Awareness and the Jiu-Jitsu Fighter
Every week I get emailed questions from readers of the Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood asking things like:
‘There’s this big guy in my class, how do I beat him’ or ‘I can’t get the half-guard to work on this one purple belt’
I find this frustrating because I cannot tell you how or when you will be able to beat a certain opponent. I cannot give you a magic formula or a secret technique that will be your sparring partner’s kryptonite.
But what I can share with you is a way to make it so that it’s not an issue anymore.
For me, the answer was to change my jiu-jitsu training from an ‘outcome’ based to ‘awareness’ based experience.
When you shift the purpose of your time on the mat from gathering new techniques or winning and losing to the development of your consciousness, you will experience profound changes in your bjj and many other aspects of your life. Instead of being distracted with events in the future (victory, sweep etc.) or the past (missed submission opportunity, poor referee decision) you will instead begin to operate from the source of your greatest power – the present moment.
What is Awareness?
I have found many definitions, but the two I feel are most appropriate are:
1. Having knowledge or perception of a situation or fact
My definition of awareness in a jiu-jitsu context is:
The dynamic, holistic act of processing and understanding the training experience.
This includes, among other things, knowledge of:
Your body – it’s position in space, your breathing rate etc.
Your environment – the surface of the mat, your kimono etc.
Your training partner – his weight/pressure, his movements and reactions
Your technical options – the movements you have mastered
Your awareness can be focused on one of the above or spread out over all of them. I like the analogy of the flashlight and the lantern. When your awareness is concentrated on one thing at the exclusion of all others, it is like a flashlight beaming into a corner of a room. You get a clear view of a small amount of space.
When you broaden and expand your awareness to include the other elements – like a lantern illuminating the entire room – it provides a much broader perspective.
Neither one of these is better than the other, and each has their place. Unfortunately many bjj fighters only know how to center their awareness on a single aspect (usually technical options), and this can come at the cost of being unable to see the bigger picture.
Awareness Between Fighters
Imagine 2 jiu-jitsokas of roughly equal size, technical ability and mental attributes. Let’s call them ‘white’ and ‘black’. They touch fists and are about to commence sparring. We can imagine that their awareness combined would resemble something like the yin-yang figure below, with the light half representing one fighter and the dark half representing the other.
Imagine that during the match white becomes fatigued and black takes mount and starts to apply the cross-choke. White’s awareness would shrinks and black’s would expand to fill the void.
A jiu-jitsu match is just that – a constant ebb and flow of awareness between two fighters. The ultimate contraction in awareness comes with the submission. When you tap it is because the attack has contracted your awareness so dramatically that you are only aware of the sensation in the joint about to become damaged, or the onset of unconsciousness from a neck attack.
Think about this: Chokes and strangles, taken to their completion, render a fighter unconscious. A loss of consciousness represents the most complete contraction of awareness.
Learning to notice and feel this expansion and contraction of your own awareness and how it interacts with that of your opponent is a valuable skill.
Why Focus on Awareness?
Improved Reaction Time
Between a stimulus and your response to it there is a window of time. With increases in your awareness that time seems to become longer. This perceived ‘expansion’ in time will allow you to process more information and improve your reactions.
Perception of Options
Awareness allows you to see options you may have previously missed. If your awareness is underdeveloped or restricted you may miss out on submission/escape/sweep opportunities. I see this very often while teaching. A student is so focused on getting a specific move to work that he misses a more effective and superior option that’s staring him in the face.
Victories are forgotten, techniques can lose effectiveness and your physical ability will eventually fade, but expansions in your level of awareness will remain with you for your entire life. I see jiu-jitsu as a tool with which we forge our spirits, and through development of awareness we are able to expedite our progress.
Personally, I just have more fun when I approach jiu-jitsu with this mindset. Grappling is a lot like life. The more you stop trying to control it and instead just embrace the complete experience, the better it gets.
How to Expand Your Awareness
Before I begin training I start to expand my awareness and perception using adaptations from various meditation systems I’ve been exposed to over the years. I use the following two exercises before I step on the mat to prepare myself for each session.
Internal Focus Exercise
Begin by taking several deep, even breaths using this cadence: Four seconds inhalation and four seconds exhalation. Notice how the air passes into your nasal passages through your lungs and down into your belly. Really get a feel for the expansion and contraction of your diaphragm and ribcage during this process. For even more effectiveness, try to listen to the sound of your breathing at the same time.
Next, start to actively tense and relax and the muscle groups over which you have conscious control. Start at your feet and work your way up the top of you head.
Combining deep breathing with muscular contractions helps get you ‘out of your head and into your body’ which is good for expanding awareness.
External Focus Exercise
The objective here is to gather as much sensory information from your environment as possible. Become observant of everything around you. Feel the gi against your skin. Notice the coolness of the mat against the soles of your feet. Listen to the sounds of the dojo.
Using your senses fully to take in what’s happening around you will bring you into the present moment and ensure that you get the most out of each session.
Conditioning is Vital
The fitter, stronger and more flexible your body, the better. Nothing contracts your awareness as quickly as gassing. You are unable to think clearly and process information from your environment when you’re so exhausted that your tongue is hanging out. If you want to be a good jiu-jitsoka you have to be in shape. There’s no way around it. You can find more information on bjj conditioning here.
Breath Control & Relaxation
I have stressed over and over again in my writing that breath control is the foundation of all awareness. When your breathing pattern is poor, so too is your awareness. When in doubt, focus your attention on your breathing. Try to make it rhythmic and controlled. This will calm you and clear your mind, and your awareness will expand again. I cover the topic of breathing in further detail here.
Your level of relaxation while sparring is also plays a huge role. This is why beginners are usually so difficult to teach. While sparring they become incredibly tense and can focus on only one thing at a time (which is usually just grabbing and squeezing whatever part of their opponent is closest). The more you relax, the easier it is to become conscious of the learning process and accelerate it.
I realize this way of looking at jiu-jitsu may not be appropriate for everyone, and that it may be difficult for some to shift their existing mindsets. There are however huge rewards for those who are willing and open-minded enough to take the chance and try it out. Let me know how it works out for you.
Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood Recommends: Here are our recommendations for products and services that can improve your jiu jitsu and health. This is a short list since it only includes our top picks. For white and blue belts: BJJ Building Blocks - The ultimate fundamentals program for jiu jitsu beginners For those wanting progressive techniques: Flow Jitsu - Smooth-flowing combinations from 'BJJ After 40' Legend Mike Bidwell For those struggling to remember their techniques: Beyond Technique - concept-focused jiu jitsu program by black belts Nic Gregoriades and Kit Dale For those wanting a reference manual for BJJ: The Black Belt Blueprint - Nic Gregoriades’ bestselling book on the art of jiu jitsu