A Vast System of Deep Knowledge
Brazilian JiuJitsu (BJJ) is a martial art, self-defense system, and sport. It is complex and deep, and generally takes 10 or more years of dedicated study and practice to achieve black belt level ability. Learning does not stop at black belt—the knowledge that makes up the system of BJJ deepens by orders of magnitude. If size, strength, and age are equal, a person who has been a black belt for ten or twenty years could dominate and defeat a brand new black belt as easily as that new black belt would defeat a newer student. BJJ can be a lifetime journey, never fully mastered.
BJJ is Great for Self-Defense
BJJ is considered by many to be the most effective self-defense art, allowing technique and knowledge to even out a disparity in physical size and strength. This increases as a person’s technical ability grows, allowing them to control a person of greater size difference as they progress in their training. Since BJJ is a system of positional dominance, an experienced practitioner can control an untrained person without having to injure him or her.
100% Resisted Sparring
In BJJ competition or training, a win is when one partner submits, and this is signaled with a tap. When a successful submission is applied, the losing person is no longer able protect against their opponent—much like a checkmate in chess—and they tap. The most common submissions are joint locks and chokes, and they force the student to tap or take injury. Respect for the tap and not using strikes allows people to safely train hard, trying to best their opponent. Live training allows for no confusion on what actually works, because it is practiced against resisting partners in a manner that allows up to 100% exertion on a daily basis. This cannot be said for striking arts, in which you must hit pads or stop short from full contact against your partner.
JiuJitsu’s live sparring creates a laboratory-like quality in which the student hones their strategy, their movement, and learns what they are actually capable of doing. The culture of live sparring improves the individual student but also BJJ as a whole, as practitioners of all levels all over the world can compete or train with each other at countless local, regional, and international events and know that their school is on par with the rest of the Brazilian JiuJitsu community.
What Does Knowing BJJ Mean for Real World Self-Defense?
If a BJJ-experienced child needs to defend him- or herself from a bully, they have the confidence to do so knowing they do not have to hurt the other kid. The BJJ student is likely to be able to get to a dominant position and control their opponent without injury to either person. The experience of getting squashed and working hard against a resisting partner in class each week builds toughness, grit, confidence, and technical skills that can be used if needed.
For adults, knowing JiuJitsu can mean something as simple as being able to subdue their drunk cousin at the family picnic if needed without hurting someone they care about. They will be better able to defend against an attack on the street with a much lower chance of serious injury to either party. Hours and hours of practice working effective moves (both from standing and on the ground) in the laboratory of the gym gives realistic knowledge of what is likely to work in a self-defense situation and what will not—information that is unique to each student’s physical attributes. Full-contact, resisted training develops experience in thinking under pressure and understanding what an opponent using his or her strength against you feels like.
Brazilian JiuJitsu is excellent for women’s self-defense in particular, as they are more likely than men to be at a significant physical disadvantage if they are attacked. Featured in women’s self-defense concerns is rape prevention, and BJJ addresses this well. While students learn techniques from standing to be able to get grabbing hands off and to throw someone to the ground, jiujitsu is mainly a ground-based sport. We are not defeated when our backs are on the ground and we have a person between our legs. Instead, we are the aggressors in that position with a rich and powerful menu of options to utilize, and hours of experience applying our moves on men who do not want to tap and are resisting 100%.
How is BJJ Learned?
Brazilian JiuJitsu can’t be learned effectively on your own. You cannot watch enough online tutorials or DVDs and beg enough family members and friends to allow you to try things out on them to be worth your time. The details of the art are so subtle that beginners can’t pick them up on their own. You need to feel the moves applied to you by other students with experienced people overseeing your efforts and progress. At a good school, you will be learning much more than a list of self-defense techniques to be memorized. You will be piecing together a huge and intriguing system that fits like a puzzle. During class, you will work with a more experienced student to drill moves, and according the the timetable of your school’s guidelines, you will soon begin live sparring with the help and support of your teammates.
You need to choose your gym and instructor wisely to be safe in training, not develop unrealistic expectations of your abilities, and make the most of your valuable time and money. You should find a local BJJ school with a highly-ranked head instructor—a black belt if possible—and see if you like the environment they offer. See my post “How to Choose a Brazilian JiuJitsu School”, for what to look for in a school and what questions to ask a potential gym and instructor.
Other Benefits BJJ Students Enjoy
Many BJJ students love training for reasons other than self-defense. Self-defense ability is only one asset gained from spending time learning jiujitsu, and while it is a great skill to have in your back pocket, other common benefits are more compelling for many of us.
Social benefits: Your teammates will come to be your close friends over time if you invest yourself in them. You will get to know people from all different walks of life—often people you would not have had the joy of meeting in your typical circles. You will grow to trust them and will become a part of a tight gym family. Coming to class is often the highlight of the week—hanging out with friends, joking around, and helping each other work toward a common goal.
Physical benefits: There are many ways BJJ helps people be healthier physically. Some will see big physical transformations through weight loss. For others, it is great maintenance exercise—drilling and wrestling can be enough exertion to keep in great shape, and it can be much more fun than more traditional exercise. And for some, the structure of attending class in the evenings helps them to make better decisions throughout the day, from healthier food choices to avoiding unhealthy habits like drinking or using drugs.
Mental benefits: This is one area that, when beginning, most students don’t realize will be as beneficial as it is—if they stick with it. Learning JiuJitsu is hard, and progress is slow. You will develop grit and perseverance. You will get comfortable being uncomfortable both physically and emotionally. You will get good at making long-term goals and chipping away at them. You will have a mental puzzle to work on all the time—how the moves fit together, and what to do in different situations. You will develop more self-confidence even if you already had plenty.
Sport and competition outlet: BJJ offers the opportunity to compete against others and against yourself. Each day you will be pushing yourself to get better than you were the day before. For some people, particularly lifetime athletes, this competition with yourself isn’t enough. BJJ is also a sport that has weight classes, age classes, and skill level divisions for men, women, and children. There are divisions for everyone, so there is the option to get out there and try yourself in fair competition and represent your gym and teammates in the larger BJJ community.
Constant improvement over time—even as we age: This is a big one for lifetime athletes. At some point—in your mid-to-late thirties or in your forties, your climb to better running times or more weight lifted is going to stall out. You may still have a high physical ability, but your recovery time becomes too slow to make big gains anymore, and you begin to shift into more of a maintenance mindset. Since much of an athlete’s progress in BJJ is through mental development, coordination in new movements, and fitting the system together as a puzzle, you will be getting better as long as you are actively training. A 50-year-old black belt version of you would destroy a purple-belt 45-year-old you, and that purple-belt 45-year-old you would destroy the beginning white-belt 37-year-old you.