Jiu-Jitsu Letter

Ryan Hall's Open Letter

Nearly ten years ago, Ryan Hall wrote An Open Letter to the Martial Arts Community.1 Surprisingly, it’s still up, and it’s actually mirrored on Tim Ferriss’s site here. It’s still relevant and I re-read it every couple years.

I haven’t asked for permission to post it here, so here are a few excerpts:

About hero worship:

It is sometimes said that a person should not meet his or her heroes, because there’s a good chance they will leave disappointed with the human being in front of them when they were hoping for something more.

But what if our heroes, rather than simply disappointing us, used the influence they hold over us to manipulate our emotional attachment to them for their own benefit? How would we feel about them then? Would we even realize what they were doing or would we be too blinded by our affection to see their machinations for what they are? Dark colored belts and gold medals have a way of obscuring the clarity of our vision.

Unlike players in the NFL or major leagues who tend to be somewhat inaccessible, in the martial arts world, our heroes not only interact with us from time to time, they also frequently peddle a product. In many cases, this product is touted as a magic elixir that will, for only a small fee (sometimes recurring…sometimes without our knowledge), help make us more like them. What’s worse is when some of these “heroes” band together, endorse one another, and double down on their ability to fleece the unsuspecting and impressionable.

On your teacher/school owner:

When someone visits or enrolls at my academy, I am incentivized to be a nice guy. It’s in my interest both professionally and personally. If you pay me for classes and I provide a service to you, it does not follow logically that I am a lovely human being. It simply means that I fulfilled our contract and did so in a manner that is more likely than not to generate return business. Perhaps you’ll stick around for a few years or more, we will share time and experience together, develop a real friendship beyond the training room, and you will decide that I am a person worthy of your respect. Or perhaps you’ll see things that make you decide that I am not. Your decision should not be influenced by gifts I give you or speeches I make, though. It should be based on those times you caught me when I thought no one was looking. How did I act then? How do I handle my employees, some of whom may have no recourse were I to mistreat them? Do my interactions with them seem like an actual relationship or more like some too- perfect Truman Show re-run? Do they do a good job and operate professionally, or does it extend to being at my beck and call like slaves?

On trust:

Each day we train, we hold our partners’ safety, even their life, in the palm of our hand. This is a sacred trust and it creates an implied contract that, though often unspoken, is the foundation of why the martial arts is different than almost every other area of endeavor in which a civilian will ever participate. It bonds us together more tightly than those who have never trained can easily understand. This bond and the feeling of trust that comes with it can all too simply be twisted and used to manipulate its owner.

As conscientious martial artists, we must be fully aware of the power we hold over those underneath us. Lower ranks look up to and often too lightly lionize those of higher rank. The reality is that the more advanced have been practicing for longer, started earlier, and nothing more. In the eyes of the new student, though, particularly the young one, these people may as well be superheroes with powers they cannot fathom possessing. More than knowledge, these more advanced students hold the power to control others, harming or not harming, assisting or ignoring them as they see fit. Even if it isn’t discussed, that is a deeply primal thing in the mind of a person. It is not to be abused.

On cults:

Once an individual has been accepted as part of the group, they often jealously defend their position not only to the outside world whenever the group is questioned, but also internally. Due to the high degree of emotional investment and intense social pressure, attacks on the group are often countered in a knee- jerk fashion with little or no thought as to whether or not the attack in question is a valid one. This can be plainly seen as we have watched numerous less than intelligent, obviously brainwashed individuals grossly overstep their bounds in attacking the immediate family of one of their cult mates when that family expressed justifiable concern over the influences to which their son and brother is being exposed. This behavior is indefensible.

This phenomenon exists in all sorts of varying degrees, sometimes catalyzed by hurt feelings, sometimes permitted through the silence of otherwise reasonable people. How many of us have watched someone we know be branded a “creonte” or a traitor for changing academies? Did we even take the time to discern their reason for leaving or did we just accept at face value that there must be something wrong with them because they no longer want to play in the same sandbox we do? Call me crazy, but I don’t try to convince my students that they have joined a gang and agreed to forever submit to my will when they sign up at my academy. Who knows, though? Maybe I’m dropping the ball—I do twitch a lot.

Read the whole thing.

  1. At the time, there was news about rape and abuse in the BJJ community, and then more was uncovered about a certain controversial figure in BJJ. Hall was a close associate in his early career before breaking away. Ryron and Rener made a video about what happened on YouTube here↩︎

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