After about 3 years of being prodded by friends and podcast hosts (Jocko Willink, Joe Rogan, Russell Brand, Sam Harris, Guy Ritchie), and especially the late Anthony Bourdain, I finally took the plunge and dove into something completely foreign to me.
I’m 37 and a have been practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for about 6 weeks. I hit the mat 4 times a week at a dojo about 10 minutes from my house and my 5 year old son started a few weeks ago too. I’ve missed my first session this week due to standing on a dead puffer fish on the beach (I’m not joking).
If you think it’s far too premature, and completely ridiculous, to write about comparing a new martial art to life after only practicing for 5 weeks, you’re 100% correct, so feel free to stop reading. As my body aches in muscles that I never knew existed, and as my curiosity, youtube feed, bookshelf and thought is dominated by this new thing, you might find it interesting.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or BJJ, is a non-striking martial art, so that means no kicking or punching. It’s a grappling art and considered to be the most technical martial art. The game is centred on getting your opponent to a position where you could strangle them, or break a joint, at which point they tap out.
It’s a sport where a 60kg girl can end up breaking the wrist of a 100kg man. You use leverage, technique, acceleration to take advantage of limbs that are in vulnerable positions and causing a proportional advantage despite the differences in your physique. 2 legs wrapped around the neck of a large person is a problem no matter the size of the person doing it.
The parallels between the mat and life is spoken about often enough that it’s cliched, but it’s become evident to me in so many ways which I’ll break down here. I hope to carry those lessons with me in my daily life.
The #1 challenge to me is the honesty of the art. You can’t bullshit your way into being good, or out of a bad situation. You can only do it through practice, being present and keeping calm. I want to bring this into my daily life, be good by being good, not by putting on a good show.
What I also love is the purity of the only currency you have on the mat, is what you bring on the mat. Your story, your entitlement, your big mouth can’t help you get better, or survive a few more seconds. It’s only what you bring to the mat. I can’t help but wonder if we actually apply this in real life? Do the best people get rewarded or do the ones that make influential people feel happy do?
I’m not particularly gifted in this sport. With the exception of very few positions, it all feels completely foreign to me and even during warmups I watch as people cartwheel away with ease. I measure myself with only one thing — did I turn up? Did I hit the mat? Then I’ve been successful. And maybe, just maybe, next time I’ll suck a little less.
Here are some things I’ve learnt and hope to bring to my life, family and work.
Be technical — Progress through skill, both natural but more importantly learned.
Time on the mat — There is absolutely no substitute for practice. All the googling, books, youtube videos will never replace real world experience.
The map is not the territory — The learning and preparation will be completely different to what you experience ‘live’. As someone said (it wasn’t Einstein by the way…) “In theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice, they are not”. You can only build strength in practice through practice.
Be completely present — Whenever my mind drifts elsewhere in BJJ, within split seconds someone is compressing your neck to restrict oxygenated blood flow to the brain…
Consistency, turn up— The humble student that turns up every week will eventually surpass the talented student that turns up in rapid bursts now and again.
Be calm — When you’re face is planted on the mat (literally), acting frantically and flailing around without purpose will only make things much worse. Breathe, focus and work your way through it.
Be an eternal student — There is always tons more to learn. Even the most experienced in the dojo continually are refining and improving.
Be in the arena — No matter what level, compete. Be in the arena, don’t simply teach, get fat and theorise. Be on the mat, in competition and learning and teaching through practice.
Ultimately, I hope to carry my life in a way that I’m constantly improving, being humble and real with my assessment and rewarded on merit, just as Bjj does.