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The beginner's mindset
And the gentle art of showing up
I’m a twin. And lucky for me, it’s in our DNA to combine strengths.
As kids, Max and I lived outside of the consciousness that sport – or even regular movement – can enrich your sense of self. How things change.
Today, we’re on divergent but kindred paths across the practice of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and running. This is a conversation that touches on both – the beginner’s mindset and the simple joys of showing up.
Max practises with Team Pedro Sauer and on purely selfish terms, I’m curious to find some of what Max gets from BJJ for myself. I hope you get as much from his generosity as I did.
Three things to know about Brazilian jiu-jitsu
The origin of BJJ
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was developed in the 1920s. Carlos Gracie and his brother Hélio adapted techniques of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. In Brazil, the Gracie family championed it as the best self-defence system – technique is more important than size when it comes to taking control.
Jiu jitsu is the ‘gentle art’
The word ‘jiu jitsu’ derives from the Japanese ‘Jū’ meaning ‘gentle’ and ‘Jutsu’ meaning ‘art’.
The colour of your belt reflects where you are in terms of BJJ mastery. The belts in order are: White, blue, purple, brown and black. It takes at least 10 years to earn a black belt.
Max! Let’s take it from the start line: When it comes to running, most people just have to lace up and get out the door. BJJ has a gi (the white wrap-front belted jacket), set classes and to the uninitiated, more complexity from the off. What’s your take on that?
Running’s in our nature, sure. When you commit to training for anything in terms of performance though, the right technique and a holistic approach to mental and physical maintenance is how you improve.
With BJJ the first – and biggest – barrier is the theoretical start line. It’s common wisdom that the hardest belt is the white belt. Ninety-nine percent of people don’t step on the mat. Of those that do, only ten percent go on to qualify for blue.
Progress is about more than trading up belt colours. But even if that’s your only goal, there’s no way to fast-track. Like running, it’s one step at a time. You’re aiming for a personal best.
“There’s no way to fast-track BJJ. Like running, it’s one step at a time. You’re aiming for a personal best.”
Most high-profile competitors are men. The stereotype is BJJ is a masculine sport and classes are a space that reflect that. How can it welcome women – in fact, everyone – more?
Yes, I agree with that. There’s a handful of really accomplished women at my practice. But for those who want to try it and feel for whatever reason that it’s not welcoming to them, then perception informs reality and we need to change that.
BJJ is an intimate sport – women often roll with other women and if mixed genders roll, there are variations on each move to ensure you can respect your opponent’s personal boundaries.
By showing up – whatever your background, gender, age or ability – you’ve forced uncertainty into submission already. You get to decide for yourself every time. Normalising representation across BJJ is the goal, because it can offer a lot to everyone.
On that note, what exactly does BJJ offer to those first white belts?
Having the time to commit and practise is a privilege. But always finding excuses for why you can’t is a trap.
BJJ will challenge your ego and your persistence. Perhaps I sound evangelical but really, I’m not trying to sell BJJ to anyone who would rather run, ride, dance or whatever – I’m just using it as an example for so many truths that resonate with me.
Routine is important for me. Jocko Willink isn’t a fashionable reference, but he makes links between discipline and freedom that with a bit of effort, can build strength.
Yeh, he’s big on “attacking your weaknesses” military-style language. And says stuff like, “Don’t like running? Go for a run.” I’d say that’s an extreme take, right?
Yeh. He’s an ex-army seal so that’s his thing – all hyper-macho, exaggerated stuff. I don’t subscribe to a single person or doctrine. BBJ is the ‘gentle art’ after all. I just pick and mix from a bunch of sources. Some of the truths, like having a routine, work for me.
I mean, forcing yourself out running if you hate it is counter-intuitive, sure. Especially if you didn’t want to – or even understand why you had to – run track or cross-country at school. Remember that things can change though.
To be more pragmatic I’d say that becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable builds resilience. Obviously, an intense soundbite spin is more memorable to sell books though [laughs].
What are some of the other truths you’ve noticed?
Part of the journey is about committing to something as a learned skill – once you learn one discipline you can apply it to something else. And there’s so much BJJ theory you can use elsewhere.
You accept pretty quickly that you’re gonna tap out [because your opponent forces you to submit] multiple times. That doesn’t represent failure, just space for learning and getting better.
Consistency leads to incremental improvements and conscious innovations for me have been born from this. It’s like a more understanding mindset. It’s actually a universal, creative thing and you can apply this structure to new projects.
