Ask a Panda: How Do you Cope with the Ups and Downs of BJJ?

Val Worthington is taking questions about jiu-jitsu and life. Submit yours here and it could be featured in the next installment!

Question: Can you please discuss how you deal with the peaks and valleys of passion with BJJ? I don't think I have lost my passion but for a few months I have noticed that the mats are not my happy place. Changes in the school, life challenges, new students...all may be reasons. I am not giving up but I am fearful at times, unhappy sometimes, and not sure how much I am learning. Thanks!!!

Thank you for this question, though I am sorry to hear you need to ask it. I can guarantee that you are not alone in feeling this way, because I know many grapplers who have had these experiences, myself included. I hope it helps a little to know there are others who can relate, but I also know that this on its own does not solve the problem. So let’s discuss a few things I do to help me ride out the stormy times.

The longer I train, the more similarities I notice between my relationship with jiu-jitsu and my relationships with people, almost like jiu-jitsu is a sentient being with needs and preferences that I must balance against my own. One of the biggest similarities is the cyclical nature of my feelings about these relationships. My friendships, love relationships, and family connections go through phases where I feel very in sync with the people I care about, followed by phases where I feel neutral or even disconnected or dissatisfied. These latter times may bring the relationship to an end or prompt me to do what I can to reconnect, including being patient and trusting that no bad time or situation is permanent.

I am not recommending that you “break up” with jiu-jitsu. Rather, I am pointing out a reality that you noticed yourself: Your feelings about jiu-jitsu, just like your feelings about a significant person in your life, are likely to be cyclical. So many factors influence our jiu-jitsu experiences that it stands to reason some of these might be out of alignment at times. Here is what I do when I am feeling out of sorts and like jiu-jitsu just doesn’t understand.

First, I reaffirm my basic relationship with jiu-jitsu. Some relationships are intimate and enduring. Others are more fleeting and casual. Still others are everywhere in between. No type is better or worse, but awareness of this can help us determine how many resources—emotional and otherwise—we want to invest. After 18 years of training, I know I am with jiu-jitsu for the long haul. I am not going anywhere, and neither is it. During those times when I wish it could be a teeny bit less demanding, like Scrabble, and a teeny bit more supportive, like my family, I make a point of reminding myself that jiu-jitsu and I are just going through a phase.

Keep in mind, though, that it is perfectly okay, when you go to reaffirm your relationship with jiu-jitsu, to discover that you and it are not committed to each other for the long haul, or to discover that you need a break.

This leads to the second thing I do when I am feeling out of sorts with my jiu-jitsu relationship, which is confirm that my training-to-life ratio is optimal. When I first started training, I wanted to do it all the time, and I allowed other relationships and responsibilities to suffer, kind of like you do when you are in the early, crush phase of a romantic relationship. I still want to train, just like I still want to spend time with the people I care about, but I have found that the ardor of those early days of a relationship—any relationship—is unsustainable for the long haul. Either it burns itself out or it must deepen into something mellower and built to last.

For me, this has meant less training (e.g., no more two-a-days) and modifications in how I expend the energy I do have available for training (my own training, teaching others, writing about jiu-jitsu). It turns out that sometimes when I feel anxious about my training it is because something is getting short shrift, either it or another priority in my life, or maybe I just need some time to myself to do something else. Then I find I can go back feeling revitalized and eager again. For this to happen, I must inventory my priorities and my time, to make sure I am doing all I can to keep myself on the track I have identified as being important to me.

This brings us to the third and most difficult thing I do when I am feeling stressed out or anxious about my training: Own what I can and let go of the rest. You mentioned that the mat is not always your happy place these days and that you are feeling anxious about some of the changes your academy is experiencing. Changes can be particularly nerve-wracking when we feel we have little or no control over them, but one thing we can always control is our own actions and reactions. If you are nervous about training with people who are unknown quantities, consider holding off until you get to know them a little and making a point to approach them to facilitate the getting-to-know-you process. If you are sensing negative energy in the academy, smile even though you might not feel like it. If you feel like you are not learning, go back to basics. Ask for help from the instructors and teammates you trust.

There is no easy answer to the question of how to navigate the ups and downs of a jiu-jitsu life, but there is a simple one: Know thyself, be willing to do what you can to meet your own needs, and trust that this too, shall pass.

Best of luck, and thank you for the question!

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.

Photo by CAM Photos & Design.