Does BJJ Actually Teach Respect?
If you ask an average person about the benefits of Jiu Jitsu or martial arts in general, you’ll probably hear the notion of ‘learning respect’ associated with the various martial disciplines.
The idea of respect as a core component of martial arts is an old concept.
Perhaps due to the Japanese origin of many martial arts such as karate and our very own Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the cultural idea of deeply respecting the instructor or other individuals is baked-in to many traditional martial arts cultures.
But is the concept of martial arts fostering respect still valid in the era of vitriolic public feuds between top athletes, high ranking black belts getting called out for poor conduct, and the simple fact that BJJ has become insanely popular across the globe?
In this article, we will discuss whether BJJ continues to ‘teach respect,’ and will also highlight some of the major shortcomings with assuming that commitment to BJJ correlates to good character, and how different issues can arise.
Let’s do this!
What does ‘respect’ mean in BJJ?
A big issue with discussing respect in BJJ is defining the term to begin with.
Respect in BJJ can mean different things to different people in different circumstances (that’s a mouthful, I know).
For example, respecting your training partners during class is a different ‘thing’ than respecting your opponent during competition.
Additionally, respecting your instructor for their BJJ skills is very different than blindly believing they have answers to deeper questions outside of BJJ, absent some other evidence of their experience.
Respect in BJJ with new vs advanced students
When you first start BJJ, being respectful usually revolves around listening to your instructor, staying humble, and not coming into class with a chip on your shoulder.
Depending on your school, the concept of being respectful will change as you advance rank.
For example, as a white or even blue belt, ‘talking smack’ about opponents’ skillsets or trying to coach other white belts can come off as disrespectful.
On the other hand, an advanced student who never corrects or helps coach lower students could come off as disrespectful.
That same advanced student might discuss an upcoming match and say “I think I can beat this guy because his guard is weak and he got heel hooked in his last match.”
Unlike a white belt claiming to be better than someone else, the advanced student has the background and skills to actually assess their opponent.
Plus, if they are going to roll against the opponent in a match, they still have to put their money where their mouth is, which somewhat trumps whatever ‘smack talk’ they did before.
If they lose, it’s their ego that feels the ultimate sting.
Unfortunately, depending on the school, many of these subtle aspects of ‘being respectful’ are not specifically taught in BJJ.
You have to rely on social cues and self-reflection in many cases if you truly want to influence whether people think of you as a ‘respectful martial artist.’
Respect among professional BJJ athletes
What about high-profile athletes publicly feuding with one another?
Ultimately, professional sports, especially combat sports, have a mean competitive aspect that can get amped up when it comes to top performers going back and forth.
Hyping up an MMA fight through public feuding is a well-known strategy for selling tickets, and you should expect to see some of that at the highest level.
As such, it is not necessarily a sign of disrespect for top BJJ athletes to have back and forth with each other over social media.
However, there is a line somewhere in the sand where people will increasingly see you as a jerk, regardless of your skill level, if you take things too far.
If you follow the high level BJJ scene at all, you are probably familiar with the dynamic I am discussing.
Athletes at the top level must weigh the overall hype benefits of being outspokenly ‘trash talky’ with the fact that as the rhetoric gets more extreme, the athletes can alienate their fans, which may or may not be something that concerns these athletes.
Respect among ranking black belts
The final ‘respect’ I want to highlight in BJJ is the respect given to black belts in your school or local community.
A big issue I have with martial arts overall is the fact that people assuming having a black belt gives someone a deeper wisdom on life, regardless of additional evidence to the contrary.
You should absolutely respect a legit black belt’s skillset in BJJ.
However, barring your black belt having other relevant life experience, you should not assume that they can give you any insight on to how you should be living your life.
On the darkest side of this discussion we have black belts who take advantage of students financially or sexually – or may be involved in covering that behavior up among their other ranking students.
In my opinion, this is by far the most egregious form of disrespect you will encounter in BJJ.
Perhaps I am speaking out of turn given that I am a purple belt at the time of this writing.
However, I firmly believe that holding the rank of black belt should go hand in hand with increased respect toward students and a greater responsibility to care for your community.
Many BJJ black belts embody this form of respect. This will most likely be reflected by the way others discuss the given black belt individual.
Black belts who abuse their authority and rank are thankfully less common than the respectful ones.
However, there is no shortage of examples of ranking, well-known BJJ black belts being involved with various forms of student abuse.
So, does BJJ actually teach respect?
I’m going to be blunt and contrarian.
I do not believe that training BJJ guarantees you will learn to be respectful.
While it will be hard to get through white and blue belt if you are a total jerk in class, even Michelangelo can’t make a beautiful statue out of horse manure.
An individual who fundamentally does not respect other people will not be influenced in the long run by getting better at Jiu Jitsu.
In fact, there is a good chance that if you take a bad person and give them fighting skills, you will exacerbate the problem rather than mitigate it.
The bottom line: respect in BJJ
Regardless of where you are in life and what hobbies and groups you associate with, being a respectful person tends to get you further.
This is true in BJJ. While you may not get kicked out for minor disrespects, you will gain a reputation for being ‘that type of guy/gal’ if you do not work on being respectful.
Ultimately, respect comes from within, and you cannot assume that training BJJ will turn an otherwise disrespectful person into a wise sage-guru-master if they stick with it long enough.
On that happy note, be respectful and have fun training BJJ!