Four Life Lessons I Learned From Being Bad at Martial Arts

Photo: kali9 / Getty Images

It’s hard to overstate the clarifying power of losing a fight. For the last few years, I’ve kept a standing appointment to lose several, mostly on weekday mornings.

My preferred genre of fight-losing comes in a gym for jiujitsu, a martial art some UFC fighters employ when they grapple on the ground. It’s wrestling, basically, with a mean endgame.

I should say right here that I’m quite bad at jiu-jitsu. If the sport were high school, I’d be fumbling my way through an undistinguished freshman term. But since I took it up a few years back at 39, as a father of two with a demanding job and overwhelming schedule, it has become a kind of lifeline for me.

In these wrecked times, my jiu-jitsu practice has consisted of sparring with my wife, who took up the sport with me, in our basement. It’s often the best part of my day. Confronting my own lack of mastery of this martial art — and trying like hell to get better at it — has taught me some vital stuff about cognition, privilege, and, above all, humility.

The true meaning of “humility”

The film director Guy Ritchie also trains in jiu-jitsu, and he recalled in an interview that at first people at his gym jokingly called him “Hollywood,” because he was the only celebrity there. “That lasted all of 30 seconds,” he told the interviewer. “You have no currency on the mat other than your currency on the mat. There’s a real clarity in that.”

I’m no celebrity, but if I’m honest, I tend to feel pretty proud of my luck. I’m proud of being a father. Of marrying an excellent person. Of my academic success, and my interesting job in an interesting city. I carry this currency at work, in social situations, even in my own home.

But on the mat, it counts for very little. The gym where I trained before the pandemic is a place where someone much younger than me, and with far fewer of the privileges I’ve accumulated or been born into, can be so far my superior at jiu-jitsu that I’ll kneel behind them at the start of class, out of respect. When I step into the gym, my currency — the stories I tell at parties, whatever respect I’ve earned at work, even the swell of pride I feel as a father of two healthy and happy daughters — it all stays behind in the locker room with my shoes.

As I learn takedowns and arm bar defense, I’m also learning a kind of humility that functions as a lens and perspective through which to see the world. As Corinne Purtill wrote recently in Forge:

It’s the belief that you are a person whose experiences and perspectives have value, situated among a sea of people whose experiences and perspectives also have value. You are not lowly or repulsive. Nor are you a fancypants. The humble perspective is not about looking down or gazing upward — just eye-level appreciation of those who happen to be sharing this planet with you.

“Stupidity” isn’t what I thought it was

Of all the privileged statuses I give up on the mat, the hardest to let go of has been “smart.” My upbringing and schooling reinforced the idea that “stupid” is the last thing a person ever wants to be. I was led to believe that the failure of stupid people, doing stupid stuff, is often moral in nature.

And yet, there’s so much taught in the gym that I struggle to comprehend. I’m told things I grasp dimly, and only work out later after dogged effort. Some advanced students speak kindly down to me, others with amusement, and a handful with total dismissal.

My biggest surprise as a newcomer to the discipline was how complexly layered jiu-jitsu turned out to be. There’s a deep grammar of position and balance; long sequences of action that chain together like sentences; and individual moves that are a little like words.

At my level, I’m still cobbling together half-memorized stuff, like an exchange student on an awkward date. Getting to a level where my movements express something like a complex thought, where I can have a real conversation with a training partner, is going to take years.

I‘m aware of this when I spar with a 27-year-old woman in my gym whom I outweigh by at least 30 pounds. She’s a blue belt like me, a beginning rank. With the size and muscle I have on her, you’d think I’d have some advantage. But she competes regularly in jiu-jitsu tournaments and trains at a level of intensity far beyond mine. She moves like a fierce, whirling machine and employs a vocabulary of attacks far larger than my own. I can only rarely answer back.

Joining a hierarchy where I’m one of the slow ones has helped me realize that labels of “stupid” or “smart” ultimately may have more to do with a person’s luck or station in time than anything innate. Maybe this isn’t all that surprising of a realization. Being stripped of a privilege tends to reveal that it was more arbitrarily allocated than you previously cared to admit.

The unconscious can be a slow learner

I’ve come to realize that my progress is slow because my unconscious mind has to learn this entire new language. “The unconscious is a machine for operating an animal,” the novelist Cormac McCarthy has written. “How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all… It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.”

McCarthy generally assumes our animal operating system knows lots of things our conscious selves don’t. My experience losing scores of fights in the last three years suggests grappling is not one of those things. Worse, it’s not as if my animal mind offers an empty vessel, wrestling-wise. It thinks it knows things! It compels me to instinctively do these things in fights and those things cause me to lose.

Let’s take one of my most glaring weaknesses. I’m simplifying here, but a jiu-jitsu aggressor’s most basic goals are: take you down, get past your legs, then attack your neck or a limb until you give up. So the moment an attacker passes your legs? It’s a big deal. Proper technique dictates that, upon sensing an opponent beginning to pass, you must always and continually reposition your legs between yourself and the threat. Makes sense, right? Legs are strong. They’re a great first line of defense.

My animal mind doesn’t seem to think so. I instinctively thrust out my arms to hold my attacker off. The problem is, extended arms are easy to grab and break. Instructors have told me this any number of times.

My conscious mind knows this, but my progress is slow. My wife has me watching instructional videos to correct the problem. I’d like to say it’s helping. But sometimes knowing something consciously isn’t enough; we have to practice and practice until our unconscious catches up, and muscle memory takes hold.

Not hurting people is a special art

Sparring in the gym is not, in fact, an honest-to-god fight. Although your sparring partner may be sitting on your head, or bending your arm the wrong way, or choking you, their intent is not injury. Instead, they understand you’ve consented to a kinetic chess match, and they’ve chained together a sequence of moves to achieve physical checkmate. Your job is to counter — or to concede defeat. Actually hurting a training partner is bad practice because injured training partners can’t help you improve. Also because hurting people who are helping you is, well, wrong.

But clumsy new practitioners like me sometimes do hurt people. Even though I consciously get all that stuff about the chess match, my animal mind gives zero fucks about nerd analogies. Someone is slipping from my grasp, and movement and awareness of movement occur simultaneously and my right knee, let’s say, suddenly clocks my wife, Solana, in the forehead, hard enough to make actual noise. It happened this morning.

My partner in training and everything else sat back for a moment, dazed, palm to her head. For a whole shitload of really good reasons, I apologized instantly. I’m not sure if she rolled her eyes. The next round, Solana ground the blade of her forearm into the rim of my eye socket, hard enough to burst blood vessels under the skin. Which, fair enough I guess.

Solana and I have trained equally long, but she has been consistently more willing to study the basics than me. Her ability to beat me without (accidentally) hurting me suggests that this is a learnable skill. I teach my kids that acting badly isn’t the same thing as being a bad person. Jiu-jitsu is forcing me to confront this in myself. I am somehow, slowly, getting better.

Faced with a busy life and an aging body, I took up jiu-jitsu to get fitter. As a pandemic descended and threatened the future, as protests erupted and shamed the present, there has been much recently that I want to escape.

And yet everywhere I go, there I am — along with all the rest of it.

My jiu-jitsu practice isn’t going to change the world or save me from it. But it’s not making anything worse, either. So on weekday mornings, I’ll keep pressing on. On that mat, I’m not much of anything except an unexceptional body and mind, trying to fight hard, keep learning, and do less harm. And for that moment, it’s enough.

Senior Producer at Retro Report, which uses history to explain today. Dad to two formidable girls.

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