Why Hobbyists are the Most Important People in the Room
Think about your identity in jiu jitsu. Maybe you define it by rank or your school affiliation. Maybe it’s in the style of jiu jitsu that you do, gi versus no gi or butt scooter versus takedown terror. Whatever your identity is, it governs the goals that you have in jiu jitsu and how you progress in the sport.
We are all martial artists in jiu jitsu, but this seems to have been forgotten. As I have observed, there appears to be an increasing divide between the “hobbyist” and “competitor slash professional” in jiu jitsu. The term “hobbyist” is sometimes used as a derogatory term — a “hobbyist” is not serious about competition and is only a casual practitioner of jiu jitsu. By contrast, a “competitor” is someone who is capable of reaching the “highest levels” of jiu jitsu, someone who travels, on the regular, to competitions coast to coast and ocean to ocean.
Note: I’m not here to denigrate competition and competitors. The very fact of competing is inherent in jiu jitsu. You cannot take that out of the art and do it solo. In addition, I believe that competitions have fostered a variety of innovations and quickened the pace and spread of new techniques. I have personally witnessed, both in myself and others, how competing and training for a competition takes an enormous amount of grit and resources.
Nevertheless, I feel that this artificial divide between “hobbyists” and “competitors,” if further perpetuated, is pernicious, for it distracts from the broader spirit of martial arts, which embodies self-actualization and learning. The overemphasis on competition has fragmented and warped this spirit; it has done a disservice to not only the so-called “hobbyist” crowd but also to jiu jitsu as a whole.
Those who are labelled as “hobbyists” are often accomplished professionals in other fields, and they should not be made to feel small simply because they are not also accomplished equally in jiu jitsu. An individual who made partner at a law firm was informed that it would now take her longer to get her black belt. Presumably the person making the comment assumed that her career was in direct conflict with what they felt was real success in jiu jitsu.
When others throw people under the bus for not training like a competitor, competing, or competing poorly, as low achievers or cowards, they forget the fact that these same people may compete and achieve in other spheres. Most people’s lives are not defined around jiu jitsu — and that has to be okay. A lack of desire to be in top 1% of #medalchasing should not equate to laziness or sloth. Even though these hobbyists fit jiu jitsu into busy schedules with family and professional lives, somehow this qualified as never being good enough.
Not everyone wants their pinnacle of life experience to occur in a high school gymnasium.
There is a middle ground, one that involves carving out a way to be competitive, without also needing to be the best. Most people recognize that there are diminishing returns to committing almost all of their resources into one passion or endeavor. There are plenty of people who train in other martial arts “for fun,” or for confidence, social connections, or self-defense. Their experiences need to be honored, not ignored. The real problem is when competition becomes an overemphasized aspect of martial arts, such that those who do not fit a tight mold or image are cast aside as not having anything to offer. It crowds out the other narratives of the martial arts experience that can be more fully enjoyed and aligned by people who lead lives that do not optimize for competition success or participation — these narratives also deserve to be valued and seen as contributing to jiu jitsu culture and growth.
Medals are easy symbols of success to understand, and social media has left very little room for nuanced depictions for what is worthwhile jiu jitsu. The “prove yourself” and “influencer” sentiment that we create and perform, online and in person, distracts from the internal and quiet work of reflection. Imagine if we belittled the person who has a great chocolate cookie recipe or the casual tennis practitioner in a city court for not being Michelin or nationally ranked, respectively. Or a person who likes cars as a hobby but is not a world class engineer. Their hobbies are worthwhile because they are engaged in new experiences that help them find meaning and purpose.
The truth is that jiu jitsu is only valuable and only has meaning if it is valuable to everyone in some way. Only a handful (or two handfuls) of people have a chance of reaching the elite levels — and we should stop pretending that competition success is the standard by which we judge all practitioners. The sport and art is better for everyone if it is valuable to them in some way, if it enhances their growth and skill set in grappling beyond their baseline.
For many practitioners of jiu jitsu, their goal is not to be one of the best grapplers in the world. What we are not saying is that they lack the potential to do so, and therefore, they should not have competition success as a goal. What we are saying is that pursuing an activity does not mean an all-or-nothing approach in order to find it meaningful.
We’d like to end our article with some affirming action items for those who are made to feel small or unimportant because they do not have competitive success. This list is for those who suffer from “hobbyist syndrome” (similar to “imposter syndrome”) and want more ways of feeling seen and worthy in jiu jitsu.
For the “hobbyists” looking to bring back meaning and purpose in their jiu jitsu, here are the BJJ Mental Models to keep in mind:
1. Abundance Mindset: Believe that you can give back to jiu jitsu, as much, or even more, than you take from it. There may be a limited number of podium slots, but there are unlimited opportunities to spark joy in your training experiences and for others. Remember that you have options and choices about how you conduct your training, even if others may try to pigeonhole you into a limited sphere of influence or importance.
2. Self-Competition: Comparison is the thief of joy and the currency of those with inflated egos. Refuse to play that game and instead always remind yourself of how much you’ve grown.
3. Return on Investment: Reassess the beliefs of yourself, and others, around the perceived benefits of competition success and training, versus the perceived costs. When you lay out all of the costs in time, money, energy, and other opportunity costs, it may become clear to you that competing does not make logical sense in your jiu jitsu journey. Having these metrics to help in your decisionmaking will make it easier to identify what you prefer or don’t prefer in your training.
4. Address Cognitive Dissonance: Sometimes a gym that doesn’t share your values, or at least welcomes differing points of view, may not be the right gym for you. It might be painful at first to leave that gym, but when you find a new community that celebrates your identity while simultaneously pushing you to be better, that may be a more conducive environment to long-term growth.
5. Scientific Method: There is nothing stopping you from testing and proving your jiu jitsu theories in the gym. One great way to achieve this is to use different partners who may not understand your game or reactions, or going to different open mats where the styles differ. This means you can still refine your technique without needing the high stakes engagement of competition.