Discomfort, both giving and receiving, is a fundamental characteristic of jiu-jitsu. It is part of what builds mental and physical toughness for both sport and self-defense applications. When you are receiving discomfort, it means some aspect of your defense failed and you have to deal with discomfort while rebuilding your defense and escape options. When you are making someone uncomfortable, you have typically obtained a position of control and it is easier for you to accomplish your goals. Applied responsibly, discomfort helps get us out of our comfort zone and forces us to refine our technique.
Discomfort -> Misery -> Pain -> Injury
Keep in mind that discomfort is not pain, and it certainly isn’t injury. It is also a mental state. Mental discomfort that arises from physical discomfort clouds your judgement. As you learn how to cope with physical discomfort, it just becomes another input to the equation you are trying to solve. There is a reason that higher level practitioners often have an unreadable expression on their face even when they are in bad positions. They have dealt with discomfort for so long that it barely registers, whereas newer students may tap to something that is merely uncomfortable but has no chance of injury or even temporary harm.
Pain is where discomfort crosses the line between a manageable sensation and something that you may continue to feel a little even after the pressure has stopped. It is stretching or grinding abuse of the body that threatens injury. Repeated pain to a joint is likely to cause low grade stress injuries which can temporarily force you out of training to give the joint a rest.
Injury is when a single instance of stress actually breaks something. In jiu-jitsu, much of what we do is capable of breaking bones, tearing ligaments, dislocating joints, or damaging cartilage and muscles. If a submission is applied so quickly that there isn’t time to respond the discomfort or pain, injury is likely. Your goal should always be to avoid giving or receiving injury, even if it is an accident. Experience helps with this, so you should take a skill level appropriate approach to discomfort, pain, and injury.
The line between comfort and discomfort is appropriate territory for lower belts and recreational jiu-jitsu players to explore, while the line between discomfort and pain should be reserved for higher level students (purple/brown or higher). Exploring the line between pain and injury has no place in regular training and should be avoided by everyone. Proper jiu-jitsu can train to cause serious injury without exploring that line. However, there are times where the desired goals require giving or receiving a serious injury. For example, in self-defense you may have to cause serious injury in order to protect yourself or your family. In the very highest levels of competition, there are many well known instances of an athlete accepting serious harm to their body in order to win. See the videos for Roger Gracie vs Jacare Souza (Jacare’s arm is broken, wins on points) or Nicolini vs Musumeci (Musumeci is injured while ahead on points, but eventually loses) for examples.
Although discomfort is typically given from a dominant position, it is possible to make someone uncomfortable from an inferior position. Fighting for position for an escape, building frames, and redirecting force are all ways you can make the dominant player uncomfortable. The dominant player can use weight, leverage, and positioning to make the opponent uncomfortable. At the very least, you always want to make your opponent mentally uncomfortable, constantly guessing and responding to your actions instead of trying to implement their own plans.
Once you become adept at causing discomfort without pain or injury, you have crossed the threshold of being able to cause misery. Misery in jiu-jitsu is how I describe a constant state of discomfort that never seems to go away. A good example of this is if you are rolling with someone who is much more experienced, you are almost always mentally uncomfortable as well as physically uncomfortable any time they make virtually any kind of contact with you. The more misery you can cause, the more you are in control of the situation and can implement our chosen techniques. In competition, causing misery induces our opponent to grow increasingly desperate and more liable to make a mistake. The clock is always your enemy when you are in misery.
What about pain? It’s still a step beyond misery. It has a role in jiu-jitsu, but it must be disciplined to avoid injury. For example, a crossface can be uncomfortable, but a neck crank can be quite painful and is a short step away from injury. Knee on belly as a position can be painful, but it can cross the line to injury if it is applied to the ribs in a focused way. Pain is also used as a part of some techniques to force movement, although it is vastly more common to use leverage to force movement.
So how do you practice all these forms of discomfort during regular training? Certainly when visiting another academy or working with strangers in your own academy, it’s best to be polite and avoid any form of pain, no matter what your experience level is. Among regular training partners, causing discomfort should be a normal goal unless it is accompanied by malice (e.g. revenge for a previous submission) or is wildly unfair (e.g. large weight, size, strength, or skill differences). Discomfort builds up our jiu-jitsu as a means of feedback on our technique. Causing pain is best left to more experienced practitioners because they are more familiar with the sensitivity that is required to avoid injury. An example of causing pain is framing an arm or placing a fist against the airway in order to induce a response. In these types of cases, the goal is not to cause injury, but to expose a weakness of defense and progressively apply pain in a controlled fashion.
So for regular training and some competition, The experience levels can be roughly arrayed into the spectrum of discomfort->misery->pain->injury:
||Pain (common), Injury (very rare)
The pattern here is as you gain awareness of your own body, you are increasingly responsible for drawing your own personal line for what you can accept. Accepting injury is a possible rational decision, but for the vast majority of scenarios it is not an appropriate decision to contemplate. Of course part of your goal is to avoid even discomfort, but that is not always possible, so the levels above are what you should be prepared to deal with if necessary. On the giving end, the maximum level in this table is reserved for fair competition among peers. In an uneven situation, like purple belt vs white belt, the purple should self limit to causing discomfort while intelligently managing any potential pain received.
When in doubt, default to mere discomfort for giving and receiving. It may be because of managing an existing injury, visiting another school, or even a simple case of not having enough gas in the tank to go very hard.
Of course in self-defense, injury is almost necessarily always on the table. There are also times when an instructor needs to give unpleasant pain even to a white belt in order to illustrate a serious flaw in defense or thought process, but never to the extent that an instant release of pressure doesn’t immediately relieve all pain.
What are we accomplishing?
It may seem a bit extreme to contemplate pain and injury in a recreational activity, but at root, jiu-jitsu is a combative sport, martial art, and self-defense system. Without the potential extremes, you are merely exercising. If all you want is exercise, you can indefinitely restrict both the give and receive options to nothing more than discomfort. If you want to build your jiu-jitsu to its fullest extent, you are going to have to learn how to cause misery, pain, and rare injury.
As you learn the dynamics of the discomfort to injury spectrum, you build your mental resilience and your capability to confront any situation you encounter. This goes well beyond jiu-jitsu scenarios and improves all areas of your life. There’s a level of perspective you gain by having someone trying to choke you unconscious while you calmly disassemble their attack and go on your own offensive. It makes mere verbal confrontations much less stressful, even disregarding the fact that an escalation to violence is much less of a threat.
Intelligent and fairly applied discomfort and misery can help you accelerate both your offense and defense, and they should be common elements of your training.