Jun 9, 2021
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 min read

The Benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Nobody Told You About (and they're huge)

You’re considering Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) but you’re still on the fence.

Ask a fellow Jiu-Jitsu-er and they quickly become over excited and promise BJJ will change your life. It almost feels cult-y. 

Whats all the fuss about? What will BJJ give you that will change your life?

I’m not here to serve you another predictable list of benefits of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).

It’s a martial art. You’ll learn self-defense and get extremely fit. Discipline and self-confidence. Community. This is obvious surface level stuff.

But years later I've realized that the benefits of BJJ are much more profound. BJJ truely is an incubator of high-impact life skills. 

Here are 2 not-so-obvious but life-changing benefits of training BJJ.

BJJ 101: What is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, really?

First a quick explanation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and its philosophy. 

BJJ is a fighting system developed in Brazil with roots in the martial art Japanese Judo. The goal is straightforward. The first person to ‘submit’ his or her opponent with a joint-lock or choke wins.

A typical class starts with a warm up, you then learn and practice some techniques and finish with a few rounds of sparring. Sparring is basically a live fighting simulation and it’s physically and mentally challenging. Imagine a high intensity workout where your training equipment fights back.

Once upon a time, traditional fighters laughed at the idea of BJJ as a serious fighting style. But then came along Jiu-Jitsu fighter Royce Gracie

Gracie didn’t look like much. And he fought in what looked like cute pajamas (his BJJ Kimono). But it was Royce who was laughing as he won 3 of the first 4 Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events in the 1990’s. 

This proved that BJJ was the most effective fighting system, and as a result almost all modern day UFC fighters are versed in BJJ.

Given this history, you might be thinking BJJ sounds hardcore but don’t be fooled; strength and ego are not required. In fact, quite the opposite. BJJ’s philosophy can be summarized in a famous quote by one of the sports founders:

“Always assume that your opponent is going to be bigger, stronger and faster than you; so that you learn to rely on technique, timing and leverage rather than brute strength” - Helio Gracie

And let's not forget that at its core BJJ is a martial art, which is a significant point. Britannica defines a martial art as a “system or tradition of combat which is practiced for a particular reason. Self-defence, military or law enforcement, competition, preserving cultural heritage and physical, mental and spiritual development”

I bolded those last two for a reason. The mental and spiritual development that comes from BJJ is less obvious, but builds skills that help you better navigate life. Here are those skills.

BJJ Schools you in Adversity

One of the great awful truths: life is full of suffering, but through our struggles we grow. 

The Buddhists figured this out a long time ago. The first of the 4 noble truths of Buddhism ‘Dukkha’ translates to ‘life is suffering’. 

I’m not here to repeat this lesson. That's life’s job. 

But I do want to underscore the importance of adversity for growth. This lesson is echoed everywhere; from our literature to our language. You’ve certainly heard the cliche “what does kill us makes us stronger”. Or some variation.

If you believe adversity is a doorway to growth, not only should you accept adversity; you should embrace it.

Easier said than done. Adversity sucks. We are wired to avoid it. 

The only thing to make adversity easier to deal with is...more adversity. And alcohol. But nobody actively seeks out difficult life situations, and boozing is just a band-aid.

The solution: expose yourself to adversity in a controlled environment that limits the downside risk. Ideally in a way that is enjoyable on some level so you keep coming back for more exposure.

BJJ is one such way because it's full of struggle.

Especially in the beginning. 

Struggling in BJJ
Image source

Imagine you’re physically exhausted and gasping for air but your opponent picks you up and throws you. You’re immediately mounted and pinned to the ground. A sweaty chest bears down on your face, and you’re gasping for air. You sense an attack coming so naturally, you panic. This makes things worse. Your muscles tense like corroded steel and you forget to breathe altogether. 

What was that escape coach show you last week? you can’t think. Adrenaline clouds your mind. You feel your heart beating in your throat, and you continue trying to white knuckle your way to safety but nothing works.

You get sloppy and make mistakes. You push your opponent away but he begins to arm-lock you. No! You manage to wrestle your limb back to safety and turn to escape. You expose your back and you’re choked. All this in the space of 30 seconds.

Everyone in BJJ has experienced something like this. Many times over.

Eventually you learn to survive. You stop reacting when those survival hormones flood your brain and scream panic. Your self-talk changes. Rather than “ERRRMAGAD IM GONNA DIE” you remind yourself to stay calm. Breathe. Wait for the right moment. This too shall pass. It always does.

