I started doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) in May 2021. It has since become close to an obsession for me. Approximately seven months after beginning my BJJ journey, people still continue to ask, simply, “why?” My copout answer is that Jocko does BJJ and always talks about it on his podcast. In reality, though, that’s not the reason I started. Here is a summary explaining how and why I started, and continue to practice BJJ:
For the past 10 years or so, I have frequently contemplated trying some kind of martial art. But the desire to learn a martial art never translated to action. I always had excuses: time, money, age, family obligations, my job, my gym membership, and a litany of others. Although a quiet and subdued personality, I have a competitive drive. However, at 41 years old (40 when I started BJJ), and married with two kids, my days of playing competitive baseball, or any other major team sport, are long gone. To a certain extent, then, my quest to find a martial art was an attempt to fill that competitive void.
Then, one of my friends (let’s just call him “Juan”), a BJJ practitioner for many years, kept fawning over the sport in our conversations. He talked passionately and convincingly about not only the self-defense aspect, but also the caloric liquidation that one typically experiences during a BJJ class. Again, I am 41 with a wife and 2 kids. I am a business strategist, historian, and professional speaker. Neither my personal life nor my career screams “SELF-DEFENSE!” But, still, it IS something that appealed to me, along with the workout that comes with rolling around on the ground with total strangers. When you – whether you want to or not – end up at a grungy, piss-on-the-floor bar at 1am, you will be glad you started jiu-jitsu.
Anyways, I am not an avid follower of UFC, but I also knew that BJJ was (still is) an art that MMA fighters must learn. It is an inextricable part of MMA now. I am certainly not fighting in the UFC any time soon, but all of these things pushed me to my first class.
I finally attended my first class in May 2021. Holy. Shit. It was an incessant swirl of humiliation, exhilaration, and complete exhaustion. Like the majority of BJJ gyms, you learn a few techniques for the first half of class. During that first half, I was completely lost. For the first technique, the black belt instructor moved seemingly every body part simultaneously and ended up flipping his training partner over. In an effortless transition, the instructor put the training partner in what is called a “crucifix.”
Yes, it feels like it sounds – the person on the wrong end of a crucifix experiences lots of discomfort, to say the least. I thought it was so cool to witness, but had no idea what I just watched. I felt like my friend in the 5th grade who was asked to go to the front of class to complete a division problem on the chalkboard. He walked up to the board, stared at the division problem for about 30 seconds, realized he was clueless, and then gently put the chalk down in surrender, and walked back to his desk. Anyways, after the instructor shows each technique, everyone grabs a partner and you practice. Thankfully my training partner was experienced, patient, and helpful. I kept asking, “wait, what do you do with this arm? What do you do with that leg? Does my thumb go this way or that way?”
However, in those moments when you actually finish the technique, regardless of how foolish you might look, you get that amazing feeling of excitement and accomplishment. You get a brief glimpse into what might be….you know…like ten years later. But then you have to “roll,” which depletes any confidence you just gained from technique practice. You see, when you drill techniques, the training partner allows you to complete the maneuver without much resistance. Executing the technique against a willing partner is one thing. Actually trying to perform it with full 100% resistance is another. In fact, it is nearly impossible for a new white belt.
After drilling the techniques, you roll (live sparring) for the second half of class. As my dad describes BJJ, “it’s like wrestling, but without rules.” You grab a partner, regardless of size or age, and just go to town. You usually start standing up, where each person is either trying to get a takedown, or pull you into a BJJ “guard.” Once you get on the ground, where BJJ thrives, everyone is rolling around with each other. During the rolls, there are attempts at submissions (get the other person to tap out). To an outsider, it looks like two people are trying a bunch of crazy sex positions. But once you start learning about what they are doing, and what they are trying to accomplish, it goes from weird porn to a beautiful art. I would encourage you to watch some BJJ competition matches. It is insane how they move. Constant movement in a physical chess match. That’s the best way I can describe it.
