The Art of Fear and Embracing Vulnerability in Jiu Jitsu

Fear and jiu jitsu go hand in hand.

Fear of signing up for a martial art.

Fear of looking weird in a Gi.

Fear of looking stupid while you’re training.

Fear of injury to yourself or others.

What exactly are YOU afraid of?

Signing Up

When I first signed up for jiujitsu, I was quite intimidated. Yes I used to grapple and wrestle in high school for six years, and I knew what it was like rolling around the mat with other people. But seeing all the different belt ranks made me feel inadequate. I thought I was out a place, like I didn’t belong. One time it actually happened pretty recently. Last week I went to a GB3 black belt and competition class. This class has blue, purple, brown, and some black belts in it. I definitely felt out of place. They were doing techniques I’ve never done before, and they also all had camaraderie that was built up over many years of knowing each other. I knew a few people in there but I’m not super close with them. At 37 years old I actually felt a little shy for the first time in a long time, the last time was probably when I went to my first jiujitsu class.

Dealing with the fear: what exactly are you afraid of? Think long and hard and heavy on what exactly it is that makes you not want to sign up. Hey, maybe you’re not interested and that’s OK a lot of people aren’t. But if you are interested in signing up for a bjj class then do some research, ask around on social media, check out YouTube videos, or drop in to a gym and ask a bunch of questions, or you could even email or message a gym on FB. That’s exactly what I did, I reached out to the gym I’m currently with and asked about free trial sessions. I bet some anxiety and stress from fear could be alleviated if you simply had your questions answered.

Wearing a Gi

Putting on a gi for the first time feels weird. I certainly didn’t feel as cool as I thought I would, like those martial artists in all those movies I watched growing up. “Everyone else looks better than I do” is what I often thought. Gi’s can be heavy, uncomfortable, and basically not fit well. Months in to my jiujitsu journey I didn’t really feel comfortable wearing my gi. And I don’t mean physically comfortable I mean mentally comfortable. Perhaps during those first eight months I didn’t feel like I belonged in my gi or that I didn’t look cool in my gi. And now after over a year and a half in my jiujitsu journey, I definitely feel like a martial artist and that I look cool in my gi.

Dealing with the fear: what exactly are you afraid of? We want other people to like us and we want to feel comfortable in our own skin and feel confident about ourselves. Image is important to us. “What if they don’t like me or what if they make fun of me?” we might say to ourselves. But in reality , and I’m sure you’ve heard this before, most people are way too caught up in the intricacies of their own lives and the problems they have that they don’t think about you for too long. Most of the fear you have about what others think about you is all in your head. It’s taken me 37 years to finally realize that.

Training Skills

Even if you’ve been training a short period of time with jiujitsu, you know this all too well. Especially if you don’t have any grappling background or any athletic skills at all. Rolling around on mats with strangers trying to fight each other, in this case choking and limb locking, is such a trip. Our bodies were made to move, and if you’re able to, jiujitsu will feel weird. That’s why in the fundamentals class I go to, there is a focus on basic body movement, such as, rolling forwards and rolling backwards, hip escaping, butt scooting, and break falling. Even someone who’s uncoordinated, learning these basic body movements can help you feel more in tune with your body, so then you can eventually feel more in tune with your body while you’re fighting somebody. Jiujitsu has thousands of techniques, and I’m pretty sure there’s no person on planet earth that knows all of them. When you’re first learning this martial art, you will look silly, will look dumb, you will look uncool. But guess what, everybody does when they first start!

Dealing with the fear: what exactly are you afraid of? Chances are you’ve never been in a real fight before and that’s okay a lot of people haven’t. When I first tapped to a submission in my first class I was scared sh*tless. There I was thinking I’m a hot shot with my wrestling background, being choked like I’ve never been choked before. It was wild. Your body and mind will go into Fight or Flight or Freeze Modes. That’s normal. To deal with this particular fear. break it down into small pieces. Don’t rush yourself. Don’t expect to be tapping and submitting people right away. Start with the basics of moving your body properly for jiujitsu. Then once your body has adjusted to the new-norm, that is, you fighting every week by rolling around in positions that you’ve never been in, then you can really start to open up to the martial art.

Injury Prone

Since the first day I started my jiujitsu journey over a year and a half ago, there hasn’t been a week that went by that I wasn’t nursing some type of pain that was a direct result of training. I’ve been lucky I haven’t been out for longer than three weeks with an injury. All the injuries were due to me not rolling smart or safe. Nobody wants to hurt anyone else (unless they’re an idiot). Jiujitsu is interesting, you’re trying to submit your opponent but you don’t want to permanently incapacitate them or prevent them from functioning properly again, at least a good training partner doesn’t want to. I remember seeing a video on social media of a person becoming almost paralyzed because their training partner did some sort of jumping back take. Lots of people with lots of opinions about who was in the wrong. But for me, it was a stark reminder of how dangerous this sport can be. Just be careful.

Dealing with the fear: what exactly are you afraid of? I’m not gonna lie to you, jiujitsu can be dangerous. It’s a self-defence and it’s a sport. People get hurt and permanently injured and cannot come back for months or years or ever. Like I said, I’ve been lucky. I haven’t experienced a debilitating injury. I constantly renew an old shoulder injury, and a nagging back rib injury, but my activities of daily living or not inhibited. I can still do what I want. So how do we deal with this type of fear? Train smart and train safe. Use your fight or flight or freeze mode to your advantage, gain control of it and know how you react in survival situations in BJJ. For example, how would you react when you have a person who is eighty to a hundred pounds heavier than you sitting on top of your chest and possibly smothering your face? Or if someone has back control on you, and they slipped in a rear naked choke, and it’s getting tighter and tighter and tighter? The truth is, you won’t know until you’re in it.

The fear of being judged or being permanently injured may never go away, but you certainly can mitigate the effect it has on your life.

Talk to your fellow teammates and ask them how they deal with it.

Seek out support wherever you are lucky enough to have it.

Embrace and enjoy each of the small victories you have on the mats. You’ve earned them.

And the more you expose yourself to the trials and tribulations of the jiujitsu journey, the more you’ll be able to turn it into an adventure.

Manage the fear. It will take time, but it will get better and it will become easier.

You don’t have to feel vulnerable, weak, exposed, or helpless when it comes to your jiujitsu journey. With enough time and effort, you will instead feel secure, resilient, empowered, and prepared. So keep showing up and keep fighting.

May your sweeps be quick and your submissions be swift. See you on the mats.


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