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BJJ Advice & Opinions

The BJJ Community is Trauma Illiterate

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It’s been an intense week in the BJJ community. It was intensely painful for the myriad of victims of abuse or assault in their gyms, intensely difficult for the people who’ve worked years to expose this widespread issue and its coverup, and intensely shocking for tens of thousands of athletes who had no idea it was happening.

But, it’s also been overwhelming for coaches/gym owners. They now need to seriously rethink their approach to doing business and helping all athletes harmed by these events to overcome what trauma does to the human body.  

Yes, really. Trauma ruins athletic careers on a cellular level.

Unfortunately, as often happens when #metoo moments come to communities with little trauma literacy but lots of fighting spirit, we’re already seeing people mishandle this crucial, limited window for implementing positive changes. 

I get it—my jiu-jitsu journey began as a rape and assault survivor full of reactivity. My pain made me want to see the biggest, strongest, most destructive higher belts I trained with brutalizing my abusers. And since BJJ culture and Christianity have been woven together over the last half-century, I discovered most practitioners around me had an “eye for an eye“ approach to predators.

Then I grew up a lot, got into doing trauma healing work professionally, and invested in a proper education on how to do it without royally fucking everything up for everyone. That research taught me that reactively barreling into vigilante “justice” and rooting the work in anger instead of action hogties survivors, allies, and even the legal system trying to prosecute abusers.

As a “trauma-informed practitioner” working with survivors of all ages and genders, it’s been encouraging to see so many coaches, high belts, and community members enthusiastically wanting to help. But it also concerns this because so few people operate as “trauma-informed” coaches or even know that’s a thing a person can be. 

The reality is that when we don’t have any education in trauma work, even our best intentions can mutate into accidental harm, as well as a total failure to correct the critical issues exposed this week. 

So now feels like a good time to share just a few of the very affordable, easily accessible resources there are for 

a) properly understanding and handling trauma

b) correcting our approach to working with survivors

c) spotting the roots of predatory and/or abusive behavior trying to grow in the gyms we love

BOOKS YOU CAN DOWNLOAD OR ORDER TODAY

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

Considered one of the most important books on trauma released in our lifetimes, it’s on the required reading list for psychology students, certified trauma therapists, social workers, medical doctors, and survivors for a reason. Also available on audiobook for those who learn better by listening. 

Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, by Dr. James Gilligan

A comprehensive guide (by a prison psychiatrist) to understanding cycles of violence and why those who teach/train violence need to understand how it works outside of training. This explains why shaming men is not the antidote to violence against women and children. 

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, by Judith Herman, M.D.

One of the foundational pieces written on handling traumatic events and trauma victims by a Harvard Medical School professor and founding member of the Women’s Mental Health Collective. 

Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse, by Dr. Mic Hunter

Researched by a clinical psychologist with years of experience treating male victims of child sexual abuse, it busts the myth that male child sex assault is rare while clearly outlining the physical and emotional consequences of childhood abuse. Factors that affect recovery are also discussed. 

When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection, by Dr. Gabor Mate 

Another newer addition to the trauma cannon, Mate’s work focuses on just how disabling—even deadly—the consequences of sexual abuse, violent trauma, and bullying can be. An excellent resource for coaches, parents, and athletes who’d like to learn more about the topic.

Healing the Shame that Binds You, by Dr. John Bradshaw

One of the most recommended books ever for survivors and recovering addicts. (Survivors are often addicts.) Bradshaw covers the toxic shame victims sometimes carry for a lifetime, properly making amends with others; and techniques for moving beyond shame-based living. 

The Body Remembers Casebook: Unifying Methods and Models in the Treatments of Trauma and PTSD, by Babette Rothschild, MSW

A reminder of why there is no one-size-fits-all “treatment” for trauma and PTSD, the book acts as a  guide to the many new and emerging resources on exactly how the bodies of trauma survivors are different from their peers. Also on audiobook.

Inside the Mind of Sexual Predators: Predatory Rapists, Pedophiles, and Criminal Profiles, by Dennis J. Stephens, PhD

Essential reading for those looking to spot and neutralize groomers, predators, and violent personalities before they become comfortable in your community. Not appropriate reading for individuals currently affected by acute trauma or severe PTSD. 

Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men, by Dr. James Hollis

A quick read on how Western men have ended up angry, violent, frustrated, and trapped in “perpetual adolescence.” It is especially useful for coaches/owners who seek to turn their gym into a genuinely safe environment that produces better people, not just better athletes. 

Beyond books, ALL gyms can also benefit from having at least one, if not several, employees trained in working with survivors of abuse of any kind—sexual, violent, racial, homophobia, etc. Classes and seminars which provide this training are almost always tax-deductible expenses, and in some cases, the education is free. Which means there’s no real reason for people not to do it. 

These are just a few organizations you can contact to set up training:

Organizations Which Offer Education, Certification, and Support

RAINN: The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization for adults and children.

www.rainn.org

SafeSport: An independent non-profit committed to eliminating emotional, physical, and sexual misconduct from athletics. 

https://safesport.org

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: For those looking to escape or help individuals harmed by domestic violence. 

https://ncadv.org/get-help

National Sexual Violence Resource Center: A leading provider of free courses and certificate classes for preventing, and assisting with, sexual violence. 

https://campus.nsvrc.org/

National Victim Assistance Academy: Offers free, self-paced training for advocates and allies. 

https://www.ovcttac.gov/views/TrainingMaterials/NVAA/index.cfm?nm=nvaa

This list isn’t even close to comprehensive and not intended to be. Working with survivors to help them heal and creating environments that protect students from trauma should be a lifetime study. New science and research are being published every year, and best practices evolve as our collective understanding of human brains and bodies improves. Staying curious saves lives. 

And if you don’t have the time for this work, hey…that’s a shame, given how little it takes to read a book or take a seminar, but it’s also life. So here are four things you can personally do with zero effort not to make things worse: 

Resist the urge to drag men collectively. Men are, in fact, often victims of predators, sexual assailants, and enablers. This Past Monday, I took a statement from a brown belt male who was harassed, threatened with death, and black-balled from the gym he devoted his life to for reporting a coach’s violent abuse of his domestic partner. He now carries a gun because he fears for his life, has had to pay out of pocket for therapy to cope with the death threats, and no longer trains jiu-jitsu because “doing the right thing” resulted in being ostracized by every gym in his area. When we drag men collectively—and I’m 100% guilty of doing this in my most reactive moments—we invalidate their suffering, as well as alienate allies desperately needed to make lasting change.

Reframe what it means to listen. Many people listen only to respond. Ben Wilcox, a brown belt and longtime trauma worker recommends that “cis-gender men especially start by believing the survivor you’re talking to. Then, allow yourself to set aside what you think you know to learn. Most importantly, let it break your heart.” 

Remember what the end goal IS. The end goal is NOT shaming/scaring predators and their enablers. The end goal IS creating a trauma-literate, broadly inclusive community which excludes predators/abusers by design while providing survivors with the resources they need to heal. 

If you can’t bring yourself to say “I’m sorry,” then say nothing. Sexual abuse, rape, bullying, and trauma are horrible. It’s a normal human response not to know what to say when absorbing something horrible. If you don’t know what to say in conversations about this subject, that’s okay—but be aware that victim-blaming, what about-isms, making promises you don’t intend to keep, jokes or personal attacks on those doing the hard work are all part of the problem. So if you can’t say something supportive, please: Say less. 

Thank you to Ben Wilcox (@benbcjj), trauma worker & brown belt; Edward Simon, psychology doctoral candidate & white belt; @_jitsbitch, trauma-informed advocate and blue belt; @armchairpsychiatrist, literal psychologist; and Dr. Kevin Foose, psychologist, for their contributions to this list.

Author

Author

Kimberly Kaye is a certified FMHC, nutritionist, EPT, and gut microbiome supernerd. An adaptive athlete with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, she is a purple belt under Mestre Cocada and Ray Lopez at NOLA Mixed Martial Arts. You can find her on Instagram at @kimberly_kaye where she often curses too much.

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