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Julian Terenzio

Training Jiu-Jitsu: My First 90 Days on the Mat

My day couldn’t possibly be any more uncomfortable than how it starts.


Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

My Humble Introduction

I think a lot about the fact that I wake up at 6:30 am just to get my ass kicked. Better yet, if you had told me last year I would wake up every morning to grapple sweaty dudes just to get arm-barred, strangled, and leg-locked, I would’ve had a hearty chuckle – but here I am. It honestly makes me smile knowing that my day couldn’t possibly be any more uncomfortable than how it starts.

I started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) 90 days ago. To my mother’s inevitable worry, I’m fully hooked. How it all started is a simple story of a 22-year-old soaking up as much inspiration as possible in search of some level of meaning and direction. I’m lucky that the current podcasting era reached an all-time high as I entered my early twenties. The far-reaching voices of Joe Rogan, Lex Fridman, and Jocko Willink all happen to be black-belt practitioners of Jiu-Jitsu that speak very highly of its impact on their lives.

There had to be something universally interesting about the martial art if a comedian, an AI researcher, and a former Navy SEAL all train BJJ.

So I said fuck it — why not give it a try?

WTF is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

BJJ is the art of submission. It’s a martial art that relies heavily on grappling and creating maximum leverage. By the same token, BJJ is a great combat sport to practice self-defence. John Danaher is a 6th-degree jiu-jitsu black belt and trainer of arguably the most accomplished MMA fighter of all time — Georges St-Pierre. He outlines that BJJ is a simple 4-step system:

  1. Take your opponent to the ground.
  1. Pass the legs.
  1. Work your way up a hierarchy of pins.
  1. Attack with a submission.

My Early Lessons Learned

It’s bananas to see how much your mental models of reality change when you try something completely new. I felt the need to brain dump my experience because its had a profound effect on my psyche already. While I’m still an early adopter of BJJ and very much a work-in-progress, I hope you take away something from the mindset.

Instinctively capitalize on opportunities when they present themselves.

Take every gap you are given. The simple 4-step explanation of BJJ oversimplifies the painstaking practice needed to succeed in submitting an opponent. Opportunities are going to present themselves to you in a fight (and in life), but you first have to realize there’s an opportunity, and then you have to know how to seize it before it’s too late. This is the frustrating part. When you’re rolling (the term used for sparring or drilling) as a beginner, you’re going to get submitted 95% of the time and not see it coming. After about 5 classes, you’ll quickly learn how not to get submitted within the first 10 seconds of a roll. But the ability to instinctively acknowledge and seize opportunities to attack is why it takes 10 to 15 years for an average BJJ practitioner to receive a black belt. You just can’t seize the opportunity to attack when you don’t know what to look for. Jiu-Jitsu is like playing chess with your body. Instinctive decisions and strategic attacks are developed from consistent hours on the mat.

“It’s not who’s good, it’s who’s left. It’s hours on the mat. If you put in that time, natural athlete or not, you’ll be a black belt. You just can’t quit.”

— Chris Haueter

This idea is similar to why most startups fail. Most companies are unable to identify the core problem in a market, and even if they do, the startup needs to successfully find product-market fit and achieve scale. It’s not surprising that the most successful startup founders tend to be those that have already founded companies. It seems that the ability to instinctively acknowledge and capitalize on opportunities is dependent on experience gained from deliberate and consistent stretching your abilities.

It’s hard to settle for being “good enough” when you’re deliberately and consistently stretching your abilities

If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning much. Cal Newport’s approach to becoming “great” and finding work you love is to be “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” Part of Newport’s idea is to relentlessly focus on difficult activities, carefully chosen to stretch your abilities where they most need stretching and provide immediate feedback.

Imagine you’re on the mat and your opponent has your shoulder locked with your arm bending in a way an arm should never be bent. This situation will give you immediate feedback in the form of tapping out to realize where you need to push yourself a little further. Newport argues that strain and feedback should be in a constant loop. I’ve noticed that I’m forced to stretch myself when training—it’s almost impossible to not stretch your abilities when someone is trying to attack you and will capitalize on any weakness to win.

At a certain point, you look back on the weeks, months, and (hopefully) years of consistent training in some domain and realize how far you’ve come — and how much farther you still need to go. While I’ve seen good progress over three months, the more I train, the more I realize it’s a much longer path than I had originally thought. In moments like these, it’s easy to call it quits. But this feeling of not being “good enough” is just the constant pressure felt when you’re on the edge of your abilities, giving it 100%. Steph Smith (@StephSmithio), indie creator and host of the “Sh*t You Didn’t Learn in School” argues that to become “great,” you just need to be “good” consistently. She sums up this thesis very well in her blog post, “How to Be Great? Just Be Good, Repeatably.” She makes a good point about following a direction that’s proven to work and not allowing yourself to quit in those situations:

“If you have an understanding of what inputs equal favourable outputs then continue moving in that direction. As you move past the local minima and maxima, you’ll soon be beating out the 50% that quit at X time, the 75% that quit at Y time, and the 90% that quit at Z time. Soon enough, you’ll be the great one that was once just “good” among the rest, but stuck with it and learned something along the way.”

— Steph Smith

Picking your battles with humility

I also seem to have more humility and respect day-to-day or in contentious situations. While we no longer live in an honour culture where duelling in the streets is socially or legally acceptable, there are times when you could get in sticky situations. Knowing that any aggressor in a (hopefully rare) altercation could very well have the skills or weapons to mess me up has calmed my ego. Since I know what it’s like to experience the pain of getting my ass handed to me, I feel like there’s no need to escalate situations beyond a certain point. BJJ will surely test your emotional and physical maturity since it consistently reveals personal insecurities and gaps in skill. Maybe strength and humility can be thought of as a type of Yin and Yang?

Never quit without a fight— but know when to stop fighting

Daily life sometimes feels like a pressure cooker. Sometimes the only option left is to tap-out. That’s easy to do — especially in BJJ. The harsh reality is that you have to learn where your threshold lies because you’re always going to have the chance to tap-out. When you start rolling, you realize you have to remain calm under constant pressure — I still struggle with this everyday. It’s not easy to be calm when someone has you locked in a guillotine choke and you’re trying to find a way to release the sharp pressure from your neck. Can you break their grips? Can you sweep them? Can you tilt your neck up to break the pressure? These are all questions you can instinctively act upon when you’re not panicking about the situation.

The best thing about Jiu-Jitsu and self-defence in general is that it teaches you how to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions. You may be asking yourself, “why the fuck would I want to get on the mat after telling me this?” Learning to remain calm is what allows me to keep pushing and find creative ways to attack and defend. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but it’s clear we’ve evolved to live with a certain degree of insecurity and pain, because it’s the mildly insecure and struggling human being thats going to do the most to find creative ways to fight and survive. There are thousands of techniques to lock, choke, sweep and throw people down, and you get to train and drill the skills that work best for you. When you try your best to remain calm and accept the shit position you sometimes find yourself in, you allow yourself to think and fight.

On the other hand, you can’t let your ego get in the way either. You are taught to “tap early and tap often” to remain safe when training and to get the feedback you need to learn. It’s a balancing act: not quitting without a fight but knowing when to quit.

Thanks for reading :) You can learn more about me here.