This article was written by jiu-jitsu practitioner and enthusiast Rocco Jarman.
I have two observations to share as a 43-year-old, 12-month white-belt.
The first is this: Jumping on-board late to a trend, means you can start behind everyone, but, by the time you do eventually come along, a lot of the clutter has been sorted out.
Think back to when solar power first came out, the actual engine, the Sun, had been there right in front of us the whole time, but we had become busy with our cleverness in how to get oil and coal out of the ground and turn it into energy, so we missed a lot of obvious stuff. When the first technology did become available, it was a brilliant idea, everyone wanted to jump on board and adopt, but it was expensive. In the years that it took for me to be able to afford a solar system at home, the technology improved, the costs came down, the ability to shop around increased, all significantly. Also, the market had become wise as to how to make the best use of it.
Similarly, it wasn’t all bad that I started my BJJ journey late. In the beginning, the obvious effectiveness against other styles was glaring us in the face, but if you wanted to learn you had to travel to Brazil or at the very least America to get a quality education in BJJ. Since then it has proliferated, it is much easier to access at a local gym (I know not all gyms are the same), and the “cost” has become more affordable, in other words, you don’t have to move to another country and dedicate your life to one School to make good progress in your game. Over time, the systems of testing effectiveness and transmitting instruction have become vastly improved. We now have so many impressive exponents of BJJ each championing different learning styles and philosophies, all adding to the richness of the art.
The second insight is this: There are other ways besides BJJ to get your itches scratched, BJJ just happens to be a really rich and comprehensive framework to use to do it with.
The more popular that people like Joe Rogan, Aubrey Marcus and Tim Ferris become, the more apparent it is to me that I’m not the only one that has a bunch of common itches that need scratching. There are numerous aspects of self-improvement and personal growth. Today, there are hundreds of schools of thought and opinions on each one: What to eat, when to eat, how to exercise, what to read and so on.BJJ isn’t in of itself better or worse than any other broad collection of other practices, but, as a framework, BJJ does, however, have a placeholder for many if not most of the key aspects. When I started to engage seriously with BJJ, and invariably to start to seriously engage with myself, on how to assimilate lessons and improve my game, I automatically began to question and adjust my lifestyle, diet, fitness, relationships, attitudes… etc. If you want to understand what a framework is, or how it works, think of a to-do list on steroids. Here is a fairly standard definition of a framework:
By way of explanation, the Structure “frames” the work we need to do, the Ontology is the language we use to organize our thinking and how we share ideas. I noticed that if I paid close enough attention, it was clear to me that this way of structuring and organizing was present any time any person or group of people were trying to tackle a complex set of challenges and goals. When I started training and rolling, I realised the following things, some immediately, some took a little longer. The jumble of words below should give some indication on how bewildering everything felt and how many harsh realities I had to face. My first lesson I was overwhelmed, outclassed, outgunned, completely winded. When I got off the mat, I was so wiped out, I had to lay down with a towel over my head and recuperate for about an hour. This kept happening over the first eight weeks. I kept going back. Firstly, I did not understand the language. Everyone was better than me, nothing I thought I had learned before helped or made any difference. The pace at which the onslaught of guard passing, body control and submission was happening was completely overwhelming.
Secondly, my body just caved in. Being 6 foot, and 211lbs (183cm, 96kgs) made very little difference. In fact, it made me a target. I was the village bicycle; everyone had a turn. I started racking up injuries. For the first few months, nothing went in my head. I wasn’t familiar with the short-hand the other players used to describe entries postures and submissions. Just being strong and being able to push weight away from me in a straight line was meaningless. Any intellectualising in the moment was useless. Basically all my usual fall-back ways of dealing with normal challenges just fell apart. I slowly started realising what I was missing. It was curiosity. As soon as I asked the first question, “why” about anything, my real BJJ journey began.
- Why don’t the other guys get puffed out on the mat during a roll?
- Why is it so easy for him to pass my guard? or Why is it so hard from me to pass anyone else’s guard?
- Why do my arms hurt like this? or Why do I keep getting injured?
- What am I doing wrong? or How can I do this better?
The questions kept coming, and the answers almost always turned out to be painfully simple. I started understanding that I if wanted to improve my game, I was going to have to start making a lot of changes to my thinking, my habits and my attitude. The changes made a difference and my BJJ got better. But as I was making the changes, I noticed other new guys on the mat were doing similar things, but starting in different places. I realised that BJJ is just a reason for why you would want to make life changes, improve yourself and grow personally. It’s not the only reason. Additionally, across the wide scope of changes and improvements I was taking on board, there was no right place to start, but the ways in which I was pushed, challenged, tested and rewarded by BJJ meant that it was a phenomenal framework if I wanted to hit as many of those aspects as possible and get real and lasting growth.
These are some of the things that I dragged onto the board when thinking about the framework:
Respect the cycle! BJJ practise is about transmission, ingestion, testing or direct experience, success or failure, curiosity and integration. That meant I had to understand the cycle, respect the cycle and submit to that cycle.
BJJ required muscle memory because in a roll there isn’t always time to think. That meant I needed to drill and roll and keep drilling and rolling until my brain pathways built themselves up. Every good
Framework needs its own Ontology. There was a lot of language I did not understand. Some of the words were vague or stylised from one school or teacher to the next, but on the whole, there was a new set of language I had to understand to allow transmission or sharing to happen in the first place. That meant I had to study, watch videos, listen to podcasts etc.
Pain is not Injury. Being uncomfortable and being comfortable with being uncomfortable, staying clear-headed and calm during a roll could make the difference to a roll, win or lose, and also allow me to learn from each encounter. I had to learn to mat-meditate, be calm and observant when I was being crushed or cranked so I could tell the difference between discomfort and pending injury. Also, I had to make peace with some of the aches and pains I was carrying on and off the mat.
Flexibility matters. I was tight and bunched up and I had a low range of movement. That meant simply that I had to start stretching, but I noticed that powering into stretches and just grunting into it was providing just more of the same of what BJJ was providing in spades on the mat. I realised Yoga, and particularly a slow gentle style, would probably be more useful to counterbalance the grunt and strain from BJJ.
Strength matters, but so does stability. I had spent years building strength which I came to realise was very one-dimensional. I could push stuff away. That didn’t help during a roll and I would keep getting injured. Again curiosity came to the rescue and I discovered my stabiliser muscles were weak and had never been developed. I added Kettle-bell work-outs to the framework.
Stamina matters, but you don’t have to go 100% for the entire roll either. Curiosity really came through for me again and I was told by my instructor that I was applying 100% of force and grip where a simple loose hook would do the same job. Efficiency got added to my game. Slowly but surely, I became curious about everything else and I built up the framework to include what I ate when I ate, how much sleep I got, how I spent the rest of time and how I engaged with my day-to-day relationships. There was an instinctive discernment to how I ended up selecting the diet, meditation, yoga, kettle-bells etc. They all had to pass the test of helping an aspect of my BJJ without detracting from another aspect. To quote a friend of mine:
“One thing I’ve noticed about the martial arts is that wherever there is truth there is overlap. The core principles found in one of the functional arts almost always have application in the others.”
People start and quit diets, they start and quit the gym. As I said, I’m sure there are other ways to go about scratching all the itches that come up: social, self-improvement, brotherhood, self-defence, fitness, healthy psychology and so on. For me, balance and sustainability really matter and BJJ provides a really authentic framework for hitting growth and maintenance across a wide range of these in a balanced and sustainable way.