I must admit that I have been a little cynical of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) in recent years but realise that I’ve been a bit of a bellend – projecting my own insecurities onto it. For example, blaming the cost of gis, tournaments, memberships etc. for my lack of interest & progression, is just me playing the victim – you can easily do BJJ on a budget if you wanted to – get a second hand gi and just pay for your membership, you don’t have to buy all the top stuff and go on all the training holidays etc.
To make amends, I thought I would write a blog post about the benefits of BJJ, as there are truly a truck-load, especially in terms of mental health and personal growth.
Be Humbled, Dissolve the Ego
When was the last time you learnt a completely new skill? Something you had to start as a complete beginner, something that made you feel a bit hopeless because it was so difficult and you were amongst experts? There’s not many times as an adult that the average person will put themselves in this vulnerable position, but you should.
As a beginner in BJJ, you should expect to get choked out (well, if you don’t tap/submit you will), submitted with various armbars and locks, and generally thrown about a bit. A good BJJ club will take it a little easy on you and try and make your first few lessons constructive as well as hard. The feeling of hopelessness will either make or break you. Maybe it’s just not for you – that’s fine, but maybe your ego can’t handle it? If it’s not for you then find another hobby that you’ll be a beginner at, but avoid just giving up and going back to the couch in the evenings.
Being humbled has many benefits, an increase in empathy and compassion being one of them. If you’ve never taken up a new sport or hobby as an adult, then you may well forget the struggle and the anxiety that can come with being a newbie. So, for example, say somebody new starts in you department in work, are you going to be one of those guys that expects him or her to know everything from the onset and gets angry and frustrated when this is not the case? Or will you show some compassion and empathy and help the person out? If you’ve been a BJJ white belt in the last few years, I’d say you’re much more likely to show compassion. If you can lose the fear or ‘looking stupid’ then this can help it other walks of life too – for example, getting out of your comfort zone and getting a new job instead of complaining about it for another 20 years!
This isn’t a fool proof outcome unfortunately, I’ve known 1 or 2 guys go from BJJ white belt to arrogant and impatient idiot too. I’m not sure why this is – just don’t be that guy! Also, as a BJJ practitioner don’t be one of those brainwashed guys that dismisses other styles, BJJ is amazing but so are many other styles of martial art. Stay humble about yourself and your martial art and accept that other styles have a lot to offer too – Muay Thai, Judo and wrestling being obvious examples.
The Obstacle is the Way
Life is full of struggles and sport is the best way to simulate this. BJJ is a physical and mental sport, all about dexterity, timing, technical proficiency, flexibility, and a ‘chess-like’ mindset of anticipation and the ability to set up and trap your opponent. Strength, admittedly helps too, but in the gi especially, its impact is limited.
So, after your first few sessions of getting pulled apart and choked out –will you feel anger and frustration? Yep, you almost definitely will! but you must either use these emotions to motivate yourself or dissociate from them and be objective – failure is to be expected, but failure is an important experience that we must all share, in order to be able to truly appreciate victory. To continue you must overcome or embrace your ego, but don’t let it get in the way of your progression, as this is a terrible habit that will hinder you in all aspects of life.
After a couple of sessions of BJJ, if you are feeling demotivated, you should take the challenging situation you find yourself in and pretend it is happening to someone else – what would you advise? Give up or rise to the challenge and carry on?
Fear of Conflict & Anger Management
We live in a very sterile, passive-aggressive society (office workers do any way). True, direct conflict and aggression is rarely experienced on a day to day basis by your average purchase-ledger or accountant (although I appreciate it is different for customer-facing job-roles!). When someone does confront us, even if it’s in a verbal fashion as opposed to a physical one, it is easy to lose your sh!t and become aggressive, which is often unnecessary and can lead to a trip to HR.
The beauty of BJJ being so technical, is that losing your temper and experiencing a giant adrenaline surge is the last thing that you want to happen! You’ll be completely exhausted after 30 seconds and end up getting choked unconscious. Moreover, in such a technical sport, going ape-shit against anyone with the skill of a good blue belt, is just going to lead to a quicker demise than normal – driving forwards will get you sweeped, gripping a gi with all your might will either get you armbarred or you’ll ‘blow out’ your grip rendering you virtually helpless afterwards! Keep calm, choose specific moments to use explosive power or strength, but stay relaxed when you can!
BJJ is a Community
We all need a sense of belonging. Being part of a community is extremely important – we’ve evolved as tribal animals and many of us experience the lonely groundhog day existence of driving back and to-to work for 2 hours a day and sitting in a metal box/office, with artificial light, staring at a computer for another 8 hours. Community is important for mental health and BJJ is certainly one of those. It’s also great for promoting health because sparring or ‘rolling’ gets you in ‘flow’ state, whereby you’re not thinking of the bills, the ingrate colleague you have to deal with tomorrow in work, or anything else for that matter, you’re just thinking about surviving! The simulated sense of danger and the intensity, demands all your attention, which puts you in ‘the zone’ or ‘flow state’.
The great thing about competing in BJJ, is not only do you overcome that aforementioned fear of confrontation once again, you strengthen the sense of community that you have developed with your team mates. The guys that were choking you out on the mats last week, are now supporting you. I guess it’s a (relatively mild) simulation of going into battle that helps form band-of-brother-esk friendships.
BJJ Motivates you to make Workouts Functional
This has been one of the huge benefits for me – MMA and BJJ has shown that being a massive meathead does not help you to become a better fighter. Strength helps, a lot in MMA, but it does not make up for technique, fitness, flexibility of MMA-functional strength. So bench press and leg press are somewhat out of the window – in come an array of yoga based movements, core strengthening exercises, kettlebells and even some Olympic Lifts. Unfortunately bicep curls have gone too. By sparring in MMA or BJJ once a week, or even every now and then, you experience the benefits of specific types of training, and bodybuilding type-weight-training, doesn’t seem to help at all. Functional workouts are better for general health and you lose the ambition to become a massive bodybuilder – which is a pretty unhealthy pursuit (I think anyway).
The BJJ Lifestyle of Human Optimisation
Yea, sorry to use the term ‘human optimisation’ but it’s the best way to describe the approach that many have to improving their BJJ game. What you do off the mat is almost as important as what you do on it, so many will choose to meditate, visualise, take up yoga and eat clean organic foods in an attempt to gain an advantage in BJJ. This obviously has countless health benefits that carry over into ‘normal life’ too. being around people who take their health seriously, will make you do the same.
Although acute injuries are relatively uncommon in BJJ, you do have to look out for the long term ones. If you are going to start training and you’re over 40, then you may wish to speak to/email the instructor first. I’m rarely training at the moment as I’m prioritising other things but in a year or so my aim is to do yoga twice a week and BJJ once per week. Many people will say that this isn’t enough, but it all depends on your goals – if you want to have fun, stay part of the community and maintain your skill levels, then I’d say once a week is fine – however, if you want to keep up with the youngsters and work your way through the belts, then you need to be looking at three times a week at least. Don’t let this put you off though, you can make huge strides and reap lots of benefits training twice a week, you will just have to drill a lot and work on specific movements and fitness whenever you can fit it in. You’ll still progress, just a little slower than those hitting the mats more often.
Many of the benefits of BJJ can be attributed to any martial art, or sport. BJJ is popular however as you can compete and train with a relatively low risk of injury and it’s a bit like football/soccer, in that you don’t need to be a specific body type to be good – everyone finds their own style.