5 Key Practices of Sportsmanship in Martial Arts
In judo, we bow to our opponent before sparring. In jiu-jitsu, we slap hands and bump fists. In boxing, we touch gloves. Pretty much every martial art has something similar, an expression of respect for our training partners.
But as in all sports, we sometimes see displays of poor sportsmanship in martial arts, both in training and competition. Learning good sportsmanship is as important to your training as learning moves and techniques, and it can also be a factor in determining promotion to the next rank. Here we review some of the key sportsmanship practices in jiu-jitsu.
1. Respecting Your Opponent
We all need training partners to get better at jiu-jitsu, and for those who wish to compete, we also need opponents who are willing to face us in competition. Your opponent is giving you a tremendous gift: the opportunity to step out on a mat and test your skills. You should be thankful for your opponents, and always treat them with respect.
Trash talking is an obvious example of poor sportsmanship and is unbecoming of a true martial artist. But there are other less obvious ways in which competitors sometimes disrespect their opponents.
Over-celebration after winning a match is a disrespectful practice. It’s normal to be excited when one wins a match. Smiling, jumping with excitement, or raising one’s hands in the air are all normal human reactions to the joy of winning. But celebrating in a way that shows arrogance or belittles your opponent is never okay. Flexing muscles or beating on one’s chest, mean-mugging the opponent or their coach, or spending an excessive amount of time celebrating a win are all forms of disrespect. And of course, you should always remember to shake your opponent’s hand and thank them after a match.
Likewise, reacting poorly to a loss is also bad sportsmanship. In the same way that you should respect an opponent who loses to you, you must also respect the opponent who beats you. Storming off the mat or refusing to shake hands are examples of bad sportsmanship. So is leaving the tournament before medals are awarded just because you don’t want to get up on the podium and stand in second or third place for photos with your opponent. Losing matches, and learning how to accept those losses, is a huge part of the journey in martial arts.
2. Respecting Other Academies
It’s a good thing if you believe that your academy is the best place around to train. It means you are training in the right place! But it’s important to understand that different academies have different cultures and missions. Some academies are more competition oriented, some are more self-defense oriented, and some are focused primarily on fitness or building community. An academy can serve many purposes. You should recognize that many other local academies are providing valuable services to the jiu-jitsu community. You are not better than another human being just because they train at a different academy than you. Trash talking other academies without reason, either in person or on social media, is unbecoming of a true martial artist. (That being said, if an academy is engaging in unethical practices, it is important for other academies to come together and call them out!).
At the end of the day we are all part of the global jiu-jitsu community, and we must not lose sight of this. I personally enjoy visiting other academies to train when I travel, and I sometimes enjoy invitations from students at other local academies to visit their open mats. It’s all part of building community and accepting each other’s differences!
3. Respecting the Referees
Refs have a tough job. They are human, and matches are often fast-paced. Positions change quickly, and it can be hard to remember or see who has what color ankle band in some positions. Even the best referees occasionally make mistakes.
If you believe that your match was scored unfairly, you have every right to respectfully question the ref’s decisions. But yelling at a ref or getting in their face is never okay.
Likewise, trying to pretend you didn’t tap or verbally submit to your opponent is poor sportsmanship. If your opponent let go of a submission because you tapped, and the ref didn’t see it, you need to be honest and admit that you lost. Even if the ref didn’t see it, consider that most people in the audience probably did, and everyone will know what kind of person you are if you don’t admit to tapping after the fact.
4. Respecting the Checkmate
If you are any good at jiu-jitsu, you should be able to recognize a “checkmate” position. Practicing escapes is important, but if your opponent has a submission tightly locked in, it’s time to tap! Failure to do so can result in getting hurt, and it’s also disrespectful to your opponent if you are unwilling to admit when they get the better of you. This goes for all belt levels. The true mark of a martial artist who is emotionally secure and confident in their own skills is when the artist is not afraid to occasionally tap to a much less experienced opponent.
I once had an opponent at a judo tournament tell me that she would tap to an arm bar in competition, but never to a choke. “I’d rather pass out than tap!” she proclaimed, clearly proud of her “toughness”. I wasn’t impressed. Refusing to tap to a secure and tight choke is disrespectful. When your opponent puts you in checkmate, they have earned the right to make you tap. Refusing to tap is petty, and it’s also unsafe!
5. Being a Good Training Partner
Almost any academy will have a wide range of skill levels, sizes, ages, and athleticism among its members. In spite of all these differences, remember that you are all on the same team. When you roll with someone, in any setting other than competition, the goal is for both training partners to get better at jiu-jitsu. It’s not just about you!
As we progress up through the ranks in jiu-jitsu, it can be easy to forget what it was like when we first started. It’s terrifying to be the least-experienced person in the room. The job of upper belts is to take the white belts under their wing and make them feel welcome and safe.
Jiu-jitsu skills are empowering, and power is addictive. When you have a high skill level, it can be very tempting to just completely dismantle a less experienced opponent in training. And in some cases, if the white belt is going unnecessarily hard, it may be justified. But however powerful it may make you feel, it is not your job to just beat up opponents who are smaller or less experienced. This practice is cowardly. You should save your A-game for the opponents who are actually capable of putting up real resistance.
A good rule of thumb is to let the less experienced partner set the pace in training. If a lower belt wants to go hard with you, you have a right to go hard back (so long as you are careful not to hurt your partner!). But if a lower belt wants to go slowly and try to be technical with you, give them a chance. Don’t just smash them. And use the opportunity of rolling with lower belts to work on techniques that you are not good at, rather than doing what you already do well. No matter how long you have been training, there is always more to learn!
Remember that martial arts cannot be practiced alone. You need your teammates and opponents to succeed. Building a strong community based on sportsmanship is beneficial to everyone. Jiu-jitsu is a personal journey, but it is not an individual practice.
Photos by Mike Calimbas.