Sometimes, I forget that not everyone’s sport involves wrapping your legs around your opponent. I remember it quickly, though, when a student comes in for their very first class and looks at me with wide eyes when I explain closed guard to them.
Jiu-jitsu is as normal to me now as taking out the trash or shaking someone’s hand. The idea that my friends and I sweat on each other and grab each other’s bare feet is extremely strange when I write it out, but I don’t think anything of it in the moment, and neither do they. Even when I first started training, I was just happy to be tumbling around on the ground. It was fun, and that has always been enough for me to forget that, for many (perhaps even most people), jiu-jitsu is very weird.
It’s not that jiu-jitsu should be weird. Grappling, in its many forms, has been a form of sport and self-defense throughout history. While our primitive ancestors were probably not experimenting with worm guard, grabbing another person’s body and controlling it is the most basic form of combat that exists.
Of course, we now live in a time where learning to grapple is well-advised, but not an integral part of everyday society. So when an accountant who goes jogging on weekdays and does pilates every Saturday shows up for their first class of choke-and-break, it can be a shock to the system.
If you are that person or have ever been that person, you have my utmost respect, because that takes guts. It’s not just the close contact of jiu-jitsu that makes it strange and uncomfortable — it’s also the positions, the relative abandonment of hygienic practices (dragging your face along a sweaty mat is a bit gross no matter how clean the sweater or the mat once was), and the constant threat of being submitted. There’s no ball to put through a goal, no clock to beat, no PR to lift — it’s just your body and someone else’s body, and that can be confronting.
The cool thing about this, though, is that pushing through that weirdness makes other “unconventional” sports and activities less daunting. Jiu-jitsu, I feel, helps us open our minds to other cool things our bodies can do, while reminding us that just because something feels strange and awkward now doesn’t mean it always will.
Funnily enough, after you embrace the initial weirdness inherent in jiu-jitsu, even weirder positions become a challenge of creativity. While inversions and berimbolos and leg entanglements often make the “Jiu-jitsu for self-defense!” crowd turn up their noses, they expand upon the movements that baffle just about everyone on their first day of class, like backward rolls and shrimping. The ability to build upon a foundation is an indicator of progress in any field, athletic or otherwise, and it’s no different in jiu-jitsu.
If you’re new to jiu-jitsu and it all still feels weird to you, that’s okay! In fact, it’s good. Yes, there will be times when a stranger sits on your head to get a better angle on a submission, and yes, there will be times when you have to make your body contort into strange positions to achieve a desired position, but in time, it will all start to feel normal. You won’t think twice about doing all these weird things with strangers and friends alike, and perhaps down the road, you’ll be even more open to adventurous endeavors.
Jiu-jitsu is the ultimate exercise in getting out of your comfort zone. It may be a struggle to take that first leap, but once you do, the next leaps, no matter their destination, may not be quite as scary.