Being calm and relaxed is one of the most challenging aspects of learning and practicing jiu-jitsu. For the majority of the population, jiu-jitsu is a great way to alleviate the stresses of everyday life, getting good exercise, and learning something new in the process. Jiu-jitsu itself, however, can induce a stress response that hinders the ability to learn and practice effectively.
This is especially true for beginners who have limited technical knowledge and must rely on strength, athleticism, and instinct in order to survive. The excess tension and rigidity puts ample stress on the body and mind. This is prevalent in newcomers, but some seasoned practitioners also experience the same stress and inability to move through techniques smoothly and calmly.
Maintaining composure when your partner is trying to rip your limbs off and choke you unconscious is not an easy task. Breathing and staying calm when your body is maximizing its efforts to keep itself alive is a skill that takes a lot of practice and much more patience. The sooner you understand this, the sooner your techniques will flourish.
The Stress Response
A major challenge to the art of staying calm is a survival mechanism that has been with us since birth. Our nervous systems have an instinctual mode known as the “fight or flight” response. When a threat is presented, our bodies become stressed and trigger a sympathetic nervous system response. This is the moment when all of the chemicals, hormones, and other neurotransmitters necessary to combat the adversity or run from it are activated. This is adaptive if we are facing a bear in the woods, for example, but on the mats, it can be detrimental to our progress.
The inability to relax and remain calm may lead to a variety of obstacles that challenge the development of skills and techniques. Jiu-jitsu, after all, does not translate as The Stressful Art, but rather The Gentle Art. The irony, of course, is that for most practitioners with marginal mastery of their technique, there is nothing gentle about jiu-jitsu. Nevertheless, the application of techniques as they are supposed to be applied requires sound decision making, fluidity of movement, and precision in time and space. Tension and stress disrupt these processes.
Relaxation and Decision-Making
One obstacle posed by the fight or flight response is that the cascading chemical events evoked by your nervous system create more tension and stress on the body. If you have ever had an adrenaline dump, you understand what kind of stress you experienced in order to fight or run from a problem. On the other hand, if you managed to keep your cool during a stressful situation, you understand that maintaining your composure and strategizing an aversion is much safer and less disruptive to your body’s natural harmony. Besides, if you have basic wilderness skills, you should know that if you see a bear, you should not run away or try and fight it. The best plan is to stay calm, assertive, and retreat tactically. This calm and tactical response has wide implications for how we should be playing jiu-jitsu.
Calm assertion is a great quality to have in training. The last thing any practitioner should do is panic. If somebody is mounting you and smothering you, panicking does not help. Panicking often leads to bad decisions like trying to benchpress your opponent off of you. There are no bench presses in jiu-jitsu. You will get armbarred. Panicking will help you forget that fact.
Being calm under pressure, however, is much more fruitful. Being calm and relaxed facilitates better decisions, allowing the practitioner to navigate positions more effectively. Someone who is calm when they are being mounted and smothered will know to keep the elbows tucked to the chest and will use proper technique to escape. In the heat of the moment, this is not easy. It takes practice to mitigate the mistakes made under pressure.
Relaxation and the Art of Pressure
Relaxed weight is heavy weight. It is hard to be heavy if you are tense. Lifting a one hundred pound sandbag feels heavier than picking up a one hundred pound person. The person is alive and engaged, and this weight is relatively lighter because the person is active. A one hundred pound sandbag, however, is deadweight. The more relaxed the weight is, the heavier the weight feels.
The same is true for maintaining pressure in jiu-jitsu. In side control, for instance, heavy pressure is unlikely when the body is tense and rigid. The tension will cause you to grab your partner and squeeze him for dear life, wasting energy. On the other hand, if you can find a way to relax and breathe all of the tension out, you become heavier and start to feel like that sandbag. The benefit is twofold. First, you will be heavier and second, you will conserve your energy. You may have noticed that your professors and coaches are the calmest people on the mats. It is no coincidence that they are also the ones that feel the heaviest. Heavy, dominating pressure is applied best when your body is most relaxed.
Relaxation and the Art of Timing
Timing techniques appropriately is another feature of good jiu-jitsu that requires being calm. Being tense and using too much strength disrupts timing. Timing relies on fluidity which allows your body to make temporally precise movements. Timing a foot sweep, for example, is a combination of good technique and executing at just the right time before your partner’s foot hits the ground. If you are relaxed and engaged, you can achieve accurate timing because there is no excess force in the movements.
If you are stiff and rigid, there will be excess force, and it will be much more difficult to initiate and redirect movements. A great example here is that of a speeding car. A car going 100 miles per hour is harder to maneuver than a car going 20 miles per hour. When your body is operating at 100 miles per hour, you will not only lose the ability to time techniques, but you will also lose valuable pressure.
Maintaining Calm During Training
Knowing how the sympathetic nervous system responds to stress is an important part of knowing how to control the nerves associated with training. Its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system, balances the sympathetic nervous system by releasing its own chemical events to counteract the body’s stress response. These two systems are complementary, working to keep the body at its equilibrium, which is known as homeostasis. If the sympathetic nervous system handles “fight or flight”, the parasympathetic nervous system is in control of the “rest and digest” component. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, one experiences deeper breathing and a slower heart rate. These are two excellent traits to have in jiu-jitsu.
Breathing to Stay Calm
Breathing seems like an oversimplified solution to the challenge of keeping calm and relaxed under pressure. Breathing slowly and deeply, however, has a plethora of positive effects on your body and mind including relaxation, emotion regulation, and stress relief. Remembering to breathe when you are panicking and losing control of your senses is a valuable tool to have on the mats and in life. Keeping a steady and consistent breath during intense training will require work but can be achieved.
There is a mindfulness based meditation technique that involves acknowledging the presence of a thing. If, for example, you feel your mind starting to run rampant with a million different thoughts and ideas and you are not breathing, you can always stop yourself, take a look at what is around you, and cultivate presence by paying attention to a particular thing and becoming aware of it. Take a millisecond to evaluate the feel of your grips or even a bead of sweat dripping from your face. Remind yourself of where you are and cultivate the presence of mind in training. This practice will lead back to your breathing and will help you relax some tension out of your body.
Your Most Valuable Tool
Have fun. Perhaps one of the largest obstacles to learning how to relax and stay calm is the inability to have fun. Enjoy yourself. Jiu-jitsu is a journey and there is never an established end. Even black belts will tell you that at the black belt, the journey is just entering the learning process.
If you are serious about training jiu-jitsu for the long haul, you need to know that it is going to be a very long and arduous journey. You are going to have great moments and you are going to have some not so great moments. All of these moments are part of the process, so embrace it. Breathe and do not be so hard on yourself. If you cannot learn to relax and enjoy the process, you will never truly grasp the beauty of The Gentle Art. So relax, go out there, breathe, have fun, and remember to enjoy yourself from time to time. Jiu-jitsu is fun!