brazilian jiu jitsu

Martial arts and combat sports. Which is better?

At our academy in Oak Ridge, we teach a few martial arts. These arts, when combined, prepare a student for every empty-handed scenario (no weapons) that they could find themselves in if in a self-defense situation, and most attacks involving weapons too. Specifically, we teach FILKENJUTSU Kenpo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), Filipino Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Kickboxing. Or as we like to call it a "Full House!" There are 3 K’s or Kings (Kenpo, Kali, and Kickboxing) and 2 J’s or Jacks (Jiu Jitsu and Jeet Kune Do), a "full house" in poker. 

This weekend I will be taking our Youth Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Competition Team (that's some of them in the picture above after our last tournament) to their next grappling tournament - a combat sport. So I thought I'd spend this post discussing the difference between a martial art and a combat sport. What are the pros and cons of each? By the end, I hope you can tell the differences between them and distinguish whether you’d prefer to be training in one over the other, or both!

We often talk about there being five steps to learning a martial art:

  1. Learn
  2. Practice
  3. Master
  4. Functionalize
  5. Maintain

Here’s a quick video briefly explaining each step if you want to learn more:

At the “functionalize” phase, sparring becomes a crucial part of training. This is when two martial artists engage in a "live" training exercise where they are both attempting to use their techniques on the other, simulating some element of a real fight. 

Since each art tends to focus on specific areas of the fight (punching, kicking, grappling, weapons, etc.), rules are put on these sparring drills to make them more focused on the techniques taught in that particular martial art. These rules can be both good and bad. 

The good is that the techniques themselves get much more refined and efficient for that specific ruleset, often leading to a more effective way of performing the technique. That is the core reason Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the most effective martial arts on the planet - the heavy amounts of live sparring, or "rolling" as BJJ practitioners like to call it, has led to the techniques being refined and perfected generation after generation to an extremely high level of effectiveness. 

The bad is that sometimes the student becomes too comfortable with the specific ruleset for the particular sparring drills of his art.

In most cases tournaments start to pop up as a way for students of these arts to test their abilities against other martial artists that train in other places around the world. This provides a unique opportunity to not only test your skill set against other martial artists but, more importantly, to learn about yourself and how you handle stress and adrenaline. These tournaments have rules, and often the academies that participate slowly but inevitably adapt their curriculum and techniques to this specific ruleset to have more success at these championships.

This process has happened multiple times with multiple martial arts, and ultimately led to many “martial arts” being taught purely as “combat sports.” Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are all perfect examples of this process.

 Interestingly, what sometimes leads to more success in the tournaments can bring an art’s “street effectiveness” down. How can this be? Wouldn’t it make sense that if the original goal of sparring was to be able to perfect or functionalize their techniques that it could only serve to make them more effective in a fight?

Unfortunately, no.

What happens instead is that over time the techniques themselves are adapted to fit the specific ruleset for the tournament they are fighting in.

For example in basic Tae Kwon Do sparring competitions the rules are:

“Kicks are allowed to the torso and head. Punches are allowed to the torso. Kicks below the belt and strikes with any part of the hand other than the knuckles are not allowed. Points are awarded for solid kicks and punches to valid target areas as long as the attacker stays on their feel (i.e., no falling down).”

This specific ruleset made the stance, movement, and strikes of Tae Kwon Do stylists adapt to being good for this format but extremely vulnerable to other techniques that wouldn’t be allowed in this form of competition such as leg kicks.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, no striking is allowed - only grappling. And therefore, students that only train for this specific ruleset are often not prepared for the realities of a real confrontation when their opponent would be throwing strikes.

One of the most recent examples in the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) community was a rule that fighters could not be kneed or kicked in the head if at least one hand was on the ground. This led to fighters intentionally putting themselves in positions that would completely expose them to a knee or kick to the head in a real fight, but their opponent couldn’t take advantage of them because of the rule.

Obviously, the rules are put in place to protect the athletes, but in doing so, they are also changing the way that participants will prepare for these competitions. That is neither good or bad, just fact.

Here is what’s outlined in the “Martial Arts Catalogue” on the difference between art and sport:

“Art, as the word applies to martial arts, is the specific application of skill in perfect traditional form. Sport, which has come to be considered the antithesis of art, is the specific application of skill to obtain effective results.”

So, what do you do about it? Is one better than the other? Should you train a martial art or a combat sport?

The key is to ask yourself first why are you training? 

For most individuals, a martial art is at least where they should start. They are often interested in learning to defend themselves, getting in shape, relieving some stress, maybe meeting some new people, and having fun. A martial art can be perfect for this.

Unfortunately, they have to be careful as many schools that claim to teach an art such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu even, really focus the majority (or all) of their time on the combat sport side of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Therefore a new student that is interested in learning to defend himself will be spending the majority of his time preparing for a ruleset that he doesn’t have any interest in trying to become a competitor in and not preparing for the realities of self-defense.

As an academy, we try to be very clear about what we teach so that the students are receiving exactly what they are looking for. 

This weekend, I’ll be taking our competition team to a grappling tournament (combat sport) that they have been training for separately from their regularly scheduled group classes in the martial arts that they are learning. Here's one of our kids at their last tournament in April. He's the one in the PMA gold shirt and is only 8 years old. Watch the determination and skill presented and imagine how talented he will be as an adult if he spends the next 10 years of his childhood perfecting these skills!

I hope this helps someone navigate the sometimes tricky path of finding a martial art (or combat sport!) to take up learning, and the right academy to do it at. I hate that martial artists feel such a need to put down one or the other, as there is a space and niche audience for both. Traditional martial artists like to point out the flaws in the sportive side for not being “street” enough, and sport practitioners often point out that traditional arts aren’t “live” enough. When in reality, there is a place for both.

We can all learn to be a little more understanding, compassionate, and open-minded towards others. Especially in this crazy world we seem to be living in right now. Let’s leave our egos behind, try to keep making the best decisions for our personal journey, and let others have the freedom to do what they think is best without your criticism.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy discussion or even argument, but this pick a side and be closed minded to anything that might potentially mean that we've been even a little wrong about something has got to stop. After all, do any of us really have all of the answers?

Ranks and Titles, Part 1

Possibly one of the most confusing things for new students in the martial arts are ranks and titles. What are they? What do they mean? How do you get them?

Last week a historic promotion was made in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when Grandmaster Rorion Gracie promoted his brother, Rickson Gracie, to 9th degree Red Belt and Grandmaster. Let’s talk a little bit about what that means, why it’s important, and how ranks and titles are used at Progressive Martial Arts Academy.

First, let’s discuss the belt (obi). In most martial arts, belts (just a long piece of cloth) are worn around the waist tying the top of the uniform (gi) together. It is said that originally these belts were colorless, and over time dirt and sweat would turn a belt darker and darker. When it became necessary to find a way to differentiate between instructors and students, or advanced students and beginner students, many arts decided to use colored belts. They kept the tradition of having the colors progress from white to darker, with most arts having Black Belt be the highest rank.

It is important to understand that the colors are not all the same in each art. Therefore a Blue belt in one art is not necessarily at the same place in his training, as a Blue Belt in a different art. For example at PMA, we teach two martial arts that use a belt ranking system: Kenpo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Kenpo Belt Color Order:
White
Yellow
Orange
Purple
Blue
Green
Brown
Black

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Belt Color Order:
White
Blue
Purple
Brown
Black

Notice the Blue and Purple belts are switched in Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu. I know, it can be confusing!

Wait, what about the Red Belt?

In both Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu and some other arts, the red belt is often reserved for the masters or founders of the art (usually 9th or 10th degree, and can be worn at their option). But in some other arts (Korean arts for example), the red belt is one of the regular belts on the path to Black Belt.

This past week, when Grandmaster Rickson Gracie was promoted to 9th-degree red belt, he responded with surprise and initially did not want to accept the promotion. His resistance has led to some discussion in the Jiu Jitsu community about whether he should accept the promotion or not and what the standard should be. This discussion can help us understand more about the importance of ranks and titles.

