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By Sam Joseph

A popular topic in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu circles today is the role instructors and black belts play when it comes to “being role-models” and “providing a higher moral standard” for students.

Some argue that the role of instructors goes beyond the teaching of techniques, while others say that an instructor title does not guarantee any level of moral standing in and of itself, therefore we should look for “life direction” elsewhere. Wherever you may stand on this subject, there is one point that I think we can all agree on: we can all learn valuable lessons on the BJJ mat. That said, let us look at 5 key things that the BJJ mat can teach us when we commit ourselves to spending time training on it!

We learn how to thrive in a meritocracy!

The BJJ mat is the ultimate meritocracy.  When people ask me to articulate how BJJ is different from other martial arts, one of the first things I say is that we spar at the end of every class because “what works” and “making techniques work” are fundamental concepts of the art. Technical proficiency and the ability to actually perform techniques while sparring are KEY components to advancement in the belt system (as defined by the international BJJ governing body - the IBJJF).  These factors place emphasis on skill and performance as opposed to other things like time on the mat, attendance, social standing, etc. People are viewed in the light they shine on themselves by the showcasing skills they develop. This leads us into the discussion of the next thing the mat teaches us…

We learn the value of hard-work and commitment as we work towards a goal!

The only way to develop exceptional skill in this sport is via hard work and commitment.  Show me a BJJ phenom and I will show you someone who works/has worked harder than you probably know. I trained regularly at the Yamasaki Academy HQ in Rockville, MD for 4 years. When I first got there, Murilo Santana had just gotten his purple belt and was already quite good, but nowhere near the monster he would develop into. Training with him and watching him train the next few years gave me an appreciation for hard work and commitment that will stay with me forever. Murilo was not satisfied with being talented, nor was he content with being “good”, he constantly looked for ways to improve technically, physically and mentally.  For example, if you were able to have success against Murilo in a position in Monday’s class, he was there on Tuesday waiting for you to go back to that position with the goal of improving in that situation. If you were a good guard-passer, Murilo wanted to pull guard on you to work against your strength.  The GREAT thing about his outlook was that it was never personal; it was about his drive to be the best he could be. It obviously worked as Murilo, now with the Barbosa Team and in New York teaching at Unity Jiu Jitsu, went on to become a World Cup, Nogi World and Brazilian Gi and Nogi Champion!  It also illustrated to anyone watching, including myself, how hard work and commitment makes achieving our goals possible.

The mat teaches us how to deal with constructive criticism!

Nobody gets everything right all the time when learning BJJ. We struggle with techniques, we struggle with different training partners and we struggle as we try to develop our games. To make matters worse, when we make mistakes, we are often disappointed to see that our coaches have chosen those times to pay attention to us.  What we sometimes miss is that this gives us a real opportunity for growth, not just in technical terms, but in how we process and apply constructive criticism and coaching. It is often tempting to take feedback we do not want to hear personally and ignore what could be excellent advice because of this. The sooner we develop the SKILL of shutting that emotion down and re-directing it so that we can get to the business of self-improvement, the sooner we improve and take steps towards real progression and make steps towards our goals. The BJJ mat provides AMPLE opportunities to develop that skill!


The mat teaches us how to be true teammates: people who define true success in individual and in team terms!

Alliance black belt & co-owner of Lucas Lepri BJJ & Fitness, Derek Kaivani, is very passionate about BJJ being a team AND an individual sport.  In some ways, this would seem to be an obvious statement. Tournaments do hand out team and individual medals/trophies, but it goes deeper than that. Consider the fact that it is impossible to get better at BJJ alone - you NEED training partners to spar, drill and work on techniques. That is simple logic, but it goes deeper than that. When I was coming up the ranks, my regular training partners (at different times) inspired, challenged, pushed, beat and encouraged me. When they got better, I felt the need to work harder to match their improvement. When they hit roadblocks, I felt the urge to help them overcome those obstacles in any way I could.  The mat taught me to view and measure success in terms other than those that only impacted me. These experiences not only taught me how to be a better teammate, but they are often the memories I cherish the most when I look back to those days!

The mat teaches us how to get up when we fall!

In my opinion there are two types of people:  people who sometimes fail, and people who are fooling themselves. We ALL fall down at points, what determines how successful we can be is how soon we get about the business of getting up. Much like with constructive criticism, the BJJ mat offers us the opportunity to get great at “getting up”.  Developing this skill is a REQUIREMENT if you want to get better at BJJ.  Current World Champ (weight-division/absolute) Buchecha is a great example of this. Most people cannot even remember the last time he lost, but all of his dominance in recent years was preceded by GFT’s Rodolfo Vieira tapping him in the 2011 Mundials.  Buchecha had to “pick himself up” after that and come back the next year to beat the same Rodolfo in the 2012 edition in a hard-fought classic that many call the “greatest match of all-time”. This is a very public example, but the training mat provides us with private examples almost daily.  It asks the question of us of how we will deal with falling down, and in our answer we determine how much success we will have personally.

For me, the best thing about the BJJ mat is that it meets us all where we are and teaches us all equally - regardless of background, gender, socio-economic standing etc.  If we are committed to training with enthusiasm, energy and accountability, we not only get better at a sport we love but we also gain real-world skills that will help us succeed in other situations. See you on the mat!!

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March 01, 2015 — Jiu Jitsu Style