Ambitious Hobbyists & The Search For “Greatness” In Jiu-Jitsu

Flickr/Creative Commons: Heiko

When people talk about training intensity in jiu-jitsu, students usually divide themselves into one of two categories: professionals (or hopeful professionals) and hobbyists.

The labels are fairly self-explanatory. Students who enjoy jiu-jitsu as hobbyists probably train anywhere between one and five times a week. They might help out as assistant coaches in the gym, and though they’re on a steady path to improvement, they don’t intend to quit their day jobs to pursue ADCC titles or prestigious coaching positions.

Professionals — or athletes who want to become professionals — keep a far more intense training regimen. Everything they do is in the pursuit of greatness on the mats, from the way they eat to the intensity and frequency of their training sessions, plus the time they invest doing supplementary work like strength and conditioning.

For the latter category of students, the definition of “greatness” seems pretty clear. There are plenty of championship titles throughout the world that can clearly indicate which athletes are among the best in the sport. Self-proclaimed hobbyists, though, can sometimes feel lost in deciding what they want out of their training. For those whose goal is to simply burn off stress or calories while getting better little by little, showing up may be all the work that’s needed. And that’s fine! Enjoyment is a perfectly valid result of years of dedication to a hobby, and if you get a few belts and stripes along the way, even better.

Many hobbyists, however, find themselves somewhere between wanting to be a full-time athlete and a casual participant. They may not know how far they want to take their pursuit of greatness in jiu-jitsu, but they want to test themselves to some extent, whether at the local level or at a more prestigious tournament or superfight event. Maybe they have — or want — a steady coaching role at their gym, but don’t care to be the next John Danaher.

Being an ambitious hobbyist can present a unique struggle for jiu-jitsu students. They train hard and dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to BJJ, but understand that they can’t and won’t be on the same level as the athletes who pursue the sport at a professional level.

Sometimes, this can be a nice place to land in your jiu-jitsu career. You can train hard and set concrete goals without feeling quite so much pressure as the competitors and coaches who must succeed in order to pay their bills. It’s nice to have something to work hard for that isn’t your actual job, and seeing the results of your hard work in the form of medals or the progress of your students and mentees can be super satisfying.

Along with the positives, though, can come a feeling of being in BJJ purgatory. Painful injuries have an extra sting when you remember that you’re not doing this professionally, that you’re risking time off work and chronic pain for the sake of something that won’t pay your rent. There’s also the frustration of seeing professionally dedicated athletes progress faster than you — many an “upper belt” has experienced the frustration of being submitted or otherwise dominated on the mats by a young blue belt who has the time and energy to train all day and dreams of beating Gordon Ryan. You may want to train all day, every day, but it’s hard to justify it when there are more important things in your life that need your attention.

I get it. I was in that uncomfortable place for a long time, and it’s only after some long talks with teammates and some hard self-delivered truths that I stopped beating myself up for, well, beating myself up in the pursuit of my own version of “greatness.” I forced a reckoning between my constant drive to improve and the ever-present question in my head: “Is it worth it?”

In the end, I had to reevaluate my own goals and acknowledge that I wanted my own jiu-jitsu journey to be more comparable to that of a reliable, slow-burning candle than a lit stick of dynamite. I would like to be good enough to beat formidable opponents and knowledgeable enough to be a good coach, but I don’t have the desire to do what it takes to be on the level of, say, Bia Mesquita. And while some may call me a slacker and others may call me overly ambitious, I’m happy with where I’ve landed.

If you’re an ambitious hobbyist, extend some grace to yourself. You’re probably going to be surpassed by students who train twice as much as you do, and that’s okay. You may be choosy with who you roll with so you don’t get hurt, and that’s okay. You may take a while to find a balance between how much you want to train and how much you can train, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make your training any less valid. and it certainly doesn’t make you less important in the jiu-jitsu “ecosystem.”

Take your time, and find that sweet spot between what you want to achieve and what’s realistic for you to achieve. If you start to feel burned out, take a step back and reevaluate your training routine. You can always choose to crank things up another time when you have the energy and desire to do so. There’s a huge range of possible goals and achievements between “showing up once a week” and “winning double gold at Worlds.” Your jiu-jitsu journey is all your own, and only you should decide how far you want to go.


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