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Words: Budo Jake

In traditional martial arts circles, it's common to hear the phrase "self-development" thrown around when talking about the benefits of training. It's not often that I hear BJJ athletes talk specifically about self-development but I'm sure it exists. So first of all, what does self-development even mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines self-development as:

“The act of deciding for yourself how to improve your skills and taking action to do this.”

If we look at this from the physical skill level, I don’t think there is any question that through training in Brazilian jiu jitsu we are improving our (physical) skills.

When most talk about self-development however, I find undertones relating to improving one’s personality or outlook on life. There is this idea that somehow by practising a physical activity, we can become better, happier, members of society.

If we look back through history, martial arts were originally ways of developing fighters. Whether with weapons or empty handed, it was necessary for young men to learn how to fight in order to wage wars, defend territory and so on.

In the early 20th century however, things started to change in Japan. Arts that previously were taught only as a means of fighting started to emphasise their philosophical side.

This was not just a subtle shift. Starting in 1919, arts that had names that ending in “jutsu” (jujutsu, kenjutsu, kyujutsu, etc.) were re-named with “do” at the end. While “jutsu” just means techniques, “do” means “way” as in a “way of life”. So jujutsu became judo, kenjutsu became kendo, and so on.

The attitude of many martial arts groups at this time was that “the goals of budo (martial arts) are not to compete for victory in competitions” but that self-development was the real goal. There was a divide between sport and budo. While sports were seen as hobbies, as entertainment, budo was seen as a way to “temper the body and the mind”.

When Mitsuyo Maeda taught grappling in Brazil, he chose to use the original name “jujutsu” (or, as it was Romanised, “jiu-jitsu”) instead of calling it “judo”. Being involved in many challenge matches, I can understand why Maeda was reluctant to use the name judo. Only those that were there would know, but I suspect Maeda much preferred focusing on developing fighters rather than teaching self-development.

But just because our art doesn’t have “way of life” in the name, does that mean that athletes’ lives aren’t being improved because of the training? Are we really only learning how to fight?

I suspect it depends. For some, they train because they want a career in fighting. They are not paying a coach to teach them morals and life lessons. They simply want to know the most efficient ways to knock out or submit their opponent.

There may be other students who, much like myself, have found much value in learning the philosophical lessons that the warriors of old were able to pass on. Children in particular need a lot of guidance and some of that can definitely be found in some of the better BJJ academies around the world.

I suppose that a lot depends on the teacher as well. Not all teachers are qualified or interested in guiding students to look at the deeper aspects of life. At the end of the day, the instructor will focus on what he wants to pass on and if the students like it they will stay.

However, I dare to say that if you aren’t learning about yourself through your hard training you just aren’t being open to it. It amazes me how much we can learn about our personalities while dealing with hardship and yes; a forearm across the throat qualifies as a hardship!


At some point you’re going to be smashed. Maybe your opponent is twice your size and he has you in a tight side control position with his shoulder pressuring your jaw. How do you feel in this situation? Of course no one is happy to be there, but the reactions I see vary widely. Some will thrash about in a panic, trying to relieve the pressure. Others will wait calmly until there is an opening to escape. Finally, some will be overcome by the stress and pressure and may even tap from the position.


Everyone taps. How do you react when it happens to you? Some will slam their fist on the mat, curse, and continue the roll, looking for revenge. Others will smile and continue, trying not to commit the same mistake again. Finally, others will mentally berate themselves for making the mistake and will ponder their worthiness all night long.


Train long enough and a somewhat serious injury is bound to happen sooner or later. What we practise is a combat sport and if we are training with a reasonable level of intensity, well, s**t happens. Again, the reactions after an injury vary greatly. Some may get depressed. After all, if the injury is serious it’s going to put you out of training for a while, and that is depressing. Some students may not even resume their training, claiming that it’s “too risky”. Others may laugh off the injury and take that time to reflect, read books, and focus on rehab. Injuries happen to all of us, it’s how you react that matters.


I’ve heard it a million times. “I can’t believe that guy got promoted. I’ve been training longer than him! He doesn’t deserve it.” It’s easy to feel envious of our training partners when they get promoted before us. In times like these maybe we can reflect on Carlos Gracie Sr’s words “Be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are of your own.”

In case it’s not clear by now, I definitely think we can take the lessons that we learn on the mat and use them in our daily lives. I don’t think instructors necessarily need to force these lessons onto their students. The athletes who are self-aware will learn the lessons. They will become more humble through their beatings on the mat. They will become more respectful as they realise they don’t have all the answers.

Injuries can be looked at as setbacks. Setbacks will occur multiple times in life, whether it’s a failed relationship, or a financial problem. Maybe our lessons learned from dealing with setbacks on the mat can allow us to handle these tough times better than the non-practitioner.

BJJ training is good for our minds, bodies, and spirit. The lessons we need will come, just as long as we don’t quit.

July 12, 2019 — Jiu Jitsu Style