What is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (and what does it mean to me?)

Spider Guard in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

What is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? I get this question all the time, and though it seems simple enough, I always struggle with the answer in the same way that a racecar driver might struggle with the question “what is racing?” For example, if they were to answer like this: “I and my friends jump through the windows of our cars and quickly make left-hand turns on a one lane road until a black and white flag is waved at us!” They aren’t really communicating their passion or capturing the spirit of the sport. Alternatively, if they answered as a montage of brief but descriptive moments such as “Oh man, racing is all about the rumble of the engines, the feel of the horsepower, the smell of burning tires and high-octane gas. It’s the adrenaline of the speed and the thrill of the acceleration!” Here they certainly captured the passion of the sport, but they didn’t really communicate what the point of it was.

In order to effectively answer overly simplified questions, you can’t only provide a simple description. You have to peel back the layers of the onion and make the person understand what the sport really means to you.

Why should you care what the sport means to me when you don’t even know me? Well, let me introduce myself. Hi, my name is Zack, and I’m an addict of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). I’m a 31-year-old, three-striped blue belt, and I’ve been training in BJJ for around five years. I wish that I could say I was some amazing world champion, but if I’m being honest with myself, my aversion to losing prevented me from competing as often as I should have in my earlier years. I am happy to say that this sport has changed that aspect of me for the better. I now compete in tournaments whenever I get the opportunity, and because of this, I have developed rapidly in the sport. Shedding my insecurities is just one of the many blessings this sport has bestowed upon me. As you can see below, I am secure (or foolish?) enough now to grow a man-bun and a silly beard, which has given rise to one of my many nicknames: Ninjesus.

Student of BJJ blog creator Zack resting in his gi
“Ninjesus”

I may look big, mean, and scary (yeah, right…), but in reality, I have a calm, introspective personality, a mild temperament, and I’m polite almost to a fault. I crack “dad jokes” whenever I get the opportunity. In short, I’m not what many people think about when they imagine somebody who studies a martial art.

When I tell people that I study Jiu Jitsu, people are often skeptical. “Isn’t that MMA?” They ask. “You don’t seem that violent…” Well, MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts, and Jiu-Jitsu is one of the most critical ingredients in that mixture, but BJJ is not MMA. People tend to associate fighting sports with violent people, and I’m far from a violent person. I have found that people often look at the tattoos and bloody faces of the guys and girls fighting MMA and will judge them as barbaric and/or uncivilized, and therefore either out of control or mentally unstable. As someone who has the pleasure of working out with MMA guys and girls almost every day, and I can say that the fans of MMA are the ones most often out of control, not the athletes.

This isn’t a blog post about the social injustices suffered by athletes in MMA, but rather it is a post intended to define and celebrate the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and allow the curious outsider to look into my world and see the beauty and passion for the sport as I do.

So, what is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? How can I describe what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is to a person that has never tried it? I could say it’s a fighting sport, but “Jiu Jitsu” literally translates from Japanese to the “Gentle Art”.  I could say it’s a great way to get in shape, but that completely ignores the deeply cerebral component of BJJ. Even in the simplest terms, I could say it’s a fighting style developed in Brazil, but that doesn’t capture the rich and ongoing history of the sport, which has influences that range from Japanese Judo to British Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling. One of the best instructors I’ve ever had, Coach Billy Robinson*, referred to grappling as “physical chess”, and after practicing the sport for more than five years, I’m only just now appreciating how true that expression really is. I’ve seen BJJ tournament champions that were able to win because of techniques they learned from other arts such as Aikido and Greco-Roman wrestling. I’ve seen street fights where fundamental Jiu-Jitsu was the difference between life and death (or at least the difference between either going home or the hospital afterward). I can give a quick rundown on how I would define Jiu-Jitsu, but the more important question that I am hoping to have answered by the end of this post is “what does Brazilian JIu-Jitsu really mean to you, Zack?”

I won’t go too far down the rabbit hole here, but I think it is important that you at least understand the rough framework of BJJ before I can wax poetic on why I am so passionate about it. First, there are two main styles of BJJ: Gi and No-Gi, and my real passion is for the Gi form of the sport. The gi (pronounced like “glee” but with no “L” sound) is the traditional BJJ uniform (see below). It features long pants and a long-sleeved top that is open down the front. The entire outfit is tied with a belt that is colored to indicate your rank in the sport. The biggest difference between the two styles is that In Gi Jiu-Jitsu, competitors have the freedom to grip the cloth of the gi almost anywhere, and use the fabric as a way to gain leverage, maintain control, and even submit the opponent. In No-Gi, competitors are not allowed to grip anything the opponent is wearing, and so instead must rely on other, more difficult forms of control. Gi BJJ is often more technical and methodical, while No-Gi tends to be more chaotic and fast-paced. I can compete in No-Gi, but I’m much more familiar with the key details in Gi Jiu-Jitsu. This site will focus almost exclusively on BJJ using a gi for this reason.

