Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is part of my martial arts journey. For me, to describe (and confine) BJJ as a ‘combat sport’, strips away so much of the value and depth of the art, reducing it to a much less multi-dimensional pursuit of validation through medals and athletic achievement; I see jits as a more esoteric pursuit of personal growth and improvement. While I certainly see competition as a valuable learning tool, to me it is all about emphasis and, to my mind, competition is an important complement to BJJ training, but not the end for which training is the means; my perspective is neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’, but it is mine and this blog is my party.
There is no agreement in the BJJ community over whether or not Brazilian Jiu Jitsu should be termed a ‘combat sport’ or a ‘martial art’. Those who prefer the term ‘combat sport’ seem to wish to distance themselves from the douchebaggery popularly associated with martial artists as famously personified by Martin Kove’s John Kreese in Karate Kid or Diedrich Bader’s character, Rex, in Napoleon Dynamite, as well as from the mysticism portrayed by Pat Morita as Mister Miyagi. This is evident from responses to a poll run by the FightworksPodcast questioning whether or not practitioners consider themselves ‘martial artists’, where ‘no’ respondents pointed to the lack of formalised spiritual learning, ceremony and other ‘hokey’ trappings commonly associated with traditional martial arts or at least the popular perception thereof. In this case, a majority of respondents argued for BJJ as a ‘martial art’ and ‘yes’ respondents highlighted BJJ’s capacity to promote personal development on and off the mats:
I can honestly put my hand on heart and say that I have changed thru the training on the mat and that that change is evident off the mat too and that’s why I say that I’m a martial artist. The principles of jiu jitsu influence most of my off-the-mat activities (diet, relationships, work, gym, studying…etc.) and I am very grateful for that. I’m a part time grappler, but I’m a full time martial artist’ – Liam Wandi author of Part Time Grappler
While I empathise with the desire to distance one’s self from pretentiousness and cornball mysticism, for me, Wandi neatly summarises why I embrace characterisations of BJJ as a ‘martial art’ and reject the label ‘combat sport’. BJJ is very challenging and very rewarding. It requires a fully harmonised mind and body for proficient performance and I am absolutely convinced that my struggles and successes on the mats have helped me to become a better human being. While I recognise preparing for and participating in competition to be an important aspect of training and have personally found the experience an invaluable learning-tool, I heartily concur with Rickson Gracie’s assertion that tournament work constitutes 30% of jiu jitsu. My understanding and practice of BJJ as a martial art, where competition is a significant but minority element, is coloured by my roots in the traditional Japanese art of Shorinji Kempo.
A Traditional Upbringing
I started my martial arts journey in 1998, in the year between my graduate and post-graduate studies, in an American ‘ninjitsu’ system called IOMASDA Ryu; yes, I was a big enough douchebag to assert to the man I was to marry, on our first meeting, that I was a member of a ‘ninja clan’, but I was only 23 and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge, so forgive the transgressions of the young. Point is, that first year got me completely hooked! My instructors were kind and enthusiastically supportive and I jumped in with both feet, training with an almost fevered passion, dedication and consistency in and out of the dojo. When I moved to Glasgow, UK to pursue my PhD, a major priority was to continue my training; within a month I’d found Shorinji Kempo, fell in love with the club and by 2002 I’d attained the rank of shodan.
Until recently, and certainly while I was active in the community, Shorinji Kempo was a recognised religion in Japan; the art was designed as a system of physical and spiritual progression to develop the individual’s full human potential. Promotion included both a test of the kenshi’s mastery of the syllabus as well as written examinations on the philosophy of Shorinji Kempo. While I have travelled far from those days, the core principles I came to cherish as a kenshi remain with me and very much guide my training in BJJ.
The Fukudoku-Hon – the textbook of Shorinji Kempo philosophy that guides kenshi to shodan-level – defines 6 characteristics of the art, the first of which is ken zen ichinyo (body and mind are the same). The pursuit of a unified and balanced mind and body has been central to my martial arts journey. While I am grateful that Shorinji Kempo articulated this notion, formally emphasised its importance and that I had the opportunity to seek development of this principle in myself through Shorinji Kempo, I find that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu allows me to more effectively pursue this aim and to evaluate my progress.
