You’ll Never Die of Exposure in BJJ, Though You May Want to

The other day I was talking with a student who had recently competed for the first time. He recounted how anxious he was as he waited to compete, how fast he started to experience the adrenaline dump so common for inexperienced competitors once his match started, and how frustrating it was not to be able to apply his game effectively (he lost via a collar choke at about the 3-minute mark). “It really exposed some of my shortcomings,” he said.

I started thinking about the concept of exposure and how often it is linked in my mind with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I can share countless times during my jiu-jitsu career when I felt completely exposed—embarrassed, frustrated, frightened, anxious, disappointed—because of something I said, did, or did not say or do. Times when I got so frazzled at not being able to drill a given technique correctly that I just wanted to go to bed and never get up. Times when I was the uke but did not provide the correct reaction, which made me look stupid but also annoyed the instructor. Times when I was convinced the rest of the class was communicating silently with each other about how hopeless I was or how needlepoint would be a much better use of my time.

And, more recently, times when I must acknowledge that, while I still have many active years ahead of me, my prime performing days are over. Times when I have explained a technique incorrectly or had to say I did not know the answer to a technical question. Times when I am on the defensive while training with someone I “should” be able to handle.

When I feel exposed like this, I become convinced that my soul is on display for the world to judge. It is as if my top layers have been peeled back, but instead of the goopy, bony stuff inside a normal person’s skin, it is all my shortcomings and insecurities about my worth as a person that are revealed. Dramatic sounding, I know, but there is something about the combination of physical exertion and mental gymnastics that jiu-jitsu requires that can leave me feeling vulnerable and, well, exposed.

You might wonder why I keep coming back, if this is what I can expect to happen. It is a question I ask myself before every competition class, every visit to a strange academy, every time I teach a series of techniques for the first time. I have tried to explain it elsewhere, as have many of my fellow long-suffering contemporaries. Suffice it to say that, as a good friend of mine has said repeatedly, I can’t not train. And that tells you something about how compelling it is, if I am willing to lay myself bare so completely and so often.

Or to feel like that is what I am doing, at least. One truism about feeling exposed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is that it is usually worse in our minds than it is in reality. It can feel like everyone is watching or judging, and maybe in the moment that even approaches the truth. But people have a short memory, and eventually, it is likely that the only person who will remember how exposed I felt during that painful jiu-jitsu moment is me. When it comes right down to it, there is an element of self-centeredness to our feelings of exposure, and it does not hurt to try to refrain from taking ourselves too seriously. As other friends have said, it’s only jiu-jitsu.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Feeling vulnerable and at the mercy of others’ good will is stressful and unpleasant, even if we like and trust those others. The student I spoke with about his competition experience is obviously still processing several weeks later, for example. I, too, carry those exposure memories with me, and they do not soften as much with age as I would like. So I tried to be supportive while he talked through some things, and I reminded him that it takes brass ones to take ourselves outside our comfort zones on purpose. This is something jiu-jitsu requires each of us to do on a regular basis, whether in competition or at the academy. None of us who steps on the mat gets away without having to expose ourselves, in all kinds of ways.

This provides a bit of comfort. As does the fact that we are not likely to die from this kind of exposure, though sometimes we may want to.

Have a memory to share about a time you felt completely exposed in jiu-jitsu? Post to comments.

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.