I arrived at my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) class feeling excited and only a little apprehensive. I’d seen videos of BJJ competitions and MMA bouts so I had a vague understanding that it involved rolling around on the ground with your opponent while trying to get them to tap out. I figured my first class would involve an entry-level introduction to some of the concepts, a bit of technique drilling and then some low-intensity sparring.
Ninety minutes later, I was lined up against the wall with the rest of the class, desperately trying not to pass out and willing the coach to finish the lesson so I could lie on the floor in a pool of my own sweat.
I had slightly underestimated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
BJJ is a martial art invented by the Gracie Family as an alternative version of traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. It was created as a means of self-defence that doesn’t rely on physical strength. It allows you to use leverage, momentum, angles, and your opponent’s own weight to create chokes or joint locks: weapons that cause extreme discomfort.
BJJ spread quickly from Brazil to the US through challenge fights the Gracies would hold with famous practitioners of other martial arts to demonstrate jiu-jitsu’s efficacy – fights the Gracies would always win. Once the UFC was created and the world could watch Royce Gracie dominate much bigger and more powerful men, BJJ hit the big time.
My original motivation for trying BJJ was really just that I thought it would be cool to know how to fight. I’ve now been training on and off (thanks to injuries and lockdowns) for two-and-a-half years and have gained some insights that have benefited other areas of my life, especially my work as a development finance broker.
- Stay calm
BJJ is different to other martial arts because it doesn’t involve striking, which means that sparring sessions can proceed at close to 100% fight intensity without anyone getting badly hurt. Of course, injuries happen, but whenever someone gets close to having their arm broken or being choked unconscious, they can tap out, safe in the knowledge that their training partner will release them.
As a result of this, you end up regularly feeling like you are fighting for your life. Your opponent is doing everything they can to control your body, squeezing the life out of you like a boa-constrictor, and this can really make you lose your shit and start panicking. However, panicking will get you nowhere. You have to learn how to stay calm under pressure: for example, by controlling your breathing so that your heart rate can come down. Once you have regained composure, you can assess your position and come up with a plan of action. The parallels with working in development finance brokering will be clear to anyone in the industry!
- Check your ego
Most BJJ clubs have an unofficial policy regarding arrogance, particularly when it comes to bullies. If a big guy shows up to a club thinking he knows everything or that he can get away with poor technique by using his brute force against smaller and less experienced guys, it won’t be long before the coach has given the nod to one of his blue belts to show the guy what’s what. This usually involves a challenge to spar followed quickly by the big guy tapping out repeatedly.
Even as you start to get better and learn more, there is always someone ready and willing to put you in your place. Staying humble means people are more likely to want you at their club and more likely to want you working on their development deals. An arrogant and aggressive approach might get one deal over the line, but you won’t be invited back for the next one.
- Avoiding defeat is not the same as winning
One thing that often holds people back, myself included, in BJJ and in life, is the desire to avoid looking stupid. We are often more afraid of losing than we are excited at the prospect of winning and this can cause us to live well within our abilities. In BJJ, this manifested for me in a very tense and defensive approach to sparring. Slowing down the fight, trying to stop my opponent from gaining an upper hand but never attempting to gain an upper hand myself.
There are times when being defensive in jiu-jitsu, or conservative in life, can be the best course of action. But this needs to be balanced with a more open and riskier practice when the time is right. For me at work, this can be as simple as saying “I don’t know” in answer to a question I don’t know the answer to. I risk looking like I don’t know what I’m doing, but I have to ask myself: what is my goal? Figuring out the solution to the problem or always looking like I know everything?
- Most things in life are easy compared to getting choked out
This is the most important life lesson I’ve gained from practicing BJJ. Experiencing intense, acute physical stress on a regular basis is the best way I have found to calibrate the low-lying chronic stress we all experience living in the modern world. Every week, I know that my most stressful experience will be on the BJJ mats and this means that when stresses at work come along (down-valuations, sellers dragging their feet, solicitors not responding), they’ll feel like a walk in the park compared to trying to escape a choke.
Not everything is about work. Having hobbies is important for your mental and physical health and we all need more opportunities to get out of our heads and into our bodies. But if you can find a hobby that gives you skills you can carry over into your career then it’s a win-win.
What hobby are you really into at the moment?