These situations no longer make you panic like a diver without oxygen. Now, you seek them out. Because you know they help you improve. At this point you’ve mastered the first struggle of BJJ. 

But more struggle awaits, in different forms, no matter how many years you’ve been training.

The technique you just learned doesn’t work. You hit a plateau in your training. You can’t find the motivation to train. The constant injuries. Fear and nerves of competition. And the constant, never ending battle against your cardio.

You only get better at BJJ through the struggle of BJJ. And when you’re exposed to this struggle for long enough it changes you. It cultivates a new default mindset in response to adversity, whether you are on or off the mats. You begin to see difficult situations as an opportunity to grow. Your physiological response to adversity changes. You panic less when life puts the pressure on. Your self-talk changes. 

I once heard Sam Harris say that for meditation, we must train deliberately until it becomes effortless. The same applied to BJJ and adversity. You train deliberately, and eventually, dealing with adversity becomes effortless. 

BJJ is tough but some strange force keeps pulling you back to the mats. I'm not talking about the badass self defense skills you learn. Or the fact that you get in the best shape of your life. The community helps, but again, what makes you stay is something deeper.

Joe Rogan put it well when he said:

“When you get really good at something as difficult as Jiu Jitsu, it makes everything in your life better”. - Joe Rogan

After 5 years in the sport, I completely agree.

BJJ forces ego-awareness on many different levels

An unhealthy ego causes problems, therefore managing the ego starts with awareness. 

But awareness that ego simply exists is not enough, because ego manifests in different shapes and forms throughout different parts of our lives. This isn’t always obvious.

In the book ‘Ego is the Enemy’ we are reminded to keep an eye out constantly. 

“Ego is the enemy every step along this way.” - Ryan Holiday

BJJ takes you on a journey that allows you to see all of these different levels of your ego and how they hold you back.

The first is the obvious everyday tough guy ‘i'm stronger than you’ ego, which is quickly deflated on the mats. Perceived self-toughness is irrelevant. Remember the philosophy of BJJ is that ‘Technique, leverage & timing > brute strength.’

So no matter how tough you feel someone will always be able to easily wrap you up into a pretzel. Someone who looks like your accountant. Or your little sister. This humbling realization reminds you of the danger in judging a book by its cover. 

BJJ nerd meme
Image source

The second version of ego is one I’ve been recently fighting with. It’s much less obvious. 

I’d hit a wall in my BJJ journey. I’d been training for 5 years but felt like I was going backwards. Every session was a struggle. As a blue belt I felt anxious rolling less experienced white belts because I didn’t want to lose. So I would fight to win at all costs. A voice in my head was telling me that blue belts don’t lose to white belts. I’d even avoid rolling white belts who I knew would give me hard rolls.

And that was exactly the problem. I was fighting the wrong person. My sparring partner wasn’t the enemy. I was.

That voice in my head was ego and it was destroying my growth.

“Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego.” - Ryan Holiday.

I was playing not to lose. But I should have been playing to win. Because of my ego.

Playing not to lose means feeding the ego and the price is growth. Maybe you white knuckle your way through a round and don’t tap. Sure, you didn’t ‘lose’ but nothing was gained.

Playing to win means prioritizing learning. You take more risks. You put yourself in situations where you feel weak. You might ‘lose’ more but overall you win because you learn.

I’m reminding myself of this lesson on and off the mats. I’m constantly asking myself: “am I playing not to lose, or playing to win?”. Asking this of yourself will reveal if ego is in the way.

Consider choosing a life partner; one of the most important decisions of your life. If you’re ‘putting up’ with a less-than-ideal relationship because of fear of being alone; you’re playing not to lose. 

If you’re ‘putting up’ with a job that pays the bills because that scary but exciting life path might mean failure; you’re playing not to lose. 

The journey continues. BJJ will force me to face up to new versions of my ego. Each time is an opportunity to ask: where else in my life is this ego getting in the way?

Come for skills...stay for the wisdom

This is not one man's experience. BJJ Transforms lives, and a quick google search uncovers many similar stories.

So if you’re still on the fence, or if you’ve just started your BJJ Journey, my advice is stick with it for at least 3 months, because you’re only scratching the surface when it comes to the benefits of BJJ.

Let the journey continue.

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