Context Matters

There’s been a lot of talk lately about sport jiu-jitsu and self defense jiu-jitsu. It’s easy to find an opinion that tells you what you want to hear. Some will tell you a good sport jiu-jitsu student is good enough for any normal street altercation. Others say that your jiu-jitsu isn’t complete without self defense training.

I am by default a sport jiu-jitsu oriented practitioner. When I started, I took some of the MMA classes, then decided it was a distraction and would take up time that I’d rather be studying only jiu-jitsu. Self defense was likewise something that I initially took seriously, then decided that since I hadn’t been in a fight in 20 years, I’d rather focus on sport jiu-jitsu. I enjoyed learning self defense techniques, but I never practiced or studied them outside of class.

However, as I get closer to my black belt, my views are changing and being refined. I’ve talked with and learned from quite a few black belts. One common theme I’ve seen, even from very good sport jiu-jitsu black belts, is that self defense is a different set of techniques than sport. There is overlap, but there are also times when incorrectly choosing one style over the other is detrimental to your immediate goals, with consequences that may be mild or severe.

You Know What They Say About Assumptions

It’s natural that when you go to Marcelo Garcia’s school, you are going to learn sport jiu-jitsu. It’s a bit of a surprise when you are there and find out that regaining full guard from half guard uses two different hand positions on the far arm depending on sport or self defense. In one scenario, you are preventing your opponent from immobilizing your leg. In the other, you are preventing your opponent from hitting your face.

When you learn from self defense (or MMA) oriented instructors like Royce Gracie, Henry Akins or Flavio Behring, you learn to do what it takes to keep yourself safe while immobilizing and if necessary breaking your opponent. Yet many of their techniques are completely applicable to sport jiu-jitsu, and I have used many elements from each of those instructors in my sport jiu-jitsu arsenal.

The common theme from both styles of jiu-jitsu is that the intent of your opponent is going to change your tactics. When you are in a gentleman’s sport such as jiu-jitsu, you don’t have to worry about strikes to the face or kicks to the liver. Your opponent, even in competition, is not trying to hurt you as much as they can. Sport jiu-jitsu encourages control and respect rather than blind rage and violence. Self defense assumes the worst case scenario that your opponent intends to do as much harm to you as possible and a knockout is equivalent to unanswered damage while you are unconscious, or even death.

This does not imply that you learn both self defense and sport, or just one or the other. There is nothing wrong with learning any jiu-jitsu for any reason. If you just want to do something more interesting than lifting weights or running miles, jiu-jitsu is a fantastic way do avoid exercise you find unappealing. If you want to learn how to defend yourself, jiu-jitsu has proven to be an ideal method to use. If you want to chase competition medals and ignore self defense, then there is plenty of room at the table for your goals as well.

What’s important is that when you learn just a subset of jiu-jitsu, don’t assume that your skills in that domain will apply as well as you think in other jiu-jitsu domains. Schools that focus on making their blue belts competent at self defense more than anything else will find that their students may get destroyed at a competition. On the other hand, in a street altercation, I’d put money on the self defense blue belt long before any sport blue belt. Context matters.

Where does this leave your average student? As long as you are realistic about your training and its applicability to your current situation where you are using your skills (street/competition), there is no conflict. Although it’s true that a skilled sport jiu-jitsu student is far better prepared for a street altercation than an unskilled person, the habits developed by a pure sports jiu-jitsu student can be downright dangerous if the opponent gets lucky. Self defense jiu-jitsu in a sport context also leaves the practitioner vulnerable to advanced sport techniques that presume a set of rules that preclude striking.

It’s Not All About You

So as long as you’re realistic about how what you train doesn’t necessarily apply to different contexts, does this mean you are set as a jiu-jitsu practitioner? Probably not. While it’s great that you train at all, it’s also good to consider how your training impacts and influences others around you.

No matter what you think about your jiu-jitsu, the default assumption by others is that you are studying a martial art. No matter how many times you tell people your goal isn’t to hurt people, it’s assumed that you could if you wanted to. What happens when a woman you know asks you for self defense tips? What about a teenage boy who is getting bullied at school? Do you tell them that you are just a sport jiu-jitsu person, and the self defense stuff isn’t that big of a deal once you get your sport black belt after ten years?

I have had people approach me, desperate for self defense techniques. I did the best I could using proven tactics and techniques that I have learned from self defense oriented black belts, but there’s only so much that can be done in an hour that you might have with someone in that situation. I never want to feel powerless to help someone who is in need of self defense. I have also had last minute cram sessions with students before tournaments where later that day I watched the knowledge get used to win matches. Sometimes even a little bit of the right thing at the right time can help tremendously.

The burden to know Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a complete self defense and sport martial art is greater on those of us who choose to become instructors, but even a permanent student should be able to present a useful level of knowledge of the whole art. We are all representatives to those around us, responsible for the public perception of all of jiu-jitsu’s facets.

Be Realistic

So what does this mean for various jiu-jitsu scenarios?

If you are a permanent student, and you are typically focused on either sport or self defense, you should consider yourself an ambassador for the art. Represent the other side of the art in a way that will draw in people who don’t train, but might want to train for reasons other than yours. Also be realistic in how you present yourself. Until you have spent a significant amount of time training on both sides of the jiu-jitsu spectrum, you aren’t qualified to make bold proclamations about the utility of one side in the domain of the other side. Context Matters.

If you are an instructor, or aspire to be one at some point, it’s like an amplified version of being a student, except it is expected that you will already know both sides of the jiu-jitsu coin. You are considered an expert. Be ready to provide answers for both street and sport jiu-jitsu. I can not reconcile the notion that knowing enough of one side is enough to deal with whatever you may come across on the other side. It’s certainly not the case for lower level students, and it’s questionable even for very high level practitioners. Again, Context Matters, and we owe it to our listeners to be up front about our capabilities so that they don’t get the wrong idea about jiu-jitsu and miss out on any of the multitude of good reasons that people choose to train. Instructors should be able to provide guidance for whatever the student’s goals are, no matter how much or how little of the art they choose to focus on.

In case you missed it, Context Matters. If for no other reason than your own well being, make no assumptions about areas of jiu-jitsu that you don’t actively train. Everybody has a reason to explore all that jiu-jitsu has to offer, yet as long as you are accomplishing your own goals and you aren’t misrepresenting the art, you are a valuable member of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community. Enjoy your training, and encourage others towards their goals.

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