Rickson has been working on trying to get a uniform set of guidelines for all Jiu Jitsu academies to use when determining how long it should take to reach each promotion. Rickson’s stance was that by his count he had been a black belt for 40 years, and in the standardization guidelines that he has put forth, it should take 45 years to get to 9th degree. He didn’t think he should be an exception.

The argument to this, and why his brothers, among other famous Jiu Jitsu practitioners, thought that this should be overruled is they believe longevity is a major factor, but should not be the only criteria for promotion. The argument is that merit, growth, contributions, and achievements should also be considered. 

Rickson was considered to be the Gracie family champion for many years in both Jiu Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts competitions. Therefore these individuals thought the promotion was a no-brainer. While it is not my position to decide what the criteria should be, I do believe longevity should not be the only factor. There are many examples of individuals who have been Black Belts for a long time, but have not made any sort of effort to continue their personal training and growth or contribute/progress the art forward in any way.

One of the things I appreciated most from watching his promotion, however, is Rickson’s humility. While accomplishing more in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu than virtually anyone, Rickson still did not place too much importance on his rank.

I grew up in a martial arts family. Great martial artists surrounded me as a kid. And truthfully, I don’t remember ever seeing any degrees or stripes on anyone’s belts. I didn’t understand what the degrees or “dans” even were. I was raised to believe that once you earned your Black Belt, you just continued to train because you needed to, wanted to, and loved to. Not for your next promotion.

The degrees or “dans” are used to classify students, instructors, and masters that wear the Black Belt. They were traditionally used in Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean styles, but in America, many Chinese styles (kung fu) even have even adopted a similar system to that used in Japanese arts such as Karate and Jiu Jitsu.

As our family grew in size, the need for degrees and a system to classify the Black Belts also became important, and we began to emphasize our ranks and promotions after Black Belt too.

(However, at our academy, you will often still see high ranking black belts both in Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu wearing a plain Black Belt, despite holding a rank higher than that.)

In both Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu, there are 10 degrees that are awarded after Black Belt. We do not typically use the Japanese Dan rank titles and opt to just say "1st degree" rather than "shodan", but they are as follows:

1st degree - shodan
2nd degree - nidan
3rd degree - sandan
4th degree - yo(n)dan
5th degree - godan
6th degree - rokudan
7th degree - shichidan
8th degree - hachidan
9th degree - kudan
10th degree - judan

It is important to note that there are not any unified governing bodies in the martial arts as there are in academics, and other professions. Therefore, it is important that someone senior in the art to yourself gives the promotions. Self-promotion is not a reliable evaluation of one’s abilities but unfortunately, runs rampant in the martial arts community. There are a large number of high ranking black belts whose only achievements have come through self-promotion or rank. In some rare instances when a high ranking black belts' instructors or those senior to him have passed away, a group of designated individuals lower in rank together may decide to make the promotion.

Now that we understand a little bit better how ranks/belts work in the martial arts, next week let’s discuss titles and the criteria to be an instructor of the martial arts. This too is a major problem in the martial arts community, with many individuals who have never been qualified to teach martial arts, opening schools and teaching with no training or credentials to do so.

Mindfulness & No-Mindedness (Mushin)

In recent years, mindfulness has become a hot topic in the United States with more people discussing the idea of “living in the moment” and seemingly fewer people than ever actually doing it. 

Mindfulness is the act of consciously directing your awareness to what you are doing at that moment. We have more distractions than ever in our lives today, and that has led to a society of people that seem to never be in the moment. 

Let’s take a look at eating as an example. Mindful eating is not the same as being aware you are eating. For the most part, I think all of us are aware of the fact that we are eating when we are eating. How many of us though are consciously directing our awareness towards eating while doing so? If you are watching TV or looking at your phone, then you are not mindful of eating, and that can lead to overeating, not sufficiently chewing your food, or eating too quickly. Not to mention you can enjoy and savor your meal much more if you are mindful!

This absent-minded behavior rampant in our society is partially due to our smartphones - we look at them at sporting events instead of watching the game. We look at them at the movie theater and restaurants, and, my least favorite, we pull out our phones while having a conversation with someone.  I know I am not the only one that has recognized this and pointed it out. There are many news articles, blog articles and YouTube videos about waking up, looking up and trying to cure the twitch of checking our phones. There are problems here that go even deeper, however. When we are not entirely conscious of our experiences and engagements, it can be detrimental to our mental health and the health of our relationships.

