How far should hierarchy go on the mat?

We live in a time where we’re searching for equality in our society with debates spreading to various spheres — we have discussions about racism, feminism, LGBT issues etc. These discussions are focused essentially around “being the same.”

Everyone has a way of seeing and understanding the world. But one thing is undeniable: hierarchy has been present in the world long before we were here. From the first inhabitants millions of years ago to today, it’s an extremely natural thing which makes us equal, but also not.

In the animal world for example, the strongest, fastest, or smartest tends to command others in the group. If we think of the lion, the strongest commands the pack defending its territory and the females until the day it gets old and another lion defies it and takes its place. According to Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and bestselling author of “12 rules for life” even lobsters function within a hierarchy.

This is everywhere. If we think about the business world we have a fairly clear hierarchy—the president of the company, his board of directors, the management positions and so on until we reach the factory floor. In Jiu Jitsu this is evident due to the colored belts which show exactly where the student is within the learning process. The black belt is the top of the pyramid and should lead and show the way to others and should of course lead by example and take responsibility for their actions.

The question is: are our black belts able to exercise this leadership correctly, efficiently and respectfully? I think we can learn a lot from business leaders that once held a controlling and punitive hierarchy and then evolved into a much more collaborative leadership. When we look at the most modern offices in the world (Google is perhaps the most emblematic example) we can see a clear evolution, in the sense that everyone looks the same. They treat each other with the same respect, they share the same space without having to question authority and hierarchy. Order and chaos need to go together to keep evolving—rigidity has no more space in our time, but to deny hierarchy seems rather naive and unproductive. We need one foot in the door for order and another in the door for uncertainty in order to evolve.

Going back to Jiu Jitsu academies, it is very common for teachers to think that educating their students means humiliating them, either by them doing the famous pushups or exposing their mistakes in front of the whole class. This demonstration of authority is practiced in many Jiu Jitsu academies and seems to me to be really wrong. Once again, the black belt is the holder of knowledge and must pass it on with as much respect as possible to his/her students. Order should not be imposed by fear, but rather by the affection and dedication that each teacher genuinely has for his students.

There are two very emblematic examples on the mat that I would like to reflect on. The first is where the mat is full and several pairs train at the same time. The black belt is training with someone but their training invades the “area” of another less graduated duo. Who should move to the empty space? Should the mere fact of graduation be what determines that answer? Should the black belt be the kindest and most accommodating or should the least graduated move?

I believe that the above situation should be treated equally within the academy by all belts. The first criterion should be that whoever has invaded the area of ​​the other comes back to their own space, however if there is a climate of kindness and camaraderie on the mat it’s natural that if the invaded pair realises this it’s easier for them to change the position they are in—this should be encouraged. What I want to make clear here is that harmony and respect must be the premise for having a pleasant learning environment regardless of the belt.

The second very common example concerns who “calls” who for training— some academies prohibit less graduates from inviting black belts to train, which in my view is a ridiculous rule.  What kind of protection does the belt belt think he is able to gain? I do not believe that this example of choosing whom we train with is good for our development. My suggestion is that this is free, and that people should also have the right to decline the invitation if they are not comfortable and that this should be the reality of everyone regardless of belt.  But in this case, I have an important observation to make. The teacher is the one who pairs up the students with the objective of the student’s evolution and when this is done the student independent of the belt should follow the guidance.

Being a black belt doesn’t make you a better human being than anyone else, so the smartest thing you can do as a black belt is to treat your students equally and with respect, understanding that they are giving you the honor of learning from you—it is your privilege to have them on your mat. Don’t put yourself on a pedestal; you must be the one who protects the environment by making it more and more enjoyable. Always practice kindness and make your student and everyone around you feel at home where they can make mistakes without being criticised, fail without being humiliated and question you without being silenced.

Make your mat a learning environment and a place for developing as a human.

Respect everyone equally.

Be a real black belt.


Fabio Gurgel

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