how to recognize a trailblazer

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Recently I got a message on Facebook from someone I’ve known from Jiu-Jitsu for decades.

The message said, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me but you had said a couple of things to me years ago that I never forgot. I’m going through a crisis now and I need some help.” And I said sure, give me a call.Jiu-jitsu martial arts training

So when we spoke a few days later, he said a couple of things that are relevant for our ongoing conversation about culture and progress on the mat.

“You told me years ago when I was a blue belt that I had to be careful,” he said. “You warned me not to fall for the promises of a competitive Jiu-Jitsu culture. You told me that sometimes Jiu-Jitsu is like the heroin of the martial arts. It’s so seductive and then once you’re in it, it’s too late.

“But I didn’t listen. I went in headlong and fell for the whole thing hook, line & sinker. Now I have two schools of my own, so you’d think everything would be cool. But instead I’m finding that I’m unhappy and everyone I thought I could count on is stabbing me in the back.

What’s more is I’m falling out of love with Jiu-Jitsu. The people are ruining it for me.”

I said, “Well…that’s a very interesting dilemma.”

Then he went on to reveal something that I think is of particular interest to those of you who practice in this culture.

“I have to tell you the truth. Ten years ago, when our classmates were telling me, ‘Yeah, if you go to Gene Dunn’s school everybody’s got to wear the same uniform. And no one competes. And it’s very strict and there’s this culture…’ When they said that, I laughed at you. I thought for sure you had it all wrong.

“So there I was, laughing behind your back. And now, ten years later with my own two schools, I can see it now. You were so far ahead of your time. I understand now why the right culture is so important. If you don’t have it, all everybody does is stab each other in the back. There’s no camaraderie, there’s no community. And you have bedlam.”

I told him it was OK, and then I reminded him that if you want to know who’s leading the pack, you just have to look for the guy with the most arrows in his back. That’s the trailblazer.

Ultimately, you can’t be afraid of the arrows if you know you’re doing what you believe in.

I said, “If you want to change how this is headed, you’re going to have to be ready to take some arrows in your back.

“It’s not enough just to wear the same color uniforms, or say you don’t need to compete, or have a perfunctory, superficial bow – this is about a rich, martial arts tradition that follows an age-old code. It was structured this way to bring order to the chaos.

“So if you want to build a community, a group of tightly-knit practitioners who are united by principles and not just convenience, it’s going to take some work. But it is worth it for what you can create for people.”

Again, an interesting signpost for those of us practicing in this community.

If you go on the Internet, look around. For the most part you’ll see lots of grimacing, grunting fellows in shorts and T-shirts (or no shirts at all), with people swinging for the fences. That might not be every Jiu-Jitsu or MMA school out there, but there’s a pretty solid contingent. Enough to be convincing, anyway.

So it’s easy to conclude that that’s the way it’s supposed to be done. But after working with this problem for over 20 years, I don’t believe it. We can fall prey to the images people show to us and want us to accept because it’s hard to see what actually goes on behind the scene.

I suggest to you that protocol is the gatekeeper of the culture. As soon as protocol slips, the culture tends toward chaos.

So it’s for what it’s worth, if you’re in a community that’s supportive, helpful, encouraging, progress-oriented…protect the environment. It serves you – and not just for your ego or a medal you might win. It will sustain your practice for a long, long time.


For more about our larger project of cooperative Jiu-Jitsu and martial arts training, visit the Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Brooklyn BJJ) website here.

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