Recently there has been a resurgence in the importance of self-defence training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This has been inspired by many outstanding and respected instructors such as the legendary Rickson Gracie. Rickson has expressed concern that as the sport aspect of BJJ grows in popularity that its self-defence foundation might disappear. As someone that started training over 15 years ago, specifically with the intention of learning self-defence, I couldn’t agree more.
At the beginning of my Jiu-Jitsu journey, I often saw BJJ schools incorporate self-defence and 'Vale Tudo' techniques into their classes. This style of training has faded from many academies over the years, so to see this mentality make a return is welcomed.
With the pendulum of BJJ training swinging back towards its self-defence roots some schools are going to the extremes and refuting the importance of competition. These schools and practitioners are ignoring the benefits of competition for self-defence training.
Becoming Used to Stress & Fear
A difficult aspect of training for real-life self-defence scenarios is the re-creation of stress and fear. Real-life encounters are filled with stress, anxiety, and fear. The stress of being verbally and physically confronted by another person. The anxiety of not knowing the outcome of the encounter. The fear of physical harm or embarrassment from the encounter. Military and law enforcement have known for years that inoculating soldiers and cops to extreme stress through exposure in training scenarios is essential to their positive performance in real-world situations.
Recruit training in the United States Marine Corps is a good example - 13 weeks of extreme stress inoculation. Typified by screaming drill instructions, gruelling physical exertion, sleep deprivation, and constant fear, it has proven effective in creating the modern combat Marine. Adopting this approach in a jiu-jitsu academy might prepare students for self-defence scenarios, but there is an easier way - competition.
Our body has a difficult time telling the difference between stress-induced by life-threatening circumstances vs non-life threatening circumstances. In fact, our autonomic nervous system reacts to extreme fear in the same manner regardless of the stimuli. During these times of extreme stress, our body undergoes a loss of fine motor skills, auditory and visual exclusion, feelings of nausea, and an adrenaline dump followed by loss of strength and stamina. If you have completed, you may recognize these symptoms.
Learning to successfully counter and even harness these responses begins with exposure to this heightened state of arousal. For some of us, the experience of competition is fraught with fear. Fear of failing our teachers, family, and training partners. Fear of being embarrassed in front of a crowd of people. Fear of being injured. Most of these fears are misplaced but the responses they elicit are real enough to the person experiencing them. Learning to deal with these emotions and your body's responses to them is an invaluable tool for those wanting to prepare for self-defence scenarios. Competition allows for us to ride the wave of these emotions while operating in a controlled environment. Becoming good at competing is truly a matter of mastering of your own emotional response to fear. If you let your fear overwhelm you, you will underperform or possibly freeze. Both of these outcomes could prove disastrous in a life and death situation.
Some have argued that if you have competed and been overwhelmed by your emotions it will have disastrous effects on your confidence to handle a real situation. That it is better to have never competed and never have experienced this level of stress. This could not be further from the truth. It is better to have encountered these feelings of fear in competition than to be caught completely off guard in real life. Learning to work through these emotions in a controlled environment is the intelligent course of action.
We must also remember that when we compete we are going against another person who is also battling with their mental and physical response to fear. Just as the technical aspects of BJJ come easier to some people so does the mental aspect of fighting. Those that have the most experience and are the most prepared to handle their bodies response to fear will have the greatest chances of success and or survival.
The understanding of fear and your ability to control its responses can have profound influences off of the mat. Numerous public polls have determined public speaking to be the number one fear in America. This particular anxiety can have drastic influences on career choices and advancement. I can imagine few leadership roles where speaking to groups is not part of the job description. The underlying fears of public speaking and BJJ competing are very similar - the fear of failure, embarrassment, or freezing - everything except for physical injury. Although many people dread embarrassment even more than physical harm.
Competition teaches us to meet these fears and handle or even harness our physiological responses to them. Think about this: have you ever seen a professional athlete giving a press conference just stare blankly at the crowd frozen in fear? It just doesn’t happen. This is because the fear of embarrassment and failure has already been tackled on the playing field, court, or in the ring.
One of BJJ’s all-time greatest fighters Royler Gracie has been quoted as saying ‘Everyone should compete at least once”. I could not agree more with this statement. I don’t believe competition or its results should be a determining factor in promotions. I do believe however that there are many benefits one can gain from competition. The most beneficial of these being stress inoculation and learning how to deal with fear. So if your goal is to become proficient at self-defence than don’t forget to use the sport as a training tool. Competition, free-rolling, and self-defence training all play their parts in jiu jitsu's ability to develop a more complete human being.