This article was written by 3rd-degree Roger Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Nicolas Gregoriades.
The article that appeared on Jiu-Jitsu Times recently about some loon who gave himself a brown belt really struck a chord with me. But not for the reasons you might have guessed. Yes, awarding yourself a belt is inexcusable. It devalues the art and is an insult to all of us who earned ours the hard way - through a coach with his own pedigree. But one line of his in particular resonated with me:
“All of the psychopathic hierarchies need to be destroyed. And it’s not Brazilian and it’s not Gracie it’s just jiu-jitsu. It belongs to all of the people of the world."
It reminded me of something I’d heard several years ago during a trip to Paris. I was at the apartment of a friend of mine, a then-popular UFC fighter. We were discussing MMA and martial arts in general when he dropped a powerful statement into the conversation. “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a cult. There’s no denying it.”
Shocked and a bit upset that someone who I respected immensely could make such a damning statement about something that was so important to me, I asked him to explain further. “Think about it: It has a hierarchical, pyramid structure, at the top of which sits a mystical family who holds the 'secret' knowledge. There is a ranking system which indicates your place in the pyramid, and you wear a uniform which clearly displays that rank. It expects unquestioning obedience to flow from those lower on the pyramid to those higher on it, and in return, the ‘secrets’ trickle down in the opposite direction. And It requires increasing amounts of money and dedication the further you progress in the system. It tries to foster an ‘us versus them’ mentality by claiming that jiu-jitsu is superior to other martial arts. It also encourages that students adopt an almost evangelical approach to gaining new ‘recruits’. How is that any different from Scientology?” Even though I didn’t agree entirely with him, I couldn’t help but notice that there were indeed similarities. And it kinda freaked me out.
A Shift in Perspective
Look, if jiu-jitsu is a cult, I don’t really care - because it’s an awesome one. I have no intention of ever leaving. I run an organization called the Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood at the end of the day. But ever since that conversation I’ve looked at in a different way. I started to pay more attention to certain aspects of jiu-jitsu culture and in particular the way in which I interacted with them. And I began to that feel that not all of them were necessarily healthy.
The Key Difference
While most cults might seem to bring about positive changes in their members initially, for the average devotee they invariably devolve into an experience of isolation, poverty and mental disintegration. It’s pretty obvious that that’s about as far from what jiu-jitsu does as you can get. In my own life, and the lives of many of the people I know, jiu-jitsu training has been a stabilising and uplifting factor. It fosters a sense of community that is often lacking, especially in big cities. There’s no doubt in my mind - when approached correctly and in a good environment, the practice of jiu-jitsu leads to the creation of a healthier, happier human being. But as with everything, jiu-jitsu is not immune to the darker elements of human nature. There are many examples of dishonesty, greed and even some instances of truly inhuman stuff. Often these are overlooked because we are blinded by the beauty of the good things we experience at the gym or the ideals that are marketed to us.
There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs in martial arts. For some reason, they seem to attract those who are seeking something, whether it be a sense of belonging, self-esteem or a desire to make up for some other perceived lack. Very often these are the kinds of people who can be most naive and especially vulnerable. I know this because I was one of those people. Hell, when I started training, if you had told me Rickson Gracie could breathe underwater I probably would have believed you. I want that fresh-faced kid who is searching for something and hopes to find it in jiu-jitsu to be able to maximise what he gets out of his journey, but also to be aware of the potential pitfalls. This is what I wish I had been told before I had started down this path.
Beware the ‘Creonte’ Sub-Cult
Perhaps one of the most corrosive things in the art is the ‘Creonte’ sub-cult. For those of you who don’t already know, the word creonte means traitor and is a term many coaches and academies use to label anyone who trains at more than one gym. They do this for the same reason a cult-leader doesn’t want you going to check out the new church down the street - fear.
The instructor who cries ‘creonte’ is afraid that there aren’t enough students for everyone. Or he’s afraid that another instructor might be better than he is and that you might prefer training with him. Both of these are misperceptions and rooted in a ‘scarcity’ mentality. There are plenty of other students out there - more than enough for everyone. And If you’re an instructor that is constantly evolving and doing everything you can to provide your students with exceptional service, chances are that they’ll stay, even if they occasionally train at another gym. Even if they don’t, so what? It just means you weren’t a good match anyway. We’re all in this together. We’re all seeking to grow and evolve. When one of us improves, ultimately we all do. Sure, it’s great to be a part of a team and to have healthy rivalries and competitive outlets, but when it turns into ‘You can’t train with them because it means you’re a traitor and will show them our secrets’ it’s just f%cking ridiculous.
