What Jiu-Jitsu Has Taught Me About Success and Failure

When I started in the martial arts I went a bit extreme and tried more than a dozen forms in under a week. After that wild skirmish, I came away practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). This is a violent sporting form – which means it is designed to submit without incapacitating the opponent permanently.

The Value of Attention

Since I first started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I have learned a lot about attention. It isn’t enough to want to win, or even to have perfect technique. It is important to pay attention to what you are doing, too. I have noticed three categories into which practitioners fall, depending on their experience: adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight novices, especially aggressive intermediate practitioners and the very advanced practitioners, who are almost always very calm, collected and intentional. I have heard it said that “crazy” wins every time, and it is my experience that when I feel like I am fighting for my life I will do so twice as hard, and often overcome by sheer force of energy more advanced opponents. But against the most advanced, who are invariably calm in the face of my high-energy, I don’t stand a chance. This is due to the amount of attention that these most advanced students bring to bear on a situation: they are better at seeing what is actually in front of them, not put off just by high energy assaults.

brazilian jiu jitsu
Photo: Michael Holler

The value of attention has extended well beyond the martial arts into many other areas of my life. Since noticing how quickly I failed against the advanced opponents, I have begun to be more aware of similar fight-or-flight instincts that I have outside the sparing arena. By observing my patterns in jiu-jitsu I have become aware of how I engage similarly in the rest of my life. To give just one example, I recently went in to a job interview that I very much wanted. As I entered the door I felt a surge of adrenaline and experienced an almost hallucinatory experience of being outside my body. I recognized the amount of adrenaline I was experiencing and considered the consequences of such behavior in jiu-jitsu. Invariably, the novice will not see the next attack coming and lose. By realizing what I was experiencing in that moment, I took a couple of deep breathes, reconnected with my enthusiasm for being at the job interview and proceeded more calmly.

Awareness has the power to dramatically improve our result, on and off the mat. Practice being aware of your habits in one environment, and they will transfer elsewhere in your life.