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How Jiu Jitsu Makes You Formidable
The three lessons that jiu jitsu has taught me
I am now a 4-stripe white belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu and have done the sport for 18 months. These are the three most important things it has taught me.
1. Confrontation is no longer scary.
2. Emotional regulation.
3. Learn to love training more than winning.
Most confrontation is no longer scary thanks to jiu jitsu. In debates and negotiations, I used to avoid pushing my case to its limit. I also avoided sharing my true thoughts because I feared the other person turning violent. When there’s tremendous downside to being honest (aggression, injury, death) and limited upside (communicating how you truly feel), you tend to avoid being honest.
But thanks to jiu jitsu, this downside has almost disappeared. It is so comforting to know that if there were a confrontation, I would be safe with 99% of people. They would likely be safe confronting me too. Jiu jitsu teaches you how to manipulate bodies without damaging them.
Now that I limited the downside of confrontations, the upside has become more appealing and worthwhile to grasp. Thus, in arguments, I will say what I truly think, and in negotiations, I will ask for the un-askable. Knowing how to fight means that I can push for what I truly want.
As a corollary to this, I feel safe almost all of the time now! When I’m walking downtown and see a man attacking someone else, I don’t feel unsafe. I know how to take him down and disable him, if necessary. When I’m walking into my apartment and someone’s trying to follow me into it, I feel safe telling her to move away or prevent her from entering. Knowing self-defence makes you safe because you know what to do when someone’s uncivil.
This does not mean however that I would ever start a fight, or perhaps even try to prevent one from happening using jiu jitsu. You never know if someone knows how to fight better than you, or worse, has a knife or a gun tucked away. No number of drills will protect you from a bullet through the head or a knife in the thigh. But knowing jiu jitsu does give me the courage to de-escalate situations. This also still means that people who I know can overpower me easily still scare me, and thus I have trouble speaking forthrightly with them.
Jiu jitsu has taught me how to stay focused and attentive under pressure. Learning to avoid spazzing and to feel your way out of uncomfortable positions has made me focused and attentive under pressure.
Nearly every white belt who comes into the gym is a “spazz” – someone who thrashes and flails to escape a position or submission. But instead of escaping, they tend to hurt themselves or their training partner. For example, when I was a spazz, I kept on kneeing and elbowing my coach Seb in the head, which antagonized him.
My first goal as a white belt was to shed my spazziness. The more you roll (the word for a 5 min match with someone else) with others, the better your defense instincts get. And to get a higher belt (and get better at jiu jitsu), you need to roll as much as possible. But if you’re spazzy, then nobody will want to roll with you because you might hurt and annoy them. Then others won’t want to roll with you. You won’t get better.
But shedding your spazziness is tough, as it goes against your instincts. You’re going to be put into positions that are uncomfortable, awkward, even painful or humiliating at times. People will choke you using their arms, legs, feet, tummy, clothes, heck even your own clothes. They will put pressure on all of your joints, your diaphragm, your chest, even your soul. When you’re thrown, you will feel like the air’s been blown out of you, plus the desire to breathe again. During all of these times, your natural reaction will be to panic, to spazz, to kick and shove and push and bite until the pressure goes away, just like a deer caught in a wire fence.
But the more you train, the more you will find a line between safe, uncomfortable, and hurt. You also learn when to conserve your energy vs use big bursts of it, and when you should use muscle vs cardio.
But you can only learn these things after you learn to stay calm. A big part of this is simply taking a deep breath every 5 seconds in a roll and surveying your situation. My training partner Luke would tell me to be “cool as a cucumber” and it became my mantra for a few months. I also started to brush my teeth before every practice to avoid being self-conscious about bad breath. Deep breathing, brushing, and mantras got me to stay calm. This calmness let me focus on a particular goal when rolling and thus learn much quicker.
Fortunately, this focused attention transferred over into my real life! I can trust myself to think clearly in a stressful situation like when someone’s threatening me. It has taught me that there’s a clear line between situations that are unpleasant and situations that are dangerous.
In fact, this zen-ness has bled into my life so much now that I am now almost disgusted when people are super emotional or agitated. If you’re not cool as a cucumber, then what are you doing?!
Jiu jitsu taught me to love training, not winning. Many people avoid jiu jitsu because they feel humiliated when they lose. Others, like me, accept that when you start a new sport, you’re going to not be good at it, so your expectations should be set appropriately. Don’t worry - we get to feel humiliated at tournaments instead (new post forthcoming!).
Instead of making your goal when training “tap everyone,” it could instead be “prevent anyone from mounting me” or “don’t get tapped for 20 seconds after the bell” or literally “keep my elbows glued to my side when I’m on my back.” If you set your goals appropriately, then you’ll more likely achieve them.
Setting goals for each session was something that I only learned to do a year into jiu jitsu. Before then, I simply enjoyed the game of trying to escape bad positions and get into good ones. That alone made jiu jitsu worthwhile for me, even if it ended with me getting tapped non-stop. Likewise, in life, accomplishments only become easy to achieve when you are willing to do it for the process alone rather than for the result.