I want to give the essence of Jiu Jitsu, if you will, merely than just its definition.
Quick, pick up the phone and call your significant other, your mother, your neighbor, or someone else who only has a vague idea of what you really do with your free time, and explain to them what Jiu Jitsu is.
Can you? Can you do so in an articulate by concise manner that defines what Jiu Jitsu is but also captures its essence? Can you put Jiu Jitsu into context?
Don’t be too worried if you can’t. I really don’t believe a lot of people can. This includes a lot of people who are heavily involved in Jiu Jitsu! I mean to say, they know Jiu Jitsu, they live Jiu Jitsu, but are hardly ever asked to explain Jiu Jitsu in a manner beyond the standard marketing brochure answer.
I suppose that is a little harsh to say, so let me rephrase my position. The definition as given by Wikipedia is actually pretty good in some respects and is an excellent intro to the art:
“Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art and combat sport that focuses on grappling and especially ground fighting with the goal of gaining a dominant position from which to force an attacker to submit. The system developed from a modified version of pre-World War II Judo including some techniques from Japanese Jujutsu and with a focus on ne-waza (ground technique). It promotes the principle that a smaller, weaker person using leverage and proper technique can successfully defend themselves against a bigger, stronger assailant. BJJ can be trained for self defense, sport grappling tournaments (gi and no-gi) and mixed martial arts (MMA) competition. Sparring and live drilling play a major role in training, and a premium is placed on performance, especially in competition.”
What I’m looking for, however is a definition of Jiu Jitsu that goes beyond merely explaining what Jiu Jitsu is to initiates, but can actually serve as a point of reference for practitioners and give them a deeper understanding of the art. In other words, to put Jiu Jitsu in a proper context overall and explain a Jiu Jitsu mind frame to those within the art. I want to give the essence of Jiu Jitsu, if you will, merely than just its definition.
Jiu Jitsu in Context
Okay, I suppose what is really bothering me nowadays with the explosion of Mixed Martial Arts type fighting is that Jiu Jitsu has merely become a substitute for the word “ground fighting”. The thing is, if you only define Jiu Jitsu as techniques used on the ground, you’re missing out on the much larger picture. Some schools tend to place a greater emphasis on sport Jiu Jitsu or grappling competition, which is enjoyable, yes, but if that is the only thing that one is worries about you stand to miss out on the bigger picture as well. Jiu Jitsu is a martial art that has many different applications, for sure, but it should not necessarily be defined by those applications.
Have you ever seen the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? Good movie (although as a long time fan of Hong Kong Cinema I didn’t see what all the hype was really about). At any rate, one point that always struck me the character of Jen (portrayed by Zhang Ziyi) appears to be a very dangerous fighter at first, and using the techniques of Wudang as described in a stolen scroll, is able to defeat many opponents. However, when she encounters Li Mu Bai (portrayed by Chow Yun Fat) she is easily defeated, and Li explains that while she has become very skilled in some of the techniques of their martial art (Wudang) by has failed to understand its essence and cannot place her techniques in a proper context. To some extent I feel that is a perfect metaphor for Jiu Jitsu nowadays.
To be fair, that context of Jiu Jitsu usually eventually comes, but not without a lot of hard work, thought, and mat time. More often an introduction to Jiu Jitsu comes via the techniques of Jiu Jitsu, and the essence of Jiu Jitsu is left unsaid, and unknown by initiates for quite some time and often they are left to discover things on their own. The process of discovery of the context of what Jiu Jitsu is, as opposed to merely the learning of techniques of Jiu Jitsu, is the true path to enlightenment.
A game of “human chess”.
For my favorite explanation of Jiu Jitsu, I have to give credit to my friend Henry Akins, a black belt under Rickson Gracie (so I’m unsure if this is his words or Rickson’s, but I think I’m covering my bases as far as credit goes): Jiu Jitsu is akin to a physical game of chess, in the sense both opponents begin with the same amount of options. During the course of the match, opponents will progress by taking away options from their opponent until there are no options left (aka a checkmate).
On one hand the description is vague enough that while we can certainly apply it equally well to chess and Jiu Jitsu; there isn’t a lot in the metaphor to distinguish the two. There are of course many differences. Having followed chess to some degree there are many players who will tell you that chess is as much a physical game as a mental game. I’m not going to comment too much on that statement, I will say that I believe that Jiu Jitsu is much a mental game as it is a physical game. As a matter of fact, I think there are few if any activities that actively present a challenge mentally AND physically that Jiu Jitsu does. Both have to be in sync in order to succeed.
Now, I like this description because it is very demonstrative of a proper mindset for Jiu Jitsu and in a way describes any encounter. We start off with the same positions and same tools. What that situation is isn’t defined yet, for purposes of Jiu Jitsu it could be free sparring, it could be a competition, or a MMA fight, or it might even be a street fight. Immediately I’m going to assesses the situation and gain as many advantages as possible. I am then going to press those advantages until I get the final outcome I want, that is the end of the encounter with myself as the victor.
The Jiu Jitsu Mindset
As an encounter develops, a combatant versed in a Jiu Jitsu context will keep the following things in mind in sequential order.
Safety- By safety I mean the ability to keep yourself from being finished in the fight. The importance of safety is constantly emphasized by no less an authority than one of the founders of Jiu Jitsu, Helio Gracie who often states something to the effect that as long as you haven’t lost the fight, you still have a chance to win.
