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Manage the Distance, Manage the Damage

September 6, 2012

Empowering - not just protecting - kids from bullies

By Aaron Blevins, 8/30/2012

Gracie Academy brings unique approach to battling the problem of bullying.

Students in Los Angeles and across the country are learning that it can be easier to deal with bullies when they have more than 80 years of Brazilian jiu-jitsu expertise in their corner.

While the Gracie Bullyproof program, named after the famed Gracie jiu-jitsu family, teaches self-defense techniques and verbal assertiveness strategies, the method does not involve punches or kicks. It does, however, teach nonviolent control holds that have been refined through three generations of Gracie fighters.

"The Gracie Bullyproof philosophy is this: a confident child is a bullyproof child," said Rener Gracie, who runs Gracie Academy Beverly Hills alongside his brother, Ryron.

Rener is a blackbelt in Gracie jiu-jitsu, and his father, Rorion, created the Ultimate Fighting Championship. His uncle, Royce, is a three-time UFC tournament champion. The brothers opened the Beverly Hills location in June, though the family's main school is in Torrance.

The Gracies have taught children jiu-jitsu for years, though it was in 2008 when the family really let its bullying program loose. Rener said the methods they teach are the exact same methods they learned from their father at the young age of 4.

"That's something we benefitted from our whole lives," he said.

Rener said the main obstacle in putting an end to bullying is restoring the power imbalance between the bully and victim. Generally, if an incident occurs, parents tell their children to alert his or her teacher of the activity, but bullies strike when teachers are not looking.

If telling the teacher fails, Rener said, the schools and administrators are frequently blamed. Discussions with the child's parents rarely work, and parents certainly can't take it into their own hands and threaten the bully, he said.

Rener said children must draw that proverbial line in the sand. Bullies single out children for a particular reason, which is that the victim is unlikely to defend his or herself, he said. The bullies have a perceived power advantage - whether it's a willingness to fight or popularity - and do not want to risk compromising that advantage. That's why the victim must challenge the bully, Rener said.

"Bullying starts with the kids; therefore, it must end with the kids," he said. "Meaning bullying is not a teacher issue. This is kind of breakthrough stuff here."

Gracie Bullyproof restores that power imbalance, Rener said. He said the child must stand up for him or herself, and if the child "checks" the bully - whether verbally or physically - the incidents will stop.

"We know that as grown-ups because bullies don't want to be challenged, and bullies don't want the headache of a difficult target," Rener said. "What do they want? The easy target."

In a 6-year-old's mind, the greatest fear is getting beaten up, he said. Additionally, the child is not accustomed to talking assertively, as that kind of behavior has likely resulted in them being sent to their room in the past.

Rener said Gracie Bullyproof teaches that, when an incident occurs, the child must make the bully make a decision by asking something to the effect of, "What do you want? Do you want to fight me? If so, do something about it. If not, stop wasting my time."

"That's a very clear line, but the problem is bullies don't like lines," Rener said, adding that body language is also very important. "[The victims] never get that decision to be made unless you push [the bullies] with that level of sharp language and confidence."

The victims never start the fight, but they must prepare for one, he said. If a bully wants a fight, the victim must manage the distance between the two. If the bully moves forward, the victim moves backward. Inevitably, the bully will be too aggressive, and that's when Gracie Bullyproof students strike.

"You have to actually prepare the child for war," Rener said. "Think about that. What's the greatest deterrent to war? The readiness to go. ...It's all about distance management. He who manages the distance manages the damage that can be done."

When the bully strikes, Gracie Bullyproof students are taught to change the distance between them abruptly and grab them in a way that their punches do not connect. Students are taught to stay on top of bullies until they tire themselves, and then they can negotiate.

"All we teach our students is to hold on," Rener added.

He referenced a child named Gordon, who had been bullied by the same child for six years. After attending a Gracie summer camp, he encountered the bully, who again took the opportunity to harass Gordon. Rener said Gordon grabbed the bully, put his knee on the bully's chest and held him until the scuffle was broken up. He said that, a week later, the bully thanked Gordon for not punching him in the face and suggested that he try out for the football team, as his tackle was impressive.

"The only reason there was that much respect after the fact was why? How he did it nonviolently allowed for the bully to save face in some regard," Rener said. "It's been incredibly effective. ...We're not teaching the kids how to fight. We're teaching them what they need to know and what they need to say and what they need to do to never get into fights - to not get picked on anymore. So they're not the target."

During a Gracie Bullyproof class last week, students worked on securing their "base" and practiced how to manage distance. Christina Trujillo drove from Pasadena so that her daughter, Gabrielle, 6, could attend class.

"They're amazing," Trujillo said. "They're very positive. I think they're excellent role models for the kids."

She said the Gracies lobby for students to have a proper diet, and at the dinner table, Trujillo rarely struggles to get her daughter to eat healthy foods. "Oh yea, Rener says..." is a common statement when discussing vegetables and other nutritious foods.

"That really resonates with her," Trujillo said.

Promoting nutrition is a large part of the classes. When running warm-up exercises, children were allowed to choose what exercise they would do next if they had a vegetable for lunch or tried a new food recently.

Rener said the academy also offers a character building program in which children score points for an opportunity to go to Gracie Game Day. The benchmark is the student's age multiplied by 100, and they get points from their parents, who monitor a behavior sheet. For example, in the citizenship lesson, children can get points for activities such as recycling a bottle. They get 20 points for doing it without a parent asking, and only 10 points when their parents have to request it.

Gracie Academy Beverly Hills also goes to schools to prevent bullying. Rener said the academy strives to "create a social structure that rewards the right behaviors rather than the self-created social structures that reward the bullies."

"It's accepted if it's allowed amongst the kids," he said. "What we want to create is a situation where kids are more socially recognized for stepping in and intervening when harassment's taking place."

Participants are given wristbands for intervening when a student is being harassed. The goal, for the student, is to capture the coveted black wristband.

The academy will host a free 90-minute seminar on Sept. 16 for children ages 5 to 12. It is located at 324 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills.