To stick with BJJ for years, or a lifetime, you need to really love it in a way that often crosses the line into all-consuming obsession. Many of the people I’ve met in the BJJ community shape their entire lives around the sport. Their schedules are built around class. Their friends are also training partners. Many jiujiteira even find their life partner on the mats. When jiujiteira say, “BJJ is life,” they tend to mean it literally.
That used to be me. I fell hard and fast for BJJ as soon as I stepped on the mats, and started taking every class I could cram into my schedule. Within a few months, my days consisted of work, BJJ, a late dinner, and bed.
One of the reasons I got so obsessed was because of the escape training provided. I’ve always had overwhelming feelings — massive anger, deep depression, immense anxiety. I’d spent my whole life running away from those feelings or finding ways to control them. As soon as I started training, I realized that when I was focused on nailing a technique or rolling, the rest of the world faded away. BJJ provided the ultimate opt-out for feeling my feelings.
For a while my BJJ obsession was fairly healthy. I was progressing in a sport that I truly love., Overall, I felt happier most of the time, and my body felt really good. But gradually, my infatuation morphed into an addiction. The transformation was so subtle that I didn’t notice it happening. Only hindsight would reveal how the addiction had progressed.
I started with feeling horrible every time I couldn’t train. If I missed a class I was flooded with shame. Negative self-talk about how lazy and undedicated I was filled my brain. That shame paired with anxiety manifested physically. I felt like all my energy was trapped in my body and that I wouldn’t be able to release it until I trained again.
I started training more to combat these negative feelings. Eventually, I couldn’t even think about skipping a class without having devastating anxiety, which meant I never missed training — not when I was sick or injured or so fatigued that I could barely drag myself into the gym. This was not healthy.
One of the hallmarks of addiction is that the addict continues to engage in the behavior — drinking, using drugs, gambling, purging, exercising — even when they know it’s harmful to them. That’s where I ended up with BJJ. I wasn’t enjoying training anymore, but I still went to class Sometimes I’d sit in my car outside the gym and sob before I went in because I didn’t want to be there. But my brain wouldn’t let me go home; I had to go train.
I started getting injured on a regular basis, but I trained anyway. I even trained with a torn muscle until I couldn’t walk. While I was in urgent care, I asked the nurse if I’d be okay to compete in a week. She stared at me dumbfounded.
BJJ was no longer giving me life; it was taking my life. I stopped training for several years and during that time, I got the therapy I needed to deal with my depression, anxiety, and addictive personality. Eventually I made it back to the gym
When I finally returned to the mats, I noticed the subtle ways that many BJJ communities normalized an obsession with the sport. I recognized how easily morph into addiction for others, as it had for me. The “grind” mentality that espouses pushing through pain, fatigue, and mental weakness can easily lead to ignoring wellbeing. The friendly teasing about missing class or not training enough can easily turn into anxiety about not training. The focus on how many classes people attend per week or how many hours a day they train can easily turn into compulsive exercise. The well-intentioned encouragement to skip out on other life activities to train can quickly morph into cutting out everything in life that isn’t BJJ related. The constant conversation about dedication to the sport can send a person into a shame spiral when the required “dedication” isn’t there.
For many, all the things I’ve just listed are part of the mindset that allows them to progress in a difficult and demanding sport. If that’s working out for them, that’s great! But I think it’s important that we, as a larger BJJ community, acknowledge that these mindsets can be very harmful for some.
There is a way to love BJJ without being obsessed, and there needs to be just as much room for the casual BJJ lover as there is for BJJ devotees.
Robin Zabiegalksi i is a writer and editor from Vermont. Her work has been published in several digital media publications and literary magazines. She’s been training BJJ for several years and she is a 2 stripe blue belt, currently training at Combat Fitness MMA in Winooski Vermont. When she’s not writing or training, she can be found playing with her toddler, hiking or snowboarding depending on the season, or bingeing her latest TV obsession.