Adventures in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Note: This post was originally written and posted on another website on July 28, 2015. I’m reposting it here to provide context to the continuing story of my fitness and especially my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Journey.

Stretching after class and before Randori.

This spring I officially became a student of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, otherwise known as “The Gentle Art”. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or BJJ is a fairly modern martial art. It was developed in the early 20th century by the Gracie family of Brazil as a way for a smaller, weaker person to defend and win over a larger, stronger opponent. This is why its methods are frequently used in women’s self-defense classes.

It looks a lot like wrestling although there are no penalties for being on your back. In fact, a lot of offensive moves are begun on the back. It’s basically ground fighting, using leverage, timing, and skill to submit your opponent. If you’ve watched mma, you’ve probably seen some jiu jitsu techniques when they take the fight to the ground. Techniques include arm and leg locks, and chokes of all kinds.

Trying to prevent getting arm-barred.

I have to laugh at the “Gentle Art” translation. It doesn’t feel very gentle when your gi collar is wrapped around your neck and you’re starting to turn purple. Trying to learn jiu jitsu has been the most humbling experience I’ve ever had. Although I’ve been active and fairly coordinated my whole life, nothing has prepared me for this. I’m terrible at it. I’m never sure exactly what my body is doing or should be doing most of the time. One of my training partners, a young man who outranks me with a blue belt was trying to help me with a particular move and finally asked, “What are you doing with your toes?” I had no idea! Toes were not part of the moves I was supposed to be learning. It’s like they don’t belong to me anymore.

Despite the sweatiness and hard knocks, I love jiu jitsu. I can’t even say why when most of the time I’m getting arm-barred or choked and submitted. What do you do when you really like doing something, but you’re not so good at it? How do you stay motivated when you suck at what you love?

Practicing standing guard passes.

BJJ is known for being a difficult martial art to master, taking 5 to 15 years to finally earn a black belt, with the average being about 10 years. I’ve been taking classes for about 4 months and it’s hard to see any improvement. Malcolm Gladwell says in his book “Outliers” that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in any given field. I’ve calculated that at the rate I attend class, it will take approximately 67 years to master Jiu Jitsu.

The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu belt system goes from white, to blue, purple, brown and then finally to black. Stripes are awarded on the way from belt to belt. My white belt has one stripe. This is based largely on attendance, and is given when the Professor decides you will survive live practice. Live practice, known as Randori,  is held after formal class. When I got my stripe, I assumed it was actually a “pity stripe”, given so I wouldn’t quit too quickly. But I’ll take it. I can stay for Randori, sparring or what we call “rolling” with several different partners and getting more experience. Everyone assures me that it’s just a matter of time and practice. but I have to work on my attitude and impatience because learning this is going to be slow.

Passing closed guard.

There are three things I try to keep in mind when things don’t go well and I’m struggling to stay motivated.

First, I try to remember that I wanted a new challenge. Silly me. What was I thinking? I wanted to prove to myself that I’m not too old, too weak, or too closed-minded to learn something new. But when my body hurts the next day, I wonder if I’m just crazy.

Second, I focus on the enjoyment I get with each incremental improvement, however small. If I manage to protect my arms during a roll, I count that as a win. If I sweep someone or roll them over, I practically celebrate. There is something gratifying about doing any small thing right in the middle of being so awful.

Third, I keep going. I show up twice a week as often as possible. I know that going more would allow for faster improvement, but it takes me time to recover and I don’t want to get injured, putting me really behind. Consistency is my best contribution to our classroom setting. I might be awful, but I’m consistently there, providing my training partners a body to practice all their submissions on. Tossed around like a rag doll, maybe I’ll even get better in the process.

All in all, practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has been a positive in my life. It replaced running as an activity, and complements my weight training. If I have to stop at some point, it won’t be from a lack of motivation or enjoyment, but because I physically can’t do it any more. If you can motivate yourself, you’ll never be without a cheerleader, no matter how bad you are.

As Paul Coffey says, “Nobody’s a natural. You work hard to get good and then work to get better.”

Next – On Being a Good Teammate