Why You Are Addicted to Jiu-Jitsu!

No, it’s not just because you learn new techniques. No, it’s not just because of the physical challenge. No, it’s not just because of being able to submit someone bigger and stronger than you. While all of these are in a sense true and important reasons to train, the reason you are so addicted to Jiu-Jitsu is because you are fully there.

I have spent almost 6 years working on my PhD in Mindful-Leadership. My inspiration for my research began after reading a paper by Professor Donna Ladkin, entitled, Leading Beautifully: How Mastery, Congruence and Purpose Create the Aesthetic of Embodied Leadership Practice. In that paper, Ladkin (2008) argues that much of the literature that has been written about the practice of leadership has focused on the behaviour of leaders, but not on how those behaviours are enacted (i.e., how they come into being). In that same paper, Ladkin goes on to highlight that leading beautifully, as she defines it, is largely predicated on what leaders do ‘on the inside’ in moments of leading itself.

Much of what Ladkin noted in her paper we do without even realising it in Jiu-Jitsu. Where does it happen mostly in our training? In a live roll. Anyone who has sparred with another person in Jiu-Jitsu quickly realises that unless you are fully there, fully present in that roll things will go south quickly. In other words if you are in your head thinking about work, the next meeting, troubles at home or with your boss, you spend the whole night tapping. But even as a beginner in Jiu-Jitsu, every now and then, you have amazing roles with other people where nothing distracts you either externally or internally and time distorts. Sometimes time slows down and you catch every mistake your opponent makes, or time speeds up and a 5-min round felt barely a minute. It is in those moments that you are absolutely in love with Jiu-Jitsu.

I am here to help you out and to give you some very positive advice. Not only can you have more of these experiences, not only will these experiences become more frequent if you stick to your Jiu-Jitsu training, but you can actually intentionally cultivate this skill that I am talking about. This is what my PhD research has taught me, and as such, I have intentionally taught both my students and trainers how to be more mindful-in-action in all aspects of their training. This is also why our tagline for our Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu program is: Flow As The Way, because arising out of this intentionality of being mindful, you also invoke a sense of flow throughout your experience. Flow is when you are in the zone, a mental state of operation in which you perform your Jiu-Jitsu fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

One of the first steps to achieve this however, is to be more intentionally mindful in your Jiu-Jitsu training.

What Is Mindfulness?

Before I talk about how to be more mindful in your Jiu-Jitsu, lets first define the term. There are several useful definitions, but I prefer to use Kabat-Zinn’s widely cited definition of mindfulness, as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2006, p.145). This isn’t easy. It takes a whole lot of practice. Not only do you need to practice this, but you will need to be reminded by your coach (and a coach who can teach you this skill).

We spend so much of our time in our everyday life in the past or the future. In most of this time our fixation on either the future and or the past is often scaffolded by judgement, or by our inner critic. We spend so much time often getting down on ourselves, or attaching to how we feel others treat us, that we are never full present, never fully here. In other words we have this Ego that is always trying to fight for our defense, even when we are wrong. It causes us all types of grief in the end, and often leads to our unhappiness.

And then, one day for what ever reason you stepped into a Jiu-Jitsu academy. In the beginning it’s overwhelming. So many techniques, so many positions, so much terminology to remember. Then you start to roll. In the beginning of your rolls you are judging everything, your performance, your opponents performance, and fixating on what your coach may think of you. But the more you roll, the less of this noise enters your mind. Over time, the quieter your mind becomes the more you come to trust your body. And in that very moment, the present moment, the only moment that really matters — you suddenly, often unintentionally discover — mindfulness, an embodied practice that is said to enhance a state of being attentive to, and aware of, what is taking place in the present moment (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Your judgement falls away, and you roll just for the sake of the roll. And voila there’s your addiction. Now imagine if you were able to intentionally train this from day one?

Training To Be Mindful-In-Action

There are many ways to practice to be mindful. Some more challenging than others. Trying to practice being mindful in a live action role can be challenging for a lot of people. This is why I often start off the mat, or before the role with mindful breathing exercises (I wrote an online course with some nifty videos too all about this. Although it’s for boxing sparring, everything I teach in this course is relevant to Jiu-Jitsu too).

