7 Life Lessons I Learned from Brazilian Martial Arts

Patrick McCormack
May 11, 2018 · 11 min read
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Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

his might be a little hard to follow if you’ve never heard of capoeira (pronounced cap-O-air-a) before. But that’s okay. It’s something not fully understood in the mainstream anyway.

At the very least, you’ll learn some cool cultural trivia to impress your friends with tonight.

ithout getting too far into the weeds, what is capoeira?

In a nutshell, it’s a 400 year-old martial art invented in Brazil by African slaves. For centuries, Portuguese slavers kidnapped east African tribes people and shipped them to Brazil to work sugar plantations. A key difference of the Brazilian slave trade was that typically families were kept together. Keeping loved ones together was thought to better subdue the slave population.

A byproduct of this practice was that the slave’s tribal cultures were preserved despite them never seeing their homes again.

A hybrid dance and fight, thought to originate in Angola over many centuries, grew to eventually become the Brazilian martial art of capoeira.

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Capoeira, Augustus Earle (1793–1838) — Wikipedia

Named for the tall grass slaves secretly trained in, capoeira was a symbol of rebellion. It succeeded in helping a settlement of escaped slaved fend off 24 attacks by fully-armed Portuguese soldiers.

razil abolished slavery in 1899. In an attempt to conceal slavery’s vile history, the government burned most of the records of the slave trade, including many listing the slaves’ home origins.

Capoeira soon became associated with thugs and gangs who fought to survive on the streets.

It was outlawed and nearly died out. But in the 1920s a man who would become one of the greatest masters of all time, Mestre Bimba, is credited with helping to end Brazil’s prohibition of capoeira in 1940.

Capoeira arrived in the US in the late 60s and early 70s. Brazilian immigrants to New York found students and eventually contributed to the development of break dancing. It quickly spread to the West Coast and Florida.

Today, capoeira is trained across the globe by men, women, and children of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.

It is a fight, game, dance, and cultural expression wrapped in one. That’s why it’s so difficult to understand from a distance. A game of capoeira is played between two people for a few seconds up to a couple of minutes. Using attacks and counter attacks, their goal is to create something beautiful with their bodies by flowing through tight spaces while avoiding kicks and jabs.

Two people playing capoeira is like two singers harmonizing a song.

It can also become combative, like a rap battle. Two players kick and flip at a fast pace, actively trying to hit each other. One wrong move can mean falling on your butt or worse — a kick to the face or ribs. Capoeira can be stunningly beautiful one moment and in the next it could be a combative flurry.

I was a student of capoeira for 11 years. I retired from the sport in 2015 after achieving an upper-level student rank.

Here are seven lessons capoeira taught me that I continue to apply to my life.

1. Don’t Get Boxed In

Capoeira is played in a circle. It’s akin to a boxing ring. Two players duke it out, except instead of only punching they also kick, jump, or spin on their heads.

You have to be ready for almost anything to happen.

Like a boxer, you don’t want to get cornered. You need to find the open space and take it. Many novice players will shut their eyes and flinch when cornered.

And then they get hit.

The Lesson:

If you stop moving with the flow of life — learning, contributing, growing, demonstrating new skills or knowledge — you risk going under.

In life, you have to keep moving, innovating and growing or you get stuck. Find spaces to show off or demonstrate your skills.

How can you be more visible at the office?
Or in a hobby you’re passionate about?
How can you get your band noticed or grow your YouTube channel audience?

You have to see the space waiting to be taken and put yourself there. Pay attention to when you’re boxed in, either personally or in your career. Try to flow with the energy around you and adapt to change so you avoid stagnation.

There’s a base move in capoeira called ginga. It’s a sway back and forth that serves as a base. A player never stands still. Ever. Unless her opponent’s butt is on the ground.

It’s like swimming in a deep pool. The whole time you’re in the water you have to paddle to stay afloat.

2. Every Interaction is a Potential Job Interview

Capoeira is often best described as a conversation between bodies. You say something with a kick, I respond with a dodge and kick of my own.

