Your BJJ Coach is not a Guru or a Sage

Most of us understand that the human ego can be ungainly and fragile. It often makes unreasonable demands to counter the various insecurities that sometimes plague us. When one is placed in a position of authority on both a pedagogical and a physical level, manipulation and abuse are potentials that need to be actively fortified against.

One need look no further than Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment or Stanley Milgram for insight into this. Many of us have experienced power trips and craven attempts at manipulation from those in authority at work, school and other areas of our lives. Unfortunately, this phenomenon can rear its ugly head in BJJ and MMA schools as well.

A Delicate State of Mind

It’s readily understood the first time you walk through the doors of your school that you BJJ coach can physically dominate you with relative ease. Even if they remain the nicest, courteous soul from the outset that reality often lingers in the recesses of our minds. This makes the pedagogical nature of the average BJJ school quite unusual, to say the least.

Additionally, the level of intimacy involved in grappling makes it difficult to approach one’s training as simply a customer paying for a service like some average gym membership. All that frustration and failure can leave one in a delicate state of mind. This might be why we also form such strong bonds on the mats with people from markedly different backgrounds than us.

Regardless, this constant physical humbling reduces some to odd acolytes, especially as beginners and novices. As a result, some BJJ students elevate their coaches to an impossible standard. This is made worse when folks are desperate for meaning and direction. They can turn to any authority figure including their BJJ coach with a delirious kind of dogmatism and a codependent need to please.

Unfortunately, that unabashed loyalty and seeming subservience from some students can be manipulated even preyed upon by some BJJ coaches, especially when said coaches revel in their own self-aggrandizement. And we’ve seen this far too often in the BJJ community over the years.

Oh The Stories I Have Heard

Stories of BJJ coaches employing manipulation, coercion or just plain bullying are legion. They range from the decidedly puerile to actual criminal behavior.

I’ve read or heard so many stories on r/bjj and elsewhere that it’s impossible to keep count these days. Tales of tantrums, unprovoked attacks, petty theft even robbery are not uncommon. The recent assault on Flavio Almeida comes to mind. Sadly, there are many more.

Take, for instance, the following story from a throwaway account on r/bjj. The poster details constant verbal abuse from his BJJ coach who is also apparently a multiple world champion. If true, there’s an insidious level of coercion at play here that’s simply pathetic on the part of the coach.

A black belt recounted a story to me of another infamous coach demanding all the credit cards of his students on a trip to his native Brazil. He told his students to cancel the cards and report the charges as fraudulent only after he maxed them out for a variety of purchases.  

Even worse, heinous crimes such as rape and molestation committed by coaches are not foreign to the BJJ community either. One need only be reminded of the horrific stories of Lloyd Irvin, Cameron Earle and Daryelle Xavier. It’s all the more insane and disgusting when we remember that these BJJ coaches are or were being paid for their instruction.

My Own Tale to Tell

My very first BJJ school was notorious for an incredibly odd cult of personality surrounding our main coach. When I joined the effusive praise almost all the members had for him bordered on worship.

I can remember many of the higher-ranking students claiming this particular coach as a bona fide hero to them, the man who had turned their lives around. According to most at the gym, there was almost nothing that this coach didn’t excel at either – academics, mountain climbing, music, etc. Of course, no one could really vet these grandiose claims either. If you tried you risked mockery or worse. The hierarchy at the gym was based primarily on physical dominance not reason or discourse.

As a newb I couldn’t quite voice any opinions to the contrary for fear of reprisal. I also took it as par for the course. I had boxed at a ramshackle gym in my hometown for a couple of years. It was more a place to get beat up than anything else. So I made the poor assumption that the general tenor of my new BJJ gym was typical and that’s with a philosophy degree in my back pocket to boot. Stockholm syndrome seems pretty common in BJJ/MMA. At least, it was for me as I abandoned my own critical faculties for a spell.

Regardless, all that praise and borderline worship turned to anger and resentment. What followed was a mass exodus. Many of the higher belts finally realized just how terrible they’d been treated at times. These were grown men who had been browbeaten on innumerable occasions for perceived failings on and off the mats (To be fair, these were also grown men who ought to have recognized sooner the dysfunction they were hopelessly participating in for close to a decade).

Some had even been outright used for services ranging from teaching classes and building websites to remodeling the entire gym with little to no compensation. Not even free enrollment was offered. Instead, it was all disguised as some weird proof of loyalty and obedience.

Sadder still, their private lives were sometimes dissected out in the open by this particular coach at the gym or on social media if and when things went awry. A virtual essay was written on Facebook denouncing one particular young man barely out of his teens for everyone to read based on some real or imagined slight. It was impossible not to view it as petty and unbecoming of a grown man more than twice his age, especially as others turned on the student as well out of blind loyalty to our coach. Again though, it all turned sour as resentment finally reached a fever pitch toward the school and coach.

To be sure, my first BJJ coach was and still is truly exceptional at grappling. In fact, I’d argue that if it weren’t for his sometimes caustic personality and poor business sense he’d be a legend throughout the BJJ community at large. I don’t view him with any lasting bitterness either. I just see him as a somewhat fragile soul who was often his own worst enemy.

Obviously, I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak of the many great BJJ coaches I continually encounter. The gym I currently train at is exceptional in attitude and instruction. My coaches teach with a tremendous amount of humor and goodwill alongside intensity and focus. Members successfully compete at all levels including MMA.

Still, I’m also very aware of what I’m willing to tolerate these days having had such an odd experience at one of my first gyms. On the mats, I have no problem taking instruction. Off the mats, I consider my coaches as equals and have no problem challenging them within the boundaries of courtesy and camaraderie. This has lead to far greater respect and deepening friendships for all involved.

Have you experienced any odd cults of personalities in BJJ or even your own version of Stockholm Syndrome at places you’ve trained?

© 2019 Gable Gripes All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “Your BJJ Coach is not a Guru or a Sage

  1. Yes. I’ve seen it at my old gym. Everyone put the coach on a pedestal and I couldn’t figure out why. They all wanted to be part of his inner circle so badly they would “cover” his classes for free. He’s a talented coach, but I think when he realized his power over people he used it. I left because I wasn’t get the quality of instruction I was looking for.

    1. Very similar to what I dealt with. My old coach rarely showed up on time, but would browbeat anyone else who was late. When he was willing to coach well he was absolutely fantastic with an encyclopedic knowledge of grappling. Unfortunately, he just rested on his laurels far too much and power tripped to gloss over his lack of effort.

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