Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

I am now a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blue belt.

Jiu-Jitsu has changed my life, and I’m barely recognisable from the person I was when I starter a year and a half ago. I’ve let go of 15kg and learnt more about nutrition than I did in my first 20 years.

Most people don’t understand what the journey from a white belt to a blue belt means, and I’m not a good enough writer yet to distill it into one blog post; but I’m going to try anyway.

Jiu-Jitsu is as much a mental pursuit as it is a physical one. The journey from white to blue drills a certain mindset into those who make the cut.

Here are the most important things I’ve come to understand;

I understand what it’s like to feel completely powerless at the hands of another, and what it feels like to have total control over somebody else’s body.

I understand that exposed vulnerabilities become strengths.

I understand that doing great things hurts sometimes; that your success is directly related to your ability to persevere through adversity, that improvement is a guarantee if you can.

I understand camaraderie; the intangible respect for those who share your pursuits.

I understand that building someone up involves breaking them down, while also having their back.

I understand that winning matters far less than growing does.

Controlled failure is growth.

Most people who start training BJJ don’t make it to their first promotion, but everybody should.

There is no greater reality check.

Jiu-Jitsu allows a smaller, weaker person to handle themselves against someone bigger and stronger, as long as that bigger person doesn’t know the intricacies of grappling.

I’m hard-pressed to think of anything more satisfying than watching a bulky new guy struggle to escape as he gets picked apart by an older 50kg lady – “Does her black belt weigh more?”

Watching this practicality in action is what sold me on the art.

In Jiu-Jitsu, knowledge is a weapon.

After about four classes I was discussing it with one of my closest friends, and of course when I was struggling to physically describe the principles we ended up wrestling in his back yard.

My friend is heavier than me by about 30 kilos. He started lifting in high school, but I never had the attention span.

Expecting to get squished, but wanting to test the effectiveness of what I’d learnt, we fought.

He couldn’t do a thing; he couldn’t get me off of him, and he couldn’t defend my attacks.

If I could neutralise a 30kg weight advantage in four classes, I needed to know what I was capable of after four hundred – and here I am.

A few medals and a bath full of deep heat later, I’ve realised that ignoring strength training has put a ceiling on my competitive performance.

Here’s the thing; knowledge is a weapon against someone who doesn’t know how to grapple as well as you do, but as soon as you’re in the same ballpark of knowledge, once you’ve both brought knives to the fight, strength becomes overwhelmingly relevant.

Being strong in proportion to your body weight is essential for high performance in most sports, and Jiu-Jitsu is no exception.

I found myself romanticising being the little guy; an underdog who was able to win regardless of his size and strength disadvantage. Unfortunately, this narrative doesn’t cut it when the competition gets serious.

I have been in matches where I have weighed exactly the same weight as my opponent, and felt like I was being manhandled from start to finish.

Being weak is not a good game plan.

An experienced friend from the gym put it perfectly;

“You don’t need to be stronger than your opponent, just strong enough not to be bullied.”

I’m not yet. But I should be soon.

If anyone’s selling their weights, let me know.

Perfecting a technique ensures that you’ll be able to execute it perfectly from a distinct starting point.

But what if you never find yourself at that starting location?

Perfecting a system ensures that you’ll be able to execute a move from every starting point possible.

As you become proficient in a technique and begin to practice it; you learn about the counters to the technique and how to prevent them; the set-ups, the angles and preconditions required to execute the technique; and the principles which apply to the technique, and to your opponents reaction.

The implementation of these counters, set-ups, angels, preconditions and principles is the systems based approach to learning Jiu-Jitsu.

A Jiu-Jitsu system endeavours to define all possible scenarios within the system.

Mastering a system maximises your chances of submitting you opponent once you have them within in.

For example, you can have the best swinging armbar from guard on the planet, but if your opponent would rather be triangled than let you cross his arm over your centre-line, you better have a good triangle set-up too.

Having an incredible armbar is worth nothing compared to having an incredible guard which includes a great armbar.

It took me a while to realise this, so for those of you just starting out; apply a systems based approach. Don’t just ask your instructor how to execute a technique; ask how, why, when, and when it doesn’t apply.

I was six months into training Jiu-Jitsu when I found myself standing across from my first opponent in a state-wide competition.

He had trained much longer, and I simply wasn’t on his level.

So he submitted me.

Looking back, I lasted much longer than perhaps I should have.

The fight taught me a valuable lesson. Not in the four and a half minutes of sloppily trying to defend myself while failing to implement the one technique I was half-good at, but in the opening ten seconds of the match.

The referee said ‘Combach!‘ And we were on. I locked eyes with my opponent as we each hesitated. We stared each other down for less than three seconds before my coach’s voice pierced my ear with a nugget of wisdom which has been bouncing around my head ever since;

‘Be first Luke. Be First!’

