What Jiu-Jitsu Teaches You About Life (Part I)

Some notes from a white belt.  More to follow from the journey.

I find core concepts in BJJ readily translatable to my daily life.  Here are some of the core ones.

There’s time, don’t panic

When you’re first starting out, every guard pass, every mount, side control, beginning of a choke or other submission, even a hand on a lapel, however loose and untechnical, is reason to panic.

You just don’t have the ability to distinguish tight, real attacks from wrong ones.  What I’ve learned so far in this particular journey, above all, is the value in cultivating clarity.  And you can only have clarity when you don’t panic.

This is a general life lesson applicable to all activities and practices like investing or business.  You can work for a day in a state of heightened anxiety and get less done than an hour of complete clarity.  This is another way of saying work smart, not hard.  Although both is better.

Staying calm gives you room to think, and it’s often the case in BJJ that you have a lot more time than you think.  It’s when you’re spazzing or panicking that you make yourself more prone to random attacks and armbars.

There are situations in jiujitsu where nothing but technique will get you out of it.  And a methodologically executed action, even if slower, is superior to doing things at random.

Cultivate mental clarity above all else.

Attack/defend the center

You realize this doing most other sports, but still.  The core is your literal and metaphorical center.  Your escapes emanate from your core.  Your core is your hips and ass, and move your core, and every other part of your body follows.  Leave your core exposed and under the control of your opponent, and there’s little you can do.  Move the core to escape, control the core of an opponent to control them.

This may be common sense, but I find it amazing how there are parallels with this in every physical activity I know.  In weightlifting, your clean/snatch power emanates from your legs and back.  In muay thai, your kicks emanate from the torque and power of your hips and core.  Calisthenics, gymnastics, surfing, everything.  Lifting something off the ground.

In most activities in life, there’s the meat, the priority, the 1-2 core things that obviate or solve all the secondary issues.  This is true in executive decision-making, investing, event planning, even baby-rearing 🙂

Everyone has core values, a core rhythm or pattern to their day, core components of happiness, etc.  Throw these off even for a day and it’s easy to become disoriented, that’s how important it is.  Preserve and protect your core.

Don’t take things head-on, approach things laterally

Both submissions and escapes only happen because you move your own, or your opponent’s limbs in a path outside of the typical range of motion.

It’s hard to throw or sweep an opponent that is digging in.  Same with a submission.  But this rigidity along a particular angle opens up opportunities to throw or attack them, usually perpendicularly or outside the normal range of motion.

This is a good reminder for any type of activity.

Technique beats raw strength

A practiced, 120-lb woman can submit a savage 200-lb bodybuilder.  A nimble company can disrupt a conglomerate with an order of magnitude more resources.  A dozen hackers can throw an election of another sovereign nation.

Attack, not withdraw

Defense doesn’t win, only action and aggression wins.  In my first few months of jiujitsu, all I did was try to pull out of closed guards and escape submissions.  It made me better at escaping, but did nothing in terms of helping me win.

My instructor’s constant admonishment was that instead of my constant withdrawals, I needed to get in closer.

BJJ is the opposite of striking arts in this respect, in that you can’t defeat someone from a distance.  You have to be in close, committed, in the game.

Whatever game you’re playing, if you’re playing the game, play to win, you can’t be halfhearted, you can’t be withdrawn.  If you play to not lose, you will actually lose.

Trust the process/muscle memory

For the first few months; actually, even now, I can barely register perceptible improvement.

The process, according to my instructor, was to show up and roll on a consistent basis.  And after being on the receiving end of what seemed like magical attacks, I was ready to trust whatever he said.

It’s only after a few months where I began getting submitted much less, and actually submitting others, that I realized that my subconscious was stronger than I knew.

This is scientific fact, by the way, the power of the subconscious.

Don’t be rigid

Being rigid makes you prone to takedowns, sweeps, throws.  Rigid arms are targets for armbars, and rigid game plans make you predictable and easily defeated.  There is a time for rigidity and raw strength, but this must be interspersed with absolute flexibility.

A relaxed body is harder to lift than a tense one, a flexible plan of attack that counters counters, will win against a one-trick opponent.

Be humble

Losing, in a physical activity, to a 13-year old kid 30 pounds lighter than you, is enough to humble you.  But also, you’ll realize that everyone gets caught.  Everyone.

The first principle and this one might be the most important of all.

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