Martial arts for life

Written by John Will

Are you training for competition, for self-defence or for life? Do you know?

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Will having a laugh with grappling students while teaching at a recent seminar.

In my own case, as most readers would know, the lion’s share of my martial arts training is devoted to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. What many people may not know, however, is why I chose this path in the first place.

My own approach to the practice of martial arts has always been underpinned by a desire to develop practical and workable fighting skills — and later on in life, this is tempered by a desire to translate what I learn in my practice to the wider aspects of my life.

When I began my BJJ journey some 25 years ago, I did so to fill some rather large deficiencies in my approach to self-defence. BJJ gave me the ‘control’ and the understanding I was looking for to round out my personal self-defence ‘game’, if you like.

BJJ has a very different face nowadays: it has grown (exponentially) and it could probably be argued that it is the fastest-growing martial art on the planet today — some of this growth being driven by the UFC/MMA phenomenon. But many of the BJJ schools that are now popping up like mushrooms in a fertilised field are run by students of the students of the art’s old-school forefathers and, as such, are largely focused on BJJ for competition.

Of course there are many benefits to taking a competitive approach to BJJ training (or any other martial arts training, for that matter), provided that your main goal is to excel in competition. For me, though, competition is only one face of BJJ and martial arts generally.

Competition does indeed give rise to new techniques and strategies (although most are of little or no value in street encounters or in MMA) and gives people some kind of motivation for training — but it is such a small reason to train that I think it should not be the main focus.

Well, perhaps it should be, if you are only interested in competing; but if you are into training for other reasons as well, then the competition approach to training is just too limited to give us real and significant return on our investment in time (and money).

I have competed in martial arts and in BJJ myself, and I have come to an understanding of the value of things within the bigger picture. For me, the real value that comes from martial arts training is not found in the gold-plated medal or trophy — it is to be found in the struggle to improve; in the superior fitness we acquire through consistent training; in coming to an understanding of what it means to respect others who have walked the path before you; in the strong relationships we make with other positive and like-minded people; in learning how to problem-solve; in learning to deal with frustration in a positive way; in learning how to get up and take another step when you really think you cannot; in coming to understand the difference between real loyalty and convenient loyalty; in coming to understand the meaning of commitment; in understanding that trust is gained by making small promises and sticking to them; and so forth.

All of those things are the real benefits to be had from martial arts training. And, of course, there is the most fundamental and obvious benefit of all: learning how to defend yourself. It’s no good if you have a great Berimbolo sweep or reverse omoplata (BJJ folk will know what I am talking about) but you cannot defend against someone throwing an overhand right that will take your head off.

And I know quite a few BJJ instructors who do not understand this most basic idea because they are totally focused on the next best way to gain a point in competition. As the joke goes, ‘Get in my guard! Please…get in my guard.’

No, competition focus is not all bad — but it is not all good, either. There is a price to pay, as there always is for over-specialisation. I don’t train in BJJ for competition — I don’t train in martial arts for competition — as I think that is just too narrow a focus, and for me, at least, there is just not enough sustenance in it. I train in BJJ for life!

To live my life in a more excellent way than perhaps I otherwise would; to be in better shape than perhaps I otherwise would; to be a better person than perhaps I otherwise would be. My BJJ, my martial arts practice, is a metaphor for living.

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