The jiu jitsu community seems to be in a perpetual self-defense vs. sport debate. Of course, it's inevitable we ask this question: "why do we practice jiu jitsu?"
Some train with the goal of defending themselves and their family. Some train to medal in competition, striving to stand on top of that podium.
However, in our goal oriented world, we often overlook the experience of training itself. What really brings us back to the mats every day? What invisible force propels practitioners to drive hours in traffic, often bruised and broken, sometimes scheduling work and family around their training habits? For most, it is neither the danger of a street attack nor the prospect of glory through competition that brings them to the mats on a regular basis.
We've all heard of the benefits of jiu jitsu: health, confidence, comraderie, mental clarity, etc. However, these benefits are often relegated into the land of "you can find this sort of thing with any hobby." Indeed, you can find friendship within a cross-fit team, lose significant weight on a road bike, get that sought after endorphin rush by rock climbing, and gain great confidence training muay thai.
Jiu Jitsu is unique though. Something else separates it from these other activities.
Some describe it as a "flow experience" that makes time disappear. Others call it "entering the zone," a mental state where all of life's troubles float away.
But can't similar flow experiences be found elsewhere as well? When we've dislocated a rib and are off the mats for a month we certainly try to convince ourselves that we get that same great feeling running, swimming or doing yoga.
Deep down, we know it isn't the same though. Those who have experienced the joy that comes from a great roll know that nothing provides the same experience as jiu jitsu.
So what makes jiu jitsu different than any other sport, martial art, or even style of grappling?
Animals play. More specifically, mammals grapple.
From a young age, most mammals engage in some form of play fighting. Though clawing and biting are certainly involved, the mainstay of mammalian play involves a frenetic battle for positional dominance - grappling. Playmates don't often seek to seriously injure one another, they move from one exchange to another with curiosity, as if they were training.
Though it's most often in good fun, play is certainly costly as a behavior from an evolutionary standpoint: it consumes valuable caloric energy and can be dangerous at times, accidental injury and even death are not out of the question. So, play behavior must be very beneficial to have persisted in any genetic pool, otherwise natural selection would have weeded it out.
As far as theories as to why mammals play, preparation is a central theme. Rough housing prepares young combatants for the vigor of the real world: battling for mates, defending offspring, hunting prey and escaping predators.
However, some studies have shown play provides something more than survival training. Rats, one of the most playful of all mammalian species, were shown to have decreased levels of stress with regular bouts of play. From Scientific American: "... thwart a young rat’s zeal for play (by rearing it alone or with drugged companions that won’t play) and you create an adult that loses its cool in social situations. When things start getting edgy, play-deprived rats either succumb to rat-rage or scarper, quaking, to a corner... there’s also evidence that primates (including humans) behave in the same way."
There's a reason jiu jitsu is truly unique. It connects us to an innate mammalian behavior, a deep truth that most of us haven't felt since we were children. When we are fully engrossed on the mats, unthinking, tumbling, attacking and escaping, letting our bodies engage in a kinetic conversation, we are truly at play.
Striking arts such as muay thai or boxing are the creations of our higher consciousness. These are precise and accurate arts, honed tools to incapacitate or injure. Though we can certainly spar lightly, perhaps even playfully, this is not the same as play.
Other grappling arts like wrestling and judo engage our bodies in many similar ways to playing, but they are strict in their rulesets, limiting the variety of movements we might attempt to explore otherwise. They lack the creativity and curiosity of play.
Only the art of jiu jitsu allows for the dynamic and creative style of mammalian play. Play requires an uninhibited curiosity for movement, an unbounded fluidity in attack and defense. Jiu jitsu provides a framework for this a sort of play, however, only if practiced in a particular manner.
I'm not claiming that I know the correct way to do jiu jitsu. Far from that. I'm simply stating that not all methods and mindsets of training allow for true play. Training purely for self-defense, particularly with a concentration on situational drills, certainly won't provide a springboard to the fluidity required for playful rolling. Likewise, training for competition and looking to score points by holding static positions also doesn't facilitate play.
Playing won't make you the best competitor or the best at defending yourself on the streets. Play won't even necessarily make you better at jiu jitsu (although I do believe it can greatly improve the capacity to learn). Play is not a means to an end, some novel method of training to take your game to the next level. Play is the experience; it is the end.
Those who do play on the mats know the feeling. The giggle you can't contain after a whirlwind back-and-forth exchange of submission attempts and escapes. The childlike curiosity that washes over you after discovering some strange new sweep in the middle of a roll.
It is our deeply ingrained need for play that gives us these unique feelings on the mat. We're doing something we were meant to do. This is why we feel fully stress free after a great session. This is why jiu jitsu practitioners have the reputation for being 'chill.' This is why the jiu jitsu 'lifestyle' is something more than practicing a martial art, sport, or hobby. Regular play connects us to something deeper than any of these intelligible constructs.
Perhaps you don't feel any of these things. Maybe you do see jiu jitsu as just another hobby. You go into class, learn some new techniques, get a good sweat going during the sparring portion, and head home. You're learning, likely improving, but then again, you could be doing the same with any workout. You could replace your jiu jitsu with weight lifting or acro-yoga and feel just the same.
If that's the case, try and consider your time on the mats. Are you playing?