For the past four months, I’ve been practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. For those unfamiliar with the art, it’s a combat sport system composed mostly of grappling techniques such as choke holds, joint locks, and other fun manipulations.
Being a student of such a physical sport was (and, in many ways, still is) brand new to me. I was never exposed to the ancient practice of strip mall Tae Kwon Do. I played one year apiece of football and hockey in elementary school, and that was the end of my career in contact sports.
Knowing what I know now, boy oh boy do I wish I would have started sooner.
All sports are instrumental in teaching universal skills like teamwork, dedication, and the important distinction between winning and losing. However, I am finding the physical and demanding nature of jiu jitsu to be uniquely formative in the characteristics that make up an effective human being.
While discipline is not exclusive to jiu jitsu, I would argue the way in which it teaches discipline is. As with every sport, the game is always more fun than practice. When it comes to jiu jitsu, the only “games” are the few minutes of sparring (“rolling” to practitioners) at the end of each class and periodic tournaments. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of jiu jitsu is practice—that is, the “less fun” part of the sport.
Showing up to class every day, on time, to go through arduous workouts and drills takes a noteworthy level of discipline, especially considering most students are coming from work, school, or some other full-time commitment. While it’s true learning new techniques in class is always exciting, the exaggerated learning curve of attempting those techniques and exposing yourself to a vicious submission is not.
Furthermore, listening to your coach and implementing his or her direction is a matter of life and death, figuratively speaking. This can be tough if you’re attempting to improve but aren’t a huge fan of leaving your comfort zone. Or, worse yet, puffy egos with a penchant for being right may not take so kindly to the criticism.
When you condition your mind and body to jiu jitsu’s specific brand of discipline, you will approach arduous projects and uncharted ventures with a profound sense of purpose. Upon clinging to that purpose, discipline becomes second-nature.
#2 Problem Solving
Jiu jitsu is chess, not checkers. It’s a constant dance of action and reaction, a feedback loop processing in real time. If she puts her foot there, then I place my hand here. If he shifts his weight here, then I can roll there. And it gets infinitely more complicated than that.
The most common speedbump I’ve experienced as an early-stage practitioner is by the time my brain tells me how to approach a vaguely familiar position, the window of opportunity has closed. How do we shorten the frequency of these blunders? The same way we solve all problems: learning from mistakes, resolving not to repeat mistakes, and improving response time.
It is this balance between critical thinking and strategy implementation that makes this sport so valuable to people hoping to excel in just about anything. Just as Thomas Edison identified 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb, so too does a jiu jitsu practitioner learn 10,000 ways to get choked out, an arm ripped off, or a large joint twisted.
Failing, learning, and trying again is the great circle of life. Through jiu jitsu, you will become so comfortable with this process that you look forward to its hard but invaluable lessons.
#3 Taking Risks
As I alluded to previously, a huge part of the sport is being willing to try new maneuvers on your training partners—especially when the moves are still raw. I wish I could count the number of times I’ve attempted a triangle choke only to have my guard passed—or worse yet, found myself in a triangle choke after attempting a guard pass. (If you’re unfamiliar with the nomenclature, all you need to know is having your guard passed equals big trouble and a tight triangle choke will put you down for a nap in about 10 seconds.)
However, one must—I emphasize must—be willing to risk these fatal pitfalls in order to improve. Practitioners cannot acquire new moves, whether offensively or defensively, without leaving the atmosphere of their comfort zones. Without learning new techniques and increasing jiu jitsu IQ, one simply cannot become more effective on the mat.
If you’re not becoming more effective, what’s the point of doing anything?
And so it is with all things in the real world. If you never invest the time and money necessary into your startup, knowing full well the risk that you may never see any ROI, then you’ll never have your dream business. If you hide in the back during a crisis at work, knowing full well a resulting loss would fall on your shoulders, you will never be recognized as a leader. Without being recognized as a leader, you will meet your professional ceiling very quickly.
After becoming comfortable with jiu jitsu, the rush of trying a new technique—especially on a higher ranking student who may underestimate you—will help you come to embrace, if not love, taking risks. Although the stakes while sparring might not quite rise to the level of putting your savings or career on the line, the lesson on the relationship between risk and reward is very real and immediate.
The lesson on humility is the real beauty of jiu jitsu. In my opinion, this lesson comes on much more quickly and heavily than any other sport.
Why? There are many reasons, but two in particular stand out. First, jiu jitsu is an individual’s sport. It’s just you out there on the mat. Yes, you have a coach yelling at you from the sidelines. You may even be fortunate enough to have a cheering section or fellow students there to support you. When all is said and done, though, you and you alone have to execute. It’s your win or your loss.
