Brazilian jiu jitsu may be an individual sport but it’s a challenge to make any progress without support from our team mates and instructors. Group cohesion – that is, the way a group sticks together and works towards a common goal – is important to help us all achieve our aims in BJJ and enjoy ourselves in the process.
While some teams might work well together naturally, group cohesion is something that can be intentionally developed. Some of these team building principles may seem obvious at first but my sport psychology experiences suggest that we can all benefit by applying these concepts more consistently.
Just because people train regularly together, it doesn’t automatically mean that the group functions well. Like any relationship, long-lasting team cohesion takes work. Thankfully, there are five principles that we can use to help teams become more cohesive: Proximity, Similarity, Fairness, Distinctiveness and Social Support.
Unsurprisingly, group commitment tends to be higher when team mates spend more time in physical proximity to one another. This principle is quite easily satisfied in BJJ since it’s difficult to practise it without sharing your training partner’s personal space! This provides an in-built mechanism for supporting proximity but there is also value in finding other ways for academy members to interact. Beyond working together on the mats to improve our jiu jitsu, we are social creatures who have a psychological need for meaningful human relationships.
In addition to weekly training sessions, other opportunities for proximity include travelling together as a team and staying at the same place for competitions, gathering together for seminars or training camps, and organising social events outside the academy. Recognise that club members join for a number of reasons. Some are more focused on the task, some more on the social aspects of the BJJ lifestyle. It is important to provide different ways for the team to engage with one another.
We are more likely to feel part of a team when we have more in common with our team mates. One of the great things about BJJ is that it attracts a wide cross-section of individuals, people of different ages, genders, backgrounds, attitudes, shapes and sizes. The key here is to highlight similarities rather than differences.
Instructors and unofficial leaders such as long-standing members have a role to play in establishing a sense of togetherness through a team identity with shared purpose and values. This is where spending time with one another also helps. It gives team mates a chance to develop shared experiences. And, while the idea of team uniforms is hotly debated in online BJJ communities, it can be an effective way to encourage cohesion among the group. Establishing team traditions can also promote a sense of similarity.
Careful use of feedback, rewards and punishment can help to create a positive team climate. Expectations for the group should be clear, and applied fairly and consistently among members. Instructors and team mates can influence this to create a sense of social equality. While good performances should be acknowledged, it is important for instructors give attention to all students rather than just focusing on the star competitors (and letting them get away with behaviours that would be unacceptable if engaged in by others). People want to feel that they are a valued member of the team.
Perhaps, counter-intuitively, the team may also feel more cohesive if they experience an injustice. A bad decision from a referee can provide a topic for team mates to commiserate and bond over. In some respects, instructors use this principle when they make a post-promotion whipping or gruelling competition session compulsory. Everybody gets to grumble about the shared – if painful – experience. These techniques must be used with care, however. While such strategies can build a cohesive group, they place the instructor outside that team unit and potentially undermine students’ trust in him or her.
This is perhaps the principle where teams get to have the most fun. This is about creating and highlighting characteristics that mark your team out as different from others. Never have I felt more team commitment than when gathered with scores of red-shirted team mates chanting ‘Uh-a Gracie Barra’ on finals day at the World Championships. I’m sure the group in black on the other side of the Pyramid were equally as proud to wear their eagle emblem and sing ‘Alliance eu sou…’ Some strategies in this category enhance similarity as well as distinctiveness. Examples include team emblems, clothing, songs, traditions and even tattoos…
A solid team is built on a foundation of mutual support and respect. This is about helping team mates, listening to one another and communicating effectively. Again, the instructors and senior students are key role models here in encouraging pro-social behaviour which benefits the group. A genuine social network is one where the members care about one another. One way to offer social support is contacting an injured team mate to find out how they are and to include them in the social interactions of the team.
Team building: Multi-dimensional and Dynamic
BJJ is an interactive endeavour. We rely heavily on our training partners. Because of this, the whole of a team is greater than the sum of its parts. In this article, we’ve only touched on a handful of ideas for team building. Group cohesion is a multi-dimensional concept; it involves numerous aspects which must be balanced. It’s also dynamic. Team building strategies need to be adapted over time to meet the varying needs of the team and its members.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that team cohesion becomes harder to maintain as group size increases. The challenges facing a small-ish team like ATOS are quite different from those facing a bigger team like Gracie Humaita, and it’s interesting to note how the different teams have gone about this.
So what about your team? What do you do well already? And what could you improve?
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