant a couple things to me. To start with, during high school, it was my
goal to just have fun and compete locally. I was able to do that, but then
I injured my back and had to take about a year off of training. I graduated
high school and started to attend college. During my first year of college
my focus changed to recovering from my herniated disc and eventually
getting back into training. Coming back from the yearlong lay off from
training was strange. My body didn’t function the same as it once did. I
was bigger than I was when I left the mats (both from just growing and from
fat) and my back was sensitive. Since then, however, I have been happy with
the progress I’ve made. I have been back to training for probably coming up
on a year and I have been recently promoted to blue belt by my instructor.
Most importantly, my back has been able to withstand the rigors of
So now I have a choice to make. I need to see where BJJ is going to take me
in the future. I somewhat equate this to making a decision about academic
major. To me it is a big life choice. It really is my truest ambition to
own a gym of my own one day as a black belt and to teach and compete. I did
ask my instructor about this and how I might attain it, but I was met with
sort of a shrug off answer. I did not take it personally as it may just be
a result of my instructor’s personality or the current situation of the
gym’s booming membership. Left with no direction in terms of achieving my
BJJ dream I put thoughts of what the future might hold for me on the
backburner and just have been trying to train as consistently as I can. I
was prepared to choose a major that might compliment me owning my own gym
in the future, which was a major reason why I wanted to speak with my
instructor to get some guidance as to how I might make my academic life and
BJJ life align, but I have since decided on a bachelor of science degree in
psychology in preparation for physical therapy in graduate school.
I feel I am in a sort of limbo. I am aware that if I am to make anything of
myself as a BJJ player I must make it out to the big competitions sooner or
later to make a name for myself, but currently I am as broke as any other
college student and can barely afford to compete at local tournaments. I
also might add that working four part-time jobs, one of which on Saturday
(prime tourney time), and doing school does not allow for me to get out to
as many tournaments as I would like. Another thing is I watch a lot of
videos on r/bjj highlighting the amazing BJJ athletes that are dominating
now or who are soon to be dominating. If I continue on the course I am on
now I do not see myself being able to compete at that level. I guess my
real question for you is what can I do in my current situation to set a
realistic goal for my BJJ future and work towards achieving that goal? Is
it realistic for me to think I may be able to medal at the Pan Ams in my
lifetime? What should I be doing to maximize my potential with what I have
to work with?
Thank you for your time. I understand you have received a large amount of
emails like mine. I would appreciate your advice.
A: Your instructor is probably uncomfortable answering your questions because they have big consequences that go far beyond his scope as your BJJ teacher. Your parents or an older mentor would be better suited to guide you on your career and the direction you should take in life. I am poorly equipped to answer your questions too, but I’ll say what I can.
As you’ve noticed, the level of BJJ competition is at all time highs. Even lower belts are training at professional levels. We have blue and purple belts training BJJ twice a day 5-7 days a week, cross training wrestling and judo, doing intense strength and conditioning routines, and eating special diets like Olympic athletes.
You can still win a few medals without going to those extremes at the lower belts, but you run the risk of being knocked out by someone who is fully committed. Your odds drop to near zero once you get to black belt.
You don’t need to be a multiple time world champion to be a good BJJ instructor or run a school, but the credentials don’t hurt. If you have dreams of being a serious competitor, I’m not going to be the one to squash them, but you also need to be honest with yourself about how much you are willing to sacrifice. The days of the part-time champion are over.
Knowing how much a physical therapist gets paid compared to a BJJ instructor, I’d say go with the one that can get you a medical degree and a stable job in a hospital, and not the one that pays very little and will probably make you need to hire a physical therapist. Unless you become a marketing wizard like Lloyd Irvin, you’re looking at earning a poor to mediocre salary as a BJJ instructor that is easily interrupted by injuries (which you are already struggling with).
Money isn’t everything though. Like the cliche goes, BJJ is a lifestyle, and people do it because they love it, not because it’s a prudent investment. If you love BJJ enough to push through the injuries and low pay, then nothing anyone says is going to steer you away from it. Do you have that fire inside you? You’ll have to answer that for yourself.
To give you another perspective, I recently listened to Marcos Avellan, one of Lloyd Irvin’s disciples, give a long talk about what it took for him to become a successful school owner, MMA fighter and BJJ competitor. He would dismiss the advice to play it safe by staying in school as talk of a “well-intentioned loser.” His personal story is about dropping out of college right before becoming an engineer to pursue martial arts full time, despite the protests of his friends and family. He prides himself on going against conventional wisdom and advocates for “burning your boats” so you can’t turn back, making no excuses, and totally devoting yourself with no hesitations. Are you prepared to do that? Should you do that?
Clearly, Marcos and I aren’t coming from the same place, but I think we both agree that you can’t half ass it if you want to become a legitimate competitor and a professional martial artists (that is, someone who trains or teaches martial arts full time). If you want to compete a bit and continue training as you earn your degree and start your career, no one is going to fault you for that either. You can still earn your black belt and be a good teacher. Many have gone down that path too.
You sound like you’re making intelligent choices and working hard to pay for school. Your long message shows you’re giving it a lot of thought. I’m sorry if I couldn’t give you a more straightforward answer, but it’s a complex topic. Personally, I think the world needs more physical therapists than jiu-jitsu instructors, but ultimately its your life, and I’m not going to tell you how to live it. I just hope you find a path that makes you happy and keeps you in jiu-jitsu.
For another perspective, check out How to be a great mediocre BJJ student by Cane Prevost.