Second, and far more importantly, jiu jitsu doesn’t care about your size, athleticism, looks, age, or who you know. It only cares about how good you are at jiu jitsu. I’ve seen 160-pound men toy with 220-pound men and 115-pound women dance all over 160-pound men. I would put my money on a 70-year-old black belt against the fittest 21-year-old white belt any day of the week. Perhaps most refreshing of all, the politics that often accompany team sports are nowhere to be found.
The bottom line is you will lose. In fact, you will lose quickly and you will lose often—especially when first starting out. A bruised ego does tremendous wonders for humility, making each loss sting just a bit less than the last. The less losing stings, the easier it is to learn from defeat.
As my coach once said, “The only reason I got a black belt is I just never quit.”
Generally speaking, progress in jiu jitsu is painfully slow. In fairness, this is largely due to the unfathomable wealth of information there is to learn. For an individual as woefully impatient as I am, this is by far the most frustrating aspect of the sport. It’s not uncommon to walk out of a class feeling less skillful than when I walked in, which sometimes waters down the eagerness for learning and growing.
To add to this, it’s difficult to see one measly hour of class time as all that productive. When you consider it can take around a year of consistent training to graduate from a white belt to a blue belt, an hour just doesn’t seem like much. And, to top it all off, it’s especially difficult to feel like you’re improving when higher-ranking students—and sometimes even equals—throw you around like a rag doll.
In light of all this, how do you convince yourself to keep showing up?
Simple. Jiu jitsu has a monumentally important, unwritten rule: If you want to progress, you have to keep showing up. Period. As I learned very early on, jiu jitsu could not be farther from riding a bike. After taking just one week off, my instincts dull and I start making Day 1 errors.
This lesson maps seamlessly to the professional world. When you look at anecdotes from the most successful people in recent history, they all have one thing in common: They didn’t, and still don’t, take time off. Most of them barely take breaks during the day, let alone in the long term. Marissa Mayer slept under her desk at Google. Elon Musk lived in his office. Mark Cuban will state outright he does not enjoy or have any desire for relaxation.
Like so many other endeavors this world has to offer, jiu jitsu is designed to be a lifelong journey. When you wire your brain to keep showing up, very few things will throw you off course.
#6 Dealing with Confrontation
This is my personal favorite.
The number one thing I’ve noticed after observing a multitude of first-time students is the apprehension toward making physical contact with a classmate. At my gym, one of the first warm-up drills we do every class involves one person “turtling up” (knees and elbows on the mat with the head tucked in) and the other person placing their lower abdomen on the turtle’s lower back. The person on top then uses their legs to spin around on the turtle like a top for a full minute without placing their hands on the mat. Naturally, this involves keeping a lot of weight on the poor turtle. (It’s not painful; I promise.)
After explaining this drill to first timers, the response is always the same: a few half-hearted attempts, followed by, “Do I seriously just lay on top of them?” It’s actually hilarious, because I remember thinking the exact same thing and it happens every time without fail.
I don’t believe this is the result of germaphobia. (It’s hard to imagine such a person would sign up for a jiu jitsu class in the first place.) Rather, I think it’s the innate fear most people have of injuring or offending another human being. Perhaps there’s also some natural shyness and beginner jitters sprinkled in there somewhere.
As students progress out from Day 1, they quickly learn jiu jitsu is all about closing and creating space between you and your opponent. Naturally, there are infinite positions the casual observer might consider awkward—it is grappling, after all. However, the more the student becomes acclimated to the essence of the sport, the more that predisposition toward physical politeness abates.
This comfort with being up close and personal with others is, in my opinion, the most important lesson jiu jitsu teaches us about interpersonal skills. Be honest: Have you ever put yourself into a dreadful situation because you couldn’t muster up the courage to say “no”? Alternatively, how many people have put up with unnecessarily difficult circumstances because they were afraid to initiate an uncomfortable conversation? This all stems from the fear of confrontation.
Even the most reclusive hermits among us will at one point have to engage in a challenging interaction with another person. Equipping yourself with the confidence to stand firm in your resolve and be assertive when necessary can quite literally change your life.
Bringing It All Home
It’s true there are plenty of ways to learn the six character traits discussed here. I also acknowledge that a sport as physical as jiu jitsu is not for everyone. With that said, I encourage anyone who is physically and financially able to do a quick Google search for the nearest martial arts academy. (PRO TIP: Be sure to vet the place thoroughly. There are plenty of “belt factories” out there who will gladly take your money and rush you through belt promotion without teaching you a darn thing.)
Sign up for a trial class and see if you like it. Keep an open mind on your first day and don’t be put off if your coach likes to employ a little tough love. If you decide to sign up, I tip my cap to you. You will not regret it. On the other hand, if you don’t think it’s for you, then that’s okay too. If nothing else, perhaps you’ll learn a few self-defense techniques in your free hour of training.
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