Without thinking twice, I took his advice. I closed the distance, took my grips forcefully, and executed the guard pull which I’d drilled for weeks leading up to the comp.

I caught my opponent completely un-prepared, and I had the fight where I needed it to be.

I created opportunity by seizing initiative.

I didn’t win, but I put myself in a position where I could have. A position I wouldn’t have found myself in had I not bitten the bullet and committed to action.

It’s unlikely that I would have lasted as long as I did had I not seized control of the fight at the start.

The importance of this extends far beyond losing Jiu-Jitsu fights slower than you could have.

We all have moments every day when we could use a coach to prompt us into action, but hiring someone to follow you around whispering ‘be first every forty seconds is expensive.

In life, we have to be our own coaches.

Remind yourself constantly.

Carpe diem translates to ‘seize the day’, but it means seize the moment.

Seize every moment possible.

You bump into a friend on the street and you’re both waiting for the other to extend their hand, or offer a hug?

You and a stranger are both politely waiting for the other to get on the bus, and now you’re holding up the queue?

Your lecturer asked a remedial question that everyone in the class should know the answer to, but nobody wants to risk answering?

Be. First.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, someone will be thankful you did.

What have you risked? Nothing.

The only think you’ve risked the one-in-a-hundred chance of an awkward three seconds, and you’re probably better for it.

Being first is always better than waiting for someone else to be.

Who’s the most decisive person you know? Who’s the most confident? Next time you see them, notice that they’ve made this a habit.

Try and think of one person you look up to who doesn’t put their front foot forward. Can you? I can’t.

Be first friends. Start now.

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.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) people are some of the smartest, strongest, and most dedicated you’ll ever meet. The art of self-improvement is ingrained in their day-to-day.

Most martial arts teach respect and discipline, but not many demand the same level of fortitude, resilience or humility that Jiu-Jitsu demands of its masters.

(Image courtesy Michael Port)

All Jiu-Jitsu masters, those who have dedicated their entire lives to the art, train every day embracing the fact that they will always have more to learn.

They trend towards perfecting their knowledge and technique with the understanding that they will never complete their quest.

Even after a lifetime of vigilant training, they will never fully know Jiu-Jistu.

This is because, like most worthwhile pursuits, BJJ is not a closed system; there is an almost limitless number of actions and reactions to be honed, perfected, and re-honed when something surprising rears its head.

Jiu-Jitsu is being innovated constantly.

To get better at Jiu-Jitsu is to continually realise how much you don’t yet know; the more you learn, the more there is to learn.

I believe this humbling cycle to be at the core of the Jiu-Jitsu mindset. It seems to me the reason that humility and respect are so entrenched in the sport.

People with large egos tend not to last very long at Jiu-Jitsu gyms, because having your weaknesses exposed is a fundamental step towards any level of competence.

There’s nowhere to hide your weaknesses in a roll, and the mats don’t lie. This proves uncomfortable for anyone who can’t handle a regular feeling of defeat.

I’ve seen it first hand; a new guy comes into the gym and as soon as he gets an opportunity to roll, he freaks out. His face goes red as he angrily exerts all his energy trying to pummel somebody who could comfortably choke him unconscious using only their legs.

It usually plays out one of two ways; either the experienced grappler is patient with the new guy, defending themselves casually while he thrashes around and tires himself out, before they strike quickly and efficiently, forcing him to submit; or, they ramp up and meet his intensity not with anger, but with focus. They get on top of him, let their weight drain the air from his lungs as he struggles, and make his life a living hell for however long it takes new guy to calm down.

Being confident enough to productively and openly process defeat is a skillset. Having the self-awareness to know what your limits are, and where you need to improve is so valuable, but getting practiced in the art of failing takes time. You need to dance with the discomfort, dance with the fear, in order to make progress.

(Image courtesy Michael Port)

There’s no denying that it’s tough. But every black belt had a first tough roll. Every single one has felt totally powerless on too many occasions to count at the hands of someone far better than them.

And every time, they chose to come back. This is the entire game.

Training Jiu-Jistu requires you to embrace your fear and choose to show up anyway; to keep getting beat, knowing that all the people who are better than you have all done the exact same thing, and that they have your back; to implement the lessons each defeat has to offer you; to persist.

This ability to persist, to command yourself to get better despite the cost, is what separates those who become black belts from those who don’t.

There’s a saying you sometimes hear black belts offer to demoralised white belts;

A black belt is just a white belt who never quit.

It’s cheesy, but it’s true.

This rule applies to most valuable pursuits in life.

The same applies to writing. The same applies to making ruckus.

If you want to be good at something; figure out how to safely expose your weaknesses, then do the work.

Find people who better than you, and learn from them.

Set up a feedback loop where you will be forced to train.

Come to terms with what you need to change, what you need to do, and how far you need to go to accomplish your goal.

Then, it’s simple. All you need to do is persist.

Don’t quit.