For many young people, training jiu jitsu is a guiding light that keeps them on the right path. Especially in areas where
economic and social advancement seem more likely to occur through criminal activity than legal means.
Italian post-graduate student Gabriele Paone (Bologna University) conducted an ethnographic study which chronicled a 6-month
training session with a jiu jitsu nonprofit operating out of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, called the
Terere Kids Project, (TKP), founded by jiu jitsu
legend Fernando Terere.
In an excerpt from his study posted on the TKP website entitled, My name is Buda, and I am a fighter,
Paone highlights Alexandre Buda Ribeiro and discusses his involvement with drug trafficking, incarceration and
ultimate redemption through jiu jitsu.
After a stint in prison and fall back into trafficking, Ribeiro gave it all up to train and coach. Recalling the tearful night he quit his gang affiliation, saying, I don’t
want any of it anymore. I don’t want this life anymore … I’m not happy. That day he gave all his remaining product and
guns to a reciprocal member, returned to training and hasn’t stopped.
It’s not implausible for any young person from any background or circumstance to veer off course. The battle to make good
decisions and avoid negative entanglements pervades everyone. But growing up in a Brazilian favela offers
many alluring factors to turn to crime. First of all, the economic gain deriving from criminal activity is the most
immediate and attractive benefit, especially in a community in which the majority of residents live with a salary below
the Brazilian minimum wage … However, money is not the only motivation, Paone said in his study.
Defining a drug trafficker as a hero might seem paradoxical, but it’s exactly in this way he appears in the eyes of
many of the youngest members of the community. Furthermore, many children here grow up without a paternal figure,
and I deem this absence to be one of the reasons pushing young people to approach crime--where an older trafficker
welcomes him as if he were his own child, he added.
Jiu jitsu professors and pro competitors are positive alternatives to these archetypal heroes and paternal figures. Many
teenagers training at the TKP gym say Tererê is like a father to them. Paone attributes this to a family environment
characterized by an absent father figure. In this sense, the jiu jitsu professor is someone who can, at least partially,
fill the lack caused by the absence of a biological or adoptive father.
Also, with regard to gang affiliation, jiu jitsu offers many of the same elements that appeal to youth like a sense of
belonging to a group, hierarchical structure, sparring, power, safety and respect.
Sometimes it can simply be something positive to focus on. Terere used jiu jitsu to navigate his way through the harsh
environment of Rio de Janeiro’s favela community, ultimately finding athletic success as 5x world champion.
His mission now is to provide the same pathway for other youth from similar backgrounds by creating access to free
jiu-jitsu training, as well as education and professional athletic development.
In the U.S., jiu jitsu is being used in a diversion program that provides juvenile justice-involved youth with therapeutic
support and mental health intervention. Evolution Youth Services,
in Denver, Colorado, gets young people who have become involved with the juvenile justice system, and puts them through a
program that includes training jiu jitsu for a minimum of 12 weeks.
They cater to angry, aggressive adolescents who need therapy or treatment but won’t sit in an office or engage with a
therapist. For these types of youth in particular, jiu jitsu offers a unique opportunity to regulate emotion. They can
work on anger management and other social and emotional regulation skills in real time against real confrontation.
According to the program’s founder and executive director, Dave Stokes, this emotional regulation training reduces their
aggressive tendencies. Stokes’ unique qualification combines 20-years of experience in the mental health intervention
community with 12 years of training jiu jitsu. His partner, Linda Mann, serves as the company’s director of clinical
services and provides on-the-mat therapy to their clients, both as a licensed counselor and as a jiu jitsu blue belt.
Research studies like the one’s from Janell Joseph’s article, Physical Culture and Alternative Rehabilitation,
indicate a therapeutic quality to training jiu jitsu does exist. A quality powerful enough to be used as an effective
means of reformation. They claim a combination of philosophical and psychological components must be added to the
physical training to be an effective method of reformation. While likely true in some cases, we can look to examples
like Buda Ribeiro to see that just providing access to traditional training is enough.
After-school and summer programs offer a perfect platform to deliver free access. For years they’ve kept youth safe,
inspired them to learn and helped working families. They mitigate risks, connect students to a support system and
build positive social connections.
In Austin, Texas, I work with a jiu jitsu nonprofit called Samurai School. We use after-school as our primary means
of teaching, focusing on Title I schools which receive federal support for low-income students. But we serve all
varieties and offer classes for elementary, middle and high school levels so our students can train every year until
graduation and develop a solid foundation in the sport.
The curriculum follows a traditional jiu jitsu regimen, the difference is we often train on thin, foldable mats formerly
stored in dark corners of old campuses. The mats could be torn, old or dusty but we clean them up and put them in any
nook or cranny we can find. Our training grounds have included weight rooms, stages, cafeterias, classrooms, hallways
and gyms. We’ll roll on pretty much anything, anywhere. We’d consider rolling on cardboard if a situation demanded,
because we know the transformative power of training.
Unlike commercial academy practitioners, our students didn’t seek out a place to train. More than likely, they’ve never
even heard of jiu jitsu before meeting us and will think it’s karate. We’re usually just one option among many while
they wait to be picked up or ride the bus.
If they show promise and want to compete but can’t financially support the costs, we provide tournament entry fees and
gis. And top-performing students, in good standing, can qualify to train with local academies’ competition teams up to
5 days per week.
We see timid kids develop confidence every year, sometimes in as little as 4 weeks. Others have won medals in local
competitions, de-escalated potential altercations and negotiate non-violent resolutions to conflict on campus.
As testaments to the therapeutic quality of training jiu jitsu and the effectiveness of using it for empowerment,
nonprofits like these are improving the well-being of young people globally.