Passing Through to the Other Side
Last year was a pretty chaotic year in jiu jitsu for me. I left my old school, went to competitions across time zones, came to terms with my identity as a hobbyist, all while living a little further into my 30s. I learned a lot of lessons but most importantly have been thinking about how to make jiu jitsu more fun and natural for me to engage with on a weekly basis.
I think a huge part of why I feel differently about jiu jitsu has been my hyper-focus on reducing and overcoming overwhelm in jiu jitsu. Overwhelm is the feeling that something is too much to handle. It is the feeling that you could slip underwater at any minute, and so, you are fighting to stay afloat.
Overwhelm in jiu jitsu can only be truly understood by people who have felt it. I think anyone can relate to the overwhelm they felt in the first year of jiu jitsu, where moves that the more experienced students did with a blank stare of boredom on their face was nearly impossible for your feeble body to comprehend. I recently had a partner that kept on placing his grips in the wrong places, even with the instructor standing over him and repeatedly saying, “That’s not the hip. That’s the stomach. THIS IS THE HIP.” Then there’s competition overwhelm, which sometimes feels like an upcoming exam that you are horrendously underprepared for. The overwhelm of being stuck in mount with no viable escape. There’s the overwhelm that one feels when they view the enormous landscape of jiu jitsu and realize that there is still so much out there to learn. There’s the overwhelm associated with dealing with loud music, finding the right partners to work with, solving mistakes made in training, and generally navigating a weird sub-culture community in which the majority of “normies” don’t understand.
People say that jiu jitsu is supposed to teach you how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, but I disagree. Part of jiu jitsu is teaching you learning how to make things more comfortable for yourself, whether that’s in terms of getting a more dominant position against your partner, or finding an environment and training schedule that optimizes your learning.
When we ask people to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, it can imply that their feelings are not to be respected, and that instead, they must conform to the status quo. Particularly in cases where harassment or toxic behavior is an issue, this attitude of “getting comfortable with the uncomfortable” can exacerbate a bad situation.
Overcoming overwhelm has been part of a larger journey for me to empower myself and to take direction of my jiu jitsu journey. This does not mean we should cast people who are overwhelmed as people who should be blamed for the situations they are in, though. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that even when things appear to be desperate, hopeless, or simply uncomfortable, that there is always the role and possibility for personal agency.
Below is a list of things I’ve done to reduce overwhelm in jiu jitsu:
Plan out and attend the days in which I want to train, and sticking to that schedule no matter what
Quit social media
Take days off from jiu jitsu
Take meaningful time off from competing
Stopped trying to watch extra instructionals outside of class, except maybe 1-2 videos targeted towards a specific situation
Making sure that I’m packed well in advance
Coming to class with a plan and communicating that plan to my partners
Spend time regularly reflecting on what has gone well or not well in jiu jitsu
Asking for professional help
Not rushing relationships and establishing emotional boundaries for myself
I’m sharing this list because it’s largely a list that I’ve stumbled upon using experimentation. There is no framework for what is involved, except that it is very subjective to me.
I want to emphasize how important it is to try things out for yourself. I wouldn’t know the effects of what taking regular days off would be, unless I actually did it. I could theroretically consider it, abstractly weigh pros and cons, and imagine all I want. I could read about the benefits of taking days off from reddit threads and research articles alike. But I had to try it, and in trying it, I realized that I liked it. In fact, by working to take days off from jiu jitsu, I’ve found myself being much happier since I am able to do other projects that I enjoy and I let my body heal.
Part of overcoming overwhelm is to take that curious attitude towards new situations and changes that you believe could make your training and life transform for the better. It is, at its core, about taking actions, no matter how small. While reading about the wonderful changes that someone has experienced might make you feel good, the real change happens when you start to implement it into your own training routine.
I would also recommend that you make your efforts to reduce overwhelm in jiu jitsu a meaningful attempt. It’s funny that I used to be so hardcore about being precise in my jiu jitsu training, but I would half-ass life improvements that could have been better for me in the long run.
Above, I mention that I’ve been taking “meaningful” breaks from competing. That means that I don’t visit the IBJJF website, look at FloGrappling news, ask people when or if they plan to compete this year, and actively distance myself from daydreaming about competitions. I sure as hell don’t look at Instagram.
Last year I told myself that I would stop competing in April. But you wouldn’t be able to tell that. This was because I kept on immersing myself in the competition world by acting like I was still training for a competition, including in terms of diet, cardio, training methods. I might have not been planning to compete, but I was weighing myself every day or looking up competitions every week. Once I took a step back and really questioned the efficacy of what I was doing, I quickly realized that I was bullshitting myself.
I think that facing the truth about yourself is never easy. But, like most things involving self-improvement, it also does not have to be done all at once. Learning to hold yourself accountable in your training, in very specific areas, eventually leads to confidence that you can make positive changes in your training overall — by changing yourself. You can, therefore, find internal sources of joy and replace the need to rely on external validation (e.g., medals, social media, rank, praise).