Running the Gauntlet

A successful grading in jiu jitsu results in a promotion of rank, be it either a minor promotion (stripe) or a major promotion (new coloured belt). It’s a big deal and is something that is normally celebrated, especially for those being awarded new belts. In my eight years of training I’ve¬†received¬†two belt promotions – firstly to blue belt in early 2008 and then to purple in May of 2011.

Over the years I’ve seen my coach and my club change a lot, and this is a good representation of how jiu jitsu itself is constantly growing and evolving. My very first lesson at The Academy resulted in my learning a basic armbar from mount. This is jiu jitsu 101 – a really basic movement that you’ll learn within the first few months.

Skip to 2:00 to see Rorian Gracie demonstrate this basic armbar, the way I first learnt it.

Except nothing in jiu jitsu is really basic; other than your understanding of a technique. As a result, I’ve seen this attack change over the years, and the way it’s been taught by my coach has evolved. The way he was taught seems so ancient and ineffective compared to how we’re doing things these days. I don’t think I’d enjoy training anywhere near as much as I do if I was at a club that didn’t grow as the sport grew.

This embrace of change has meant we try out lots of new things, and most of them are great. For example, our gradings (affectionatly called “Smash Sessions”) have changed format several times and now settled on a style that people love. It brings the affiliate clubs together and is an event everyone looks forward to. Everyone’s on the mat and everyone rolls hard, and we all love it. The old way of doing a grading was very systematic and very planned; now it’s much more free-flowing.

But not everything that changes I enjoy. A few months back a new practice (new to our club; not new to jiu jitsu as a whole) was trialed, and in my opinion, failed. The “running of the gauntlet” is a practice whereby new innitiates are welcomed to their rank. Two lines are formed and as the graduate walks through the passage they’re whipped by everyone else’s belts. It reminds me of American college hazing, and it’s not something I can relate to.

This isn’t our club, but you get the idea:

As a senior rank I took the opportunity to set an example, and partook in the exercise but specifically protested by lightly tapping the gauntlet runner on the back. Some people followed suit but too many for my liking took the opportunity to actually try and hurt someone. A free shot and a cheap shot.

That’s the exact opposite of what I want to get out of jiu jitsu, and to be honest I was embarrassed for our club. As an expectant parent, I was thinking about how I’d feel if my child was wanting to join a club that did this kind of thing. I later heard that there was serious protest from the women in our club too, who declared that under no circumstances would they be running any gauntlets. I can understand that, and considerin the serious gender bias we have towards men I’d like to see us lower as many barriers to entry as possible, rather than raise more.

Although there were rules around the process (don’t hit the face, no wild wind-up swings) these were largely ignored. Although most people showed some restraint and control it wasn’t always the case.

I don’t want to hurt my training partners; they’re people I genuinely care about (even the ones I don’t like ;) I don’t want to perpetuate the myth of the martial arts psycho. Or even worse – the bully.

A day later I spent half an hour on the phone with my coach after he invited me to discuss what I thought about the gauntlet. I told him everything I felt, and at the end of it he declared that it wasn’t something he saw the club doing again.

Was I just being a pussy? Maybe. I joke that if I wanted to hurt people I’d have started kickboxing instead, but there’s always some truth to every joke.

For me, there are two take away points here that are worth highlighting. Firstly, as the owner of the business and (now) an Australian black-belt champion, Adam is under no obligation to consider my opinion, but he did. I appreciated that a lot. I feel like it’s “my” club and he certainly reinforced that. Secondly, it’s important to note that unless we try new things we simply won’t advance. If we didn’t try new grading styles we wouldn’t have the awesome Smash Sessions we have now, and if we didn’t adapt our techniques to consider new grappling styles or trends then we wouldn’t advance jiu jitsu. Making the decision to try new things means you also run the risk of making mistakes. You can’t be scared of making mistakes, but you have to be able to admit them.

Making mistakes and learning from them is jiu jitsu. Nobody does jiu jitsu better than Adam Metcalf, and The Academy of Mixed Martial Arts.

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