The benefits of physical exertion through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. My mental journey.

I get injured. A lot. I think I may be one of the unluckiest players in existence. It won’t stop me from training. As everyone who trains knows, injuries are just a part of the sport. If you train regularly you will constantly have niggling injuries and some will keep you away from the mat for a while.

Unfortunately after multiple dislocations, my shoulder got so bad I was forced to have labral repair surgery. This, combined with a menisectomy on a bucket handle tear in my meniscus would ultimately keep me away from the mats for almost 11 months.

This had a profound affect on my mental wellbeing. My behaviour changed. I was prone to mood swings; things that I would usually deem inconsequential would really get under my skin. I would get stressed at work, I drank a lot more frequently and I started smoking again – something I had quit after a few months of BJJ, over 4 years ago.

I think it’s a commonly accepted notion that physical exertion has anti-stress benefits and that ‘exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever. Being active can boost your feel-good endorphins and distract you from daily worries’. 1 But what I found was not only was I tense, stressed and generally feeling crappy – I was making decisions that when I was training regularly I just wouldn’t have made. Not having to worry about my fitness the next day in class made me not worry about the food I was eating, the next drink I ordered or the next cigarette I lit up. Constantly having a competition coming up was a major element in my original successful quitting of cigarettes, without it, I was mentally weak and I fell back to old ways.

However, there was always a clear goal there in my mind. To return to jiu jitsu. I defined this goal at a very early stage with my physiotherapist. I told my physiotherapist I wanted to return to jiu jitsu competition very early on in the first post surgery consultation and after one physiotherapy session with this goal clearly set, the motivation had returned. I haven’t had a (sober) cigarette since. I had fallen into old bad habits in the medically enforced months barren from jiu jitsu following my knee surgery and prior to my shoulder surgery. However, in my mind, as soon as the path back to jiu jitsu became clear to me I was able to quantify the decisions I was making. I was able to again make better choices, I again had a goal.

The concept of ‘flow experience’ by famed Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that a flow experience is one where your whole consciousness is absorbed with a particular activity and by setting yourself regular, meaningful goals you position yourself to encounter more flow experiences. My flow experience was invoked by my desire to return to jiu jitsu.

‘To achieve this state it is important to have a clear purpose. So clearly defining your goals is a good start. Goals and the flow experience have a good relationship. By setting goals we enhance our chances of experiencing flow. By experiencing flow, we are more likely to achieve our goals.’2

This leads me to question something. If the endorphins that are being released every time I trained jiu jitsu are helping me to feel more relaxed, if the fear of gassing out in competition is making me consider what I eat and drink and is making me choose not to smoke, if not having a goal clearly defined in my mind makes me choose the wrong path; why is it only jiu jitsu that has been able to focus my mind? Going to the gym and lifting weights doesn’t have this affect on me, running certainly doesn’t. My weekly 5-a-side football games never made me consider one iota of any decision I made outside of that activity, even if drinking heavily the night before would mean playing hung-over would absolutely suck. So why does jiu jitsu?

Jiu jitsu is an individual sport in a team setting. Your coach and training partners help you improve on a daily basis, but at the end of the day it’s an individual journey and you are 100% responsible for yourself. It’s also hard. Training jiu jitsu is really fucking hard, especially if you’re lazy and prone to making bad lifestyle decisions like I am. I think that’s what I have learned from this experiemce. I really love training jiu jitsu – I care. I didn’t care about anything else previously and that’s why it didn’t have a profound affect on my lifestyle choices.

Jiu jitsu will always be in my life. I don’t like who I am when its not.







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