Impressionable students

I think as higher belts we seldom think about the influence that we have on the younger generation of students under us.

Last week after training, one of our instructors initiated a raw garlic eating contest. While garlic is known to be one of the healthiest foods in the world, eating a raw garlic clove right after an intense Jiu Jitsu class is a good way to make yourself gag (and we all know the smell will stick with you for a few hours).

Of course no one wanted to partake in this “challenge”, but eventually the instructor was able to “convince” a few brave souls to do it (I wasn’t one ;). At the same time one of the black belts was loudly exclaiming how “stupid” the whole affair was and how the other students didn’t need to do it.

But there were still a few students (mostly blue and purple belts) that listened to the instructor and ate the raw garlic anyway.

This really made me think about how impressionable students of BJJ can be, especially the younger, lower belts.

Positive Influence

Having the title of instructor or even being a senior student will indubitably have an effect on the character, development, and behavior of lower belt students.

While having this influence can be alluring, it also comes with shouldering a lot of responsibility. Students will constantly be looking at you to set a good example both on and off of the mats.

When my instructor first brought a well-known competitor to teach at our academy, most students only trained 3-4 times a week, even during tournament season. Our world champion instructor started training with us 5-6 times a week, often twice a day. As students, we learned very quickly that if we wanted to reach the next level and win at major tournaments like our instructor, we would also need to dedicate more time and effort to our training.

This isn’t to say that every academy’s goal is to produce tournament champions. But it will be your job as an instructor or academy owner to set the underlying mission for all of your students, thereby influencing them directly.

When I co-founded a martial arts academy, I helped teach the children’s class. I knew that my overall goal was to help them apply the lessons that we covered in class to their academic studies and ultimately, their everyday life. This meant that I had to embody the traits that I wanted my students to exhibit, namely being studious in my own academic studies, training diligently, and being balanced in both.

Being the current head instructor of a kids program, I am hyper aware of the impact that my influence will have on someone’s child, and I do not take this responsibility lightly. I make a concentrated effort to watch the words that I use and how I use them, especially because children are like sponges and pick up on every little detail of what we say and do, even when we are not aware of it.

For example, I make sure to use positive words rather than words with negative connotations such as ‘mistake’ or ‘wrong.’ I know it might seem simple, but this little action could greatly affect the way a child views themselves and his/her overall confidence in the class.

Oftentimes, an instructor is unaware or perhaps forgets how much of an influence he has over his students and potential students. I will never forget watching a fundamental class where two women came to try out the class. I know this was probably an uncomfortable moment for them given that there weren’t many women in the class at the time and instead of making these female students feel welcomed and using his influence to make the class an enjoyable experience for them, the instructor only focused on the things that they did poorly and went so far as to call them out in front of the whole class.

Can you guess if they decided to stay and sign up?

Negative Influence

This is a great illustration of how one’s influence can be missed used. In this case, the instructor did not use his ability as a teacher and a martial artist to help these two female students see the benefits of studying Jiu Jitsu for self defense, fitness, etc. They might have had such an unpleasurable experience that they completely write off taking any other martial arts classes.

Again, we can never fully understand the weight of what we say and do will have on students.

Of course, along with a positive influence an instructor can have over impressionable students, s/he could also have a negative influence.

The “rivalries” that occur in our sport and between different schools is another example of how an instructor’s influence is often misused. Being from a major competition team, it was and still is frowned upon if I go to certain non affiliated academies for an open mat, or a social activity. When there are situations where friends are not able to train with each other for no other reason than because they wear different patches on their backs, then something is going terribly wrong.

In a competitive sport such as Jiu Jitsu, performance enhancing drugs is a topic that comes up a lot and I would be interested in how many users got their start at the suggestion of an instructor or higher belt. Imagine being an up and coming competitor and your instructor expresses indirectly that an illegal drug would grant you a better chance of winning the next big tournament or becoming a world champion.

Can you imagine how difficult it would be for a very impressionable student to stand up to his professor and decline their offer.

If the instructor(s) are okay with its usage and even promote or partake in it, then students are more likely to find its use more acceptable, even those that would not normally get into it.

Of course, not all students will be totally influenced by their instructors. There are some that will be naturally less impressionable than others, but there might be even more students that don’t realize they are being influenced by their instructors into a certain habit or behavior.

As far as the instructor in my story above, he didn’t eat the raw garlic in this particular instance but has been known to do it often by the complaints of his wife. For what it’s worth, I do believe that it would have had a much larger impact if he did it along with the students as maybe more would have been inspired by him taking part.

In the world of bjj where instructors and senior students garner so much respect it is more than likely that a good percentage of their newer students will be highly impressionable. Therefore, instructors and upper-belts have an imperative or duty not to abuse their influence and more importantly, make sure they are not negatively influencing those lower ranked, younger students that look up to them.