Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a bit over a year later… A battle of the ego.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or more commonly known as BJJ, is a recently popular grappling martial art with a trove of celebrities like Russell Brand, Tom Hardy, Guy Ritchie, Jonah Hill, Anthony Bourdain (RIP), Ashton Kutcher, as well as on the podcast circuit with Joe Rogan, Jocko Willink and Lex Friedman (all black belts).
Anthony Bourdain’s article on it had a particular effect on me taking up the sport.
To say that it’s had an effect on me is an understatement, the reality is that it’s pretty much all I want to do, it’s all I think about, and if given a chance, all I’ll talk about too, to the annoyance of friends and family. Although when my dad watched me once he said “what’s the big deal, all you guys do is hug”. BJJ is a very difficult sport to describe, so I’ll try somewhat here and why it leads to obsession.
Now I’ll admit, to the layman the thought of being excited about rolling around drenched in another man’s sweat is odd, dressed in some kind of robe thing, being put in positions where your face is pressed against parts of another human you never intended to get anywhere near, and that it seems there’s some guy wearing a purple belt having far too much fun with a somewhat sinister look on their face folding clothing, except there’s someone still wearing said clothing, hence BJJ has also been nicknamed “involuntary yoga”.
In BJJ the rules are fairly simple. You need to kill your opponent without striking (punch, kick, elbow, knee), biting or putting fingers in places they shouldn’t be (ear, nose, mouth, etc). So the way to kill them is through blocking blood flow to the brain through the two carotid arteries in the neck (what we call a blood choke) and they lose consciousness within 5 seconds, or you get a limb into a position that our creator never intended and with a fraction more pressure you’ll break an arm, wrist, leg, heel, etc. At the point you’re in a compromising position, you ‘tap’, a customary double tap on your opponent to tell them you submit, they’ve won. The customary advice to avoid injury, “tap early, tap often”. An ego is a lot easier to repair than ligaments.
There is a reason why many consider BJJ ‘different’ to the other martial arts… you get to go ‘live’ and basically compete every night. This isn’t possible with most other martial arts as you’ll hurt each other, so it’s typically with protective gear or you’re just simulating moves. BJJ you put into practice what you learn (and then very quickly realise how quickly you forget everything). It is extremely technical, and you need hundreds of hours of application to get even a basic level of performance. It’s also a taxing cardio workout rivalling squash, sprinting and cycling.
Removing the ability to strike turns a combat match into an extremely technical game of cat and mouse, and BJJ is often described as the chess of martial arts. Moves don’t work when they’re obvious, traps can be set, timing is critical. For every attack there is a counter-attack, for every counter-attack, there’s another counter-defence.
I don’t possess any innate talent or genetics that give me any advantage in the sport. In fact, it’s the opposite. I’m woefully inflexible, only being able to reach about 20cm from my toes, lack any upper body strength, somewhat slow and unsure, carrying too much body fat and extremely uncoordinated. This makes an unlikely but also the perfect BJJ practitioner, because it’s a demonstration it’s for everybody, and eventually consistent practice will advance you beyond those athletically gifted who don’t.
Starting your BJJ journey is a different experience for everyone. Some arrive at class with effortless ease and excitement, others, like me, are a bundle of anxiety and making it to the mat was victory in itself. Early on, I was so nervous that I told myself I just need to drive there, and if I want to drive home once I arrive, then I can. That tactic got me out the door at least.
Your starting ability can best be described as purely ‘random’. There doesn’t seem to be a common trait that decides the initial level of intuition you possess in the sport. Some moves might feel natural and intuitive, or, like me, your body can’t make sense of this new language. Some have flexibility and endurance, others don’t. Whatever the scale of BJJ intuition starts at, I definitely started at 0.
In fact, I’ll happily admit at one point I was half expecting my coach to tell me that “maybe there are other martial arts you could try”, and I also asked him more than once if he’s ever seen absolutely useless people eventually improve, as well as googling the same.
Whilst the reason, way and ability everyone turns up initially is different, the reason people struggle and quit is not. My observation is that nobody leaves BJJ in the first months because it’s too hard, they’re too unfit, they have no intuition, they’re too small, they’re concerned about injury, it’s too physical, it’s too sweaty, they don’t have time.
They all leave for the same reason, they wish they’re better than what they are. The ego wins. They turn up, full of confidence and energy, and end up being dominated for an hour. This happens in week 1, then week 2, then month 1, month 2. The progression is too slow, you reject it, you think it’s ‘not for you’. You learnt how to ride a bike in 2 lessons. You scored a try in touch footy on your second night. You signed up to an ironman with no fitness and in 6 months you completed it (this was me). Yet in BJJ, a few months in, you’re still just a shitty whitebelt, fighting for survival.
If you stay, you end up taming your ego (or at least attempting), realising that reality is reality, and forging your own path, or you quit. This is particularly brutal to the ego if you’ve been turning up 6 month and someone you consider less fit, newer, less skilled than you, seems to wipe the floor with you, or you know that they’re on a faster path than you. Again… ego.