Zack in a Hat in a Gi in a Field
Zack in a Hat in a Gi in a Field

BJJ isn’t [only] about dressing vaguely like a wizard. It is about gaining control of an opponent with the hopes of eventually submitting them. Because that isn’t so different from other types of martial arts, where do we draw the boundaries between them and BJJ? Well, that can get a little fuzzy, but the easiest answer is Jiu-Jitsu covers everything except punching, kicking, and any other forms of striking. Sometimes [often] our techniques overlap with other martial arts, which is what makes this sport a continuously evolving one. New techniques from other disciplines are always being incorporated into the sport.

If I had to define the key points of BJJ, I would probably say that the focus is on how to take an opponent from a standing position down to the ground (called a takedown); how to control and manipulate the opponent once they are on the ground using pressure, balance, and/or movement; and finally how to move them into positions where we can isolate one of their body parts and use the leverage of our entire body against that one isolated body part in order to  achieve a submission.

It’s basically non-violent fighting, which is why it was named the “Gentle Art.”

Now, I’d like to share with you why I am passionate about the sport. This Gentle Art has changed me in ways that I never expected, and I’m so thankful that I swallowed my pride and decided to walk into the gym on that first day. While I’m far from a professional athlete, I have enough basic athleticism that I’m rarely the last person chosen for a weekend game of kickball at the park. Even so, I have never in my life been so thoroughly outclassed in anything as I was in that first training session. Every single instinct that I had was wrong. When I finally left the gym, my head was spinning and I was trying to understand what had just happened to me. I had briefly taken other martial art classes before, but at 25 years old I could hold my own against even the meanest 9-year old black belts of those other sports. BJJ was something different. Something special. The people that I trained with that night had been at the blue belt level at the time, which is just one rank higher than my lowly white belt, and several ranks still below black belt. I don’t think that I even gave them a proper warm-up, though I had put everything I had into each match. I had been submitted more times than I could count, yet left the gym without a single injury. I didn’t have a black eye or a busted nose. My teeth were all intact. My joints had been stretched to the limit and I had been choked several times against my will, but at the first sign of me submitting (a gentle tap of my hand in most cases), I had been quickly released and given signs of respect.

I learned that day that a Rear Naked Choke is the ultimate trust fall.

My first lesson in BJJ wasn’t that I was terrible at the sport, but rather that I could literally trust my training partners with my life. I get goosebumps thinking about how powerful of a first lesson that is. I can promise you that I wouldn’t trust Devon from my book club with anything more than a handshake (if you’re reading this, Devon, I want my copy of Twilight back!), even though I’ve spent much more time having deep conversations with him than anybody I train with. Yet, every single day I trust each person in my gym with my health and my livelihood, and they have to trust me with theirs in return. This unique social dynamic allows you to short-circuit the typical process of making friends and quickly plunges you deep into the folds of the brother/sisterhood of the Jiu-Jitsu community. When somebody submits you, in many ways you have shown them a vulnerable side of yourself that you may have never shown to even your closest friends before. It strips the ego away and reveals the true person beneath, and so the people you train with bond with you in ways that it normally takes months or years of intimate conversation to achieve otherwise. I have some amazing friends at my gym that I know I could count on for anything, yet we know almost nothing about each other outside of the gym. Earning trust is usually a long and complicated dance. It’s a dance where both parties slowly give small, intimate pieces of themselves through conversations or shared experiences, and then they wait to see if that other person somehow breaks that trust before continuing–or putting an end to–the dance. BJJ cuts through all of that.

Zack and opponents celebrating our hard-won medals
Zack and opponents celebrating our hard-won medals

If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to go to a Jiu-Jitsu tournament sometime and watch the competitors before and after a match. Before the match, these people are strangers. They have their emotional walls up and their game faces on. There is rarely small talk unless the two people happen to know each other from somewhere before. But after the match you would think they have been friends for life (see above). They’ll often discuss the match excitedly. They’ll trade pointers, joke about mistakes, and make a lot of friendly physical contact such as handshakes, high-fives, and pats on the back. Sure, sometimes people are too disappointed by a loss to join in this new friendship, but more often than not there is a new bond that was built in 5 minutes of sweat that would have taken two months in the real world using the trust dance. You don’t just make friends in Jiu-Jitsu. You create intense bonds that go deeper than the limitations of conversation will normally allow. You learn to trust people, and people learn to trust you. The more people trust you, the more you become a teacher to them, and becoming a teacher is where real confidence begins.

Some people seem to be born with an abundance of self-confidence, but most people need social feedback to build themselves up on the inside.