My BJJ practice – and that practice is shaped by myself, by my training partners and my instructors at Dartford BJJ – acts as a barometer for my life’s equilibrium. Since my Shorinji Kempo days, a personal motto has been ‘balance in all things’. Of course, striking a perfect balance in all things may not be a practical goal, but it is all in the striving. Life is fluid and demands a ceaseless process of prioritisation, re-evaluation, re-ordering, negotiation and implementation; those readers familiar with the mats will recognise that here ‘life’ might be substituted with ‘BJJ’. BJJ practice has taught me that I perform best when fully engaged and present in ‘the now’ both cerebrally and corporeally. When anxious about what I must or mustn’t allow to happen, what I must or mustn’t do, my performance suffers. Similarly, if my mind and body aren’t in balance, my performance suffers: if I eat too little before training, I’m sluggish in sparring and unable to make the best of the opportunities that present themselves; if I train too hard for too many consecutive days, my sparring is loose and lacks intent; if personal or work pressures are getting the better of me it is difficult to let go, get with the program and roll with focus. Because Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is such a physically, emotionally and mentally challenging discipline it very clearly reveals to me when my life’s balance is out of whack; once I’ve re-tuned it is clear from my rolling when the discord has been resolved.
This is the first in a series of three pieces in which I hope to interrogate my own motivation for BJJ practice and to unpack my rather traditional approach to this non-traditional art. This is just one woman’s truth; leave a comment below about how you see BJJ. Is it a ‘combat sport’? Is it a ‘martial art’? What do such labels mean for you?
30 Sep 2010 @ 12:39 pm
I liked the distinction on that Fightworks Podcast poll, which was whether or not you see yourself as a martial artist. I'm not especially bothered if people want to call BJJ a martial art, but I wouldn't feel comfortable saying "I'm a martial artist," for the reasons you mentioned above: it smacks of mysticism and hokey ritual.
However, if pressed I'd say I prefer the term combat sport. The reason for that is 'martial art' can slide into codified ideology (rigid ideologies are rarely a positive thing) and historical conservation (which by contrast can be a wonderful thing, but not in the context of an activity which requires pressure testing, as that necessarily needs the flexibility to change and adapt as things evolve over time) rather than full contact resistance training: aikido is a case in point.
I really don't want to see BJJ make the same mistake, which is one of the concerns I have about the anti-competition and 'preserving the techniques of the Grandmaster' noises coming out of the Gracie Academy in Torrance (hence why I babbled at such length on the topic here), though in terms of actual instruction I remain very impressed by their recent releases.
30 Sep 2010 @ 1:04 pm
Thanks you very much, slideyfoot, for your usual insightful commentary.
Indeed, I should have made plain that Fightworks poll asked if practitioners would describe themselves as martial artists, as you suggest, but I thought that the responses moved between personal identification and how to describe the discipline, itself, and were therefore relevant to my discussion.
I 100% agree with you regarding the stifling nature of codified ideology – and this is a big part of why I moved from traditional to nontraditional martial arts – and I'm also not a huge fan of historical conservatism and the anti-intellectual sentimentality and nostalgia often associated with such a perspective. I further concur with and share your discomfort with the 'Grandmaster noises' you mention.
That said, for me, 'combat sport' is what will push BJJ to make the same mistake as Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Karate and other competition-focused arts where rules have resulted in disproportionate emphases on certain areas of technique. Indeed, it is all about emphasis in my opinion. I absolutely don't think competition is 'bad', nor do I think a polarised distinction between 'sport' and 'self defence' jits is helpful or even that plausible. However, I do believe that there are more well-rounded ways to train than purely for competition success (and so moulding the art to a set of rules and well defined circumstances). For instance, work against a striking opponent – in a core basics or no gi vale tudo context – integration of 'Judo'/takedown technique and work with and without gi. I believe that our wishes for BJJ are the same, i.e. that it 'keeps it real' in terms of working out the effectiveness of technique under pressure and while BJJ competition can provide some of those pressures in a particular context, its not the only gauge. Moreover, if sporting achievement is the end-game, what happens when you can't compete anymore? If it is all about being the dude/chick with the medals, what happens when your glory days are past? If that's what it is about, then it is about youth and athleticism, and I believe BJJ is for everyone and the whole point of these fantastic techniques is that the weak can handle a more powerful (untrained) opponent. Anyhow, I'm rambling here and following parts will more fully describe my position on the self defence angle; and I'm not talking 'break the wrist, walk away' 😉
1 Oct 2010 @ 1:16 pm
I wouldn't put judo, taekwondo and karate in the same category. The big difference is training against full resistance: taekwondo competitions tend to limit the amount of contact, meaning that you are forced to pull strikes, and can even be penalised for striking too hard.
