All Work and No Play
The Fanaticism of EverydayPorrada
Dan Gable was born on October 25, 1948. October 25 is a date for Scorpios, and Scorpios — so I’ve been told through “extensive” research (read: internet searches) — live a life “constantly plotting several steps ahead in order to orchestrate an eventual checkmate…Scorpios simply know what they want and aren't afraid to work hard and play the long game to get it.” Allure - The Personality of a Scorpio, Explained.
I don’t care much for astrology and horoscopes, but Dan Gable probably would have liked this reading, even if he would have taken it as seriously as he took rest days.
Those who have practiced wrestling and jiu jitsu are intimately familiar with the “Gable grip” term, which is a strong strategy for keeping your hands together around an opponent than interlocking your fingers like the average streetfighter noob. The Gable grip is notoriously hard to break out of, and, like the man Dan Gable himself, continues to influence grappling to this day. But, besides the physiological impact that Gable made on the sport, his attitude towards training and eventual, sweeping win in the 1972 Olympics is a ghost that still haunts modern jiu jitsu attitudes of training.
To get a feeling of Gable, a simple Google search of his name will yield a litany of crazy stories that will make you run straight to a dictionary and expect to see his name under “workaholic.” Think the “wake up and work” 4AM videos, push it back by two hours, and you’ll get Gable standard training time.
It would be unfair, of course, to make Dan Gable the scapegoat for the culture of overtraining that jiu jitsu seems to embrace, condone, or tolerate from time to time. Rather, Dan (look at me, first name basis), is no more the singular cause for why jiu jitsu culture still glorifies the #everydayporrada mentality that pervades so many gyms than my cat is responsible for the amount of hair ties that I find in my pantry every week. Sports psychology has made huge leaps in recovery and burnout (though more work has yet to be done). Yet, the story of Dan Gable is an apt container for this highly problematic mindset pervasive in jiu jitsu culture.
If you’re a jiu jitsu practitioner who thinks that you don’t train enough, you’re not alone. Pretty much every single hobbyist that I’ve met believes and wants to train more than they already do. Every long weekend is either a chance to train more, or for the unfortunate few, a time to complain about how the gym is closed. People say “sorry” to me when they take too long to tie their belt, as if the extra 20 seconds they took would have meant that I missed some divine revelation from the Gracies. And, if we are normies with a full-time job, we spend time watching jiu jitsu, thinking about jiu jitsu, and wishing we were at jiu jitsu.
Some keep detailed logs of what happened in every class and can track to the day how many hours of training that they had before they leveled up. These statistics are sometimes useful, at least in the right context. Comments on Reddit posts like “How long did it take to get your blue belt” and “How long does it take the average person to get a blue belt?” offer some solace to a beginner who has been smashed for 3 months straight to understand that yes, being smothered by mount is a typical occurrence that has nothing to do with their present moral character or wrongdoings in a past life.
Overall, most jiu jitsu practitioners recognize that hard work over a reasonable amount of time will yield benefits, but how, when, why, and what these precise benefits are comprise a whole mess of possibilities that is wildly specific to each person’s journey.
It is precisely in this uncertainty and variability that I think some people begin to search for clearer guidance on what they need to do to achieve jiu jitsu success, whatever that definition is. And more often than not, they begin to create a story that starts innocently enough about hard work and degenerates into something far more destructive. A few examples that I’ve heard over the years:
I can just use technique if I’m too tired
Just ice it / it’s just a muscular injury
Mat time is the most important thing in jiu jitsu
I’ll stop when I’m dead (or brown belt)
It makes sense that jiu jitsu values hard work. Hard work and effort is necessary to progressing in jiu jitsu. But vague statements like this can often spiral out of control, in small insidious ways that produce misunderstandings, mismanagement, and mistreatment. We cannot underestimate the power of such language to drive people to put themselves in unhappy situations. The quotes that I share above are all examples of “thought-terminating” cliches in jiu jitsu. They serve as islands of confirmation bias for people who want to train hard at all costs and inherently encourage people to think of nothing else. “Mat time,” for instance, might be the most important thing for jiu jitsu — but who said jiu jitsu was the focus, as opposed to yourself?
