Today we’re going to talk about assessing risk and reward in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but first let me tell you a story about what happened up on a mountain recently…
Risk vs Reward in the Outdoors
I arrived at the Black Mountain trailhead in the Mount Cypress area a few hours before dark, intending to squeeze in a 90 minute trail run to Eagle Bluffs and back. In my pack was a light fleece coat, a water bottle, and a cell phone that was quite low on power.
The air was cold and moist. Even though it was June there fresh snow had fallen up on the mountains the night before. It was a nice cool evening so I wouldn’t overheat, and if all went well I would be back at the car at least an hour before dark.
I started up the trail. Everything was fine at first, but as I went up the weather got rapidly colder and the trail conditions deteriorated significantly.
The first big climb takes you into the subalpine scrub. By that point the trail had turned into a mix of mud, puddles, snow and ice. The wet slippery roots that criss-crossed the path didn’t make the going any easier.
In other words it was treacherous terrain.
(You can see a little bit of the footage of that day and that trail in the video at the very bottom of this blog post)
As I continued running down the trail the clouds got thicker, it got darker, and it started to drizzle. With the dropping temperatures it felt like it could soon be sleeting at any moment.
It was officially becoming a dark and stormy night on the mountain top.
Now I’ve spent a lot of time in the bush; I’ve got my 10,000 hours in this area and feel very confidant in my ability to thrive and survive outside. And I didn’t like the way things were lining up.
It’s a math question really: every activity has risks and rewards, and you have to figure out which is greater.
The rewards of this Black Mountain run included improving my cardio, spending some time in a beautiful outdoor setting, and preparing for longer runs and hikes later in the summer.
But the number of risks were beginning to accumulate rapidly…
The odds of slipping and falling on this wet, wet cold day were getting higher and higher. Potential scenarios started running through my brain, including spraining a joint, breaking a bone, or ripping open my scalp on a rock.
My cell phone, the dial-a-friend option, was low on charge and could die at any moment. And besides, only a fool relies on a cell phone in the mountains when your coverage could be obliterated by a single inconveniently placed peak, cliff or gully.
Finally, I hadn’t seen a single soul on the trail so far, so the odds of a passerby helping me hobble out with shattered ankle were pretty low too.
If I got hurt there was a very good chance of having to spend an exposed night in the wet, freezing forest without any of the usual survival gear.
Too many things could go wrong, and there wasn’t a very good safety net.
The math just didn’t add up: at this point the rewards of staying on the trail and completing the run were hugely outweighed by the risks. Reluctantly I turned around, and carefully headed for home.
By the time I made it to the car the wind was howling, the rain was pouring, and snow was sticking on the windshield.
It would have been a terrible night to be hiding under a tree, praying for the dawn to arrive. I was glad that I had bravely ran away and bailed on my original plan.
What does any of this have to do with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Quite a lot I think. Humour me and read on for a bit more…
Risk vs Reward in BJJ
Training in contact martial arts is an inherently risky activity.
Even if you’re not punching the other guy in the head you’re still striving with your might to put him into a submission and make him say ‘Uncle.’ There is a very real chance that you can get bruised, banged up, or injured in this process if you train with any degree of intensity.
On the other hand though, the benefits of training against resistance in a real martial art are huge.
By sparring with a resisting training partner you get a much deeper appreciation of the art, increased self confidence, a real ability to take care of yourself in a self defense situation, camaraderie, fitness, and the challenge of competition.
So on the one hand you have risk, and on the other you have reward. The trick is knowing how much risk you should take for what kind of reward…
Firefighters have to make similar decisions all the time.
If a firetruck arrives at a building with flame shooting out every window do they go charging in with ax and hose ( a very high risk situation), or do they adopt a defensive approach, set up a perimeter, and use a ‘surround and drown’ approach (much lower risk).
How much risk to take depends on the potential rewards.
If there are reports of people trapped in a burning house then the fire department is probably going to accept much higher levels of risk to try and save them. But if everyone is known to be out of the house, then there’s no sense in risking firefighter lives to save a house that’s already so badly burned it’ll be bulldozed by the insurance company anyhow.
Here’s the general rule: for small rewards we accept small risks. For big rewards we accept larger risks.
This applies perfectly to BJJ training.
Let’s say you’re rolling in class and get caught in a straight armbar. What should you do: tap out, or continue to fight?
The low risk answer would be to tap out, get back to sparring, and try to avoid getting caught in that armlock a second time.
The high risk answer would be to try one of those desperate last-ditch armbar escape techniques that sometimes work, especially if you’re flexible and have a high pain tolerance. It might get you out of the armbar but it could also f**k up your elbow in the process.
If you’re sparring in class then there’s basically nothing to be gained by being a tough guy and not tapping. Sure, if you somehow get out of a deep armbar you’ll have bragging rights for the next 10 minutes, but then you’ll be running to the freezer for icepacks right afterward.
Escaping submissions in class only gets you low levels of reward. So only accept low risk. Try to counter the submission in its early stages, before it’s fully locked on, but if you’re truly caught then tap enthusiastically and often.
If, on the other hand, you’re fighting in the finals of the Mundials or for the title in the UFC then the rewards of escaping a submission are a little higher. Accordingly you might be willing to accept a little more risk to have that shiny trophy.
The best example I can think of here is the 2004 match in the finals of the Absolute Division between Roger Gracie and Jacare Souza.
Here’s the situation: Jacare was up on points, and Roger locked on a super-tight armbar from the guard.
