Despair by Edvard Munch (1892).

The Fever Pitch of Frustration on The BJJ Mats

For many of us, the BJJ mats are our version of a therapist’s couch, a place where we can forget the world and all its travails for a few hours and revel in the catharsis grappling offers. Certainly, training often allows us to forget even fortifies us against calamities great and small.

However, sometimes the mats can be a reckoning of sorts, where the constant fatigue and defeat make us reach toward bleaker ruminations on our current state of being. The daily tribulations that hound us sometimes tower over in these exhausting moments forming false delusions that crowd out reason and hope for a spell. Inevitably, one leaves the mat reeling at the existential heels.

Having been on the mats now for roughly six years, I’ve witnessed a few emotional breakdowns in my time. I’ve even experienced a few myself though I can maintain a poker face with the best of them. For me, it usually involved just sitting in my truck after training lost in a kind of abject wonder.

There’s a bit of dogma in BJJ circles, especially among newer practitioners that training BJJ is somehow a panacea for all our ills. It’s often employed as a misguided marketing pitch by some as well. While it certainly does help, hard training in particular can also exaggerate the very things that are negatively affecting us, conjuring phantoms out of mere shadows.

Tangentially, I also believe that combat sports often draw individuals who are physically tough, but are also quite fragile in other arenas in life, particularly in the complex internal world of emotions. The need and desire to be physically tough can be a brittle pursuit if we fail to fortify ourselves from the more tedious and laborious battles that wage inside each and everyone one of us.

Some time ago as a white belt, a brown belt buddy of mine randomly pulled me off the mats to vent after he’d committed to two hours of hard MMA drilling and sparring. He was beside himself, bewildered by a recent breakup and his physical exertion didn’t lessen his grief and frustration. Instead, it heightened it to a state of clouded despair.

Now I’d only known this training buddy as a model of tough, stoic composure. He was also someone we all looked up to the point of awe on the mats so I was taken aback by this sudden emotional turn. I did my best to comfort him. Even staying off the mats and consoling him as training began though our coach repeatedly shouted at me to join the rest of the class. It was my first realization that sometimes the mats could also inadvertently allow negative emotions to run riot, especially when fatigue and defeat rear their ugly heads.

A recent post on r/bjj also really brought this point home to me. A single mom under an incredible amount of stress related to the community how she finally broke down in her car after training and just wept. The hard training she had just endured lead to an avalanche of emotions she could no longer keep at bay. While those who have trained long enough might recognize this as a somewhat common occurrence, it’s certainly unsettling for novices and beginners. It’s as though the emotions erupt out of nowhere and are seemingly impossible to dam until fully spent.

Lately, I’ve realized that if some particularly vexing issue is affecting me in my life, it’s best if I avoid the mats. Far from being cathartic, the mats end up making me feel exposed in a decidedly dour kind of way. Instead, I go for a long run, exhaust myself on a hill or spend some time contemplating in the sauna. Others may feel differently on the matter and rightly so. Of course, that’s simply what seems to work for me at the moment and this approach may change.

That’s not to say that I only train when I’m in a good mood. That would be silly as our moods are often in a state of flux as is life itself. After all, consistency is mandatory for growth. It’s just that these days it’s vital for me to remember that often when I get off the mats the world should be as I imagine it to be: a beautiful, broken place filled with just a little more awe and wonderment than despair and heartbreak.

I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on this phenomenon as well. It is a bit perplexing to me. Has training ever made a bad day, a bad week or a negative thought even more pronounced?

2 thoughts on “The Fever Pitch of Frustration on The BJJ Mats

  1. You have a seriously-intense and focused writing style. I love it, and think you have a very unique voice amongst the martial artists out there. Please keep writing and sharing your journey

    1. Thanks for the kind words. This is a bit of a passion project for me. A lot of the writing I do to pay bills is often just fatiguingly boring haha :).

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