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Jiu-Jitsu: Sport or Self-defense

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Jiu-Jitsu sport or self-defense

I have this discussion pretty regularly with different folks of various skill levels. I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on this topic. 

First I want to share a short 9 min interview with one of the best of our ryu (style) of Jiu-Jitsu; Rickson Gracie:




I very much like his approach to Jiu-Jitsu; “it has to work no matter how big or strong your opponent is”. I like to look at this in terms of effective versus efficient. I will explain that in detail in just a minute.


Before we look at effective vs efficient, we have to look at what are the goals of the individual student? Is the student wanting to be able to defend themselves? Do they want to get in shape, build confidence, learn the beauty of human movement? Do they want to win gold medals, be a world champion?


I have found that typically most people come in the door wanting one of the above, but as they train they begin to broaden their goals; often it becomes all of the above and more.

Back to the original question Sport or Self-defense? In my opinion both are good and you should be exposed to both. That said, it has to be made or taught in a clear context where certain techniques fit into the picture. 


My Jiu-Jitsu which traces back to Rickson’s father (mostly through his brothers Royce and Relson), and is, not surprisingly, self-defense based. That said, I do teach the sporting aspects as well, but not as a primary focus.

I teach self-defense based JJ first for several reasons; which brings us back to efficient versus effective.


I can accept that modern sporting techniques could probably be used to defend yourself in a street fight against an untrained person. That said, I don’t think many of them are the best tools to get the job done.  For example, our Jiu-Jitsu is heavily ground based, but in a fight, if I can win on my feet I want to stay standing. If it goes to the ground I’ll continue to subdue my attacker, but if I can dispatch him on my feet I will. That way if his friend shows up, I have a better chance of getting away. What I’m not going to do is pull guard and/or invert. Yes pulling guard could be effective, but it wouldn’t be the most efficient way to neutralize the attacker.


I also base off self defense because that was the original intent. To give the smaller or weaker person a chance to beat a bigger person. Originally it was all could many based, not sport based.


However, if a particular students goal is to win medals and be a champion; we have to play within the context of the sport. The sport has rules and the techniques we can use fit within the rule set of the match. An inverted triangle choke might be an awful idea in a street fight, but might give you the win in a Jiu-Jitsu match. 


The key, in my opinion is to be honest with your students. If a technique is a sport based one - tell them.


Another option is to build solid foundations with frames and bases. If you have solid functional fundamentals you can fight with them for medals or for your life, with little modifications. This would be efficient, as we said when I was in the Army “train like you fight”. If you watch films of Rickson’s fights; he used solid fundamentals and beat the best with them; so why not focus on techniques that work in competition and in combat?


Whatever your reason to study Jiu-Jitsu, it will be good for your body and good for your mind. Like the tennis shoes...... Just Do It!

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