Passing the Mental Guard

An introduction to a monthly column on Mental Health in BJJ

Location: Massachusetts, United States

There are myriad reasons to practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), including such obvious ones as self-defense, fitness, and finding community. When asking a practitioner, however, for the most crucial motivation that keeps them on the mat, most undoubtedly will answer that this sport is their therapy. 

It is well understood that exercise decreases anxiety and depression by releasing endorphins in the brain, as well as reducing health concerns and making people feel better about their self-image (https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression). As a mental health therapist, I prescribed exercise to all of my clients, as part of the foundation for the work we would embark upon. If a client began their therapy as a couch potato, the very first goal we would set up was to change their physical lifestyle. 

Given the choice, I would always push them toward training some form of martial art. This was a practical way to get my clients to learn some self-defense while they were putting in the work. A coach or sensei would also provide the added benefit of discipline and responsibilities, and become a role model they could look up to. 

I would usually encourage clients to try grappling. Unlike in the various striking arts, grapplers can use 100% effort while sparring, so long as the training partner is of similar size and/or skill level. The lack of striking means that the chances of having an impact injury such as a broken nose broken or concussion are significantly lower. After all, an unintentional knee to the face is not as traumatic as a purposeful one. Additionally, students are taught that the moment things become dangerous, they can tap to avoid injury/etc. For those who have never fought another human being using absolutely all of their effort, words cannot describe the thrill. Now, imagine experiencing that opportunity almost every single time you train. You are able to test yourself on a regular basis… your strength, skills, knowledge, abilities, and most of all, your mental toughness. For many practitioners, this can provide an outlet for individuals who struggle with depression, anxiety, anger issues, attention difficulties, low self-esteem, and excess energy. 

There are also ways in which BJJ can enhance executive functioning skills. These include working memory, flexible thinking, self-control, and organizational skills (www.understood.org). My coach, Chris Piscione of Team Flo, often talks to his students about how BJJ provides opportunities to solve problems every time you step on the mat. A practitioner may experience a specific issue over and over again whenever they find themselves in a certain position, or against a specific training partner. They have to find a way to move past these repetitive problems, such as. How do I escape this position? How can I take myself from this place of discomfort and put myself in a dominant position? How do I counter this person’s athleticism and speed? How do I get to their ankle before they reach my neck?

These problem-solving skills translate into other aspects of life. Practitioners have to learn how to tolerate claustrophobia and discomfort. Sometimes the greatest progress is made when the ego is bruised and humility is learned. We often think of personality traits such as low self-esteem or an over-developed ego in terms of growing through maturity alone, but BJJ can fast-track that development and the impact is real and long-lasting. 

Even simple breathing techniques to prevent panic can raise one’s game to the next level by learning to focus on the moment during a crisis, and in life, these skills are essential. Many practitioners supplement their training with yoga or other meditative exercises. Learning to breathe and control the mind is an imperative part of playing a guard game or being on the defensive, particularly when rolling with a larger competitor. If caught in side control, for instance, often the only viable option is to wait patiently for the opponent’s action in order to have a reaction. For many women in general, or men who suffer from PTSD, it can be both physically and emotionally uncomfortable when certain training partners smash them or hold a good cross face, particularly before that sense of trust is built. Developing the ability to slow your mind and remain calm in these situations is critical to self-defense training. So, while many people do not try BJJ because they avoid these uncomfortable positions, practitioners know these are the people who could benefit from it the most.

Finally, BJJ can also be a distraction from life’s everyday challenges and stressors. The intense exercise can quell anxiety and soothe frustration. The community at each gym can provide a sense of belonging. The goals and progression bring focus into the training as well as other areas in life.  And the coaches provide knowledge, discipline, and a sense of responsibility. No matter what ails one’s mind, regular training is often the medicine. 

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