Sunday, April 10, 2011

BJJ As A Social Experiment

I've been thinking a lot lately about who exactly trains BJJ. What segment of society it must represent. The sample space.

I've heard the Brazilians say, BJJ you can never tell who's training with who because everyone is wearing a gi, doctors rolling with students, lawyers rolling with plumbers, etc. A mix of every walk of life. Maybe that is true in Brazil, though I doubt that is the case even there. Statistically to have a perfect balance of every category of people would be equivalent to having a jar of coins that you've collected over time, and having the same amount of pennies to nickels to dimes to quarters. That would be pretty difficult to randomly just happen, most likely it would be more pennies than anything else.

There are different types of people who play tennis, golf, basketball, baseball, football, etc. Still there is a prevailing norm. Out of all the professional tennis players, how many are black or Latino? Same could be said for golf for that matter? There are some but they are more the outliers and not the norm. Just as not every other student in BJJ is a lawyer or a doctor. In those sports, price becomes a factor. It's free to shoot around a playground with a basketball, to play tennis a lot of times you must pay for and join a club of some sort. Same with swimming typically. Space is also a factor. Not every town, especially deep in inner cities do they have, or even have the room for a football field. Price is also a big factor, BJJ is not a sport that is offered in schools so it must all be done outside of the school system, paid for with disposable income.

BJJ's cross segment in the US is majority white, which is to be expected the US. The biggest minority I've seen, at least in the major cities is Asian. Which is also to be expected when the price of BJJ is at the lowest 150 a month and there also is a history of Asians doing the majority of their athletic and recreational endeavors outside of the school system (martial arts, tennis, golf, violin lessons, SAT school, etc.) Also of course this is a Brazilian art so there is also that huge population as well.

As far as the doctors and lawyers example I always hear, I think what they mean by that is high level professionals. I don't know if a sport where a person's face can get marked up, possibly injured, or you have to wrestle other sweaty men is appetizing for the social elite. Some people who just want to scrap, walk into an academy and sadly find out they can't afford the monthly dues. BJJ is also not a sport you can just do casually. You can, but will soon get surpassed by everyone else, you will get frustrated of course. This is why there is such a high turnover rate at blue belt (the belt after white). So then remains the people who will obsess over it, who can afford it, and who don't mind getting marked up.

I've asked this question of myself, obviously I obsess about BJJ as well but I try to frame my understanding of life around my BJJ. I wonder how easily one can get stuck in a holding pattern because of BJJ. Their BJJ progresses as the rest of their life stands still. Some people can make a decent living off of BJJ, those are very few compared to all the people enrolled. Not only that but also the richest person in BJJ is probably still poorer than the richest person in let's say dry cleaning.

I've heard of people complain that their bosses don't understand, their girlfriends/boyfriends don't understand, their friends don't understand, etc. So their BJJ gets better, yet there is no progress in their relationship, at their jobs or careers, with their network of friends. What ends up happening is, you get a job that allows you to train more, which is great, but possibly not a good long term move. They get a new significant other, or forgo that and stay single and live that life up, or drag on a relationship way too long. Then they will either try to get their friends into BJJ or forgo their friends for their BJJ friends. Train hard, party hard is a common BJJ motto.

I also know family men who train a lot, there's a few in every school. Keyword, few. I don't know anymore if that obsession with BJJ is a good thing for everyone outside of the exceptions who have a future in the sport. Days you didn't stay late at work when possibly you should have. Relationships that got abandoned. Moving to a location closer to the academy just for the academy to move or for you to have a falling out. I've recently taken a lot of time off from BJJ to take care of personal and business matters. I know in the past that would make me feel so bad, to miss even a day of BJJ. Someone said to me recently, that if you can't train and someday get good enough to be the best or beat the best guys, then what's the point? He was serious. And that comment scared me, what is the point huh? I didn't see him as a person who felt that way, but probably because I never thought about it. I wondered if that's how most people think, and I think about comments you hear, and you hear things like, you always want to believe you can beat anyone.

Ambition turns into a short term goal, get the tap. Not a long term goal, like retiring early and sailing around the world. I train BJJ, but lately I have a new long term goal, to someday join an elite tennis or country club. I don't even play tennis or golf, I just want to get in, because they won't let me in.

At my own academy there is a disproportionate amount of actors, and people who just do one gig to another. I asked my actor friend, if you are an actor, why don't you act? Shouldn't actors be acting? Whether you get paid or not, or you have to pay or not, actors just act right? He agreed. He works, trains BJJ, hangs out or takes a trip with friends, and sometimes acts.

It's so easy to get caught up in the BJJ lifestyle. Go to your job, try to make it to BJJ at lunch, go back to work, hopefully do second training after work, hang out and party with your BJJ friends on weekends or nights, rinse and repeat. Just have fun, or do what you have to do until you can count down until it's time for fun. In human development they say other things are supposed to become priority over fun or sports as you get into adulthood.

It's truly a social experiment, and I am curious what will happen when everyone is in their middle years. BJJ is still young in the US, guys in their 40s now started most likely in their 40s or late 30s. It wasn't around in their teens or 20s. The guys now who started in their 20s or possibly teens, what will happen? The BJJ generation? Wonder if in a way it will become like basketball, where so many focus on that as their ticket out instead of education or career.

