BJJ from the Perspective of a Scientist

It’s true when they say you can meet people from all walks of life on the mat: lawyers, construction managers, programmers, accountants, students, etc. I myself am a Ph.D. biologist. In the lab, when I first told my colleagues that I was going to go to a BJJ trial class after work, they all looked at me in awe. Martial arts is not a common pastime for scientists. In fact, most scientists simply don’t have a pastime; they are extremely focused and usually work 12-hour days.

Well, not me. For the sake of my sanity, I need something else to fulfill my life other than work.

As I am sitting here in the midst of an experiment and have 15 minutes until my timer goes off, I started to think how I got into BJJ, and how similar BJJ is to my career.

I was first introduced to BJJ by a friend who was a blue belt and has been training for several years. When he first showed me what BJJ was, I was immediately bewildered by the fact that it was more than just brutal force. There is so much more analytics behind every hold and sweep. For every move, there is a countermove. There is always an opening for an attack when you look hard enough. So much thinking and so many skills are required to get a submission.

Needless to say, I was hooked on BJJ very quickly. The scientist in me was ready for the mental and physical challenge.

However, sometime after I started, I was frustrated that I was not as good as other higher belts. I simply could not grasp why I could not learn every BJJ technique in the book and become proficient in every kimura and omoplata in three months. As a Ph.D., I am considered an expert my area of science. However, as a BJJ white belt, I am a nobody! I started to attend at least six classes a week in hopes that I will become a BJJ expert quickly.

See, what people do not know is that, as scientists, we are inherently competitive and goal-driven. To become successful, we work extremely long hours to make an impact in science: discovering a new mechanism of a specific protein, developing novel methods to understand cancer metastasis, generating a new drug compound for fatal pediatric diseases, etc. Good science simply does not happen by going to work at 9pm, taking an hour lunch break, and going home by 5pm.

I figured if the same rule applies and I spent more time to train on the mat, why won’t I get better at BJJ? If I can work over 60 hours a week for science, why can’t I train 10 hours a week for BJJ? If I set my goal, I will achieve as high a level of success in BJJ as I do in science, right?

One day, the BJJ professor gave us white belts a short “inspirational” speech at the end of class. He told us to think of the belt system as a school progression. White belts are like kids in kindergarten. Eventually, they go to grammar school, high school, and college. The black belts are basically the ones who finish graduate school and come through at the end. Not everyone goes and finishes grad school; not everyone gets their black belts. A black is a white belt who never quits.

His speech dawned on me. To get my Ph.D., I had spent more than 22 years of consecutive schooling. To become an expert in my field, I have spent countless hours and shed tears in the lab to become proficient in what I do. To become a part of the small fraction of the population who hold Ph.D.’s, I kept working hard and never gave up on my academic goals. Similarly, only a small fraction of white belts become black belts. I can’t expect myself to become a BJJ professor in a couple months.

We do a lot of drills in class, and I treat them like experiments. Very often in the lab, experiments fail, and a lot of troubleshooting is required. Comparably, the first time I drilled an armbar, I didn’t do very well. (I ended up kicking my training partner’s head and apologized profusely.) But after many tries, I finally got a hang of it, although it is still not as smooth as I want. But I expect that, with time, I will perfect that arm bar and will finally manage to get a tap with it.

Because of the competitiveness in me, I am eager to learn and practice more so I can be prepared to try out my first competition. But I now realize that I probably won’t be able to win my first competition without some spilled blood and cauliflower ears.

“BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP” My timer just went off. I better go and finish my experiment so I can finish on time to make to my 6pm BJJ class.


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