About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
Diversity is something we look for and work towards in many places in society. It can be pursued in the workplace, social-groups, political organisations and so on. Diversity gives any group more access to resources, intellectual capital and the benefit of sharing different points of view. These things increase the likelihood that the group will be successful and productive. A great benefit we get as Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners is in how it prepares us to both promote diversity and thrive in diverse environments. Let’s take a look at a couple of ways it accomplishes that!
BJJ SHOWS US HOW TO THRIVE IN A MERITOCRACY
Brazilian jiu jitsu culture is merit-based: it is a “reap what you sow” environment. The two aspects of BJJ that best exemplify this are the ranking system and focus on competition. BJJ athletes only receive four merit-based promotions (blue, purple, brown and black) in their probable eight-year plus journey to black belt. These promotions are earned from coaches who watch them drill, spar and sometimes compete over a period of time. Even academies that perform belt “tests” are often testing for specific core competencies that only qualify the athlete to be “considered” for the belt promotion rather than automatically earning them the belt. The point being that advancement is earned with adequate performance over time rather than some “one-time feat”. To move up a rank in BJJ, we must “be that rank” day after day on the mat in drilling, sparring and/or in competition.
Competition and BJJ go hand-in-hand regardless of whether you focus on the sport or self-defense/mixed-martial arts. The sport is as popular as it is in large part because of how it embraces all belt levels, ages and sizes of people. The IBJJF has world championships from white to black belt, juvenile to masters (5 year brackets after 30) and in multiple weight-classes. That INCLUSION allows BJJ athletes, in any walk of life, to compete at an international level and made the BJJ lifestyle open to EVERYONE willing to embrace it!
The ranking process and focus on competition create an atmosphere that teaches us to look inwards and ask ourselves what we are willing to do in order to achieve our BJJ goals on a regular basis. We can take inspiration from coaches, teammates and other athletes but, ultimately, we decide how far we go. The promotions and tournament medals are great, but every day we choose to participate in this environment molds us into people who can successfully participate in a meritocracy. When we are that focused on what we, and others around us, can do and earn, we look past the irrelevant differences that do not impact performance…we embrace diversity.
BJJ TEACHES US TO VALUE DIFFERENT APPROACHES AND PERSPECTIVES
The Miyao brothers are guard-pullers who have “berimbolo’d” their way to success. Rodolfo Vieira won multiple titles using one of the best guard-passing games of all-time. Roger Gracie became the most decorated sport BJJ athlete of all-time by combining mastery of basic techniques and a warrior’s spirit. Mackenzie Dern has won world titles and the hearts of BJJ fans world-wide with her all-attack style and willingness to compete against any and all-comers. Finally, Buchecha has recently dominated the world of BJJ by being a big guy with the agility and game of a little guy. These examples show us the truth that there are many paths to success in Brazilian jiu jitsu.
When people begin training at my academy, Buckhead Jiu-Jitsu in Atlanta, I tell them that Brazilian jiu jitsu is akin to building a house. Every house needs a solid foundation and that foundation in BJJ is made up of the fundamental techniques. Without that as a base, the “house” will not stand long. Once the solid foundation is set, we can build the house that best represents our personalities, physical characteristics and skills. That is where the “art” of BJJ comes in.
We see this played out in our academies, in competition and, as referenced earlier, in the varying styles of the stars of the sport. As we immerse ourselves and find our feet in BJJ, we intuitively learn to value different styles and approaches to success. That practice puts us in a great position to participate and excel in diverse settings.
BJJ TEACHES US TO FIND BEAUTY IN MANY FORMS
At first glance, this point seems to be the same as the previous one but there is a subtle difference between valuing/respecting something and finding beauty in it. BJJ inspires a high level of passion and that passion is pursued and interpreted in different ways based on our varying experiences, attributes and goals. The incredible opportunity this offers is in providing us with exposure to many diverse philosophies on, and expressions of, the art and BJJ lifestyle.
I spent four years living in Los Angeles and training with Renzo Gracie black belt and 5 Star Martial Arts head coach, Shawn Williams. Coming up through the ranks at the Yamasaki Academy, I always had a healthy respect for Shawn and his Renzo Gracie teammates. Respect turned into real admiration for his approach to BJJ as I got to spend time training with and learning from him. I had always been focused on BJJ for competition: learning competition-ready techniques and/or improving my competition game. Shawn, while an accomplished competitor in his own right, also found tremendous joy in exploring, breaking down and adding variations to techniques. He enjoyed BJJ for the art itself and not the medals it could win him. After a while, not only did I find value in that point of view but I actually relished looking at BJJ through that lens. Shawn’s different perspective helped me find MORE reasons to love and appreciate Brazilian jiu jitsu.
Participating in the BJJ lifestyle, we learn to do more than simply tolerate or even see merit in different views and beliefs. Over time, we grasp the concept that different can be beautiful and embracing what is different can have real, positive impact on our lives.
BJJ ENCOURAGES US TO FIND COMMON GROUND IN TIGHT SPACES
Brazilian jiu jitsu consistently puts us in tight spaces with others. As it is a combat sport, most classes end with some form of drilling or sparring. Training like this puts us in close proximity to people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and social standing. Being a BJJ athlete means dismissing those “differences” and focusing only on what our partners bring to the mat. Every once in a while, I like to illustrate this by walking up to a group of teammates who are drilling between classes to ask them what they do for a living. The surprise that regular training partners show at each other’s answers is always entertaining. That singular focus on the positives and common ground, day after day, trains us to be productive in diverse environments.
The world we live in is getting more diverse by the day. That reality is permeating our lives at all levels and requires us to develop new skill sets in dealing with people who are different. Brazilian jiu jitsu gives us a leg up, as participating in the lifestyle helps us develop the tools we need to win in this new world order.