The Inner Game of Jiu Jitsu
Every Sunday morning, on my way to the farmer’s market, my husband and I pass a set of tennis courts where people are busy whacking tennis balls from one end to the other. Among the other sights: a dog chilling court-side in the one square meter of shaded space (sometimes with a snoot to boop through the chain link fence), overly ambitious kids and their parents as a perpetual ball-serving machine, and the occasional solo practitioner.
What catches my eye the most, though, are the people who take lessons. (They also wear gaudy outfits that scream “tennis noob”). Even though it takes me less than a minute to walk past the courts, I can almost instantly gauge how well the lesson is going. I am capable of doing this not because of any tennis expertise, but because I know what makes for a good learning experience from decades of being a student and also teaching a movement-based art.
How the student’s body language looks. What the coach is saying (or, even more importantly, not saying). The ratio of balls over the net versus not (Kidding. I have no idea on that last one).
I’m guessing that The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey is to tennis people what The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin is to jiu jitsu people. Both authors focus on what it means to teach, learn, and practice well. Lots of hobbyists contemplate how to adapt their principles to their own training and hope to become the best version of their athletic selves.
I am always struck by the similarities and crossovers in the lessons that we, as jiu jitsu practitioners, can learn from other sports. Sometimes, when we spend too long on the mats, both figuratively and mentally, it can seem like all that matters is our sport, and our sport alone. We’re at work, but really, we’re thinking of jiu jitsu. We’re in a line waiting for bagels, but really, we’re thinking of jiu jitsu. We’re rock-climbing, but really, we’re just working on our grips.
Cross-training is still an oddity in jiu jitsu, namely because the conventional thinking is that “the only thing to do to get better at jiu jitsu is to do more jiu jitsu.” I don’t entirely disagree with this statement. I think, though, where the trouble lies, is when people start implying the word “only” at the end of this statement.
When asked at a seminar what else he did to work on his jiu jitsu, Jon Thomas replied that he read a lot of books.
“Jiu jitsu books?”
“No, just regular books.”
This is the right response. In my practice of jiu jitsu, and for every martial art that I’ve done before it, the best learning experiences have come through a focused and intentional approach that focuses on how to seamlessly integrate martial arts into the rest of my life, as part of my overall generalized experience of living and being, instead of an isolated or dominant part of my identity that appeals to no one, not even myself.
I have not been shy about my opinion of the importance of taking care of yourself off the mats and the dangers of trying to use jiu jitsu as the primary tool for quality of life improvements. I have been somewhat more reserved in admitting the times when I don’t follow my own advice. I think I’m still learning this, but every once in a while, I get disappointed when jiu jitsu does not give me what I think it has promised — or worse, what I think it has bestowed on others. I’ve since discovered personal responsibility and agency in realizing that it is up to me to seek out, embrace, and ask for help if I am struggling.
This new chapter of my journey has involved something much greater than what jiu jitsu can give me, or vice versa. That something is an early exploration into what the integration of jiu jitsu into life would produce in terms of identity, meaning, and purpose. It goes beyond learning to breathe in stressful situations outside of being trapped in mount, or knowing that sometimes you need to tap, even if it’s to pressure. Instead, the process and the practice are, for the first time, melting into one.
“The backhand can be used to advantage only on a tennis court, but the skill of mastering the art of effortless concentration is invaluable in whatever you set your mind to.” - The Inner Game of Tennis
Instead of developing our resilience to challenges on the mat and then attempting to translate the lessons to work, school, or family, what if instead we focus on developing a skillful mindset that translates to any context? Yes, there will be nuances to each situation that would call for some tailoring, but if we start from the perspective that what we learn is to benefit the whole picture, perhaps we can bypass the step of trying to forge connections after the fact.
I’m presently cultivating these places to be ripe for integration:
Problem Solving - looking at the issue at hand without emotion, judgment, or regret, but instead a sense of ruthless objectivity
Leadership - forming relationships that help empower a meaning or purpose greater than myself
Self Governance - the act of learning how to regulate and challenge myself without destroying or compromising my values
I don’t want people to think of me as a jiu jitsu athlete, but as an athlete that happens to do jiu jitsu. This may seem to contradict the whole idea of integration above, but it doesn’t. What I am seeking to integrate are the different parts within myself. The times in which I’ve been seriously stressed are the times in which I’ve felt fragmented — that I did not have a container in which to hold myself and my experiences. Cultivating this integration has brought me a great deal of inner peace, so it seems worthwhile for me to keep trying.