Five things you need to know before starting BJJ

For those who are coming to grappling from the striking arts (as I did some 30 years ago), there are a few things to be aware of before you start. In fact, my own foray into the world of BJJ, could have been a little easier if I had been made aware of these things. 
My own introduction to BJJ left me somewhat frustrated; and perhaps more than a little ‘freaked out’. When we limit ourselves to ‘stand up’ sparring/fighting, traits like mental toughness, athleticism and ‘grit’ can lay a large part in the outcome. Grappling however, particularly BJJ, is less reliant on such traits, and technical excellence plays a much larger role.  So my early experience of BJJ, was this – a highly motivated, athletic, mentally tough individual could be completely dominated by a relaxed, un-athletic, weaker, smaller, individual who was skilled in BJJ. This was somewhat of a revelation on the martial arts landscape – and has almost certainly underpinned the phenomenal growth the art continues to enjoy.
So, if you come from a Karate, TKD, Kickboxing, Kung Fu, or similar kind of background – you need to understand that BJJ is very, very different. And because it is different you need to approach it very differently than other kinds of training. Just because you are a good runner doesn’t mean you are adept at swimming; it requires a different kind of training, a completely different type of approach. Here are some things to know, before you start:

Speed Limits
The pace is different; particularly when you are starting out. Stand-up fighting needs to be fast and explosive – ground-fighting does not. Because there is so much connection and friction between the two people wrestling, the pace is much slower than the typical stand-up sparring session. We rely much, much more on our kinaesthetic sense (our feel) than our eyesight. Different!

Too close for comfort
Things are closer, way, way closer. The distance we are used to in stand-up fighting is now gone; it doesn't exist; much of the grappling dynamic occurs at ‘zero-space’ range. So movement and mobility are now a very, very different experience. This also means, there’s no ‘running around’ – in short, you cannot hide. Different!

There will be an outcome
Often, there will be clear winner and a loser; at least much more often than is the case with stand-up sparring (where both people can walk away thinking they have won). On the ground, the goal is to control and submit the opponent. If you ‘tap’ out to a submission – you lose! If you submit your partner – you win! There are clear outcomes. Different!

Tapping like an Irish dancer
You will need to learn how to ‘concede’ the fight – by ‘tapping out’. This is mandatory if you want to avoid serious injury. It will seem foreign at first; but eventually you will come to understand that it is all part of the game. If you go surfing, you’ll need to learn to fall off your board, survive the ‘dumping’, get back on, paddle out and have another go – and so it is with grappling. You will need to tap, in the beginning, you might find yourself doing so multiple times, and at every session. It’s not a problem. Different!

Complexity is your new friend
There is a complexity to BJJ that is perhaps analogous to chess. It has been said, many times, that BJJ is like chess not checkers. At first, this complexity might be off-putting; in that the landscape seems overly complicated. There are too many positions to learn, too many pathways between these positions and an endless and ever-evolving swag of techniques; thousands of techniques. But what might be off-putting at the beginning will be the exact thing that keeps you there for years to come. I have often said ‘it was the simplicity that got me there – but the complexity that kept me there’. You will never be bored practicing BJJ. It is such a broad landscape that it is impossible to get your head around it, as a beginner. Different!
I wish I had have gone into my first dozen BJJ classes, knowing these things. If I had, I would not have experienced the same level of frustration and confusion. BJJ is not a ‘Ground Karate’; it is as different from stand up, striking-based martial arts as swimming is from bike-riding. It is a totally new and different game – and it should be approached as such. 
Enjoy the adventure; put your expectations to one side and immerse yourself in the new. BJJ, might just offer you the opportunity to re-invent yourself as a martial artist – and perhaps even, as a person. The adventure awaits.

- John B Will


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