Ego in BJJ: Why playing passively is hurting your training

The role of our egos in Brazilian jiu jitsu is talked about often. In fact, BJJ has a reputation for finding the most fragile aspects of our egos and crushing them into a fine paste.

Paraphrasing Joe Rogan, he’s said that BJJ simulates a life-or-death fight – and getting tapped out in a sparring match is kind of like a spot where you could have died in real combat. That’s a humbling experience! Tapping out to a choke is acknowledging that your training partner could have forced you unconscious if they so chose, and that you could not have stopped them.

If you’ve been in the sport for a while, you’ve seen the New Big Guy With Muscles show up to a class expecting to smash everyone, only to get repeatedly tapped by the smallest person in the room. How Mr. Muscles responds to this depends on how his ego can handle such a defeat. I’ve seen people declare that they were cheated somehow and never return. And there have been others that became die-hard BJJ fanatics as a result.

Ego in BJJ is a really big discussion so I’m just going to focus on small aspects of it for now. I intend to explore more of them over time, so keep an eye out for more in this series!

For now, let’s talk about one of the ways we try to protect our egos in BJJ. I say “we” because it’s a tactic I’ve seen across a lot of people. Really in this post, I mean “me” because I’m speaking about this one from personal experience.

Being too passive is a form of ego-protection

I’ve had moments where I feared “losing” a sparring round in training. (Why that’s silly on its face is probably a good topic for another blog post!) And in the past, I have had a weak mental response to these situations.

These moments have come up, for example, when I’ve been really tired and facing a relatively fresh opponent. And facing lower ranked partners who were bigger, stronger, more athletically gifted, or had extensive experience in something like wrestling. To name a few. In other words, when I was facing a challenge.

In those moments, I’ve taken a passive approach to the sparring. By passive, I mean I somehow found a reason not to try my best.

In those moments, I’ve taken a passive approach to the sparring. By passive, I mean I somehow found a reason not to try my best.

For example, I’ve accepted a bad position while thinking that “this is fine, because they still can’t submit me.” Or I’ve moved the goal posts of success, deciding that retaining my guard (without attempting to sweep or submit my opponent) is somehow a victory. In both cases, I am effectively saying that I haven’t failed.

This is a bad habit and you shouldn’t do it. I’m writing this post during the COVID-19 (phase 3 in Ontario), and when we eventually go back to training I intend to actively stamp this out from my mental game.

I do want to draw one important distinction here. Taking a passive role in sparring is not always bad, or even linked to protecting your ego. Take training with newer folks as an example. You do not have to be hyper aggressive with them just because some guy on the internet said that passivity means you’re protecting your ego!

The newer they are, the more you want to let them explore and practice the limited scope of what they know. This also has the benefit of creating an environment where they feel safe, welcome, and like it is ok to be new. This scenario is not what I am talking about in this broader post.

What’s at the core of this passivity is fear. I have feared that if I get tapped by a lower belt it somehow reflects poorly on me as a brown belt. There is pressure to live up to the belt around your waist, but a large part of that pressure is internal.

Speaking personally, on the day I received my brown belt I did not truly feel I had earned it. As a result, I have been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform to a higher standard – one that I felt I wasn’t really capable of meeting! Looking back, I can see now that this led me to try and protect my image as a brown belt by avoiding failure.

What I did not realize then – and I see very clearly now, in hindsight – is that the passive approach of “just avoid failing” hurt my training in the long run. What was initially an approach to one round of sparring started to become a pattern. I was getting lazy and passive more and more often.

Being passive has an opportunity cost. I was staying “safe” instead of working on the skills to actually get better at jiu jitsu. In accepting a bad position, I was not practicing getting out of that position.

Being passive has an opportunity cost. I was staying “safe” instead of working on the skills to actually get better at jiu jitsu. In accepting a bad position, I was not practicing getting out of that position.

So what now? How do I avoid being passive?

I’ve identified some behaviours, which is the first step in creating a change. Now what I need is accountability. I will attempt to check myself in training, but this is insufficient because it is subjective. I will ask training partners and my Sensei to hold me accountable as well. If I am accepting bad positions – or even if I am staying comfortably in a good one without continuing to advance – I empower them to call me out for it.

As for the underlying causes of the behaviours, I admit I have more work to do there. I have to accept that it truly doesn’t matter what happens in a given round. Academically, I know that if – say – a blue belt submits me with a technique and I was honestly trying (and not being passive), it is a teachable moment. It means I need to anticipate better, position better, grip better, et cetera.

I just need to figure out how to reconcile that knowledge with the emotions of the moment. Any advice?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. b4tm4nx says:

    How do you know the difference between being passive because you’re “avoiding failure”, or you’re being passive because you genuinely want to help the lower belt. You’ve mentioned the signs of fear (whether we wish to admit or not), but if it’s for example driven by fatigue, is that a cop-out, or a legit reason to “take it easy”? Are there other signs, other than fear so we may identify (and hopefully weed-out) excuses?


    1. This is a great question, thanks for asking it! I’m not sure I have a definitive answer (or that there is one) but I can certainly share my own thoughts.

      There are two distinct examples that you bring up. First, training with a lower belt. When I roll with a white belt, there has to be a kind of padding to the experience. Even if they’re bordering on blue belt and bigger than me. White belts typically don’t process what’s going on at the same speed as someone more experienced, or to the same extent. They aren’t as aware of all their limbs, their neck, what openings they’re leaving, etc. So I will move more slowly and deliberately so they can see what’s coming and try a defence. Or if I’m on the defensive myself, I will move more slowly so they have a chance to practice their transition into another position.

      These are ways in which I will help them. It doesn’t mean I am being passive and hurting my own training, because that’s not the point of the round with them. Unless we agree that it’s a competition style round, but that’s different right?

      I think what’s at the root of your second set of examples is what you’re willing to admit to yourself. Let’s use the case you bring up. So you’re about to do a sparring round with a lower belt than you. You’re at class and all the rounds so far are honestly-trying-rounds. You’re not trying to kill one another, but people are giving a good effort. It’s not their sixth class and you’re showing them the ropes, you know?

      So you’ve done a few rounds and you’re tired. You worked 60 hours this week and you’re looking forward to a good soak in a hot bath later. So how do you judge whether you’re being passive (per this discussion)? One way is to set a goal and tell your partner. That way you can’t shift it mid round. You’re accountable.

      You might say “Hey it’s bean a long week. I want to give you some good training, but my gas tank is nearly empty. You do your game, and I’m going to try to stay safe and look for sweeps.”

      At this point you’ve committed to 1) defending and 2) finding sweeps. Now it’s up to you. Did you just turtle up and do nothing but block grips for 5 minutes? Or did you focus on intelligent defence and legitimately look for ways to get on top? If there’s an experience gap your partner might not be able to tell, but you will know. It can be hard to admit, but you’ll know. And the fact that you said it out loud to someone makes you more likely to stick to the plan.

      I think that most reasons that are cop-outs will lead back to fear, but maybe there are others. If you are tired and resort to pure defence, why is that? Why not keep trying and tap when you get submitted? Is it the fear that someone might see you tap to a lower belt? That the person might think your rank isn’t legit because they could “beat” you? I’ve felt those before and used being tired as an excuse (even if just internally).

      Are there other factors you are thinking of? I’d love to discuss further.

      Liked by 1 person

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