I was listening to an interview with famed BJJ practitioner Eddie Bravo. He said that before he opened Tenth Planet, he was about to lose his job, possibly thinking about MMA to support himself which he didn't want to do, he had quit his job as a DJ for ten years, along the way he had a lot of fun and trained a ton, but right then he was screwed! Fortunate for him he had developed his own style of BJJ that only he could teach, he also tapped Royler Gracie, and so tried his hand at opening up an academy. I'm sure it was hard at first but now he has nearly 30 affiliates in a very short time. People may think this is inspirational but for every Eddie Bravo, how many people failed at pursuing a BJJ career? (This may be completely unrelated but there is quite a few BJJ/MMA fighters in sport with so few competitors who have committed suicide or gone to jail, or been murdered)

I love the people I train with and have met through the sport. Met famous actors, directors, real estate moguls, to servers, actor hopefuls, teachers, personal trainers, and handy men. But when something takes up so much of your time, that isn't readily available or attractive to everyone, where there is no professional league like basketball or football or high income salary, or big name sponsors, where there already is a school in your area with someone better than you teaching, what will you do? What will your social network look like? Your circle of influence? Will they just tell you to train more? Will you have a life outside of BJJ? Is the reason you love BJJ so much because that's the best thing you do in life? Is that a good thing? A better BJJ player than businessman, employee, boss, husband, boyfriend/girlfriend, son, father, friend, resource, student of life?

I ask myself these questions and there are things I wanted to accomplish before a certain age, and I know I've pushed it off for several years to focus on BJJ, and I am only getting around to accomplishing those tasks now. A friend a year ago or so when he was starting out in BJJ said he loves BJJ but can't be putting in all this time and hanging out with those guys all the time either. He has stuff to do and accomplish and he doesn't want BJJ to tie up all his time. A year later what is he doing? Of course. Training all the time and hanging out with his training partners, having a good time, hating his job.

Another friend shared with me something his uncle told him. His uncle is someone who has become quite successful in life. He told him your college degree is maybe good for 5-10 years. In that time you must prepare for the next 10 years by developing the skills or creating a value for yourself that you didn't have before because that initial degree will be worthless very soon. And each time you must prepare for the next 5-10 years. Basically developing a skill or knowledge you didn't have before, through school or experience or certifications or just plain reading.

But what if you can't do that because the next 20 - 99 years you will be busy developing your BJJ???

And then people sometimes just quit. For this reason.


  1. I train at two main gyms, in Vancouver and in Hong Kong. In Vancouver, the demographic is similar what you describe. It is generally young people, typically in blue-collar professions. However in HK, where BJJ is much newer and there is no significant MMA craze, the class is definitely older on average and more white-collar. Class is late -- 8pm -- to accommodate the long hours that people work in HK, and most of the class arrives in their business suits before training in their gis.

    I've yet to figure out exactly why this is.

  2. sounds like over there it's become some extreme stress reliever.

  3. I am 45y/o a Surgeon with a reputable practice in medicine, I started training in BJJ and can easily see other professionals attracted to this sport- it requires a lot of the traits and skills needed for our own professions-patience, commitment,tenacity, intelligence, physical and mental endurance, and most of all the ability to be a student and look well beyond tomorrow. And Yes BJJ black belts are The Social Elite too.

  4. I think it's all about balance. I started BJJ at age 32 (almost 40 now), and I've achieved my greatest career and relationship success during the past eight years. Both my professional and family life are strong, and I anticipate an early retirement in about 12 or 15 more years.

    A few of the folks who I started with are black belts now, while I'm only a purple belt. But I haven't enjoyed my BJJ journey any less than they have, and I'm still training while the vast majority of people who started when I did have dropped out.

    For a point of reference - I train about 4 times a week, work about 50 hours a week, and schedule sufficient quality time with my family and spouse. I don't watch a lot of TV, and my days are pretty structured.

  5. Yes it is all about balance. Thanks for these perspectives, I am learning from them. The thing I did mention though is with older guys who are already established, they seem to do better with it, and take BJJ in doses. Whereas young guys just immerse themselves. 4 times is a lot yes. but I know people who train over 12 times a week. All under 30 of course. So I think I didn't explain myself correctly. BJJ can be attractive to all types of people, the level of commitment it asks for you to keep up with the good guys is another matter.

  6. thanks guys for reading, it is all the professionals I seek advice from at my club, their life experiences are invaluable to me. I think yes structure is key, and being able to juggle a professional life like a medical practice and BJJ is a skill me and some other guys of my generation need to master. For me and most of my friends, its either all in or all out.

  7. I am a lawyer in his mid-40s. I started BJJ about one and a half years ago - train 3 to 4 times a week. I enjoy the complexity of the BJJ game: positions, techniques, strategies, etc. I do tend to get obsessive and BJJ is the perfect form of exercise in that regard - there is a lot to obsess over. I do know other lawyers and doctors (a few) that train BJJ as well.

    1. thanks for your response. Yes there are movie stars, doctors, lawyers, CEOs. I think BJJ takes up such a commitment, because it blurs the line between dedication and obsession, it becomes quite difficult to balance your energy between training and your life outside of training. Hence why if you don't have much of a life outside of BJJ, you're a perfect candidate for BJJ.



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