I’m tempted to say that I’ve been really lucky to train in an academy with few discipline problems. But it’s not luck. I know this.
In my day job as a college professor, I have a zero-tolerance policy toward problem students. After all, it’s college. No one has to be there if they don’t want to. So, I don’t let them interfere with my other students’ efforts to learn something and improve themselves. The troublemakers think it’s unfair. They whine that I’m embarrassing them; I tell them they’ve embarrassed themselves. They insist that they’re paying for the class; I remind them that everyone else has paid for the class, too. I will never forget that my primary obligation is to the entire class, not to mollifying one problem student.
A BJJ academy that runs smoothly is one that works under that same philosophy. The old cliché about one bad apple ruining the entire barrel is absolutely true.
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In the dojo, discipline is sometimes enforced in obvious ways. Given our politically charged climate, students in my academy get occasional reminders that politics is not to be discussed on the mats. It’s a good idea. If you’re friends with your teammates on social media, of course it’s easy to figure out their political beliefs. But this policy reminds everyone that none of that matters on the mat. Besides, if you have enough time to think about politics in the dojo, you’re probably not paying enough attention to instruction.
Likewise,, prior to seminars, our coach goes through the do’s and don'ts of seminar behavior as preparation for the newer students and as a reminder to the established students.
All of this is very similar to what I do in the classroom, so I know that when my coach takes care of business, it contributes to the positive vibe that we all enjoy while training.
But I have to admit, my coach also has other methods of enforcing discipline that turn me green with envy.
One of those means of enforcing discipline is by establishing hierarchy. I can’t do that in a classroom. We aren’t allowed to broadcast student grades publicly or privilege students with higher grades over those with lower grades. I wish I could, though. I know that’s harsh. But I’m convinced it would make a difference in both student discipline and motivation.
But the dojo isn’t bound by the same restrictions as a college classroom; it’s an unapologetic meritocracy. People advance based on earned accomplishment. Every time we line up at the beginning and end of class, we are reminded of our place in the pecking order. And it’s hard to be cocky when there are three rows of more experienced students standing between us and the coach. Seeing all of those colored belts ahead of us is humbling. And watching as teammates get their promotions is a strong reminder that the only way to advance is to earn it.
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Along with the use of hierarchy as a means of establishing discipline, many academies also have an Enforcer. I’d love to have an enforcer in my college classes.
Now, to be clear, our enforcer isn’t a bully or a loud jerk. He’s a really quiet, nice guy. He’s also huge, with mad skills. He won’t hesitate to tell you when your behavior is off the mark. He doesn’t make a spectacle of it, but the message is clear: we don’t do that here.
The fact that this message is being delivered by another student rather than the coach makes it even more powerful. It sends the message that everyone—instructors and students—are on the same page and that you need to get on that page, too. Or get out.
Admittedly, some people can’t handle a meritocracy, and they don’t hang around long. I understand when people say that it’s a pity that these students give up. I understand when they say they wish more new students would stick with it. I know that they want to see their academy and their sport grow. But it’s also important to remember that we need the right kind of teammates—the ones who will see what we have and work to preserve it.
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