It’s Okay If Jiu-Jitsu Isn’t Your Entire World

Photo: Trinity SP Photography

For some people, the title of this article is common sense. For others — mainly for people like me — it may struggle to sink in.

For me, over the past ten years, jiu-jitsu has transformed from a curiosity to a hobby, to an obsession, to a career, to a lifestyle. And then, a couple of months ago, it turned into something else. To say that it reverted back to being a “hobby” feels reductive, partially because I haven’t been doing enough to meet hobbyist standards, but also because my relationship with it feels deeper than that. It feels like getting out of a decade-long relationship and going back to being “just friends.” There’s no “just” about it. There’s history there.

The temporary transition away from jiu-jitsu, for me, was like floating down a river and realizing too late that it led to a waterfall. I’d been planning on a career transition for a few months before it actually happened, so I knew I’d be writing less for the Jiu-Jitsu Times. I was prepared for that. I knew that my new job would likely collide with my training schedule, so I was prepared to sacrifice a day or two of BJJ throughout the week.

I wasn’t really prepared to suffer a freak accident that left my rib injured during training. I wasn’t prepared to hurt my back lifting while trying to stay fit throughout what was supposed to be, at most, a few weeks away from the mats to recover. I wasn’t prepared to be away from the mats for three months while I healed from both of those.

But I guess what’s shocked me the most is that I’ve been okay without jiu-jitsu.

It’s not that I haven’t missed training. In fact, I realized how much I missed it when I made my return to the gym and rolled again, and even though I was lacking in the cardiovascular fitness department, “my” jiu-jitsu was still there. I’ve missed my teammates, I’ve missed the emotional outlet that comes with rolling around on the floor and being playful.

But I’ve been okay. And I wasn’t expecting that.

Jiu-jitsu tends to sink in a chokehold on its participants. There are half-jokes that get thrown around about it being a “cult,” and in many cases, it’s an unfortunate but accurate comparison. Even when you train in a healthy environment, though, jiu-jitsu is “culty” enough that you don’t want to leave even when you know you can. Many of us remember being sucked into this sport, whether slowly or suddenly. Your friendship circle starts to include more jiu-jitsu people, then shrinks to mostly include jiu-jitsu people, then grows to accommodate even more jiu-jitsu people. Your social media feed becomes jiu-jitsu-oriented. You stop trying to fit jiu-jitsu into your life and instead start trying to fit your life around jiu-jitsu.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Jiu-jitsu has given me the best friends I could ask for. It’s given me a form of exercise I enjoy and generally prompted me to take better care of myself. Admittedly, over the years, I’ve become disillusioned with the “culture” of the sport as more and more prominent athletes have had their predatory or bigoted behavior go unchecked by the community at large, but overall, it’s still made me very happy.

In fact, it made me so happy that it slowly became my entire identity. It was my job, my hobby, my social life, my reason. If you’ve also been sucked into that whirlpool, whether willingly or against your best efforts, you understand what I mean. If you don’t, I’m happy for you, because you don’t have to learn what I learned the hard way: it’s okay if your whole life doesn’t revolve around jiu-jitsu.

I say this for the “ambitious hobbyists” like myself who want to be great, but not “professional” great. You know you don’t have a shot at, say, becoming the next ADCC double-champ, but you’d like to win Pans one day or get a highlight reel moment in a superfight. You’re invested enough to really, really care about your progress and your place in the sport, but not enough to quit your day job to do jiu-jitsu full-time.

I think it’s the ambitious hobbyists that get their identities unrealistically intertwined with the sport. We sit in a happy middle that sometimes feels more like a purgatory in disguise. We want to be able to hang with the best, but we can’t (or sometimes straight-up don’t want to) sacrifice our other obligations to train multiple times a day and travel all over the place to compete and train under a world-class coach. But still, we want to be great, and we put the pressure of greatness upon ourselves. When we miss training, we feel not only the surface-level regret that comes with missing out on our hobby for a day, but guilt. When other things in our lives have to take priority over jiu-jitsu, or when we have to take a break because of injuries or any other reason, again, guilt. As if we owe this sport anything except the time that we’re already putting toward it, as if the time and effort we’ve spent working toward our goals on the mats isn’t already proportionate to the expectations we set for ourselves.

When I realized — truly realized — that I’d be taking a big step back from jiu-jitsu in multiple areas of my life, I wasn’t just bummed out. I was scared. My entire identity has been so wrapped up in jiu-jitsu for so long that I felt, at age 29, that I didn’t know who I was outside of the sport that has grown to me so much more than a sport for me. What hobbies would I have if I were too injured or time-poor to train? Did I have any potential in a career that didn’t revolve around that sport? Would I be able to make friends outside of the gym?

The obvious answer that wasn’t so obvious at the time is “yes.” Like I said, I’m okay. To borrow an analogy I recently saw in a comic about relationships, jiu-jitsu isn’t my whole world, but a planet in my solar system. It doesn’t make it any less valuable to me. I still feel incomplete without it, but my entire sense of self doesn’t come crumbling down whenever it’s not there. And as much as I thought I’d struggle without it, the time away has given me a healthier relationship with it. My expectations are more realistic. My interactions with the sport, whether online or in-person, feel more genuine rather than obligatory. And even when I’d physically healed and decided that, mentally, I wasn’t quite ready to come back full-force, I felt like I had the space for more space. There was no guilt, no unjust expectation of where I “needed” to be. The mats were there before, and they’re still here now. Just like me.


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