Forging the Heart Through Jiu-Jitsu

I began training Brazilian jiu-jitsu this summer at the age of 40. I started training jiu-jitsu for reasons including fitness and the pursuit of a new challenge. More than anything, however, I wanted to experience the struggle and stress of a physical battle with another human, fail in that struggle, and then ultimately learn how to survive and succeed in that struggle.  I certainly found struggle, but also unexpected lessons of deep and personal meaning, which will keep me connected to jiu-jitsu for as long as I’m able to do it.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ for short, is a combat sport system that focuses on grappling and ground fighting.  There is no striking.  Each grappler uses his or her whole body to implement a system of clinches, grips, and holds.  Focusing on leverage and precise technique, a properly trained grappler can manipulate even a larger opponent into submission by choke or joint lock. BJJ is astounding in its complexity, and often is described as “human chess.”

I had no prior martial arts experience.  I first heard of BJJ about twenty years ago in college. A close friend was a fan of the then new Ultimate Fighting Championship , and he enthusiastically described BJJ expert Royce Gracie’s dramatic victories over larger wrestlers, boxers, and martial artists.  That was in the early 1990s, and those first UFC fights — designed to test the superiority of different martial arts systems — were an interesting curiosity but didn’t capture much of my interest at the time.

I didn’t encounter BJJ again until a year or two ago, listening to Tim Ferriss’s podcast.  A number of Ferriss’s guests, including chess master Josh Waitzkin,  neuroscientist Sam Harris, and former U.S. Navy SEAL and writer Jocko Willink, all described their practice of BJJ, their obsession over its complexity and beauty, and the personal benefits they had each experienced from practicing the art.  And so, last summer, I found myself at the age of 40 walking into a BJJ academy for an introductory one-on-one lesson.  Over the course of an hour, the instructor introduced me to some basic principles of BJJ – how to use a basic escape from being flat on your back with an attacker sitting on your chest, how to submit an opponent with an armlock, and how to apply the unbelievably effective rear naked choke, which can render a powerful man unconscious within seconds  by cutting off all blood flow to the brain.  These techniques – simple but awesome in their power – were taught in a smooth, calm, respectful manner, with a conscious awareness of their utility and the responsibility required to employ them effectively.

I was sold and signed up.  And the next day, I found myself the newest student in the academy.  Imagine standing in a new, crisp white gi on a mat with two dozen other grapplers.  You don’t know exactly how much experience each of them has, but you know every one of them is more trained than you. You pay attention to the warm up and the lesson, working slowly through the technique with a polite but unfamiliar partner.

Now imagine the “live” sparring session that follows, where you square off with that partner, who has a great deal more experience (probably years) than you.  You slap hands, bump fists, and you are then left to defend yourself against an onslaught of attacks with nothing more than your untrained instincts.  The experience is overwhelming, much like being caught in a large wave, picked up and tumbling blindly through powerful waters, desperately hoping for the moment when the surge slows and you can begin to try to reorient yourself and recover.  You try to resist, only to find that your efforts to use brute strength are no match for the superiority of technique.  Your partner captures your arm in an awkward angle and you find yourself submitting to a shoulder lock.  You start again, avoiding that last trap, only to find your arm and head caught in your partner’s encircling legs in a move called a triangle choke.  Then you fail again, and again, and again.  Class after class, you fail.

I now train BJJ two or three times each week. Each class follows the same formula.  After a brief warmup of squats, pushups, and stretches, three techniques are taught.  The first typically is a self-defense technique, and second and third are BJJ grappling techniques.  Each technique is demonstrated, and then the students pair off and drill the technique.  The final ten minutes are spent in a “live” drill, where students engage in live sparring and try to refine and use the techniques learned in classes over time.  As students progress in their learning they spend more time sparring in unscripted live training sessions.

One of the things that makes BJJ unique among martial arts is that you can train at full intensity without the same risk of injury that is present in other martial arts.  In any striking discipline, be it boxing, kickboxing, tae kwon do, or mixed martial arts, the trauma caused by kicks and punches requires participants to spar at less intensity than they would employ in a real fight.  In practicing grappling, however, the risk of blunt force trauma is not present, as no striking is permitted.  This means that two grappling students can move at full speed, with full intensity, for long sparring sessions.  This intensity allows students to test the effectiveness of attacks and defense in an environment very similar to a real-world struggle.

