Counterpoint Featuring Tom DeBlass: The Value of Formality

A few days ago I put together an article exploring the idea of tradition in jiu jitsu (“Traditional” Mindsets Vs. Having Fun).  One point that I touched on was formality, which I personally do not value.  In fact I believe that formality can hurt delicate interpersonal relationships that can form in a jiu jitsu academy.  I believe that mandatory formal titles like “professor” or “coach” can be harmful to a gym’s culture.

Every now and then when I write a piece, people reach out to me to share their thoughts on it.  Well respected black belt Tom DeBlass, whose academy has produced some of the best current talent in jiu jitsu and who himself is a champion in his own right, reached out to express disagreement with the specific points that I made about formal titles.  I asked if he would be so kind as to help me write an article expressing his viewpoint, and he graciously obliged.

“I think it’s imperative that we keep some kind of formality and we keep the art in martial arts.  I think that showing respect goes both ways, from teacher to student and from student to teacher.  My students call me professor, it simply means ‘teacher’ in Portuguese.  In fact they call all the black belts at my school professor, when you get a black belt in my school you’ve earned that title, but that doesn’t mean that white belts, or blue belts, or purple belts are any less respected; everybody’s respected.  It’s just that the term ‘professor,’ bowing to your partner and showing respect and professionalism means a lot.  In order to have a big academy, and a place that welcomes everybody I believe respect is one of the most important values you can have.”

Given his academy’s impressive output over the past few years, Professor DeBlass speaks from a place of experience.  I was curious about why he feels that simply using the formal prefix would make such a profound difference:

“It helps to keep the respect in martial arts.  It’s a small piece of a big puzzle.  I think that when a new student comes in and they see someone yell across the room to the teacher ‘Hey!  Hey Tom!’ The automatic impression they get is that this is more of a gym, not an academy, and I run a jiu jitsu academy with hundreds of students from all walks of life, and I’m honored to have THEM on the mats.  It’s a mutual give and take.”

He did however make a clear distinction that while respect must permeate all aspects of life; formality is a factor only for the academy.

“When we aren’t in the Academy and we are off the mats, I don’t let my students call me Professor.  I’m just Tom.  But inside the Academy I do my best to keep the teacher student relationship, even with my best friends.”

As a final thought on this subject, DeBlass has this to share with us:

“Respect goes both ways.  An instructor can’t demand respect from their students if they’re not giving their students respect.  Everybody who walks through the door deserves respect.  I have students from all walks of life who I actually learn from!  For example a student that I just recently promoted to black belt is an extremely successful businessman that has helped me in every aspect of my life.  So in a way they’re also my teachers.  They know how much I care about them, and how much I put on the line for them.  They know how much I give them so to call me Professor is just a very small piece, but I wouldn’t expect any respect unless I’m sacrificing for and respecting my students.”

There is no black and white answer to any question of this nature, and at Jiu Jitsu Times we always welcome dissent with points made in our articles.  If you ever feel that you have something to contribute to a discussion share it in the comments, or reach out to the writer individually.  It’s always worth exploring.

So for the readers out there, how do you feel about this subject?  Do you feel that Professor DeBlass is correct in his assertion that the title Professor is crucial in conveying respect?  Or do you agree with my original point that formality can hurt a culture?


  1. I agree that it should stay on the mats, if at all. I’m not in Brazil and “professor” doesn’t mean “teacher” here. No one refers to their high school math teacher as “professor” so-and-so. Working in academia I can say that very few faculty members make students call them “professor” or “doctor,” even though those titles are arguably harder to earn than a bjj black belt (becoming a full professor is definitely harder). Seems kind of narcissistic but if Tom thinks he’s a professor and insists that’s what you call him then so it goes.


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