Like a verbal conversation, if a response is out of place, it’s not really “wrong” as much as it’s just weird. If you say “hello,” and I reply “Thursday!” you’re bound to get confused. If a player messes up a movement it stands out for the wrong reasons to the right people. These missteps are natural and usually indicate someone’s newness and that they’re not ready to advance to a higher level. Instructors are always evaluating students for miscues.

If you’re skills aren’t improving, it hurts your chances to advance.

The Lesson:

Carelessness puts you in a position where you appear raw or unready for advancement. Be mindful of your surroundings at all times. Move with intention.

Any interaction in life is a potential job interview. You need to always be mindful of what you say and do, and consider how it might harm your career or relationships.

Impulsive angry tweets.
Dissing a new boss at a cocktail party before you are formally introduced.
Or flipping off a rude commuter on your way to work only to see them pull into your office, and out steps your CEO.


There often aren’t real hard consequences for a lot of these actions, but they can add up. Master your actions to always put your best self forward. You never know what impact it may have on your life or career.

3. The Only Rule Is: There Are No Rules

Capoeira came of age among criminals who patrolled the streets of favelas, Brazilian slums. There are no rules on the streets. There’s merely respect or a lack of it.

The saying goes “There’s honor among thieves.”

Until suddenly there isn’t.

“The Wire” masterfully demonstrates this fact of life.

Capoeira has no rules, only guidelines. Music during a game calls for a certain style. Typically a slow game isn’t violent. But if a player decides to sneak in a forceful jab or tricks someone into falling down, there’s no disqualification. No points are deducted. No outs are given. It’s a game of deception as much as it is a game of style and strength.

You have to constantly assume you’re opponent is out to get you at all times.

The Lesson:

Don’t expect to get ahead personally or professionally by playing by rules someone else made up.

Life’s not fair and the rules we think we know seem to change all the time. We’ve all been burned by peers or competitors who don’t seems to play by the rules but somehow come out ahead. Or there are times we do our best to be a rule follower, only to realize too late that no one else gives a damn about them.

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Yeah, probably.

Learn the rules and respect them. But be willing to break them. I’m not saying you should try to take advantage of people. What I mean is don’t hold so firmly to a rule that you hold yourself back. Sometimes rules need to be ignored so progress can be made. Other times the rules might just be plain stupid and you need to break them for a good reason.

You don’t need permission to live your life or seek your fortune.

Examine the lives of Bill Gates, Ariana Huffington, Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs. Would they have been as successful if they’d played 100% by the rules?

4. Keep Your Balance at All Times

Finding balance is one of the biggest hurdles for beginners. Most people try capoeira in their teens or 20s, meaning it’s been 15+ years since they did a cartwheel or a hand stand.

It takes humility and practice to re-learn how to cartwheel with the confidence of a five year-old.

It’s critical to be balanced so you maintain control and avoid falling on your face.

Also, balance requires awareness. Awareness of your own presence and intention as well as your opponent’s. If you go for a cartwheel and about halfway through you notice a kick coming the opposite way you have to adapt and get out of the way. Your opponent may be setting a trap you didn’t see coming and if you don’t pay attention, she’s gonna get you.

Most importantly, even though there’s a chance you could get cut off while you’re upside down, you have to fully commit to that movement. At the same time you have to capable of “bailing out” to avoid danger. That takes versatility and adaptability.

The Lesson:

The best way to avoid life ruining your plans is to adapt and follow the open path.

It’s important to fully commit to what you’re working on in life. Don’t hold back or second guess yourself. Despite the risk of something going wrong, you won’t be happy in life if you’re too scared to get whatever you’ve been dedicating yourself to off the ground.

At the same time, be open to adaptation. Consider the ideas of other’s. I like to operate with the method “We’ll do it my way until someone else comes up with a smarter idea.”

Sometimes the smarter play reveals itself halfway through your initial action.

5. Never Let Your Emotions Betray You

In capoeira, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll get hit or tripped in a game. It’s not important. What is important is how you recover. If you get hit or tripped and it visibly upsets you, you lose. As I stated, there are no points.

But what there is a lot of is control.