In BJJ, you can apply any technique fully, because unlike a strike, there is a point at which you can stop without limiting the efficacy of the application (i.e., whether you slam on an armbar full force or gradually, it will still have the desired end effect. To damage someone with a punch, you have to put in plenty of force).
I don't mean to argue that competition should be the ultimate end goal for everyone (after all, I don't compete: my views on competition are laid out here). I absolutely take your point that this would denigrate the abilities of those who aren't able to compete, for whatever reason, or whose physical attributes have declined to the extent that they can't perform at their former levels of athleticism.
Rather, my point is that competition's importance should not be de-emphasised. That's because, I believe, if you rule out competition – as the Gracie Academy in Torrance have apparently done – the next logical step is to rule out heavy contact sparring. First you might limit the contact, then perhaps the target areas, then maybe the number of techniques etc.
If you keep on travelling down that path, your eventual destination is compliant drilling, which would put BJJ at the same level of aikido.
Of course, the line gets blurred with the example of judo. Certain techniques have been outlawed, and severe limits have been put on newaza, which arguably waters down efficacy.
On the other hand, it is still full contact, and the opponent is still fully resisting. That means your ability to chuck someone on their head is still getting pressure tested, in a way that your ability to punch someone in the face in a point fighting competition is not.
So in short: training against full resistance is essential for a martial art to remain effective. Retaining a strong competitive element is important in that context, and it also ensures continuing evolution, as you are forced to test yourself against people from outside your familiar environment. Without that catalyst, BJJ would stagnate.
1 Oct 2010 @ 1:47 pm
Thanks again for raising some thoughtful points, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your point of view, which I find balanced and well considered.
While I agree that pressure testing is vital for a martial art's vigor, I feel that the rules of competition inevitably pervert an art's efficacy and the examples of Judo, Karate and Taw Kwon Do do indeed serve as a prophetic warning of what BJJ could devolve into if training is geared towards competition; Tae Kwon Do did not begin as a point-sparring art that favours legs over hands regardless of distance to target. The parameters of competition can provide a helpful and relatively safe testing ground for individuals' technique, but I believe that the desire to win within these rules leads to training that does not encompass the widest range of technique.
Of the factors that concern me, I'll mention two important ones here. Firstly, emphasis; I believe that competition should serve as a complement to training rather than the end-game. In the same way as 'learning to the exam' discourages 'deep learning', so too a disproportionate emphasis on winning competition discourages a deeper understanding of BJJ. Secondly, strong emphasis on competition encourages egoism and competitive aggression, while there is a place for this, I feel this should be balanced by a high regard for mentoring and suppression of individuals' sense of self-importance.
I will be returning to this subject in parts 2 and 3 and I look forward to your responses.
1 Oct 2010 @ 2:01 pm
Yeah, the difficult part is finding the right balance. Taekwondo, arguably, failed to do so. At present, I think BJJ has succeeded on that score, but could potentially be put onto the wrong path (as some might argue judo has been) if there were loads of rules changes, limitations etc (for example, say certain grips were banned, or you couldn't use chokes anymore, or you were only given twenty seconds to finish an armbar, or something like that).
The other balance is promoting competition as a positive – e.g., testing yourself outside of your academy, seeing how you do under pressure, helping your goal setting in class with that clear objective to work towards – while at the same time emphasising that BJJ is not all about winning and losing, but learning.
What worries me is when martial arts move completely towards the mystical angle, and forget about reality. For example, the quasi-religious nature of many martial arts schools, where there is never any proof of efficacy, only whispered anecdotes about the instructor's miraculous prowess, serving as the response to any argument.
That is something BJJ must avoid, and which competition prevents: after all, vague anecdotes about "yeah, I totally beat up ten guys outside a pub once, so don't question my 'monkey steals the peach' technique, grasshopper" become meaningless when there is a clear route to proving your claims in an open arena, either personally or through the successes of your students.
I look forward to parts 2 and 3, when I'll no doubt take the opportunity to babble some more. 😀
2 Oct 2010 @ 5:07 am
So glad you're writing this. I woke up yesterday with the realization that of the three reasons people walk into a BJJ gym (martial art, combat sport, self defense) that my motivation falls under only two of three…the art and self-defense. If I never compete (though I might one day), I'll be fine. I'm in it for the "do" and not so much the "jutsu" as a friend of mine put it.
Looking forward to follow-ups.
2 Oct 2010 @ 4:23 pm
slideyfoot, from one babbler to another, thanks again for your thoughts. I think our views are very much in parallel. I too wish to see a good balance in how the rules of competition influence the art and would, for instance, love to see more different types of competition such as the submission only tournaments in the States where time limits aren't in play. Likewise, I would like to see a much wider acceptance of the notion that competition is foremost about learning and while there are many folk out there with a positive approach I do think there can be quite a lot of negativity around the tournaments, but people are going to do what they do and it is not for me to dictate their 'tudes. Lastly, I am 100% with you regarding the imperative that all mystical death touch vibes be avoided and I think that BJJ's sparring culture really helps with that and I can see that competition can play a part there.
Like I suggest in my piece, I agree with the notion that comps should have about 30% of focus. Moreover, I would like a wider acceptance that while useful, competition is what it is – a safe, controlled, rule-based environment for testing your skills in against a similarly skilled/sized/aged opponent with a high level of resistance – it is neither more nor less than this. In other words, winning or losing shouldn't, to my mind, be an important part of how an individual's progress is judged and shouldn't play a role in promotion.
Until next time, Mr Foot 😉
2 Oct 2010 @ 4:33 pm
Hi Megan, thanks so much for your comment! I have a pretty relaxed attitude towards competing too and is nice to know I'm not alone. I would absolutely recommend competing to anyone, however, and do think it is a really valuable tool. The prep is so physically taxing and the day itself is so mentally challenging – I've learned a lot about myself under the pressure of competition and, injury/recovery willing, I would like to compete again every 6 months or so going forward. But, equally, the past two years that I've been working through some serious knee trouble and therefore not competing, I've learned a lot and my game has evolved and I'm very happy with how I've developed and my health and longevity in jits is the most important thing. If it fits with your journey, go for it, if not – no big thing.
Would love to hear more about your approach; does your club have a self-defence focus, do you guys drill old school Helio Gracie core basics/self-defence, do you have pressure from those around you to compete/not compete?
P.S. Sweet name 😉
The Part Time Grappler
6 Oct 2010 @ 1:36 pm
Wow thanks for the mention Meg. What an excellent post. I know what've been thru and while I couldn't tell you what my life would have been without BJJ I can tell you I really like having BJJ in it.
6 Oct 2010 @ 1:42 pm
My pleasure, Part Time Grappler, it is a great quote that just about sums it up. I hear you, thank goodness for BJJ!
15 Oct 2010 @ 11:30 am
I liked your article. Can I go 50/50 and say I think of it as a martial sport? 😉
Martial art because we wear gis and belts. heh. I don't tend to think of nogi as a martial art because they don't wear a gi or a belt. 😉
But when it comes down to it I guess I don't really consider MMA "martial arts" because I think of the people who do it as "fighters" rather than artists. Hmmmm…
I guess I've not examined this much. Though I don't just think of it as self defense, because I want to get better at it for the sake of being better at it. To be honest, if I were just going for self defense I'd do krav maga and do as much damage as possible then get the hell away.
Yet I like the idea of feeling comfortable and knowing what to do if an unwanted man gets between my legs. heh. I like the idea of knowing that if it happens that I can think of myself as being in a controlling position and being able to sweep or armbar or choke.
