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Charismatic Leadership or Personality Cults in Jiu Jitsu: The Fine Line Between Respect and Worship

Have you ever been to a martial arts academy and thought that the instructor was demanding just a bit TOO much respect? I mean, of course, all instructors deserve respect, as well as business owners. However, sometimes, it may seem that the formalities and the traditions are being used excessively to bolster the ego of the group leaders, be that person an instructor, or sensei, “a master,” or just the business owners. This topic has lead me to wonder where the line is drawn between respect and worship for one’s martial arts instructor, and where does respecting traditions end, and cult followings begin?

According to the “simple definition” provided by Merriam-Webster a cult can be defined as: “a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much; a small group of very devoted supporters or fans.” Another definition describes a cult as, “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work; a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion.”

So it’s settled then… We, as devout Jiu Jitsu practitioners, are CULT MEMBERS! But we kind of already knew that. So many of us remember the initial obsession that hit us after we were bitten by the Jiu Jitsu bug. I remember showing up to my first training location on the evening of my 3rd day of Jiu Jitsu. I was ready to train hard and learn the tricks of the trade. When no one showed up, I called the instructor to ask what was the deal. “Where’s everyone at? No training tonight?” He said, “Man, it’s the 4th of July. Go to a BBQ and watch some fireworks.” Yeah, I was hooked. Obsessed, you could say.

Seriously though, the martial arts community is the perfect environment for cult followings and authoritarian personalities to flourish. This is true for a few reasons:

1) There is a fairly ridged hierarchy that must be followed – it’s even color-coded.

2) There is unique knowledge being passed from teacher to student. Furthermore, reading is not and effective method for obtaining martial arts knowledge. It must be physically practiced in the presence of a teacher.

3) In the absence of expected levels of respect, the use of force and the threat of physical harm is very real.

4) The aspect of DISCIPLINE that is so strongly pushed as a benefit from martial arts training. This discipline can lead to mandatory volunteer work for students, which students see as a means of becoming closer to the leader in hope of gaining favoritism and eventually promotion up the hierarchy. Some of us over the age of 30 still remember Mr. Miyagi using Daniel-san to “wax on” and “wax off” his vehicle before he was permitted to begin training. This is a nice example of what I’m talking about.

As a student, I’ve always had great respect for my Jiu Jitsu instructors and they’ve always been stand-up guys who have had a healthy combination of confidence and humility. However, in my travels and via the experiences of my friends, I have witnessed quite a few martial arts environments that seemed to excessively worship the leader of the academy, or the founding members of a large team. The topics of personality cults, authoritarian personalities, and hero worship could fill a book, but here are the bare-bone basics that I think are worth understanding and discussing:

  • Personality cults are usually fueled and driven by the leaders themselves. These individuals utilize authoritarian personalities, which are personalities that require absolute obedience or submission to the authority of the leader. The leader’s authority is usually justified by the possession or mastery of certain knowledge or teachings. (Can you see how this is related to martial arts?)
  • Hero worship is the excessive admiration of a leader who did not choose to be in the position of worship (Usually because they are no longer living). (Also relevant to martial arts. For example, bowing to pictures on the wall)

Without naming names, I can say with confidence that both of these are present in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu today. So you might be asking, “What’s the point? Why am I reading this?” Well, personality cults, authoritarian personalities, hero worship are all tools used to control people. While I believe mutual respect for instructors and understanding the traditions of their academies are important aspects of martial arts, I strongly believe there are appropriate levels of implementation. I’m not at liberty to argue here and now what these appropriate level should be, but my goal here is just to provide some food for thought.

Here are 12 things that you might keep in mind when shopping for a place to train or if you just want to analyze your current training environment:

  • Does your instructor tell you to whom you can or cannot talk? For example, being forbidden from talking to people from rival teams at major competitions.
  • Does your academy strictly forbid you from training at other academies?
    • This one is odd to me. No other business that I can think of practices this type of behavior. Imagine Starbucks telling you that if you hang out at Coffee Bean, that you are no longer welcomed at Starbucks. Or Target telling you that you are not welcome at their store because you were caught hanging out at Walmart.
  • Are you required to purchase and wear identical gis for training or competition?
  • Does your academy’s symbolic identity revolve around a person’s name or image?
  • Does your instructor passively REFUSE to train openly with other high level Jiu Jitsu practitioners?
    • This is an example of hiding one’s fallibility, or an attempt to be viewed as infallible. For example, if I owned an academy and I refused to train with a visiting black belt world champion out of fear that my students would see me lose.
  • Does your academy require excessive worship of the various founding members of Jiu Jitsu and/or Jiu Jitsu pioneers, as well as their teachings?
  • Does your instructor excessively lecture the class about loyalty, devotion, and heritage, while condemning those who have changed teams or trained with other teams? (aka: the infamous “creonte”)
  • Does your instructor attempt to influence your personal life, which is unrelated to Jiu Jitsu?
  • Does your instructors feed off of excessive flattery?
  • Does your instructor show resistance to new or creative ideas? Are they stuck in a ridged “traditional” belief system and/or fearful of change?
  • Does your instructor project their own feelings of inadequacy onto an outside scapegoat group?
  • Does your instructors show aggression (even just passive aggression) towards those with different beliefs, or those who do not subscribe to the same belief systems as the academy or its instructors?

Of course no academy or instructor on the planet possesses ALL of these authoritarian characteristics (unless you train with Joseph Stalin), and surely most academies and instructors possess one or two of these characteristics. I am by no means condemning any academy or person that does practices one or two of the characteristics listed above. No one is perfect, after all. This is simply a guideline to keep in mind if you are wondering just how authoritarian is your Jiu Jitsu guru, and how cultish is your academy’s training environment.

As a disclaimer, this article may raise a few eyebrows or ruffle a few feathers, but I want to make it crystal clear that is in NO WAY is a reflection of the academy at which I currently train. I can write about this topic because the academy and professor under whom I train is a model example of what a martial arts academy should be. My professor is a humble, modest, and open-minded man who leads by example and constantly promotes a positive environment for his students to excel and grow as leaders in the Jiu Jitsu community.