How The Teachings Of Stoicism Can Make You A Better Grappler

Image source: Rodrigo Castro/ Flickr Creative Commons

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not a gentle art. This misnomer is unavoidable in grappling — white belts and black belts alike repeat the rhetoric like preachers on the sidewalk. The realities of grappling are in essence simple: grappling is hard, your body will hurt, your mind and your ego will be tested, and there will be days that you will want to quit. Of all the traits that grapplers admire in the greats, the most overlooked is the mental fortitude that seems omnipresent amongst the elite of the sport.

Everybody has rolled with an unpassable yogi that is blessed with flexibility and dexterity, or the powerlifter that can simply use his strength to posture out of all your attacks. We all have rolled with “the naturals” that simply glide across you with their unrivaled coordination and speed. At a certain point, all practitioners try to improve their strength, speed, and flexibility and while this is admirable, there is another way that grapplers can address their perceived disadvantages.

When all else fails and you are on the verge of despair, stoic philosophy can help. Stoic philosophy is essentially a means of tackling self-sabotaging emotions and attacking them with self-control and fortitude. Instead of seeking to rid your mind of the emotions, stoicism teaches you to transform your emotions and to control them rather than letting them control you. If taken onboard, these teachings have great use for grapplers, who often face moments of despair on the mats on a daily basis.

“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” – Seneca

One thing we have all experienced in grappling is being beaten by a less experienced, but bigger, stronger opponent. The simple act of being dominated by somebody that you “should” beat is frustrating. You dedicate hours on the mats only to be beaten by a less experienced behemoth.  Seneca the Younger, one of the best Roman philosophers, offers a simple solution: instead of worrying about what talents others have, focus on yourself and your own skills. Instead of using your energy to negatively lament on your physical shortcomings, positively invest in your own strengths, train harder, and focus upon developing your own game.

“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone.” – Marcus Aurelius

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a sport entrenched in dogma: there is a great history to the sport and a lot of progressive gyms, but still, there are a lot of academies and practitioners that are stuck in their ways. Many cling to techniques that were once their bread and butter, but are now ineffective. Instead of fixating on traditional teachings, it is good to open your mind to the undeniable truths of grappling.

Perhaps the best thing about grappling is that there is so much sparring; it makes it easy to see techniques that work and those that don’t. For example, heel hooks have revolutionized the no-gi game in recent years, yet there still are practitioners that don’t use them and label them as “cheap” techniques. If this is your perspective, open your mind to the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and seek truths and leave behind dogma. Focus on what works and change around it.

“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” – Epictetus

Rationalizing our shortcomings is something that is natural to us as humans. For every failure, we have a reason, an excuse. Justifying our failures to ourselves is a way of protecting our ego, cushioning our fragility through soothing internal monologue, but the reality is that this is hindering our growth as athletes and as grapplers. For every session you miss because you are tired or sore, there is an easy excuse. For every match you lose, you can blame your lack of training, an injury or problems of your personal life. You can sit down and find an excuse for everything, but it is not going to help you.

Instead of protecting your ego, follow Epictetus’ advice and demand the best from yourself. Give 100 percent. This does not mean being perfect, this means working as hard as you can and never giving up. Demand the best of yourself and you will become better — put yourself out there or your progress will be stunted.

Socrates once wrote that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and this statement can be applied to all aspects of your life. Without using philosophy to examine yourself and grow, you are doing yourself a disservice. Like your speed and your strength, your mind can be trained and honed to give you an advantage in life and on the mats.


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