We often need somebody else to believe in us before we start believing in ourselves. Positive feedback is the seed crystal that allows all of our internal doubts to reassemble themselves into self-worth and confidence. The problem with a lack of self-confidence is that in showing that you lack it, society will readily agree with you. And why not? You know yourself better than anybody else can. If even you don’t believe in yourself, why on earth would anybody else take the chance to believe in you? I was drawn to this sport because it challenged my own self-confidence. When I started training, I was a lost lamb out there on the mats, and the wolves were getting hungry. I knew that I wouldn’t have confidence in myself again until I had proven myself capable of succeeding in this sport. Day after day I put myself out there and day after day I learned important but tough lessons through defeat after defeat. In the beginning, I never felt like I was getting anywhere, and I had no frame of reference for judging my improvements.

That changed the first time this new guy came into the gym who was maybe 15 pounds bigger than me. He was a macho guy, and that intimidated me. I was nervous to roll with him. I had worked so hard and I didn’t want this brand new guy to be able to beat me even though he had never trained a day in his life. Maybe if it had been a scene in the movies, I’d have beaten him using some ancient secret that looked fantastic in slow motion. But in real life, it was a very physical match that ended at the buzzer with neither of us having been submitted. While not getting beat was a small confidence booster for me, the moment when I knew I would never be the same occurred a few minutes later when we both had a chance to catch our breaths. “Man, you’re strong,” he said. “How did you do that one move?” I’d never been called strong before, especially by somebody bigger than me. And more importantly, I had just been asked to teach a detail that I had been working hard on for the past several weeks. I had become a teacher, and so the lost little lamb had grown a claw. Suddenly the wolves didn’t seem quite so intimidating. Now, five years later, BJJ has built upon that moment for me and has brought me such a deep feeling of inner peace and belonging. Those voices in my ear that always whispered doubts have had their volume turned way down.

BJJ has given me that quiet inner-strength that lets me know that I can deal with defeat, and so I’m no longer afraid to take risks in order to win–both in BJJ and in all other aspects of my life.

I have met so many people that started their journey in Jiu-Jitsu as timid or meek individuals, and over time I have watched them find a strength that they never knew they were capable of having. I don’t believe for a second that this new-found confidence is a result of developing the ability to beat people up. I believe it comes from naturally transitioning from the role of a student to being a teacher. The beautiful thing about Jiu-Jitsu is that you don’t have to be the person leading the class to help teach a teammate some detail that they are struggling with. White belts teach each other all the time; it’s just part of the culture of the sport. As those little lessons increase in scope and complexity, so the student becomes the teacher. Teachers become leaders, and leaders begin to receive those positive social cues that reinforce and build self-confidence. By the time somebody reaches the rank of blue belt, they are already stepping out of their own shadow and into a brighter version of themselves.

So, to answer the question of what Jiu-Jitsu means to me:  it is a fundamental part of who I am. It continues to steer me towards being the best version of myself that I can hope to be. I can no longer separate the part of me that practices Jiu-Jitsu from the rest of my identity. Through learning the sport, I’ve discovered more about myself than I ever thought possible. I’ve exposed my hidden doubts to the world and have watched them whither as I’ve become stronger both in and out of the gym. It’s made me a better communicator. It’s helped me in my career. It’s helped me as a husband and as a father. It has shaped me for the better, and I can’t wait to see where it will take me next.

I plan to always be a Student of BJJ, even as I become a teacher through this site.

If you made it this far, I’m impressed with your stamina and resolve! It is a pleasure to share my thoughts and part of my story with you, and I hope you find it helpful on your jiu-journey. I’d love some of that positive feedback that I mentioned before! Leave a comment if you feel so moved. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog to receive my latest updates! I promise not to spam you with too many emails. 🙂

Oss!

-Zack

Notes

*I had the intense pleasure of training under Coach Billy off and on for about two years before he passed away in 2014. He taught a No-Gi style that was based on Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling. Before he passed away, he was one of the oldest and greatest living masters of Catch Wrestling. For a very interesting read on his life and his contributions to the sport of Professional Wrestling (way before it become the fake show that it has become today), read his book: Physical Chess. The details that he used to teach in class were relevant not just to No-Gi, but also traditional Gi Jiu-Jitsu, especially when involving submissions and body positioning. I have personally purchased his DVD set, and it is amazing. I highly recommend it. While not exactly cheap, consider that a private lesson with a black belt will usually run at least $100 per hour, and they won’t cover nearly as much as this DVD set will. Plus, you won’t be able to rewatch private lessons over and over again. Put in context, this resource is a great value. Full Disclosure: I will earn a small commission, at no additional cost to you, if you decide to purchase any book or products that I recommend on this site. Keeping this site up-to-date is hard work, so I really appreciate your donation in helping keep the lights on 🙂

 

Comment here!