Taming this ego is the greatest challenge to getting better at the sport and ultimately enjoying it at the same time. In many ways, BJJ is much more about the mind than any physical aspect, whilst ironically also thinking too hard whilst rolling will also cause you to fail. It’s these dichotomies that make the sport never ending and a true art.
There is a beautiful, pure truth and honesty in BJJ. There is nothing but skill that separates you and your opponent on the mat. Physical attributes do matter, but skill is the master. This is a stark contrast to the corporate world where one could progress through purely influencing the opinion of those who decide on your progression, whilst being horrible at your job. In social situations you could progress purely telling people what they want to hear, whilst not actually having any genuine interest at all. You could become wildly financially successful through running a ponzi scheme. You can use cheat codes in a video game. In BJJ there is only reality, and the only truth is that you need to keep turning up.
What the ego really struggles with is how slow and subtle the progression is. Like watching your children grow, you don’t notice that change is happening, it’s so little, but constant. In BJJ you don’t notice it and then one day you realise that somebody who used to be a terrifying opponent is now competitive match and you’ve actually submitted them, or that a new white belt is child’s play. The difference between watching your kids grow and your progression in BJJ though is that you never doubt that your kids are growing, in BJJ sometimes you question if you’re actually improving. However there is a stark warning… if you need these signals to have fun and commit to BJJ, you once again have succumbed to the ego, and not on the path.
This pace of progression has a particular effect with new starters. They come in, super pumped up, “this is the greatest thing ever, I’m going to come 5 days a week”, which they do initially, then once a week, then a few weeks later they’re gone.
The reasons for starting BJJ are often very different to the reasons you continue. Typical starting reasons are to challenge yourself, to gain self-confidence, to improve self defence, to get fit, because some podcasters told you to, or to learn combat. Eventually it turns into 2 reasons and only 2 reasons. Because you find BJJ so much fun, and you’d like to get a bit better at it. As surprising as this might sound, all of this is play, as you’re trying to kill your partner and they’re trying to kill you, but it’s all fun, it’s joyful, it’s playful. The BJJ community is welcoming, special, fun and supportive. It’s a second family.
You hear the beep of a timer to finish a ‘roll’ (a 5 to 7 minute round of competitive sparring), drenched in sweat, you slap hands and fist bump your opponent, thank them for the round, catch your breath, chat for a second about a moment in the roll, “far out you were close to getting that choke, I was just able to hold on” or a simple “any advice?”. The timer beeps again and it’s time for another round.
There are no rules about who you can and can’t roll with. White belts face black belts, men face women, big face small, young face old. Going against a higher belt is a great chance to practice defence and survival, going against a white belt that is similar in size and skill to you is great to work on being competitive, going against someone newer or less skilled than you is a great opportunity to practice attacks (and a great chance for them to practice defending).
I’ve found my BJJ game has improved since I dropped watching YouTube BJJ clips. I now only practice what I learn in class, and I’ve worked with my coach on a small repertoire that suits my game and that’s all I’m practising. If I do watch a YouTube video, I typically watch one that goes for 30 minutes and will explain all the principles of a particular move, and avoid the “10 submissions in 10 minutes” garbage.
Right now I’m working on 3 pressure passes (double unders, over-unders and another one I have no idea the name of but really really like it), as well as simply ‘picking the moment’ with an escape. Instead of writhing around like a lunatic, wasting all my energy whilst they happily wait patiently, I’m now waiting for the split second they release some pressure to progress their attack and hitting them with everything at that moment. This is working but I’m now finding that I escape but then immediately pinned down again. This gives me the thing to work on next, the second half of the escape.
There are only 3 things in BJJ, you, your opponent and the mat. There is only one way to get better, spend more time on the mat. No amount of YouTube, visualisation, reddit forums or reading can ever replace the experience of getting submitted hundreds of times. There is nothing that can substitute skill. If you bring speed without skill, you will lose, if you bring power without skill, you’ll lose.
There is a true bliss of being on the mat. You are 100% present, without any effort. When you ride a bike or go for a run, you’re still thinking about other things. 2 hours on the mat and you get in your car and you realise that you haven’t once thought about work, family, or anything in life, you were truly ‘there’.
Whilst it’s a cliche that there are similarities between BJJ and life, there is truth in it. For me personally the lessons I’ve learnt and deliberately translated to the rest of my life is that you can truly learn anything with consistent, humble, deliberate practice. The second is that you actually need to figure this shit out yourself. People can guide, advise, help, but ultimately you need to decide what works for you, play your own game. The other is picking the moment. It’s absolutely pointless to go at 75% intensity all the time. Focus, control, breathe, breathe some more and pick your moment and give it everything. That and of course ego will ruin not only your game, but your soul. It will take all the fun out of everything.
Utimately I’ve realised that BJJ is a solo sport. You cannot measure your progress against anyone else, you cannot find other people’s reasons for being there and you cannot seek anyone’s approval. You need to find your own reason for turning up, and for me it’s one simple thing, I just damn well love it so much.