Personality shifts and changes and clashes in BJJ

Jiu-jitsu is a melting pot of backgrounds and personalities, which means that over the course of our training careers we will interact with a broad spectrum of people. Sometimes you and your training partner will laugh at the same jokes. Sometimes you are the mentor and sometimes you are the mentee. On other occasions, you might not even share the same language as your partner.

The social dynamics at play in this kind of environment can create confusion. Typically, that just means enduring some awkward but harmless interactions, but it can also mean something more serious like hurt feelings or intense frustration. For example, a naturally shy person may not talk much, but if it’s your first time training with that person and you are by default bubbly and outgoing, you could interpret his or her quiet demeanor as something more than it is.

It’s not that they don’t want to talk or that they don’t like you, they are just quiet.

Mixing and matching personalities is difficult on its own—we have to learn about ourselves and also learn how we can support our diverse training partners—but we also need to recognize that personalities change based on circumstance. Many years ago, when I was training regularly with the Penn family, people from outside the gym would often ask what it was like to train with someone as serious and as crazy as BJ Penn.

Here’s the thing: The only BJ they ever saw was the deathly serious BJ prepping for a fight or licking blood off his gloves in a post-victory frenzy. The BJ I saw outside of fight camp was pretty quiet but quick to smile and quicker to laugh. If you had only been exposed to one, you could easily miss the full picture of who BJ was. And to be fair, I don’t even have the full picture. I only saw two sides of him as a person—in the gym as a coach or in the gym as a fighter.

And that’s the point we need to remember: personalities are not one-dimensional. For jiu-jiteiros, that means being cognizant of:

  • How our default personalities mesh or don’t mesh with other personalities
  • Respecting that some people need to be more or less outgoing to feel comfortable
  • Considering how circumstances may change someone’s disposition and being slower to take personal offence to that change
  • Managing our own personality changes (from a bad day perhaps) and not allowing that to impact the training experiences of the people around us
Those last two points are difficult, but they are an important aspect of building and fostering a healthy team. Jiu-jitsu is as close-quarters as it gets, and the inherently violent nature of it inevitably leads to some level of personality clash. If we are aware of ourselves and aware of others, however, we can keep things healthy and continue to grow as martial artists.

Here's an example from my own life:

I am not an outgoing person by nature. I am incredibly introverted, but the realities of my work and career have meant learning to speak in public, to talk to strangers, and also to teach jiu-jitsu in a group setting. When I teach, my goal is to give the best experience to my students as I possibly can, so that means not only giving them the best instruction I can but also doing my best to make the training environment welcoming and healthy. I greet people at the door. I make jokes. I field questions.

I treasure this part of my life, even if it has taken me more practice than I’d like to admit to not disappear out a back exit so that I can rush home and close all the blinds and bury myself in re-reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in total isolation.

What is jarring for my students, however, is when I switch into training mode. I’m quiet. I’m focused. If I am at open mat for an hour, I’ll spend my downtime in between rounds thinking through a roll I just had and puzzling out what I might have done differently instead of talking. If someone has only ever interacted with coach Marshal, student Marshal can seem like an asshole.

Or, since my students are caring, I get text messages like, “Heyyyyy…. Are you okay? You didn’t seem like yourself today.”

And that’s the thing. Even if I enter a training session solely for my own development, I am still a part of a team. I can’t ignore how I make my training partners feel even if I am not obligated to be the instructor in that exact moment, so me being totally quiet and stoic is actually doing my training partners a disservice.

It’s never just about me or just about you. Jiu-jitsu is a shared experience, so even when we shift gears into a different kind of focus, we still need to communicate with our training partners and respect their right to a positive training experience.

That’s something I’m working on, at least, and maybe you could make some strides there, too.