Jacare’s arm was completely extended but he refused to tap. It’s excruciating to watch, but eventually he managed to extract his arm from the submission. His arm, dislocated and with ligaments torn, was now completely useless, so Jacare spent the next 2 minutes running away from Roger until the time ran out.
It was a controversial fight but Jacare won on points. I’m not sure it was worth it, but he took a giant risk and got a pretty big reward.
However had he done the same thing for every sparring session armbar in his training career he would have been so crippled by blue belt he wouldn’t have been able to tie a belt, let alone compete at the Mundials.
Gauging risk vs reward can be trickier when you’re caught in something that isn’t so black and white…
Maybe your catch-wrestling trained friend came to your BJJ class and is now trying to submit you with some cheesy move like the neck leg scissors. It’s not choking you out, but man, is it ever irritating your pre-existing neck injury. You know you’re going to be sore tomorrow…
So, should you tap out?
Well, let’s start by asking whether this is a high or a low reward situation. If you’re in class then it’s low reward. So tap the hell out, and then go and get your revenge. This isn’t the right situation to be a superhero!
What if you’ve recently broken a rib; it’s getting better but is still sore. There’s a local tournament coming up and you really, really want to compete in it…
In my analysis the risk isn’t worth the reward here either.
The risk here is pretty high. The universal rule of rib injuries is that everyone – EVERYONE – comes back to training too soon, reinjures themselves, and then has to take even more time off training. Plus the odds of getting injured in competition are a lot higher than in training, given that every competitor is swimming in a soup of adrenaline and setting all their dials to ludicrous speed.
The reward of competing in this local tournament however is only low to medium.
Yes, it’s a tournament. Yes, you’ve been getting ready for it for a long time. Yes, there would be bragging rights and maybe even a faster promotion to the next belt if you do well. But there will be other tournaments and other opportunities to snatch glory.
Another high risk situation might be training with that caveman who always goes super hard, turns every roll into a deathmatch, and often hurts people.
Training with someone like this is a medium to high risk situation. Is it worth it? Well, it depends…
Are you a serious competitor with the skills to keep reasonably safe? If so the reward might justify the risk. After all, getting pushed in your training by an animal like that will make you tougher. It’s the old ‘train hard, fight easy’ philosophy.
But if you’re a recreational player and need your fingers, elbows, shoulders and knees to work, pay the bills, and hold your children then maybe you should generally avoid these kinds of cavemen. Keep training with them as an occasional ‘treat’ and spend the majority of time training with lower risk people.
A lot of people ask me if they should add Judo to their BJJ training to become well rounded.
Now I love Judo; it’s elegant, beautiful, and it was my first martial art. But it’s also a relatively risky activity.
(I’ve done at lot more BJJ than I ever did Judo, but almost ALL of my orthopedic injuries and surgeries came from Judo, so I’m pretty opinionated about this.)
Getting thrown to the floor hundreds of times in a class as part of practice is a lot of wear and tear on the body, even with proper break falling.
But getting thrown during randori (sparring), when there is resistance, is even worse. Two bodies, wrapped up in each other’s gi’s, desperately twisting to end up on top, hurtling into the floor can lead to some really bad outcomes.
The damage from Judo tachiwaza (throws) is why so many old judoka end up becoming newaza (groundwork) specialists. Their bodies are so screwed up that groundwork is the only way they can remain active in the sport.
So should you supplement your BJJ training with Judo? Maybe yes, maybe no…
Do you absolutely love the aesthetic of Judo? Or are you a hardcore competitor who always likes to start the match on top and work to pass the guard? Well then the rewards of Judo training might be worth it.
But if you’re a concert violinist who might be fired from the Philharmonic if you show up with your arm in a cast one more time then I would stay away from Judo and resign myself to pulling guard for the rest of my life.
This risk vs reward analysis doesn’t only apply to training. It also applies to conditioning. One example should suffice…
Thanks to Crossfit there are now lots of BJJ athletes doing dynamic lifts like the Snatch or the Clean and Jerk as part of their conditioning.
These aren’t exactly the safest exercises in the world…
The Olympic lifts are complex movements requiring a lot of training and supervision. If you’re just muscling through them without taking years to get your form right then the chance of injury is quite high. There was a time where every single BJJ guy I knew who was also cross training in Crossfit had at least one injured wrist from screwing up his Clean and Jerks.
The danger level is even higher if you’re doing repeated Olympic lifts to failure, which I think is insane. Heaving heavy weights over your head repeatedly while gasping for breath; what a perfect recipe for dislocating a shoulder or cracking a cervical vertebra!
Are the risks of Olympic lifting worth it?
Well it depends… If you’re aspiring to become an Olympic lifter then you can’t improve without doing Olympic lifts. Go for it!
If you want to win the Crossfit games, well then, you might need to take this risk.
But if you do BJJ and are looking for a way to improve your hip explosiveness then there really are safer alternatives. For example, start with Kettlebell swings: this is a relatively low risk exercise with good carryover to many of the hip extension movements in BJJ.
When it comes to training, conditioning, firefighting or any other intrinsically dangerous activity, remember that for small rewards we accept small risks. Only for big rewards do we accept larger risks!
It might amuse you to check out the brief summary video above. It’s a compilation of my Snapchat broadcasts from that wet, wet, cold day on Black Mountain that got me thinking about this risk vs. reward stuff in the first place.
P.S. This article was first written for my free BJJ Newsletter, so it’s a good example of what you’ll get if you sign up. In addition to articles like this I also send out training tips, techniques, and videos you can use on the mat every time you roll.
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