If you have walked into a BJJ gym particularly a more traditional academy you may have noticed that the students refer to their coach as professor. For many, this may come as a shock as this title is only used to refer to academics who have obtained a professorship at a university.
Why Are BJJ Instructors Called Professor?
BJJ instructors are called professor because in Portuguese professor translates to teacher. When Brazilians came to American they mistranslated the title and continued to refer to themselves as professors. Only traditional gyms usually run by a Brazilian continue to use the term.
While it may seem odd and mysterious as to why BJJ coaches and instructors call themselves professors it simply comes down to a mistranslation from Portuguese to English. In Portuguese, any form of teacher is referred to as professor including school teachers, music teachers, and sports coaches.
When BJJ experts left Brazil and arrived in America they didn’t realize that the word professor is only used in specific contexts in English to refer to an academic with a professorship. They thought that because the same word is found in English that it could be used in the same fashion as it is in Brazil.
You also see a similar same situation with Japanese martial arts. Teachers and instructors are referred to as senseis. While this word doesn’t exist in English many martial arts coaches will insist that their students refer to them as sensei. The word sensei in English has now been changed from its meaning in Japanese to now refer to almost like a cult leader.
Even when these Brazilian martial arts immigrants found out that the word shouldn’t be used to refer to sports coaches they continued to use the term. They didn’t opt to change the word because they felt it was a part of their culture. It allowed them to keep ties to their Brazilian culture. They were proud that BJJ was a Brazilian martial art and didn’t want to change any of its customs as they were concerned that American influence would negatively affect the purity of the art.
The continued use of the term was also a way to elevate BJJ black belts to mythical status. Having 20 students all calling you professor and hanging onto every word you say is a way to elevate yourself to a powerful position. BJJ black belts marketed themselves as these wise warriors who had this deep esoteric knowledge. The use of the term professor all played into this image and was a great way to attract students who were looking for both spiritual and physical development.
Are All BJJ Black Belts Professors?
Only BJJ black belts who are instructors are professors. Black belts who not teach should not be referred as a professor while a lower belt who is an instructor should be called professor.
Whether or not a BJJ practitioner is a black belt has no bearing on your decision to refer to them as professor. A BJJ professor is a teacher, if a black belt is not a formal instructor then you should refrain from using the professor title.
This is why if your BJJ coach is a brown, purple, or even a blue belt then you should refer to them as professor.
Do You Have To Call Your BJJ Instructor Professor?
Only at traditional BJJ gyms where the coach is Brazilian will you have to call the instructor professor. This is becoming less and less common most instructors are ok with you calling them by their name or coach.
Many English speakers feel uncomfortable referring to their martial arts trainer as professor. It sounds ridiculous as the word is being used in the wrong context. However, if you find yourself training at an old school BJJ academy where the coach is Brazilian they may insist you use this term.
Fortunately, most instructors don’t insist on their students using the professor title. In the majority of BJJ gyms the environment is pretty relaxed and laid back. Students often refer to the instructor by their name or simply as a coach.
I have never trained at a gym where the term was used frequently. Some extra keen students would use it at a few gyms I’ve dropped into over the years but it was not the norm at all. There is just something cringy about using the term.
If the use of the term is a big deal to you then before you sign up at a BJJ academy give them a call and ask about how the instructors want to be addressed. To play it on the safe side avoid old school gyms and avoid gyms run by Brazilians. Gary from Texas is much less likely to want you to call him professor than Mauricio from Rio.