The Struggle of Being a BJJ Student

Learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can feel like stepping into quicksand. Every move you make only pulls you in deeper. Perhaps that’s why it’s continued to hold my interest after all these years. It wasn’t a planned affair and I had no expectations for it when I began as a BJJ student, but here I am at 39 years old, having devoted more than half my life to wrasslin’ on the ground in various states of undress. I owe much of the success I’ve experienced in my life to the people I’ve met through the sport and for the many lessons it has taught me. Not all those lessons have been full of warm fuzzies and if it weren’t for my determination to be competent at what I do, I wonder if I’d have gotten as far down the path.

The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack in will.” – Vince Lombardi

As much as I love learning, I think I’m a terrible student. My mother used to implore me in my adolescence to study more. She was aggravated by the fact that I never had my head in the books. Instead, I chose to socialize, work part-time jobs, and volunteer. I’d usually earn an A- or A with little additional effort other than attending my classes and completing assignments, but she would question why I was unwilling to devote more time to my studies to obtain an A+. I think my answer to her question would be, “Because I don’t have to. What’s the difference? It’s good enough.” 

Was this just an early exploration of the Pareto Principle on my part? Or perhaps I feared success? For some mysterious reason, BJJ forced me to buckle down and invest more effort into learning than ever. It was an enigma and I desperately wanted to have a firm grasp on what it was and how to do it. I sometimes wonder if it was the deep and ever-evolving landscape of the art that spurned my internal hunger to learn and practice as much as I could. There were no limits to how much you could know, no grade to obtain. Grappling was so foreign, unnatural, and nonsensical to me that I had to pay much greater attention to what was playing out in front of me. I also had to accept that observing the art was one thing, but performing it was another. The disparity between theory and application of knowledge was more prevalent here than in anything I’d studied before. Thus, my love was born. 


Despite what many have assumed, BJJ has never come naturally to me. Whereas I can look at most of my students today and identify an athletic asset — height, length of limbs, strength, speed, agility, explosiveness — I still have a hard time believing that I have anything worth exploiting. At this point in my progress, the only thing I can trumpet is that I’ve worked hard to make up for what I don’t have; and I wasn’t blessed with a lot. I’ve worked so diligently at developing some of these things that it might appear as if I actually now naturally possess some of these attributes to many who are just starting their uphill climb. But nothing I do that looks effortless didn’t involve a struggle. The sacrifices made over the years in dedicating tens of thousands of hours to practice, enduring physical limitations, injuries, financial strain, lack of access to instruction, and life responsibilities have all weighed me down in my efforts to progress. I know that everyone practicing BJJ can identify with the same obstacles in their own journey. At times I have been so infatuated with how much I can learn and execute that nothing else mattered. My sheer will and determination overrode all systems and if training was my central focus, nothing could stand in the way of my ambition. To this day, when students come to me with excuses about why they can’t train more or uphold their personal commitment I say, “Whatever it is that you choose to do, you will make the time and money to do it if it’s really right for you. Maybe BJJ really isn’t a priority right now and that’s ok.” 


Recognizing over time that I was deeply invested and passionate about my progress, some of these superficial challenges dissipated and the real hardship exposed itself like soap scum on a glass shower door. I actually wanted to be the best at BJJ but I wasn’t sure I could admit it. There were lingering doubts: What if I wasn’t capable? Could I work hard enough? What if I couldn’t do it? It was easier to not consciously acknowledge what my heart desired. To not state my goal allowed me to naively chase after some vague notion of success without disappointing myself or those around me. But if I truly wanted to feel like I had accomplished anything, I had to confront the slacker inside because one can’t feel truly fulfilled not defining what success really means. Could my ego handle the truth? Was I willing to take ownership of it? It didn’t take long for this feeling to swell, but like anything that you are exposed to on a daily basis, it’s hard to see the accumulation. What was left plainly for me to confront was my self awareness. When we stay with something or someone long enough and we encounter conflict, we must not always look outward and blame external factors for why we lack internal growth or happiness. I’ve eaten many a slice of humble pie on the mats or because of the mats. Over time, I’ve come to see that there is something about training that forces us to look inside ourselves. All our personal inefficiencies are exposed under pressure or self-inflicted stress, and we have essentially created a showcase for all the good and bad parts of who we are. It’s really hard to embrace the unawesome pieces of yourself at any time in life. In BJJ, you have to deal with them every day. The inability to listen, attempt, follow through, resist, fine tune, comprehend and/or coordinate are hard pills to swallow. When we’re exposed, the vulnerability we may feel sometimes leads us to look for a quick answer for who or what made us feel this way. We never want to look within and admit that we are the only people capable of fixing ourselves. 


To take things a step further, if we dig deeply into what our technical deficiencies say about ourselves and the game we play, we might also unearth the fact that these struggles go far beyond the mat. Our physical practice merely helps us identify themes that we may be challenged with at large. For example, perhaps we notice that we’re weak starting matches from our feet. We’ve rehearsed the steps hundreds of times. We drill and we think we understand the setup. In training we feel like we’re able to hit the move that we want and we feel like it’s a part of our repertoire. Execution under pressure tells us a different story. Under stress, we fail to get the takedown at all, spending more time than we’d like being on the receiving end of a shot. Where are we going wrong? It’s very easy to resort to saying, “I wasn’t taught the takedown well. It’s my teacher’s fault,” or, “My partners don’t give me the right reaction in training. I’m losing because my partners suck.” Or, “My coach didn’t tell me to do what I needed to do at the right moment. They don’t know what they’re doing.” These are examples of externalizing blame. But if we give these excuses a little thought, we can easily conclude that our teachers, partners, and coaches are not the ones out there fighting the fight each time we hit the mats. It’s us and only us. What part of the learning process can we take responsibility for?

Upon deeper reflection, we see that there is only so much fine tuning one can do around the technique before impetus and timing play into the success of execution. Perhaps we begin to see that we have a thematic aversion to action, that we are overly analytical, over hypothesize what might happen vs. just doing it and refining our work as we are presented with real, concrete feedback. The physical discipline of our practice reveals this to us, but now we begin to see how this theme touches every area of our life. We are averse to action in making decisions about our professional work, home life, and reaching for personal goals. We are afraid of incremental feedback, we idealistically want to be perfect all the time. Choosing to see this about ourselves is undoubtedly a scary place for anyone to be as it forces us to take responsibility for ourselves. There is no escaping the fact that self-improvement requires learning and evolution that must be generated from within and acted upon. It’s so much easier to blame the people around us for our lack of progress because having to actually do the work is no easy task.


In life and in Jiu Jitsu, there is no growth from passivity of experience. A student can be presented with the most qualified teacher in the world, but without the internal drive and acceptance of responsibility to do the work, knowledge cannot be acquired and mastery can never be achieved. As students we embark on a difficult journey where many truths about ourselves will be unearthed and we may not like what we see. It is no one else’s responsibility to take our shortcomings on, and no person alive can do a better job than us, ourselves. There is comfort in knowing that the individuals who we share the mats with each day are all looking to do the same work, even if they can’t quite articulate it. We are not alone in our pursuit, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable about our struggles may actually create the space for others to help you along. One of the beautiful things about being a student is that no one expects you to know much, so there is a lot of room to play and experiment. Embracing uncertainty and the unknown only expands the reaches of what you’re willing to know, and no one can know what you know better than you. It is through this investment and acceptance of the self that a student can become a master, or a master can become a student…again. 

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