Cults of Personality in BJJ
Perhaps it’s because I’m an older fellow, but I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with hero worship.
I guess I’ve lived long enough to realize that some of my own heroes have feet of clay; therefore, I tend to view people as just that: people—with all the normal faults that all people have.
The alternative is dangerous. When we idolize people and turn them into icons, we give them an opportunity to give in to their lesser natures and exploit their followers.
The list of religious leaders who have extorted or exploited their followers keeps growing every day. And, in the martial arts, we’ve also seen our share of scandals involving a sensei who can’t help but take advantage of his students’ veneration.
In all honesty, it’s safer—and more practical—to dispense with heroes. It might be tempting to assume that a great MMA or UFC fighter is as good outside the cage as inside, but just because someone has the skill to navigate around an opponent’s attacks, that doesn’t mean he’s good at navigating relationships or business deals in the real world.
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If we think of all the former football pros who find themselves dead broke by their 40s, we’ll remember that talent in one field doesn’t translate to other aspects of life.
In the BJJ community, of late, I’ve seen a tendency to venerate individual fighters and teachers in a way that is too close to hero worship for comfort. There are a number of reasons to avoid putting these folks on a pedestal.
First off, it’s bad for BJJ to idolize one person’s game. Instead of exploring the variety of BJJ styles that come from a variety of teachers, idolizing only one person’s game will leave you with a limited view of what’s out there to be learned.
Moreover, mimicking an idol’s fighting style could keep you from discovering a style that works better for you. A young muscular BJJ fighter’s style would be an ill fit for a thin and lanky fighter. Worse yet, a lanky and flexible fighter may never learn to take full advantage of his flexibility if he’s patterning his game after that of a fighter who uses muscle as his chief weapon.
If too many people begin to idolize one fighter or teacher to the exclusion of others’ techniques, then BJJ will begin to suffer from a loss of grappling styles. BJJ grappling will become homogenized, as everyone practices the same narrow list of techniques.
On the contrary, the strength of BJJ comes from its variety of styles and techniques. That’s what makes every roll an adventure. We don’t know what style to expect from each new opponent. That’s what makes it interesting. Plus, it’s what keeps us sharp.
The minute we know what to expect, we become lesser fighters. Without the challenge, we stop growing.
White and blue belts are most likely to look for idols. Ironically, they are the ones who should be sampling a variety of styles so they can find the one that works best for them.
Instead of latching on to only one instructor and putting him on a pedestal, remember that everyone has something to teach you.
If your experience was like mine, most of your one-on-one instruction was probably offered by other students as you rolled. Those blue or purple belts aren’t all-stars, but a patient rolling partner can be a source of more knowledge and practical advice than a guru.
As you progress on your journey, remember that every roll, every training partner, every seminar instructor, and every grappling star has something to teach you. Don't limit yourself. Embrace it all.
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