Have Realistic Expectations
A jiu-jitsu instructor is just a human being, and like anyone else he is flawed. Don’t have unrealistic expectations or place them on a pedestal. I cringe when a new student starts treating me differently because I'm a jiu-jitsu instructor. Because I know when he inevitably sees me screw up in life that it's going to tarnish jiu-jitsu for him. I made this mistake back in my early days of training when I didn’t have a coach and was still learning exclusively from books and videotapes (yes, tapes!) I'd been told that one of my jiu-jitsu idols lived an almost monastic life, only to later learn that he had a pretty serious coke habit. I was pretty devastated. But it wasn't finding out that stuff about him that upset me - we all have vices - me more so than most. It was realising that the image of him which I’d been sold - that of a clean-living martial artist - was just such a disconnect from the truth. That’s what really frustrated me. Don’t look to your jiu-jitsu instructors to lead you any kind of salvation, or assume that the way they live their lives is the way you should live yours. Nobody can save you but yourself. Take the hype about the lifestyle with a grain of salt too. Nobody trains three times per day and lives in the gym - at least not for very long. If they do, they invariably burn out and often become boring and kind of weird.
Don’t Give Respect Unless it’s Due
Just because someone is exceptionally skilled or talented at one thing, in particular, does not mean that they are a quality human being. Some of the elite jiu-jitsu players and big-name coaches I've met have been total scumbags. Dishonest, adulterous and greedy. Some of them even look for fights in public. Respect someone because they share your ideals and display virtues, not because they have a black belt or a medal and or can speak Portuguese. And don’t call anyone 'master'. You are not a slave. The idea of someone calling me master makes my blood run cold. There’s something inherently creepy about it. You should treat your jiu-jitsu instructor the same way you treat your doctor or electrician or any other professional whose services you employ - with respect and fairness. Yes, the relationship may develop into a friendship, and yes, your instructor might reveal qualities that increase your admiration for him, but to default to reverence is immature.
Initially, the only thing you owe him is the respect of paying attention while he is teaching and not disrupting the class in any way. You don’t owe loyalty - he should have to earn that from you, just like everybody else in your life. Also, don't assume that just because a guy has a big name or has won a bunch of high-level competitions that he's going to be a great teacher. The 'gringo' down the street who loves jiu-jitsu more than anything might give you more attention and better instruction. I’ve been to seminars with world champions who were arrogant and disinterested, and I’ve sat in on classes with purple belts who poured their hearts into what they were doing. I know which I get more out of. Pay attention to your instructor's words and actions and listen to your intuition when it tells you something is wrong. Always be asking “Would I tolerate this kind of behaviour from anyone else?” If the answer is ‘no’ or if the things that he or she does consistently make you feel not good, it might be time to find a new place to train.
Rebalancing Perspectives & Healthy Integration
Beyond the estimation of your coaches, you also need to have a healthy perspective when it comes to jiu-jitsu as a whole. A black belt and close friend of mine once said to me: “At the end of the day it’s just two people communicating physically in pyjamas and a way to socialise away from the mediocrity of the 9-5 life.” Although I feel that it’s much more than that, I understand what he meant. There are some people who have absolutely no life outside of jiu-jitsu and it’s sad. That was one of the biggest wake-up calls for me when I got to know Roger Gracie. When he’s not at the academy he doesn’t talk about or pay much attention to jiu-jitsu at all. He has other hobbies and interests and is a balanced human being. You shouldn’t feel guilty for not training twice a day, or taking time off. Jiu-jitsu works best as an integral part of your lifestyle, not as your whole life. If you’re injured or bored or just feel like a break there’s no shame in that.
If you have a chance. watch the film ‘Red Belt’ by David Mamet. Although it has unrealistic depictions of BJJ during the fight scenes, it accurately portrays several themes which present themselves repeatedly in the jiu-jitsu community. Read the novel ‘Musashi’. It’s an amazing story gives a depiction of what I feel is the perfect martial artist. The protagonist, Miyamoto Musashi represents a role model to which we can aspire and measure ourselves against. Keep in mind however that this is a work of fiction and presents a highly idealised Musashi who was probably quite different from the real person. If you want to see just how fucked up cults can be, watch the documentary ‘Holy Hell’. In the unlikely event that your jiu-jitsu association/academy displays similar characteristics or power dynamics to those in the film, run. Now go train jiu-jitsu you cult-loving bastard!