Of course, that intensity and the inherent complexity of BJJ makes for a formidable physical and mental challenge, especially for a beginner.  And in that challenge, which often leads to failure, I found lessons even greater than the techniques themselves:

The Importance of Humility

BJJ makes you humble.  Or, perhaps more precisely, it requires you to be humble.  Because if you cannot summon humility, and lots of it, your ego will never allow you to return to class again.  In BJJ, your opponent wins by submission – by submitting you.  “Submit” derives from Latin, literally meaning “to put under.”  And in BJJ, your opponent only wins by submission when you tap out, when you admit that you’ve been beaten, when you admit that your opponent has submitted you.  In tapping, you literally  are admitting that your opponent has put you under him or herself, that your technique was inferior to theirs.

There is no room for ego here.  If you study BJJ for any period of time, you will tap out and submit hundreds, eventually thousands of times.  If you give in to ego, give your ego too much power, you will never experience anything other than embarrassment or frustration in failure.  In contrast, approaching these moments with humility allows you to self-reflect, ask questions, accept advice, and most importantly – improve your game.

This principle is applicable in many phases of life.  Ego is dangerous. If we think we are too good to fail, or underestimate our opponents, we become vulnerable to surprise and we risk falling short of our goals.  On the other hand, if we are open and accepting of our mistakes, our weaknesses, our challenges, we can learn from past experience, adjust accordingly, and remain focused on our goals.  If your goal is improvement, be humble.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

How often to you seek out discomfort?  When you’re uncomfortable, what are you focused on?  Are you fighting to end the discomfort?  Or can you dig deep and remain focused on the goal, even if it means working through an uncomfortable moment and enduring, while you watch things develop?  I believe that we collectively have lost our ability to be comfortable with discomfort, and that as a result, we’ve lost opportunities to find betterment through pain.

In BJJ, there is an offensive move called a stack pass.  A stack pass is an attack where a grappler hooks both arms under your legs while you are on your back, and then drives forward until your knees are essentially buried in your eyeballs, if not behind your ears. He then slides around sideways until he can drop his weight on your torso and take control of your upper body.  It hurts.  It bends your spine into a painfully compressed curve, it stretches your hamstrings into lengths they’ve never known, and it smashes your eight inch neck into a three inch space between your flattened shoulders and the mat.  And it takes a long time.

Faced with this predicament, in the middle of a stack pass, you essentially have two options.  One, you can quit.  Quitting can mean rolling over, giving your back to a choke, flailing without purpose and exhausting yourself, or just lying there like a limp noodle with no plan.  Two, you can endure the discomfort patiently, but with focus, until a new opportunity presents itself.  Obviously, the latter choice is the right one.  The secret is that it’s not as hard as it seems.  But it requires comfort with discomfort.

We deal with hard times all the time.  We can’t control the circumstances of these moments, and we often cannot control the outcome.  But we can control the attitude we face challenges with.  In fact, our response to challenge is the one thing that no one can ever take away from us.  But we can never seize that power unless we take a deep breath, prepare to endure, and then get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The Long Road

Jiu-jitsu is a long road.  Some people say that the path to a black belt is ten years, although there are many students who have experienced longer roads than that.  It is impossible to walk such a long road if you find motivation only in ego or short-term satisfaction.  One can walk this path to satisfaction only if he or she has committed to process, to routine, to small gains.  I feel as though I have not walked far enough to even see the beginning of the path over the horizon, but I am heading towards the trailhead.

Winston Churchill said, ““Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And that is what is most apparent to me in my very, very short exposure to BJJ.  Betterment lies in the willingness to do the hard thing, to do the difficult thing.  Betterment lies in the willingness to expose yourself to trial and fire and pain and humiliation.  Betterment lies in becoming comfortable with mistakes and failure and weakness, because if we are blind to these things, we will never see the path to conquering them.

I intend to keep walking the path.  I expect it to hurt.  I expect it to be hard.  I’m comfortable with that.  Greater things lie past the pain.