‘Playing’ Jiu-Jitsu

If you ask Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) practitioners what it is they do when they go to the gym, you will get a variety of responses; some will say they train Jiu-Jitsu; others that they study Jiu-Jitsu; but my favourite, what I usually say when trying to describe Jiu -Jitsu to a friend who’s never encountered it, is that I play Jiu-Jitsu.

I first heard it described this way in a controversial metaphor often used to describe Jiu-Jitsu to the unfamiliar;

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is playing chess with your body.

Some practitioners don’t like this comparison because Jiu-Jitsu, at its core, is a martial art centred around self-defence.

Jiu-Jitsu answers the question;

How can a smaller, weaker person defend themselves against a larger, stronger attacker?

Those who dislike the comparison argue that framing Jiu Jitsu as a ‘game’ trivialises the practical self-defence elements of the art.

Personally, I understand the resistance to the metaphor, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the difference between practical self-defence Jiu-Jitsu and sporting Jiu-Jitsu, so that you go around jumping guard on armed criminals like this guy.

Those of you who train will know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t, feel free to check out this introduction video for a breakdown of the self defensive aspects of Jiu-Jitsu.

I recommend attending an introductory session to all of my friends for self-defence purposes, even if they have no interest in training long-term.

Intro sessions are free at most gyms, including the gym I train at if you’re in or around Perth. If you’ve never grappled before, it’s definitely worth dipping your toes in.

I have trained to learn how to defend myself on the streets against an opponent who doesn’t know how to grapple. But that’s not why I show up to the gym four times a week. If self defence was my main priority, I’d probably be adding some striking or wrestling into my arsenal by now.

When I show up to practice, I play to develop my own personal Jiu-Jitsu game which I aim to impose on training partners who are usually much better grapplers, and know exactly what I’m trying to do.

Training Jiu-Jitsu has made me significantly more aware of my physical limits, and I am much more confinement in my ability to neutralise physical confrontations, but when I arrive at the gym, I’m not preparing myself to fight for my life.

When I’m rolling at the gym, I do play Jiu-Jitsu like I play chess.

Similar to chess, there is a fundamental hierarchy which governs the game; in chess, different pieces are more valuable than others; in Jiu-Jitsu, these pieces are instead positions.

The value of a chess piece is determined by how mobile it is, while Jiu-Jitsu positions are ranked based on your ability to limit the mobility of your opponent. The more control a position gives you over you opponent, the more valuable the position.

There is one notable exception on the chessboard; the King. While not very offensively useful, it must be defended at all costs. Leave it open to attack, and you risk losing the game.

In Jiu-Jitsu, your King is your neck. You don’t leave it exposed.

In chess you apply pressure to your opponent which forces them to make decisions. You and your opponent tussle over position and pressure as you ultimately progress towards trapping them in a position from which they cannot escape.

In Jiu-Jitsu you aim to do exactly the same, but the consequences of submission are physical and dire.

In chess, you submit, and you lose the game. In Jiu-Jitsu, every submission is an acknowledgement that your opponent could have incapacitated you.

Jiu-Jitsu is like playing chess with your body in the same way that laser tag is like playing war.

Certain principles operate across both games, but Jiu-Jitsu offers a significantly more complex puzzle with severe and tactile stakes.

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