Position- Jiu Jitsu emphasizes the importance of position during the match and the ability to gain and improve upon the superior positions. By superior position in a Jiu Jitsu context, what we’re really saying is a position that emphasizes our safety and sets up the submission. The position emphasis is among the most basic and important concepts in Jiu Jitsu, and really is the differentiation between Jiu Jitsu and other grappling arts.
Submission- Having ensured our own safety through the advancement of superior position, we can now concentrate on getting the submission. By submission, I am talking about the “checkmate”, and technique that will cause your opponents to surrender. This can be as elegant as a joint lock or a strange hold or it might be as brutal as a knock out (although most in Jiu Jitsu would tend to prefer the former in most situations.
Every situation or change that a Jiu Jitsu practitioner would go through, they should find themselves going through this mental check list: “Am I safe?” “Am I in an optimal position?” “Can I finish the fight from here?”
Techniques in Jiu Jitsu
Having established a mindset and context for Jiu Jitsu, we can now look over the techniques involved. Without explaining individual techniques at this time, there are some underlying principles within all of the techniques in Jiu Jitsu you should be aware of:
A. Placing my body in the best position possible.
B. Placing my opponent so his body is in the worst position possible.
C. Taking the path of least resistance.
D. Utilizing as much of my body against the weakest parts of my opponents body.
In other words, every technique utilized within Jiu Jitsu uses one of the above concepts to a certain degree, and if one wishes to improve their technique in Jiu Jitsu, or understand any technique within the context of Jiu Jitsu, those are the principles they must understand. To explain further:
Placing my body in the best position possible: When performing a technique, what is my optimal body position? Am I doing everything in my power and utilizing every part of my body to perform the technique to optimal effect? For example, if you’ve ever been underneath the side control of an exceptionally talented Jiu Jitsu athlete, you will find that they often feel much, much heavier than they actually are. This can be attributed to the fact they are controlling their body weight in such a way that every part of them is contributing to the feeling of weight on top of you. Head forward, chest down, hips low and feet planted and driving forward on you. The particulars don’t matter in this case as much of the fact as your opponent is utilizing all of his body weight and every tool at his disposal to keep you down. When executing a technique, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner must be aware and make the necessary adjustments to perform with 100% efficiency.
Placing my opponent so his body is in the worst position possible: Along with utilizing their body in the most efficient way possible, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner will seek to force their opponent to use their body in the most inefficient manner possible. Going back to the above example of an effective side control, part of the technique also resides in making the opponent on the bottom as uncomfortable as possible. Forcing the head to turn away, tying up the arms, and rendering the legs ineffective is also part of the recipe for a successful side control. Your opponent will try to defend, but you want them to start as far below 100% from using their body as possible.
Taking the path of least resistance: An important concept in Jiu Jitsu is the idea that there are usually many options that present themselves in the course of an encounter. Some of those options will have you working at a higher level of efficiency, and some of those options will have your opponent working at a higher level of efficiency. When faced with those options, the art of Jiu Jitsu is being able to select the option where your efficiency is at its highest and your opponents is at their lowest. For example, in the case of the standard double attack in Jiu Jitsu, a set up is made for either a choke or an armbar. It is very difficult to defend against both attacks, so the game is the defender has to anticipate which maneuver is coming, the choke or the armbar and the attacker has to anticipate this and go for whichever maneuver is not anticipated immediately.
Utilizing as much of my body against the weakest parts of my opponents body: Often times a Jiu Jitsu practitioner will utilize techniques that isolate target areas of their opponents body, most often in the form of a submission. In an example I often use, an armbar is a technique which is actually trying to attack (through hyper extension) the elbow joint, and is effective because it is not just one arm versus one arm, or even two arms versus one arm, rather it is effective because when done properly it is the force of one’s entire body against one’s lone joint. Unless you happen to fighting Superman, your entire body should win the tug of war against one limb.
Jiu Jitsu in the Broader Sense
Thus far we’ve only managed to take a step and take a look at Jiu Jitsu from a very high level so far. And to be fair, this article was a bit of a struggle in some ways, because Jiu Jitsu is not the easiest thing in the world to give a satisfying definition to. Rather is this was an attempt to describe in a useful way the context of what Jiu Jitsu is, and use this as a launching pad to further our discussion in both specifics and applications of Jiu Jitsu. Hopefully this will continue to be covered as the Critical Thinking in Jiu Jitsu Progresses. In the meantime:
What is YOUR definition of Jiu Jitsu? Can you call someone up at random and explain it any better now than you could before. Can you discuss it with your teammates any better? I want you to try to put Jiu Jitsu in your own words, and share those thoughts with other. You might find it easier to discuss in class to start with. If you want to get some feedback from your peers (including myself), feel free to post in the OTM Forums http://www.onthemat.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=21  on the subject.
If you’re feeling very inspired, call up your mother or your significant other and see if you can’t convey some of the context of Jiu Jitsu in a way they can appreciate.
Homework Assignment Part Deux
Don’t know how to start up a conversation about Jiu Jitsu? Why not get yourself a t-shirt? We’ve got a wide variety of shirts in our online shop that might initiate a conversation (particularly our Jiu JitsuWood Cut and Jiu Jitsu Cross designs), so why not treat yourself? J
Next week: What do you Bring to the Table?
If you missed last weeks article in Critical Thinking in Jiu Jitsu: