Please Don’t Make Me Pull Rank

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.


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Comment on this post (6 comments)

  • Michael says...

    Many thanks for the article and insights.

    As a sort of teacher in another field (helping law students represent clients who can’t afford lawyers) I have similar issues around when and how to pull rank.

    But one of the things I envy about BJJ teachers is that this sort of direct demonstration is much easier. When you need to, it’s pretty easy to show you know a lot more BJJ than they do. In the law, because of that same old Dunning-Kruger effect it can be a bit tricky. I’ve occasionally had to pull a different sort of rank (you’re just not going to be allowed to do this anymore), because I couldn’t bring someone to the same insight you managed with your student.

    July 06, 2017

  • Joe says...

    Putting a student in his place shouldn’t bother you this much. It’s part of teaching. The last article I clicked on from you was about how you dealt justice to someone who didn’t wait in a line to ask a quick question. Since that one I skip most based on the headline. I’d like to read more about the art itself from a bb—knowledge gained, shared experiences that help other practitioners. This stuff about feeling disrespected may appeal to some likeminded people but doesn’t help anyone’s bjj.

    Just some honest criticism.

    July 04, 2017

  • Susie Kahlich says...

    This is a great article, and I agree with you that you don’t want to reduce yourself or anyone else to the color of your belt, because really: you can just go out and buy a black belt, if you want. But I do think that women especially take longer to respond to these situations and tend to be more uncomfortable with pulling rank, and I think that can be detrimental for the instructor as well for the rest of the class. I also have a suspicion that people like the man described here are behaving this way because they actually want you to pull rank, like some sort of self-punishment thing or attention grab (or both). Nobody wants to play into that game, ever; but nobody wants to make a whole class suffer just for one emotionally immature person, either. Personally, I would just pull rank immediately, and let that person learn these other, more profound lessons as part of their training, along with everyone else. You want to be mature and caring and lead by example, but unless you’re going for actual sainthood, why waste the time with all this other stuff?

    (My view also comes from having three brothers, who remind me again and again that subtle hints with men like this just don’t work — being direct and clear is the best way to communicate with them.)

    The “what’s 1+1” question is brilliant, by the way!

    June 29, 2017

  • Suzanne Gallego says...

    Great article! I mostly teach children so getting my rank challenged is a daily battle ?.

    June 28, 2017

  • Alex Henley says...

    Wow! One of the best BJJ related articles I’ve ever seen. Can I please come learn from you?!?!

    Already shared on my FB page. LOVE!!

    June 28, 2017

  • Saad Al-Aziz says...

    Let me start by saying I really dislike pulling rank in my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school, because I am still active duty U.S. Navy and that is the nature of my job with the Navy, so if I have to do it at school it usually is a last straw type of event.

    Sometimes a student is so disruptive or dangerous to others that I have to lay down the law in clear understandable terms, because if that doesn’t work my last step is to invite them to find another school to train at, because they are no longer welcome in our school.

    June 28, 2017

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