I am lucky enough to have two primary athletic hobbies. Aside from my personal re-discovery of jiu-jitsu, the other of my key pursuits is Crossfit.
Crossfit is a novel method of fitness, playing in the same ball-park as bodybuilding, powerlifting, Strongman, Olympic lifting and gymnastics. The way that Crossfit grabbed me is in its scientific method, in how it applies physical principles to its approaches. One of the key ways I was drawn in by this was its classification of fitness into ten primary areas. These areas are widespread and cover many domains, but one of the cornerstones, one of the most base categories, is that of strength.
Strength is just as vital in jiu-jitsu. Everyone who enters the world of jiu-jitsu comes in from a different place, a different grounding. They have varying levels of fitness, martial arts experience, strength, speed, flexibility, and even different physiques and backgrounds. Jiu-jitsu as a domain welcomes small and tall, large and thin, flexible and inflexible, experienced martial artists and complete novices. And it is equally applicable for all of those body shapes. There is even variety in the personalities and levels of fortitude that you encounter. Some come to the sport already hardened, whereas others are moulded by it. But however long you may be involved in the sport for, everyone leaves jiu-jitsu strengthened.
But how can you be strengthened by a martial art?
There are a few key skills that, regardless of the martial art you choose to pursue, you will learn. This list has been discussed in depth in many places, and the following is not exhaustive, but it is in these key areas that I have noticed a change in myself as a result of the study of martial arts;
- Improved self-control.
- Increased levels of discipline.
- Continuously more comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
- Improved resilience.
- Better levels of communication and interaction with others.
- Increased focus and ability to be mindful.
- Enhanced mind-body interaction when conducting a physical activity.
- Improved toughness and ability to withstand pain/manage any injury.
This has come from close to ten years of traditional Jiu-Jitsu with Wakarishin Jiu-Jitsu and a further few years of study later in life with Team Pedro Sauer UK. I understand that the above is more exposure than most will ever have, but it is there for the taking for anyone (and, I feel I have to add, that if “struggle-cuddling” is not your thing there are plenty of other martial arts available!)
Doing jiu-jitsu is not like lifting weights. Your physical strength will improve in some ways (your grip, for example, may get more developed and improved as a result of pulling and pushing people around by their gi or wrist, or your legs may feel worked as a result of holding a closed guard position) but it is unlikely you will see your muscles swell as a result. Conversely, as you progress, physical strength will become less important as your technique improves. In some circles, in fact, telling someone after a roll that “You are really strong!!” can even be interpreted as an implied insult due to the inference of over-reliance on strength in place of technique.
What martial arts truly build, though, is an individual’s mental strength, mental fortitude. Its effect in such domains cannot be overstated.
There is a correlation between an individual’s competency in any form of fighting, and his likelihood of posturing, fronting up, acting out in public or actively looking for a fight. As the individual’s competence improves they are less and less likely to want to engage in or look for a fight, for the man or woman who trains five times a week and is thrown, choked, punched, kicked, arm-locked or pinned is far less inclined to try and prove anything to anyone. What need would that individual have?!
As a result, when a random, drunk stranger starts on your friends in a bar, you might think to respond by shouting, posturing, or be pushing and shoving. What you are actually doing is fanning your feathers, puffing up your chest and indicating your readiness for war in a way all animals do. It’s a primal instinct. All you are showing to a trained martial artist, a man who has learned discipline, self-control and restraint as discussed above, is your weakness. If you are a trained martial artist, you are unlikely to react at all. You may smile, even chuckle a little, but you will show no fear. Instead, you are likely to say, “I don’t have any desire to fight you, but if you really want to, then go for it.” You are showing respect, staying calm and putting the seeds of doubt in the person in front of you. And that seed will be watered by their uncertainty.
The reason someone with training can respond so is that they have been in the same position tens, hundreds or even thousands of times before, with someone smiling and slap-bumping hands before going to war with them. The only difference is that the fight in training is in a controlled environment. Injuries will still happen, but so will inoculation against the need for fear or doubt. It is a worthy trade.
This mental fortitude, this self-belief and self-reliance is a skill that will pay dividends for anyone in pretty much any aspect of their lives. It makes them more confident, more purposeful and more compassionate, three factors that will filter down into a career, relationships, personal development and exercise regimes to name but a few. It will also prevent many conflicts, increase feelings of security and safety, as well as being an immensely physically- and mentally-stimulating hobby which will build friendships that will last a lifetime.
You don’t have to be strong in the gym to be strong in jiu-jitsu. Strength in BJJ is an internal characteristic, not measurable by kilograms pressed or sweeps successfully landed. Your weight, age, height, build, flexibility and ability to pick up technique rapidly or slowly are not factors. Strength in jiu-jitsu is simply built by the determination to learn, to persevere and to develop, by the humility to keep turning up and accept the fact that you will lose, you will be submitted and you will get injured, and by the will and energy to overcome any fears, misgivings or worries you may have coming in, to inoculate yourself against your vulnerability and your weakness and leave the mat a better person than you were when you first stepped on to it.
The journey through whichever martial art you may choose to engage in is a marathon, not a sprint. As you get into a martial art, you will only realise as you learn how deep the rabbit hole truly goes, and the world will open up underneath you and swallow you up. As the below image would indicate (in an only-slightly-sarcastic way! There is plenty of truth in it, believe me…), it is on average a six-year journey to a purple belt which is only when you begin to learn to defend. Brown belt is probably around eight years and marks beginning to learn to attack. It is only when achieving one’s black belt, typically estimated to be a ten-year journey, that you begin to truly learn what jiu-jitsu is.
If you are one of the lucky ones that learn to enjoy this journey, to glean joy from the constant state of beginner mind, it is one that will last the rest of your life. To stay on such a lengthy rollercoaster takes a strength all of its own, resilience and a determination to never quit and see the journey to the end. The irony here lies in the fact that the martial art itself will teach you that resilience if you can hang on long enough.