BJJ: The Thinker’s Game


A few months ago I read a very insightful article about BJJ called “The Pleasures of Drowning” written by Sam Harris, the well-respected author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of FaithLetter to a Christian NationThe Moral Landscape, and Free Will.  I was surprised to see he had written the article but I understand why a thinker like him would be drawn to BJJ.  He says:

I can now attest that the experience of grappling with an expert is akin to falling into deep water without knowing how to swim. You will make a furious effort to stay afloat—and you will fail. Once you learn how to swim, however, it becomes difficult to see what the problem is—why can’t a drowning man just relax and tread water? The same inscrutable difference between lethal ignorance and lifesaving knowledge can be found on the mat: To train in BJJ is to continually drown—or, rather, to be drowned, in sudden and ingenious ways—and to be taught, again and again, how to swim.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is like human chess; it’s a game that requires strategic thinking and years of training, both mentally and physically, if you want to be successful.  The mental challenge is continuous and unlike other martial arts, it can take 10 years or more to become a black belt.  Once a person becomes a black belt, I’ve often heard of them saying that it feels as though they’re only at the beginning of their journey because there is still so much to learn.  

Unlike striking arts, BJJ is a leverage-based art which can be practiced relatively safely.  Sam says:
BJJ can be safely practiced under conditions of 100 percent resistance and, therefore, any doubts or illusions about its effectiveness can be removed. Striking-based arts can also be performed under full resistance, of course, but not safely—because getting repeatedly hit in the head is bad for your health. And, whatever the intensity of training, it is difficult to remove uncertainty from the striker’s art: Not even a professional boxer can be sure what will happen if he hits an assailant squarely on the jaw with a closed fist. The other man might fall to the ground unconscious, or he might not—and without gloves, the boxer might break his hand on the first punch. By contrast, even a novice at BJJ knows beyond any doubt what will happen if he correctly applies a triangle choke. It is a remarkable property of grappling that the distance between theory and reality can be fully bridged.

While BJJ is called “The Gentle Art” and was developed to allow a smaller person to use leverage against bigger, stronger people for self-defence purposes, it is still a contact sport and injuries do happen, usually due to accidents, ignorance or ego.

One thing Sam Harris didn’t note is that even if your technique is perfect, sometimes your opponent will simply be too powerful and your effectiveness will be decreased. The triangle that works on a person your size will be useless against a guy with no neck who can stack you and pass.

The DVD set How to Defeat the Bigger, Stronger Opponent with Stephan Kesting and Emily Kwok explores this issue in great detail and has really improved my game both technically and mentally. The great thing about juijitsu is that there is a huge variety of techniques so what doesn’t work on one opponent will work on another, and vice versa.

I’ve been training BJJ for about 4 years but I’ve also begun training MMA and Muay Thai. They offer satisfaction in their own ways: in MMA you learn to become a complete fighter and can defend yourself both on the ground and on your feet. Muay Thai gives you the satisfaction of punching and kicking the shit out of people, which can improve your mood after a bad day.

At this point, I am the one getting the shit beat of of me (in a nice way) but there’s a certain satisfaction to that as well; you learn how much you can take and how much you have to learn. It builds confidence and humility at the same time.

If I gave up training at Titans MMA, there would be a huge hole in my life; I’ve never done anything more personally fulfilling. I love and respect my team and am proud to be a part of a group of people who hit the gym every day to push themselves to achieve their full potential. 

I’m also frequently impressed at the generosity of these men and women who take the time to help me learn, especially when they are training for competition. I’m 5’0 and 105lb; sparring or rolling with me will most likely not help them in competition but they give me those 5-7 minutes because they know how it feels to want to become better. Training in martial arts has brought out the best in me and I love to watch my teammates develop as they follow their own paths.

If you’ve ever thought about trying it, now’s the time.


  1. Yeah, he's kind of swell all around. I jacked a couple more of his links as well. Please see my Strength and Conditioning post for more…


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