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Developing life skills through Brazilian jiu-jitsu


“Time’s up!”

Emerging from a contorted position, I got up, smoothened my hair, and fixed my belt that came off. We shook hands, smiled, and mumbled “thank you” while catching our breath. While I lost in that round, I successfully defended a chokehold in the last 30 seconds.

I have been doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu since 2006. It is gradually gaining popularity in a country where basketball is the unofficial national sport. No, it’s not the same as karate; Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a martial art centered on applying chokes and body joint locks (elbow, shoulder, knee, ankle, wrist) to submit to the opponent or to earn points by getting into dominant positions. It is a full-contact sport, with most of the action happening on the ground. But is it all brawl?

On the contrary, this gentle art develops important life skills.

Think of jiu-jitsu as human chess — when you make a move, there will always be a countermove to nullify it. The learning curve can be steep at first, but a good coach will help you clarify your goals so you can focus on moves that build your skills, one step at a time. I had a hard time when I was starting because I had poor body coordination, but my coach guided me well — he gave me many PEP talks after competition loss or when I felt unmotivated. We became good friends, on and off the mats, and he is instrumental to why I am still training, albeit intermittently, 17 years later. In life or at work, we certainly need people who can effectively mentor us so we can maximize our potential, reach our goals and make learning a safe space.

Being on the mat is always a humbling experience. There will always be someone better, stronger or faster. One popular mantra in most Brazilian jiu-jitsu gyms is “leave your ego at the door.” You do not always play to win; sometimes, you play to lose so you can learn. Part of our training is purposely putting ourselves in compromised positions to learn how to get out of it repeatedly, developing our muscle memory. This is the same when we are at work. In developing certain skills, making mistakes helps us learn better because we can scrutinize how and where things went wrong.

In the sport, you are put under pressure, quite literally. Applying submissions requires steady and constant pressure; being in a dominant position requires closing the space through chest-to-chest pressure to control your partner fully. You need to maintain your composure when you are at the receiving end of this. For a new player, this is challenging. It makes you panic, tires you out and leaves you vulnerable to attacks. More seasoned players can control their breathing, adjust their position and wait for opportunities to escape. Maintaining composure helps you clarify your thoughts so you can focus on the task at hand, whether to free yourself or to get through a mountain of tasks at work.

While Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a skill game, it is also a game of strategies. Different players have different techniques, so you need to adjust your game depending on what your partner is doing. Strategizing defines your actions and dictates how the game progresses. Sometimes you get to impose the pace; often, it’s a back-and-forth of moves until a breakthrough happens, and you get to a dominant position or your partner submits. Similarly, we are constantly faced with challenges at work that require us to employ critical thinking to arrive at a sound decision.

The mat is an equalizer. It does not matter if you are a business tycoon, an international celebrity or a working college student. When we are on the mat, we are just a bunch of crazy people passionate about Brazilian jiu-jitsu. When Anthony Bourdain visited the Philippines, I had the chance to share the mat with him. He was then a blue belt. On the mat, he was not a chef or a TV star; he was just a regular guy hanging out with fellows. Nowadays, I train mostly with jiu-jitsu nerds, and we would analyze and criticize our moves so we can polish our game. Anywhere else, building good relationships is crucial to enriching our experiences and advancing our personal development.

Beyond developing technical skills and physical fitness, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a sport and martial art that enhances mental resilience and life skills. Practiced correctly and with proper guidance, it is a safe sport that people of all ages and sizes can do.

Jonna C. Baquillas is an associate professorial lecturer at the De La Salle University Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business. She is a jiu-jitsu purple belt and trains with Fabricio International Team under Stephen Kamphuis, a multiple-time world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

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