These cliches can, at best, create feelings of doubt in the jiu jitsu hobbyist who only trains 2-3 times a week due to other responsibilities, and at worst, drive jiu jitsu competitors down a rabbit hole in which their entire persona and value becomes dependent on the level of training and the commensurate podium placements that come with it. (Even prospective applicants or holders of a sports visa — where special requirements basically decrees an extraordinary level of training and skill — have a limit that they can hit.)
I used to believe that people who overtrained, including myself, did so because they lacked self-awareness to step back and try something different, or because they were forced to. Yet being confronted with the idea that I made choices to overtrain was a much tougher pill to swallow.
I don’t claim to have full insight into the thought processes of people who over-train/train too much. Perhaps, they might not be the ones to blame at all. Rather, I have come to observe that the biggest factor behind overtraining is not in a person’s inability or lack of knowledge that recovery is important for them. Most of these people are highly reasonable, and pretty responsible, adults. It is in their intellect, however, that holds a shadow side to find evidence for the ends justifying the means in jiu jitsu. Like a toxic algae bloom, an excess of otherwise healthy nutrients (training) can create chaos when introduced in large amounts.
“Language—both literal and figurative, well-intentioned and ill-intentioned, politically correct and politically incorrect—reshapes a person’s reality only if they are in an ideological place where that reshaping is welcome.”
― Amanda Montell, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
That is not to say that social pressures are entirely absent. Most people, including myself, who have competed — regardless of the level of competition — have felt the pressure to not disappoint their coaches, teammates, or family. We care about jiu jitsu and we don’t want to disappoint the people who have invested so much for us, whether in time, money, or resources. There is an enormous pressure to do well, not just because it feels good for us, but as an implicit impulse to show that one has deserved the special treatment. This is especially the case if the person we are trying to please is a coach that has played a large role in our athletic development or holds some other source of power in the relationship, either as a romantic partner or a parental-like figure.
I’m fortunate, for the most part, to have been on teams where either the coach doesn’t care about how you do, doesn’t really expect you to win, or doesn’t play favorites based on athletic performance and potential. They are there to provide a service, are cordial, and stay out of your way when it comes to non-jiu jitsu life. But, I’ve also been on teams where such favoritism has left a bad taste in athletes over the years.
And, here’s where things can turn bleak for both parties involved.
For the star athlete who garners the attention of a coach, there is continuous pressure to continue to do what they are told. And, if the coach is unscrupulous or simply misinformed, will take that opportunity to exploit the athlete’s time and energy for their own satisfaction and ego. Perhaps, though, that similar coach has gone through the same version of hell, and believes that is what their athletes also need to do the same or better. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that on some level, a coach may unconsciously act out their prior traumatic experiences on an athlete (full disclosure: I have no credentials in this area, but start with this piece and work your way down the rabbit hole).
For the “rest of us,” when we see or unconsciously realize, or perceive, that members of this complicated social setting is getting better treatment, we may start to hunt for ways to work our way into that tier. The need to belong is a powerful motivation — and, when coupled with the belief that training as much as possible can earn you a spot at the coach’s table — produces another environment ripe for overtraining. This is not a product of weak will or lack of maturity, but rather a natural response to needing to keep your place in an highly hierarchical, competitive setting.
If these thoughts sound highly irrational, then welcome to being a human. Saying that “we’re all adults here” is a pretty clever thought-terminating response — as if somehow being an “adult” (21+ more specifically in the U.S. sense) is enough to immunize people against the allure of overtraining. Another thought-terminating cliche “you’re young, you’ll be fine” looks to ignore the other factors that may contribute to an athlete’s well-being, not least of all being psychological health, well-being and a sense of safety that is not tied down to performance.
If I had written this essay earlier in my jiu jitsu journey, it would have been more a rah-rah, embrace the Abundance Mindset type of feel-good article that would try to convince people to not doubt their work ethic every time they saw a “6x10 min rounds” post on social media. But with what I’ve learned so far, everyday porrada is on people’s minds everyday, and it is only with conscious questioning, continued re-evaluation, and an uncoupling from hinging your self-worth in terms of success and effort that you can start to make different decisions, that may just lead you to a better jiu jitsu experience.