The Subjectivity of Pain (and Why BJJ Beginners Feel Like Wimps)


When people start grappling they often feel like wimps.

Warmups are difficult, it’s hard to breath on the bottom, submissions are everywhere, your face gets smushed by your opponents, etc.

At times this sport is just plain uncomfortable!

Well I want to reassure you that being able to deal with this is really NOT about being born tough-as-nails.

It’s more a question of attitude adjustment…

He’s fallen from grace now, but Lance Armstrong is still an interesting example of the subjectivity of discomfort.  He took up marathoning after he retired from an brilliant and unprecedented cycling career.   What did he say after he crossed the finish line of his first marathon?

“…that was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done.”


Harder than 6 to 7 hours of pedaling up mountains in the Alps?

And harder than 23 back-to-back days of cycling in the 3,500 kilometer Tour de France?

At first it seems strange to me that an lifelong endurance athlete who has pushed his body to such an unbelievable degree would consider running for 3 hours more difficult than cycling for hours and hours and hours, day after day.  But it just goes to show that pain is relative.  Many athletic activities involve pain:

  • Completing a set of heavy deadlifts is painful…
  • Doing 100 pushups can be painful…
  • Sprinting 400 meters all-out is painful…
  • Getting punched in the face is painful…
  • And getting crushed by an opponent in jiu-jitsu is painful…

Here’s the thing though.  These are different kinds of pain, and athletes learn to deal with the pain of their own particular sport.

Powerlifters get used to the pain of deadlifts.  Boxers learn not to freak out when they get punched in the face.  And jiu-jitsu practitioners eventually learn to deal with getting crushed.

Partially this is about becoming tougher.  But even more important is learning what your limits are.  Figuring out how far you can push your body without breaking it.

BJJ Black Belt John Will has written about how a beginner caught in knee mount might think he’s going to die.  But then this beginner works his way up to blue belt and the discomfort from the very same position no longer bothers him.

(That article by John Will was called ‘The Seven Things I Wish I Knew as a Blue Belt’ and you can click here to open it in PDF form and/or save it to your hard drive.)

Getting ‘tougher’, being able to survive and continue to function in situations that would have previously been impossible, is all about experience.

And you can’t rush experience.

So don’t worry about being conservative early in your grappling career. Eventually you’ll be able to distinguish good pain from bad pain, and discomfort from injury.

Tap out early for now.  Be a hero later.

Stephan Kesting

P.S.  It’s not really about pain, but still, one of the toughest things to deal with in grappling is claustrophobia.  For those that suffer from it, this condition can be truly debilitating.

Here’s an article about the many different solutions that claustrophobic grapplers found to lessen their affliction and even come to terms with it entirely.

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