Surfing for BJJ’s ‘Soft Zone’
By: Joe Hannan
Jiu Jitsu attracts an inordinate amount of surfers and surf culture, right down to grappling in board shorts and rash guards. Anyone who has done both is likely quick to identify the parallels. I stumbled across this one while talking to one of Princeton BJJ’s founders and master instructors, Art Keintz.
Prior to class, Art had asked me what I was working on for the blog. I told him I was thinking a lot about hesitation lately — opportunities lost in rolls because of my tendency to overthink. Art understood and explained the tendency using an analogy only a surfer could summon.
Art has surfed Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico, better known as Mexican Pipeline. The beach break throws up massive waves in shallow water that leave little room for error. The way Art explained it, to ride one of these waves it shut down the thinking part of your brain. You commit yourself to the wall of water unflinchingly, because to hesitate is to be pancaked into the top of your board and be held under the hammering surf. There is no stopping the wave. You’re either on it or under it.
Luckily, the stakes are lower on the mats, but the wave analogy applies. BJJ is an exercise in riding the wave of the present moment. You’re either surfing — moving with whatever your training partner throws at you — or drowning in their side control or under their mount. Art’s surfing story got me thinking about how to stay more attuned to the present moment on the mats — striving for less thinking and more acting.
The Soft Zone
I remembered a chapter in Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning that describes this mindset perfectly. Waitzkin also happens to be an avid surfer and Marcelo Garcia black belt. Using a term from sports psychology, he calls it “The Soft Zone.” He provides the following examples:
“You are concentrated on the task at hand, whether it be a piece of music, a legal brief, a financial document, driving a car, anything. Then something happens. Maybe your spouse comes home, your baby wakes up and starts screaming. … The nature of your state of concentration will determine the first phase of your reaction — if you are tense, with your fingers jammed in your ears and your whole body straining to fight off distraction, then you are in a Hard Zone that demands a cooperative world for you to function. Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure. The alternative is for you to be quietly, intensely focused, apparently relaxed with a serene look on your face, but inside all of the mental juices are churning. You flow with whatever comes, integrating every ripple of life into your creative moment. This Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds.”
So, how does a grappler get into The Soft Zone? Waitzkin suggests getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. He writes, “I have come to believe that the solution to this type of situation does not lie in denying our emotions, but in learning to use them to our advantage.” We should become “psychologically impregnable” becoming “at peace” with discomfort.
It takes work, failure and repetition to find The Soft Zone. Lucky for us, it’s about as easy to find waves in the ocean as it is to find work, failure and repetition on the jiu jitsu mats.
Joe Hannan is a journalist and writer. You can find more of his work here.