When you wear your heart on your sleeve you give all of your control up to your opponent. She sees your cards and can continue to bully you if she wants. A display of anger, fear, or embarrassment is a window to your state of mind. It reveals you to be either distracted by pain or simply vulnerable to more attacks.

There’s a lot of pride in capoeira. People work hard and dedicate good portions of their lives to this art, so it’s not uncommon for many to be prone to showing off or wanting to be king or queen of the hill for a day. Often at another’s expense. Sometimes it’s personal. Sometimes it’s ego. If your opponent is a skilled player, they’ll take every advantage the can get over you, including hurting your feelings.

It’s petty, but it happens.

The Lesson:

Develop a poker face and use it to your advantage. Otherwise you risk others playing your emotions for their own gain.

Capoeira is a game of deception, and so is all life. Be aware and true to your emotions. Just because you don’t display them openly doesn’t mean you’re not able to deal with them. Set the emotion aside until you have the time and space to unpack it and set things right again inside yourself.

There’s no good time to break down crying or burst into a fit of rage in public.

Sometimes you can’t help it and emotions get the better of you. But don’t be a victim to them. You’ll only compound pain or injury if you let emotions cloud your judgement or actions.

Decisions made in an emotional state are often ill-advised. Our “fight or flight” responses take over and we simply react. We shout “I quit!” or “I don’t know why I ever took you back!” Decisions we may regret once things calm down. Choose to respond rather than react.

6. Learn To Speak The Language

Capoeira is a product of Brazil. It requires proficiency in Portuguese for three reasons.

1) Respect of the art’s origins by learning the vocabulary and history.

2) Contributing your voice to a chorus of songs to energize the games.

3) And most importantly: so you know what the hell is going on.

That last one is crucial. Remember, it’s a game of trickery. You have to be able to read between the lines. Capoeira relies on music and songs to maintain a level of energy (think of a club DJ keeping the dance floor moving). Some songs are about history, or tell a story.

Other songs will literally say “I want to see you get hit, I want to see you fall down.”

An opponent may sing his own song directly to you before a game and openly mock you. God forbid you sing along to someone taunting you. It’s a sign of ignorance in understanding and also awareness. If you’re committed enough to learn the language you can pick up on cues that could keep you safe.

The Lesson:

You have to be able read people’s intentions in life, both spoken and unspoken.

People hide behind their words. Study what they say and more importantly what they don’t say. This takes active listening and engagement. When you put in the effort to truly understand what someone’s words mean, you’ll communicate twice as clearly with them. This can reduce conflict, improve collaboration, and improve relationships.

You’ll be surprised how fluent you become in deciphering the intentions of those around you.

Are you able to spot the real meaning in someone’s vague non-statements? How can you use their words to anticipate their moves and get ahead?

7. Always Be Willing to Teach and Ready to Learn

Capoeira is an oral tradition. It requires community to thrive. Those who are new, coming up behind you in their training, will admire you skills. Both your attainable and remarkable skills will stand out to them as the next level they’ll strive to reach.

You have to be willing to teach them your ways and philosophies.

How else will they find the keys to their own balance?

The Lesson:

Whether it’s a new martial art, a new job, or a friendship — there are times when we clearly have no idea what we’re doing.

Capoeira, like everything in life, is continually evolving. It’s not the same as it was 50, 25, or even 10 years ago.

We risk leaving others behind if we’re not willing to teach them the methods that got us to where we are today.

Teaching or mentoring can take many forms.

Be willing to help new college graduates enter your field.
Guide them as you were guided (or as you wish you had been).
Don’t forget that we all start out looking foolish and feeling green.

Reach out to people during those times and assure them they’re not alone. And at the same time, never stop learning. You’ll never know it all. Even a great master is at his or her core a student. There is always something new to observe or modify. When you stop learning you stagnate and fall behind.

Patrick McCormack

Written by

I’m on a never-ending search for meaning as an artist. Perhaps you’ll help me find it. Copywriter at DEG | Creative Director at Pursuit @full_pursuit

Patrick McCormack

Written by

I’m on a never-ending search for meaning as an artist. Perhaps you’ll help me find it. Copywriter at DEG | Creative Director at Pursuit @full_pursuit

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