Escaping A Cult

A Real Life Survival Story of Escaping A Cult 

As I ran down the stairs leaving all of my gear in my locker, all of my medals on the wall from competitions I suddenly became weightless, my mental health was more important.  That night and every night prior to that in that week I’d woken up and realized my coach had full mind control over me for almost 4 years. What was worse was that it wasn’t only me. There were many others.  Everyone’s story is completely different and we were all in the same place. Some stories involve physical abuse, emotional abuse, mental abuse and spiritual abuse.  This is the beginning of me sharing my story with you. It has taken me an extremely long time to do this. My only hope in sharing this is that it helps at least one person.

Coming out of a cult in any situation is no picnic. It’s someone having complete control over your mind, body, even your soul if they get in deep enough. Imagine having your coach whom you are supposed to trust with your training, manipulate you in so many ways that it changes your life forever. Myself and many others with whom I used to train with have severe PTSD and extreme trust issues because we found ourselves having been involved in a cult gym when it was already a little too late. Of course, it’s never too late to save yourself and walk away, but as far as the damage that it has done to us that is there. It’s there, every day, with our partners, at work, at training, finding a new gym.  Each day that goes by gets easier.

As with any story especially with trauma there are many layers to it. Imagine peeling an onion every day of how you were manipulated and you realize in literally every situation that you come across. My purpose of writing this is to help anyone that may be stuck in a situation like this or to help prevent people from ending up in a situation like this.  So first I will start by going over all of the red flags that you will want to recognize by just stepping into the new place that you are trying out.

  1. Unwelcoming, Clique- like : Of course there are going to be people hanging out but if everyone is standoffish and do not talk to you make a note of it. Then of course there is a flip side to this where they are over welcoming because there is something they can use from you and so you are instantly invited into the “group”.  Basically if it feels wrong or you feel uneasy as in it feels like high school all over again. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Only one coach: this person will not let anyone help teach and isn’t open minded to other techniques only what “they” teach. Will suddenly treat you differently if you bring up a different way to do that technique. This is usually because they do not like to think they are wrong or that someone else may know something that they don’t. This coach is aggressive in their tone, body language or even during rolling when you don’t do as your told in class. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Everyone at this school has only ever trained at this school. Sometimes people get lucky and find their BJJ “Home” the first time they try class and get an amazing coach. Most people are not so lucky. The highest belt is usually blue in these schools. Most of the people though are white belts. Why is this? Most beginners do not know what to look for in a school unless they are lucky and have a friend to tell them what to look for and places to avoid.



  1. Promotions are strange: What do I mean by this? While every school is so different with promotions if the coach says things in front of the entire academy like “this person is being held back because they don’t make it to class on time.” Or “This person is being held back because I know them so well.” Or “This person is being held back because they took a selfie with their medal.” Promotions are meant to be an exciting mark on a student’s journey. Being held back for not being on time when you have a job that keeps you until a certain time is manipulation of the student. Promoting people that are friends together so that the other one will not get jealous? Jiu Jitsu is about your own individual journey.  Also, if people are getting encouraged highly to start over as brand new white belt under that academy. That is your Red Flag. You should never be asked to give up your prior ranking. Your journey is your journey and it is up to you to decide what to do when you leave an academy about whether you want to start over or not. Besides it’s more about the time you have spent on the mat.


  1. Team Gatherings: Now let’s face it hanging out with your fellow teammates does happen. Should it happen two times a week plus all weekend? Should everyone be staying in the same hotel room with only one bed, maybe two? If you choose not to hang out one day and you get treated differently because of it, it’s time to go. As an adult you have other priorities like families, pets, homes to take care of and many other things to do and if someone treats you different or gets an attitude because you choose not to hang out it is time to find a new place. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Sexual Remarks, Derogatory comments, gestures on the mats. For one thing, if a coach says anything remotely related to sex on the mats it is a HUGE red flag. For one reason because it is a lack of respect for the reason that everyone is there. Everyone is there to learn Jiu Jitsu and because they feel safe to learn in this space. Most of the time women and men begin Jiu Jitsu due to some form of abuse whether it’s from child abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, mental abuse over from some point in their life. They are there to deal with and face their issues not have more issues.


  1. The coach always choosing a girl to be the UKI. When I say always choosing a girl to be the UKI this means if there are plenty of other upper belts there to be an UKI and you’ve noticed that he tries to make ways to be around females all the time. This is forming a constant form of contact to the female so that they become closer to them and more comfortable with them.  This is not to say a female cannot be an UKI this just means exactly what I am saying about them constantly using a female as an uki for constant physical contact.  That is your Red Flag.


  1. The level of knowledge being taught is “secret” if there is someone there that day that cross trains somewhere else or someone new so they don’t share new techniques or new ideas only extremely basic things. That is your Red Flag.


  1. The coach yells in an abusive way when a student gets the technique wrong. This usually only happens to students whom have been there for awhile. Yelling because you get a technique wrong is wrong on so many levels. That is your Red Flag.


  1. The coach making “situations” happen so a “mat enforcer” can “humble” another person so that person will either leave or fall in line with everyone else. That is your Red Flag.


  1. If the coach tells you another student’s personal business and that student trusted them not to say anything. This is not okay in any situation no matter what it is about. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Constant drama. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Unnecessary drama. That is your Red Flag.


  1. If there is sort of a “pyramid” you have to climb to be able to become a part of the “group”. That is your Red Flag.


  1. “You get what you pay for”. If the membership is incredibly cheap there is typically a reason for this. You will pay in other ways for example, by giving free services of your trade to the gym that could be any trade at all. If you own a restaurant, your food. If you’re a massage therapist giving people massages. That is your Red Flag.


  1. The coach wants to talk about your personal life constantly and tries to almost be a therapist for each student. Most coaches only care that you are taking care of yourself physically, eating right, and try to have a balanced life. They should have their own lives to deal with than to worry about your personal life. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Coaches or owners that have an unusual amount of “crazy” people in their past. Whether it’s exes, former students, coworkers, parents, siblings. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Always in your inbox. This is one of the many tactics to gain mind control over you. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Gas-lighting during training. If you’re a newer student this will only typically happen to a student who has been there longer whom they already have control over. So pay attention. That is your Red Flag.


  1. Competition or fighting is seen as a glorious thing that only special people can do and once you reach that level you're part of the “cool kids club”. That is your Red Flag.


Always remember if something does not feel right in your gut it usually isn’t. Remember why you started training Jiu Jitsu to begin with. To feel safe, to help you learn how to defend yourself, build confidence. Always stick to those things. Never settle.


Stay tuned because I am not done sharing my story this is only the beginning……

Written and submitted by Stephanie Shelton


Stephanie Shelton is a blue belt out of Gracie Burlington BJJ in North Carolina