By Sam Joseph
Alliance, Gracie Barra, Atos, Carlson Gracie, Yamasaki, Brasa, Soul Brothers, Big Brothers, Team Lloyd Irvin, Gracie Humaita, Brazilian Top Team, Renzo Gracie – the list goes on. There are dozens of “mega-teams” in Brazilian jiu jitsu and hundreds of smaller teams that fall under their mega-team umbrellas.
As someone who has been involved with the sport since the late 1990s, it makes some sense to me. I have an idea of what teams came from where, and who started which teams, but I imagine it can be a bit overwhelming to someone new to BJJ. In today’s BJJ world of tournament close-outs being a hot topic, athletes cross-training with multiple teams, individual athletes being able to generate their personal brand – even at the colored belt level – unlike any time before, the relevance of teams in BJJ is being looked at and examined more than ever.
The fact that BJJ is both an individual AND team sport starts to shed some light on why the topic of “team” is so hot in the BJJ community right now. This leads us to the question: what role does the concept of team really play in BJJ today?
The team concept tends to be taken very seriously in BJJ culture and new people often take time to come to terms with it and what their role is in the team collective. At a BJJ tournament or MMA event where a fighter is competing, it is pretty common to see team shirts, tattoos, banners, etc prominently on display. From beginner-level students to instructors, you see the team flag flown with a passion that is rarely matched in society. If you go back to the earliest World Championship editions (late 1990s) and before that in style vs. style Vale Tudo (the precursors to modern MMA), you saw the team mentality manifest itself as the “team champion” stepped on the mat or into the cage to the chorus of team chants. Or, in the case of Vale Tudo, chants of “jiu jitsu, jiu jitsu”- supporting the team of jiu jitsu vs. other styles.
At its best, it is a warm, family-like environment that promotes acceptance and inclusion. At its worst, it can appear cultish or gang-like and be very intimidating. The changing of teams is more prevalent and less frowned upon in today’s BJJ culture, but you often still here the term “creonte” thrown around, basically meaning “traitor” when a student leaves a team for another one or when a student fails to show the appropriate level of “loyalty” to an instructor. This is especially ironic to me as almost all the major teams come from “splits”- accomplished teams like Atos, Brasa, Checkmat and TT all have roots from multiple IBJJF world champion team, Alliance. This makes them essentially cousins of each other. This theory of loose relations was highlighted by an incident at an addition of the Mundials in California when Andre Galvao was set to step onto the mat. Alliance fans looked to taunt him with chants of Marcelo Garcia’s name, as Garcia had beaten Galvao multiple times. The Atos fans responded with chants of Fernando Terere’s name, as Terere had submitted Garcia at the 2004 Mundials. The Alliance fans simply laughed, as Terere had won multiple world titles under the Alliance flag before striking out to start his own team. Their laughter was soon bolstered by many others as the situation brought to light how “related” the opposing teams really were. Nevertheless, as we seek to answer our question, it is important to note that “team” does mean something in BJJ culture.
There are many positives that teams can bring to Brazilian jiu jitsu and to individuals. An established team means an established culture in the academy or across a network of academies. This kind of consistency can create a safe environment for people to experience BJJ and its culture. It can also be a vehicle via which standards are set in the areas of training and belt promotions. Resources (i.e. instructors, training facilities) can be shared easily as part of a team and this can greatly benefit individual students and lead to new positions and concepts. Examples of this are the camps that large teams like Atos, Alliance and Gracie Barra have before large tournaments and the seminars that world famous black belts travel to give to affiliate schools. From an individual perspective, teams can give one the opportunity to greatly improve by providing the resources, training partners and technical expertise needed to make improvements. Who ever heard of Keenan Cornelius before he moved to Washington DC and joined Team Lloyd Irvin a few years back? Keenan flourished in that team’s training environment and became a phenom – winning tournament after tournament as a purple and brown belt! When Keenan left TLI, he went to another powerhouse team to continue his evolution: Atos. This highlights how important Keenan deemed a team would be to his pursuit of black belt world titles. The assembly lines of talent that are teams like Atos and Alliance are also testament to the benefit of a strong team. Both teams continuously provide new talented faces to watch at the major IBJJF tournaments as well as bright new instructors.
