All posts by TFDH

Amassing a Jiu-Jitsu Army

Sunday afternoon in Warsaw, Poland, I found myself being driven out of the city by brown belt and owner of Academia Gorila, Marcin Polczyk, we were heading to one of his affiliate clubs for a spot of afternoon training. The Sabbath is usually reserved as my day of rest, but the promise of a post-rolling BBQ was not something one should squander.

I took in the idyllic Polish countryside, before pulling up to what was a busy lake, full of children and adults, spending their afternoon, picnicking, playing ball games, or paddling in the water. I couldn’t spot an academy or anything to facilitate jiu-jitsu in the immediate proximately. When, on closer inspection I noticed a large set of jigsaw mats smack-bang in the middle of the sand next to the water. The mats which were populated with 15 or so gi-clad men and women created quite the eyesore.

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In 2012 whilst only a blue belt, Marcin established Academia Gorila, its genesis was not a premeditated decision to create one of Poland’s most successful academies (which it has become) but one borne of necessity. He had a circle of friends who would meet up daily and train, they had attempted without success to find an academy that worked for them; at that stage there was nothing on offer that matched their approach to jiu-jitsu.

As this circle of friends began to grow, he felt like the decision was taken out of his hands, they desperately needed a place of their own. He couldn’t find any reason why he shouldn’t start his own academy, so he did. Marcin’s approach to life is wholly pragmatic; he explains: “If you want to do something, it’s easy, you just have to start”.

At that time, he was humble enough to know that his Jiu-Jitsu was somewhat lacking. He was well aware that his group needed somebody that they could learn from, which is why he paid higher belts from the beginning. One of Poland’s top competitors, Jędrek Loska was the perfect fit. Loska, a multiple time Polish champion who had spent a number of years living and teaching the sport to children in Abu Dhabi, he provided a wealth of knowledge and shared the same vision of jiu-jitsu.

Originally it wasn’t intended to become his livelihood as he owned and ran a restaurant. “It wasn’t for money, it was nice to have our own place, training with your best friends on the mat.”, he explained. But the academy grew quickly as people liked the atmosphere, they started to bring their friends and very soon the original place they had rented became too small.

Looking today at the size of the academy which is situated in a prime spot in the middle of Poland’s beautiful capital, it isn’t easy to spot its humble beginnings, as seemingly hundreds of people come and go throughout the day taking advantage of the multiple jiu-jitsu, no-gi, Muay Thai and cross-fit classes. It would be natural to assume that it had come quickly and easily, but, you would be remiss to jump to this conclusion.

Marcin grew up in a post-communist Warsaw, where the residual effects of that time can still be acutely felt. Marcin explains that “to make business possible you need a big academy, as payment for services are not very much, you need a lot of numbers – in order to make a profit and run it as a successful business”. A bigger place, meant more marketing and his insistence on quality meant paying more coaches.

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What has really made Gorila unique is its system of affiliation, which isn’t really an affiliation in the tradition sense of the word, it is more akin to an ethical jiu-jitsu movement. There are currently ten academies from Warsaw and its surrounding countryside which have come together under the banner, there are no financial ties, contracts; payments for seminars or a money spinning standardized gi system that bind them together. Marcin explains that he loves jiu-jitsu, and wants to see its growth in Poland, “It is easier to make it stronger when you aren’t taking any (financial) benefits from it”, he explains. “We are not asking people for anything, you just have to be cool guys”.

At the beginning they began by adding people that they were already friends with – then they started to talk with people from the jiu-jitsu scene. He provided an anecdote about how one of his affiliations came about, just through talking to a fellow competitor at a tournament, “he had the same goals, I asked if he wanted to be down and that was it.”

There is no laundry list of rules that the academies have to live and die by, the Gorila association works in the philosophical tradition of John Stuart Mill, Marcin explains “You can do what you want as long as you are not harming anyone else”.

Whilst not asking for anything he is keen to proliferate an ethos of equality, and getting down with the Gorila comes with a wealth of benefits. There is a sharing of tuition between the academies, Marcin himself is insistent upon high standards of teaching and learning so takes an active role in visiting the other academies. He advocates learning from one another, and is insistent on the team not becoming an echo chamber for his own ideas. He explains, “There is some much knowledge and different perspectives on jiu-jitsu, this knowledge we want everyone to share”.

Perhaps, the most important thing this association provides is the advice on how to run a business, Marcin has a proven business acumen having run a successful restaurant prior to his academy, and has the knowledge how to live and prosper from jiu-jitsu, which is something that he wants to share with his affiliates. “Our reference is our academy, it has been going four years and is one of the biggest gyms in Poland, which has some of the best Jiu-Jitsu in Europe, so that is something”. There is no denying the success of this model, at their last graduation there was over 250 students on the mats.

Surely, the next move would be expansion, moving out into Europe, but this is something that Marcin is hesitant about, concerned that growth would limit the contact and lessen the friendship mentality, which is the opposite of what he stands for. Marcin’s goal is that he wants to make Jiu-Jitsu bigger in Poland and attract more people to the sport, but, that doesn’t mean having a monopoly with the association.

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Back to the lake, I didn’t end up getting the BBQ I had been promised. But, this was one of the most fun Sunday evenings that I can remember, 90 minutes of hard-training, making friends, sharing concepts and techniques, laughing and joking; this exemplified the spirit of Gorila.

Competing BJJ in Brazil

Part V: When to Admit You’re an Old Dude

This blog had its genesis in 2013 when I quit work and went to live in Rio with the sole intention of training and competing in jiu-jitsu full-time.

I had the misfortune of turning thirty prior to my arrival in Brazil, and it didn’t take long to realise that competing in the adult division wasn’t going to yield much in the way of a reward. At the time, I was a blue belt; to win some of the larger tournaments, meant having my hand raised in at least five matches. I would be matched against some of the top aspiring competitors in jiu-jitsu, athletic dudes in their late teens, future world champions who had potentially been training full-time for years.

I was forced to confront this reality – competing against some of the best in the world in my weight category and belt level, just wasn’t feasible if I wanted to win, and I really did want to win. I might be victorious in a couple of matches but invariably beaten by younger and more skilled athletes.

I can absolutely empathise with those who question what is the point in competing if you are not going to compete with the best? But, for me the decision appeared a purely pragmatic one, I wanted to be the best, and that was nigh impossible in the adult division but a realistic possibility at the masters level with the dudes who were also on the wrong side of thirty.

My decision was made; I would do everything that was humanly possible to be the best grappler aged between 30-35. And, for the last three and a half years at blue and purple belt I did just that, competing in over 30 tournaments.

Competing in Brazil there are very few easy matches whatever category you compete in. I won and I lost but, had the most amazing experiences against dudes who were on a similar level as myself. It might have been an ego-driven decision but it wasn’t one that I regretted.