I rolled on the first day and felt like I was going to die. My survival instincts kicked in and I felt like I needed to go “all out.” So I Tasmanian Devil’d the first 10-minute roll, a pretty typical behavior from first day white belts. I must have tapped out 5-6 times to a dude who had been doing BJJ for about 10 months. Then I repeated that two more times with two other rolling partners. Yes, I continued to Tasmanian Devil everybody – jumping off walls (sometimes literally) and expending tons of energy constantly trying – and failing – to bench press someone off of me.
When I left, I shit you not, I could not lift my arms to drive the car. And that’s how it was for the first few months. I was getting absolutely annihilated by people who were not as strong as me and not as athletic as me. If I had closed my eyes during that first roll, I would have thought I was grappling with The Mountain from Game of Thrones.
Then, once my sparring partner put me in a triangle choke, I open my eyes, and it’s not The Mountain. It’s Tyrion Lannister.
If you are thinking that top BJJ athletes look like The Mountain from Game of Thrones, you are sadly mistaken. Many successful BJJ athletes look more like Tyrion Lannister.
To be successful in BJJ, you MUST push any and all ego to the side. As a competitor, it was difficult for me to not leave classes with a “win or lose” mentality. If I tapped out, I felt like I lost. If I tapped somebody (which was rare), I felt like I won. But you have to shove those thoughts to the deepest, most unsavory margins of your head and put them on inescapable lockdown. If you approach with the mentality that you lose when you get tapped, you are going to walk away a loser every time. Then, your frustration will only worsen with each Kimura the 120-pound nerd from your high school gets you in with great ease. Instead, you have to approach the “loss” as a learning experience. The nerd from your high school is a BJJ purple belt and he is going to destroy you, and you have to be fine with it. Once you make that mental transition, BJJ starts to become an incredibly magical art.
After every class during my first month I thought “that was exhausting, but there is so much to learn!”
Fast forward seven months
Here I am seven months later, and I attend BJJ class anywhere from 2-4 times per week. I still get destroyed and humiliated. However, I have learned that it is part of the process. I have progressed, and I know that my 7 months-in BJJ self would embarrass my 2 weeks-in BJJ self. The 7 months-in version would get a rear naked choke after taking the back, an Americana lock from mount, and an armbar from closed guard. And then my next roll would bring me back to Earth, as I would be the one getting embarrassed by Chunk from The Goonies.
Although I get tapped out in class (all the time), I continue to think of how much better I will be in 6 months if I just keep going. I no longer exhaust myself to the point where I can’t lift my arms. In fact, as I write this, I just returned from a BJJ class that ended with five different rolling sessions. You slowly learn how to be more efficient with every move you make. If you don’t have a submission, don’t exert unnecessary levels of energy to complete it. You don’t have to bounce off the walls like the Tasmanian Devil to be successful. In fact, that behavior is discouraged by most in the BJJ community, especially if you have been doing it for several months. But it is what nearly every brand new person does in their first few weeks, and I completely understand why. That was (and to a certain, but lesser extent still is) me.
There is so much to learn, so many black eyes to attain, but so much satisfaction to gain in the process. It took me about 6 months before I felt like I was making even a tiny bit of progress. When you roll only with people at your level or higher, and are constantly on your back, it is really difficult to know if you are progressing. Yet I remember the moment I knew I had made progress. Six months in, I rolled with someone who had been there about 6 weeks. I remember successfully making it to all of these positions, and actually on purpose – positions like side control, mount, back control. I was scissor-sweeping from a sitting position, and enforcing submissions that I could only dream of getting with the more experienced students in the class..But I had this moment of “wow, if I can actually make progress, imagine what I could do 6 months from now! Or 2 years from now!”
I suppose it is kind of like playing golf. For someone like me who is terrible, there is always that ONE shot in 18 holes where you think “ok, I am definitely coming back.” There is always an instance like that in my BJJ class. Whether it is getting my ass kicked and seeing it as an amazing learning experience, or hitting an arm triangle submission. There is always something that happens that gets me excited to return.
BJJ is definitely not for everybody, and that’s ok. I won’t think any less of you if you try and decide “I’m out!” If you enjoy it, give it six months. Just keep going. Then come find me at an open mat and put me in a crucifix.