Let’s look at relationships for example. One of the top ways we hurt the people closest to us is by lashing out when we get frustrated. While many people will write this off as an anger management or stress issue, often it boils down to consciousness. We have to be acutely aware of every moment. 

When something is not going “our way,” if we are not conscious at that moment, then we will react negatively. The reaction that comes out is resistance to being triggered negatively and things not being the way we want them to be. In contrast, had we been conscious in that moment, we could have made the recognition that “it is what it is” and we can flow with it.

This idea was discussed in a recent article by Psychology Today, and when you have a few minutes I recommend you give the whole article a read - 

https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200811/the-art-now-six-steps-living-in-the-moment

Here is an excerpt:

“Perhaps the most complete way of living in the moment is the state of total absorption psychologists call flow. Flow occurs when you're so engrossed in a task that you lose track of everything else around you. Flow embodies an apparent paradox: How can you be living in the moment if you're not even aware of the moment? The depth of engagement absorbs you powerfully, keeping attention so focused that distractions cannot penetrate. You focus so intensely on what you're doing that you're unaware of the passage of time. Hours can pass without you noticing.”

Learning to flow can be tough, but as martial artists, we have a rare opportunity to master it. In martial arts, we have something called “mushin.” Short for “mushin no shin," it translates to "the mind without mind." This concept is critical in fighting. A martial artist will perform at his highest potential if he can enter into a state of mind where he is fully aware and mindful of the present moment he is in but does not have to think about how to perform his techniques consciously. In fact, some fighters reach a level in which they don’t even think of which techniques to execute. They are just reacting much like your eyelid closes when something moves towards your eye.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners use this word “flow” all the time! We use it to discuss someone’s ability to smoothly transition from position to position but also their ability to flow with their opponent. In Jiu Jitsu, which translates to “the gentle art,” we try to use an opponent’s movements against him rather than resist his moves. 

So while reacting in an argument can be detrimental, in martial arts it is our ultimate goal to be able to just react - except we would like it to be with the proper reactions. You see, this only works when mastery of the skill set being deployed is attained to the point that the reflexes become the techniques he’d like to use. In a fight, if thought is necessary to choose a technique, then it is probably too late. By training ourselves to determine the correct reaction, eventually, this will become our instinctive reaction of dealing with that scenario.

While in a way “mushin” may seem like the opposite of mindfulness, this type of training may be one of the strongest tools in developing it. Mindfulness takes much practice. By training ourselves on the mat week in and week out to put ourselves into a calm state of mind, ready to “flow” with a situation and react with trained responses, we are also preparing to handle daily interactions mindfully.

Exercise: Throughout this week be mindful of each aspect of our daily lives from the mundane to the exciting. Be mindful while eating. Be mindful during conversations. For those of you training, put your focus while training this week on training towards mushin. Repetition, repetition, repetition. But remember “practice doesn’t make perfect,” “perfect practice makes perfect.” So practice mindfully and get the most out of each training session. If you are at a stage of your training that involves sparring, try to enter into that state of mushin while sparring this week, but only if the necessary groundwork has gone into your training first. This is why it’s important to not rush into sparring and to develop a strong foundation first.

3 Things to Avoid Saying to Your Training Partner

It’s hard to believe that I have been training for over ten years now!  When I first started my martial arts journey, I was an awkward seventeen-year-old who thought Jiu Jitsu would be the perfect fit for someone like me - gangly and graceless and likely to trip on air.  I figured if my training started on the ground, my lack of coordination and surplus of clumsiness wouldn’t be noticeable.  

I was right and wrong.  My lack of grace was, and is, very much noticeable, but despite this, Jiu Jitsu was perfect for me.  And from it, my love for training expanded into other areas of martial arts.

Brittany sparring with her friend and training partner, Elizabeth, at 17 years old.

Brittany sparring with her friend and training partner, Elizabeth, at 17 years old.

Now, with ten years of experience under my belt, I can say a lot has changed - both for me personally and for the dojo that I call my home. 

