I see Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a challenge. I challenge myself to pursue perfecting my expression of the art, and I challenge others in their pursuit. It isn’t an aggressive challenge. It’s more like adversity that is designed to make you better, like lifting weights or studying for a big test. Every time I train, I pursue elusive perfection. Sometimes I get a glimpse with a perfectly timed sweep, sometimes it’s with an escape from a particularly challenging bad position, and sometimes it flows through a submission where the person is incapacitated and I can apply the submission as slowly as I want because I am in complete control.
If I were a race car driver, it might be that hot lap. Or a perfectly seasoned meal if I were a chef. In photography it would be that photo that makes you feel like you captured Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment. Through constant refinement, there are moments where the curtain is drawn back and you see a future where those moments are chained together on a daily basis, no matter what skill you are developing.
I speak as a purple belt. I remember what it was like to feel like the blue belts were kings of the mat, and the times when I felt like I wasn’t doing anything more than flailing around with raw aggression and poor instinct. Starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the first time is a different experience for each person. Many try it and assume that it’s not for them, then quit soon after starting. We live in a culture where if a web page doesn’t load in 5 seconds, we close the tab and move on to the next web site. Instant messaging, text messaging, and brief comments on facebook are the extent of our attention span. Then we are presented with a discipline where no amount of natural strength, size, or even athletic ability is enough to overcome technique from those who have been training for a year. We are told that the highest level, the black belt, often takes ten years of frequent training to obtain. Masochists and fools sign up thinking they will be the exception and they will magically be able to defy physics and the brains ability to absorb information. Some sign up with the best intentions and a clear view of the challenges ahead.
The true measure of our training comes when we are behind our perceived curve. It comes when we are that student that can wipe the mat with the new guys. Most dangerously, it comes when we feel like we have learned enough. There’s a plateau that seems to be partly a satisfaction with the truly effective skills already obtained, as well as a sense that maybe this comfortable plateau is enough. We are, after all, largely creatures of comfort.
Some of us, when challenged, view the challenge as an affront to our honor. We don’t like being confronted with the idea that we aren’t good enough. Second best is more like almost good enough. Adversity is something to push through if for no other reason than it is trying to hold us back.
So, in Jiu-Jitsu, we have challenges both in starting, and in the complete journey. Now, add on to this our preconceived notions that something about us makes us unsuitable for jiu-jitsu.
For example, most women are used to the idea that they aren’t as physically strong as men. Or they may not be as aggressive.
People who are overweight assume that they won’t be able to keep up, or that they will be unable to perform the techniques that are being taught.
Others have unusual physical characteristics compared to an athlete. Maybe it’s something as simple as some bad joints, or even a missing limb.
Age is another common concern. jiu-jitsu certainly appears to be a young mans sport.
What about coordination that is lacking? You can’t bust a move on the dance floor without everybody laughing, or the last time you rode a bike you thought you were going to crash after 20 seconds.
Then there are people who are simply smaller than others. A 5’8″ 145 pound guy isn’t going to assume that he is going to be able to take on a 6’1″ 200 pound guy. (oh for a world that was uniformly metric, but that’s another rant)
In all of these things, there’s something about us that makes us think we aren’t going to be able to take on the challenge of jiu-jitsu. This appears perfectly logical, and it’s not some kind of lame excuse to avoid jiu-jitsu. People who think these things aren’t being irrational. I started jiu-jitsu in my late 30’s, and I had serious doubts about my ability to keep up, especially after the first week of training where I had to completely rest the entire weekend before I could even think of putting myself through that meat grinder again.
But for all the inherent challenges of getting started, staying engaged, and dealing with our perceived shortcomings, what few people realize is that jiu-jitsu requires so very little of you, other than to show up. We all have something about us that makes our circumstances unique. Jiu-Jitsu respects that and provides a path for everyone. If you are there to get in shape and do something more interesting than pumping iron, jiu-jitsu will accommodate you. If you want to train to be a world champion in the sport, jiu-jitsu will adapt.
There are no excuses in jiu-jitsu. Even your weaknesses can be turned into strengths. Just ask any accomplished female or small guy black belt. They accepted the challenge and found that focusing on technique instead of strength allowed them to develop on a mat filled with people that would break them like twigs if they had no technique. They accepted where they were, and used jiu-jitsu to overcome. Some very advanced black belts abandon certain techniques because they just don’t work well for them because of physical limitations. They are no less black belts than the world champions who can execute every move in jiu-jitsu no matter what level of athleticism is required. When we learn to respect our weakness and strengths, as well as those attributes in others, we start to see the true nature of jiu-jitsu. We can celebrate the 80 year old on the mat finding his own path. We can learn to use our weight to our advantage. We learn that a bad joint can actually simplify what we have to work on, and force us to take defense more seriously. A challenge for someone else is simply a puzzle for us to help solve.
I have nothing but admiration and respect for every jiu-jitsu student. They can be 4 years old, or 90. They may be a 100 pound woman, or a 400 pound man. They may be absolute beasts of human specimens, or thin as a rail small guys that can’t seem to put on fat or muscle to save their life. If they are on the mat, and they want to do jiu-jitsu, I’m there to train with them. If they want to actively learn and be the best that their unique circumstances will allow, then everybody on the mat should be doing everything they can to encourage them to achieve their goals and to overcome challenges both real and imagined.
My challenges in jiu-jitsu won’t be the same as your challenges. But we will both be made stronger and better by respecting each others challenges and specifically using them to grow. My challenges will change as I get older. Some will be physical, others will be mental. In jiu-jitsu, there is no end to the challenges. I intend to overcome them all and let the simple principles of jiu-jitsu guide me in the perfection of my version of it. I invite absolutely everybody to do the same.