After I had been teaching jiu-jitsu for a while, a twenty-something man started coming to my classes. He had never trained before, but he had somehow decided he knew a lot already—shades of the Dunning-Kruger effect plus, I’m guessing, YouTube. From the get-go, he had a habit of telling his training partners how to do techniques (usually incorrectly) and asking questions that seemed less about clarification and more about proving what he knew and what I did not. I tried to be patient with him, letting him know I was happy to work with him but asking him to stop being disruptive in class. He would either laugh or stare at me, and then during the next class he would shout out again.
One time he must have hit my last nerve, because I changed the way I responded. He called me over to say that his partner was not doing the technique sequence correctly, and could I help. When I started walking the partner through the sequence, he interrupted repeatedly and “corrected” me (e.g., “Don’t you mean X?” I didn’t. “Why wouldn’t he do Y there?” Because he would lose position). I finally said, “All right. Your turn.” I made him run through the technique sequence, and every time he messed up, which was often, I said, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong.” He started to get flustered, and I made him complete the sequence. Then I said, “You need to think more about your own training and less about everyone else’s. Got it?” He did not respond, but I could see from his face that my message had started to sink in.
When it was time for open training, I pointed at him and said, “Let’s go.” Then I tapped him with the same mounted Americana 5 or 6 times in a row. This required that I get to the mount each time from a neutral face-off, which I had no problem doing.
After I tapped him repeatedly, there was a little time left, and I decided to let him sweep me. He said, “Oh, you gave me that.” Progress? I chose to think so.
I responded with “Yup.” Usually I would tell a student that he got the sweep because he had gotten all the details right, but this guy got no quarter.
After that, he continued to come to my class, but he was noticeably quieter and less brash. I did my best to let him know he was still welcome, and to indicate that the change in his behavior was much appreciated.
I did not like doing that to him. I do not even like describing how easy it was for me to do it. However, I had to weigh his need to feel like he knew more than he did with my need to provide an effective learning experience for the entire class, because the two needs were mutually exclusive, my need took precedence, and my subtler attempts to send the message had not registered. If I had it to do over, I would probably come out and tell him the same point I am making here: I do not like to pull rank, but I will if I must.
To me, pulling rank refers to those times when I must remind one or more other people that there is a pecking order, and that the person or people I am reminding are lower on it than I am. Usually the behavior that prompts me to pull rank involves some disruption of class or some transgression against another student, though there are many other reasons.
I am not alone. I know many people—friends, colleagues, and mentors—who have worked hard to earn their rank in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and continue to work hard to live up to it. Like me, these people see their rank as an important part of who they are. But also like me, based on my observations of them, at least, most of the black belts I know and respect do not enjoy lording that over others.
I do not like pulling rank because it forces me to highlight power and authority differentials, when I much prefer that students and instructors alike recognize and respect our different roles because we respect each other as people. When I am teaching, it is my job to lead class, and it is the students’ job to learn and, I hope, enjoy. Sometimes I am the student, too, and when that is the case, I act appropriately. Ideally, all of us recognize our roles and commit to fulfilling them. In situations where I feel I must pull rank, it is because some among us have decided they need not adhere to the group’s shared agreement of what constitutes appropriate behavior in the training context. It is as if all of us are all reduced to the color of our belts, and that way lies danger.
Sure, it can be difficult to suss out what constitutes appropriate behavior in a jiu-jitsu context, and I daresay that jiu-jitsu academies as a group do not have the best track record for establishing expectations up front. Academies are getting better at this, though, and if you do not know, there are ways to figure it out: observation, asking your drilling partner, and asking the instructor, for instance. When we are new to jiu-jitsu or a specific school, we can commit to learning how to enhance the learning environment instead of acting in a way that forces the instructor to protect it—and to rely on something other than mutual respect for keeping order.
Instructors and coaches, what are your thoughts on pulling rank? Students and teammates, what questions do you have about how to make sure you are not the person your instructor has to pull rank on? Post your ideas to comments.