Personally, I have grown faster, stronger, and healthier.  I’ve received a wealth of information that has improved every aspect of my well-being, from my knowledge base and execution of techniques to mental strength and peace of mind. 

I’ve also acquired a number of valuable friendships and acquaintances over the years.  I’ve had the privilege of training with partners of every shape, size, age, gender, skill level, temperament, etc., and I deeply value the relationships that are built among training partners.  

You have the ability to learn invaluable tips and tricks from them, and the honor of returning the favor with helpful skills of your own.  Your training partner is there to help you, encourage you, and constantly challenge you.  Training with others forces us to be vulnerable (it’s how we learn and grow as martial artists!), and because of this, there is a level of mutual trust and respect that is necessary for any training partnership to be healthy and beneficial.

Many things can get in the way of a healthy training relationship - ego, pride, and hygiene are a few that come to mind - but the way we talk to and about each other is paramount when building the rapport needed to maximize our mat time.

I can speak from my own experiences, both positive and negative.  I have unfortunately put my foot in my mouth more times than I’d care to count, and I’ve also been on the receiving end of a few too many well-meaning “can you believe a girl did that?!” jokes.  From these experiences, I’d like to share a few basic comments or quips that I’d love to see leave the mat.

1. Compliments are appreciated - patronizing is not.  

Please don’t compliment your partner’s technique and then undermine it by telling them you were really/actually trying to escape or maintain the position.

While the sentiment can be appreciated, I know personally that I will always try my best in class and hope my partners will do the same.  Please follow the instructor’s directions where intensity and resistance are concerned within a specific drill.  If he or she tells you the goal is to maintain the mount, please give it your all and assume your partner expects that of you.  While there may be some exceptions, you typically won’t need to tell them.  The favor will be returned when you switch top and bottom.

2. Please do not comment about anyone’s fight/feistiness to them or anyone else.

I hate overhearing one training partner telling the other that they “have alot of fight” in them during a roll.  It’s a pet peeve of mine that might come second only to hearing someone warn the class to “watch out - she’s/he’s a feisty one!”  

Always assume that your partner’s skill has more to do with their focus, execution, and consistency in training than their feisty personality.  Your partner might have successfully landed that sweep only after weeks or even months of practice and failed attempts.  Don’t take away from their moment of success by belittling their hard work.

3. Let the instructor be the instructor. 

I know it can be hard, and it almost always comes from the best of intentions, but try to avoid coaching or teaching your training partner - especially during sparring/rolling.  When your working technique with someone, it’s natural to point out a tip you use to make something smoother or share something someone told you that helped you remember which side your blocks start on or which hand goes on top in a Palm Up - Palm Down choke, but don’t overdo it.  

Don’t spend the majority of your practice time breaking the technique down for your partner, and try not to ruin their enjoyment by pointing out too many mistakes they’re making in the technique they just learned five minutes earlier. 

Avoid slowing down the flow of a roll or the momentum of a sparring session by stopping to point out something to your partner.  Instead, try to remember the details to discuss after the training session is done so you can both get the most out of your randori.  

Something that goes hand in hand with this is focusing on your own training.  Don’t play down your partner’s recent improvements by saying things like, “looks like someone’s been getting some extra training” or “you must have learned that in a private lesson.”

Instead of making excuses for why someone’s forms might be looking sharper or why someone is suddenly having success completing all of their arm bar attempts, try taking advantage of the training opportunities that are available to you.  Try maximizing your repetitions in class as an alternative to worrying about how much mat time other people are receiving. 

Let the instructor worry about teaching and keeping track of everyone’s material while you simply enjoy the class.

At the end of the day, no matter our respective motivations, we all just want to have the best training experience possible.  In order to learn and improve, we have to help each other - as training partners, as peers, as human beings.  Communication, among other things, can help build mutually beneficial and strong relationships with our training partners and even our instructors. 

So let’s build each other up and encourage each other with our words as well as our actions!

Do you have any other comments or habits that you'd like your training partners to stop doing? Or maybe something you enjoy that you'd like to see more of? Leave me a comment below!