Must think on this further…
Yep, for me it's a martial sport. 😉
19 Oct 2010 @ 8:30 am
Thanks very much for your considered response. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I'm not sure what the semantic difference is between a 'martial sport' and 'combat sport', but I understand that you see traditional elements such as a gi and belt as trappings of a 'martial art' where the absence of these symbols suggests to you the fighting/combat sport side of things. I suppose my understanding of 'martial art' is less about traditional symbolism and more about one's motivations for training. While I embrace BJJ's less codified and formalised approach, I do see it as essentially about personal development, itself defined as giving up the ego and living as much for others as for oneself – this is entangled with love and loyalty. Indeed, this notion is further tied to a zen-like pursuit of something for its own sake, like you've written, where working through the process is pretty much the main thing; it's all about the journey, man. In terms of self-defence, I think that BJJ has superb and tested benefits in this area, though this was not the subject of my piece (though Slidey can't help but get himself worked up about this issue) and I'll return to this topic in forthcoming posts.
My hope, in this post, was to explain that while I do accept the value of competition for BJJ training and certainly see tournaments as an essential though not the primary concern of training, BJJ for me is much more about personal growth and development and an endeavour to conquer ego rather than to inflate it. Perhaps it is unfair of me to see 'personal growth' and athletic achievement as mutually exclusive, but I do conflate the notions of 'personal growth' and 'victory over the ego' and in this context I think it is fair to see sporting emphasis and personal development as conflicts of interest.
I loved competing as a white belt and it has been rather heartbreaking to me to have not had the physical fitness to compete as a blue belt; I am hoping my knee situation will be resolved enough in 2011 to allow me to make a few forays back onto the tournament mats as a purple belt. While my experience of competition is limited, I did find it tremendously valuable in terms of helping me to evaluate my training goals/progress towards those goals as well as teaching me about myself in unexpected ways and helping me to experience 'the now' in a very visceral and exciting way.
That said, competition is very much a selfish endeavour and ego-driven. The process of preparation is extremely narcissistic and is 'all about me'; what am I eating, how am I sleeping, how well am I training, how am I managing my fears and anxieties – me me me. The motivation for the process also has a strongly selfish undercurrent. While folk absolutely use competition to evaluate progress and to manage their goal-oriented approaches to training, there is, of course, an element of the desire to dominate others and to prove oneself as 'the best' at the expense of others. There is much good sportspersonship at tournaments, but equally there is a lot of very poor behaviour at tournaments, which gives evidence of the light and dark aspects of competition.
My point is twofold. One, competition is essentially about the ego. Two, a very strong focus on BJJ as 'sport' therefore undermines wider benefits of training as a source of self-improvement. 'Self-improvement' here defined as relinquishment of ego, pride and the 'need' to dominate others. Yes, training for competition is a cooperative effort undertaken with your team, your family and friends. While there is this undoubted mutualism involved in competition training, ultimately tournament is in large part about athletes' individual egos and less about a bigger picture of personal development outside of getting onto a podium. [cont in next comment]
19 Oct 2010 @ 8:30 am
As far as competition's ability to 'keep it real', I think this is, in part, fallacious. Again, I accept the benefits of competition, but it is what it is, and with weight, belt and age bands and rules governing the techniques that may be applied it is a 'pressure test' within a very specific context. An important, but essentially rule-bound and restricted context. While every individual that puts themselves out there to compete deserves respect for doing something that is difficult (and scary!) and of course winners are owed their due for being most on top of their game on the day, I think that there is a worrying culture of swagger associated with medal-winning. I am of the opinion that, for instance, walking away with a bronze from a three-person division, or a gold from a two-person contest won on points, has very limited import in conferring 'badass credentials'. Again, absolutely well done for getting out there and giving it a go, but to me there is a loss of perspective that effects many (most?), though not all, competitors. This culture is further encouraged by those coaches who promote students in light of competition performance. While I can appreciate that this is one easy way to quantify a student's progress in a like-for-like context, I personally think that promotion should be base on attitude, attendance and ability. Perhaps competition can be one gauge of an individual's ability but it is not the full story and to me a strongly sport-focused approach to BJJ cheapens the entire enterprise. In the end, 'learning to the test' in any discipline may be an efficient way to quantify individual progress, it also has the effect of discouraging 'deep learning'; this is as true for school children as it is for BJJ practitioners.
19 Oct 2010 @ 9:20 am
What I am trying to say, was much better put by Albert Einstein: 'Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted' 🙂