“Consistency leads to incremental improvements and conscious innovations for me have been born from this. It’s like a more understanding mindset.”
I’m sad for people who have to give things up – or never even start – but excited for anyone who can show up. That’s why I do it for myself.
Seven years down the line, I just got back inspired from a BJJ conference in Iceland and I’m working towards a purple belt. It just reminds me to be grateful for those opportunities and my freedom.
Your take on what you just called the ‘understanding mindset’ reminds me of shoshin – an idea from Zen Buddhism meaning ‘beginner's mind’. It’s essentially about openness to learn at every level. How do you feel about that?
Yeh that resonates with me. I’d say something like shoshin affects my worldview more today than ever.
I’m not sure if spiritualism is the right word but BJJ is both intellectual and physical. It nurtures fortitude but also humility – knowing your place in the world. Like awe I guess, it’s about understanding there are things bigger than me.
“I’m not sure if spiritualism is the right word but BJJ is both intellectual and physical. It nurtures fortitude but also humility – knowing your place in the world.”
BJJ uses the idea of energy flow across the mind and body. Freedom of movement. Lots of people that are into BJJ are also surfers. It’s like riding a wave – not submitting to it but becoming part of it, finding your own way to ride.
What’s your take on how to use this idea in running?
Running-wise, I’d say BJJ is closer to the trails than it is to road racing. It’s technical but there are elements blended there that are multi-dimensional. It feels more free. There’s always a new idea to grapple with. A good example of a multidisciplinary BJJ teacher is the great John Danaher. He’s a sixth-degree black belt and used to teach philosophy.
On the flip-side you have champions like Mikey Musumeci who started BJJ young but have set a path by switching up mixed martial art techniques. By mastering and then enriching the doctrine, he proved that there was something for everyone. Just take what you want from it.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other. The discipline, flexibility and strength you build through BJJ improves your running. To think and practice broadly can improve your focus and enjoyment. That’s what it’s all there for.
I love Range too. It applies to so much. If we’re choosing trails over road running as a closer analogy then, would you say that BJJ is slower and more deliberate as an art?
There is intention to BJJ. You have to be deliberate because a few inches can be the difference between being dominant or submitted. I guess the analogy to trail running is like moving across uneven terrain – you have to adjust and preempt your tread as you move.
“The analogy to trail running is like moving across uneven terrain – you have to adjust and preempt your tread as you move.”
Wearing a gi, BJJ can be slower and more technical with grips and choke holds. Without the gi it’s more physical and dynamic. I practise mostly in the gi. Some people say this isn’t realistic but it’s broadly useful to understand and appreciate the differences of both.
Another good book to mention here would be Rickson Gracie’s Breathe: A Life in Flow. Gracie connects mind and body, and under immense pressure honours his art through a learned approach. All good stuff.
You mention BJJ as an art. And by definition, it is. How would you recognise and align it with creativity as a discipline?
You get in the zone when you’re practising. In the way creativity can absorb you, you really can’t focus on anything else in BJJ but staying one step ahead of your opponent.
Fundamentally too, you can draw from your own skill level and express creativity through your own technique. My club, Team Pedro Sauer, is a real mix.
John Danaher’s protege, Gordon Ryan, is a good example of a technically-minded BJJ master who uses creativity in his practice. He grapples without the gi and utilises prevention of movement rather than outright athleticism to submit his opponents. Longevity is something he strives for in his game.
The idea if longevity plays into coping with challenge and adversity too. In running, I’m thinking of how Eliud Kipchoge grimaces the ‘Kipchoge smile’ to relax through pain and keep going to break the world marathon record. Besides shoshin, how does mindset affect performance in BJJ – or to reverse that, how do you train your mind to perform at your best?
Even on the days I tap out, I’m fully present. I always leave the practice ready to start again, never with a feeling that I’m ‘less than’. I think that Kipchoge-style smile captures that mindset and puts you back in control.
At every level, the only way to improve is to put the time in on the mat. You just have to show up. And if I just need to put the work in? That’s easy. That part was always easy for me.
BJJ is such a hopeful, affirming sport. I see both how far I’ve come and just how far I still have to go. I’m not exceptional at it, but it’s simple. Work – always being open to learning – is rewarded with progress. And yeh, that’s something to smile about.
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You might also enjoy my take on BJJ and goal setting in All deadlines are arbitrary
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