Teams potentially give you access to more people and this provides a platform where relationships can be formed, on and off the mat, which can have positive impacts on people and the community. A good friend of mine, who is a BJJ black belt in his own right, sponsors a couple of teammates less financially fortunate than him, allowing them to train and compete at world-class levels as colored belts. He does this, in large part, because of his love for his team and the opportunity for “positive community” that it represents. All in all, there are many positives that teams can bring to BJJ, the culture and to individuals
Now let’s take a look at the argument against teams or more specifically, the downsides that can come with teams.
BJJ teams, like any large groups, are only as good as the people in them and who lead them. That said, they are subject to the same issues that other social/political groups in society have: bullying, greed impacting choices, sexual harassment, personal favoritism etc. You do not have to look to far to find potential examples of this in the BJJ community. BJJ forums and social media have many examples of people accusing academies of “selling belts” and/or promoting primarily on attendance as opposed to merit. The term “McDojo” has been thrown around implying that, again, quality instructors and progression are secondary concerns at those academies and on those teams.
On an even more serious and disturbing note, last year the media hovered around a major BJJ team in the United States due to accusations of sexual harassment and impropriety. These examples expose the potential negative sides of teams in BJJ. These are examples of environments that can exist when politics outweigh merit and/or a cult-like atmosphere is allowed to thrive.
Also, those not on the largest teams are still able to benefit from the increased exposure they have to top BJJ athletes today. In today’s BJJ culture, seminars are done across “team borders” on a regular basis. For example, it is common to see an athlete from a team like Atos do seminars for non-Atos schools. This increased availability is enhanced by all the good video (via YouTube and a number of Brazilian jiu jitsu centric sites) now at everyone’s fingertips. The exclusive access that may have once been perceived to exist simply does not in today’s BJJ culture.
So, how important is the team in today’s BJJ culture? In my opinion, teams are part of the rich history that comes with Brazilian jiu jitsu. The “good”, represented by something like the legendary breeding grounds that were some of the original super-teams and the “bad”, represented by the sometimes violent rivalries and splits are all part of the story that is Brazilian jiu jitsu. When we put on the gi for the first time, we are doing more than taking up a martial art; we are entering a culture that we have the honor of potentially enriching. Teams are a large part of that, a potential vehicle of learning and a connection to the past.
That said, individual circumstances should dictate whether or not you join a team and/or what team you do join. The local academies, quality of instruction and academy culture compared to your individual values are all more important factors to your individual BJJ journey than the patch on your gi. The availability of technical resources today provides you and your local academy the ability to take advantage of “mega-team resources” without having to be part of a “mega-team”.
Two examples of this are the Yemaso Academy in California run by top black belt, Marcos Torregrossa and Cicero Costha’s academy in Brazil. These are “independent” academies providing top-level instruction as demonstrated by the results of their athletes (Elliot Kelly, the Miyao Brothers, Leandro Lo, etc) at the highest levels of the sport. Their results show that success is not exclusive to the largest teams. Some academies, like the new Unity Academy in New York, have instructors from different teams partnering up to teach. Unity has instructors like Murilo Santana (Barbosa Team) and the Miyao Brothers (Cicero Costha).
The existence of all of these types of academies allow you to look beyond the sign on the door to find the best social environment, where you feel safe and respected, in addition to instruction that meets your needs. The team in today’s BJJ culture should be one of the strongest tools to help deliver positive individual experiences. This will also help provide opportunities for individuals both to further their journeys and to impact the culture. A good team can play a very important role in BJJ culture today as, at its best, it allows the individual to contribute to it while it positively contributes to the individual and the community!