Thankfully mindfulness is something you can practice anywhere, and I mean literally anywhere. You can be mindful while washing the dishes, while sitting in traffic on the way to work, or although more difficult in the heat of a sparring round. Because you can practice anywhere, there is a large scope of opportunities to then be mindful. But crucially to all of this is, yes you guessed it: practice. You have to put mindfulness into practice at every opportunity.

Here is a quick mindful breathing exercise that you can do. It’s a good idea to start your mindful practice with as little distractions as possible. Over time, as you build your mental muscle you can venture out, into the wide open world, and try it in other experiences in life.

Step 1: Sit in a comfortable posture, with their spine erect, letting the shoulders drop naturally.

Step 2: Close your eyes gently, if this feels comfortable.

Step 3: Bring awareness to your body sensations by focusing attention on the sensations of touch and pressure where your body makes contact with the floor and/or chair. Spend a few minutes exploring these sensations. Non of your sensations are right or wrong. You don’t want to get rid of them or change them. Just witness them as they arise, without judgement. Accept and expand.

Step 4: Now bring your attention to your belly, feeling it rise or expand gently on the in-breath and falling on the out-breath.

Step 5: Keep a focus on breathing, “being with“ each in-breath for its full duration and with each out-breath for its full duration, as if you were riding on the waves of your own breathing. Every time you notice your mind has wandered off from the breath, encourage yourself, gently, to simply note what took you away, and then bring your attention back to your belly and the feeling of the breath coming in and out.

Step 6: If your mind wanders from the breath a thousand times, your job is simply to teach yourself to bring awareness back to your breath every time—no matter what your mind becomes preoccupied with. Your mind wandering is normal, as such it is just as valuable to become aware that your mind has wandered and to bring it back to the breath as it is to remain aware of the breath itself.

Beware of Chasing the Mindful Rabbit

There is of course a concern of chasing being mindful. The experience of being fully present, totally there, with nothing from the outside world intruding on the experience, even your mind seems to stay at bay is heavily addictive. The mistake many people make is they begin to try and chase the experience, and try to forcefully recreate it. Sadly, it won’t work that way. You have already broken one of the cardinal rules of being mindful in your roll, you have already created an expectation for it, which is another form of judgement. As soon as you do that, the mindful experience of the roll will slip through your fingers.

The best way to approach every roll, is like every other roll. Good or bad becomes subjective, and if there is no attachment to the outcome one way or the other, then there is no judgement, only the experience remains. I always tell my students this old Buddhist parable around this time: about a group of monks who are carrying a very heavy hollow wooden canoe.

They get to the river, place it down and cross over the river. When they get to the other side of the shore, the Abbot who is travelling with them asks them why they are hualing the canoe up again to carry on their shoulders? They reply, “what if there is another river?”, the Abot then replies, “what if there’s not?”

The point of the story is, we carry so much weight on our shoulders for those just in case moments, but if we could just shed that weight, and be more present, not only on the mat, but in life, we could always build another canoe if needed one. In other words, being more present makes you think clearer, your actions are more nimble, and you will find your will be more creative in life in general. These are big claims I know, and no one gets it right all of the time, least of all me. But it’s worth the time and investment. There are times to reflect on the past so you don’t make the same mistakes in the present, just like their are times to reflect on the future when you set your life goals. But in a live roll, in a performance, the only place you want to be is in the roll, free from carrying that canoe on your shoulders. Leave judgements behind, good, bad, just be in it, fully. The rest will take care of itself.

I leave you with the parting words of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca,

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what is in Fortune’s control and abandoning what lies in yours.”


Additional Resources

If you looking for some material that focuses on mindfulness and building the inner game that is more specific to martial arts, here are two I have brought to life myself. You can check them out below on the available links.

The Sparring-Mind Downloadable Course





My book, Full Contact Living which you can buy on my store here, or on Amazon if you prefer a hard copy here.