How Do You Work Through Fear in Jiu Jitsu?

By Joshua Rozenboom

Have you ever felt nervous about sparring in Jiu Jitsu? Have you ever had doubts about rolling with someone bigger or stronger or more experienced than you? Have you ever spazzed out on a training partner because you were afraid of losing the round? Have you ever been afraid in Jiu Jitsu?

If your answer is “yes”, you’re definitely not alone. If your answer is “maybe?”, then there is a chance you haven’t even noticed this happening, and if you have you’ve worked through it somehow. One of the numerous rewards of training is developing the ability to push us outside of our comfort zone. However, fear is real whether we work through it or not, and some days the fear wins. The problem is that we don’t like to talk about it. We build up our warrior spirit and don’t allow ourselves to entertain thoughts of doubt or anxiety, but most of us do have them… so what do you do about fear?

Fear is a human condition, a primal response designed to warn us of danger and react accordingly. Fight or flight, right? Well, in Jiu Jitsu we get to “fight” and face that danger in a controlled environment with people who aren’t really going to hurt us… probably. We also are no longer running from bears and wolves or diving into large herds of stampeding buffalo to feed and clothe our family. Because of the relative comfort of our modern lives, self-preservation becomes untethered and our “fear” manifests in different ways.

For some people, fear is black and white. “I am afraid because Jiu Jitsu is hard and the academy is full of big, strong guys who train way more than I do”, etc., etc. Perhaps you signed up for Jiu Jitsu after a lifetime of anxiety, or because you felt bullied at some point. Perhaps you train to overcome some other difficulty such as the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle. Jiu Jitsu is an amazing healer and confidence-builder. Many students make great changes thanks to the practice and the community, and after a few short months experience profound improvements in their health and self-esteem.

Other people experience fear in less obvious ways. Your teammates who seem “fearless” may manage their anxiety in smaller increments. The confidence is real, and earned, but inside they may question their next move at every step. The difference with competitive athletes is that they’ll work out most of their anxieties in training, and show up to perform no matter what’s going on inside. Mental coaching is a great tool to help hone your competitive mindset and start to overcome your doubts and anxieties.

The truth is that while fear never goes away, Jiu Jitsu teaches us to act in spite of it. Jiu Jitsu makes us work hard; it makes us uncomfortable. We learn to be relaxed under pressure, literally and figuratively. We learn how where our limits are, and when we reach those limits, we learn to find a solution. Most importantly, Jiu Jitsu teaches us that we are not alone.

The next time you have thoughts of self-doubt, try talking to someone about it. Listen to the people around you, from the newest white belt to the most seasoned competitors. You’ll hear that everyone experiences fear, it just happens at different times, or for different reasons, and we’re all moving forward anyway. Your professor and the higher belts around you have all faced and worked through fears of losing, fear of injury, fear of looking bad in front of other people, fear of failure. They can all help you work through yours.

“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” - Nelson Mandela