Open letter to Bjj folk: how ego ruins everything.

In any sport, ego is well documented as one of the most potent inhibitors of improvement being effectively gleaned and integrated from training at whatever level. Unfortunately this persuasive self-delusion which often shields us from our own realities is the easiest of agents to which emotions succumb. Whether competitive ambitions exist or one simply participates as a hobby or for health benefits, it is crucial for every athlete to not only remain conscious of their ego, but to realize and acknowledge the particular ways this brain spawn can manifest itself. There are several iterations, and though the behaviors may be things we’ve noticed in others or even ourselves, repression, excuses and justification often prevail.

Then there’s the notion of experience or lack there of. Perhaps we are new to a sport, and thus ignorant. Maybe we’re more seasoned in our respective sport and familiar with the ways of athletic psychology; possessing a rare wisdom I could only wish to have had the entire duration of my jiu jitsu training. Regardless of where we are on this chain of enlightenment, the greatest threat to individual progress is conveniently provided by our own cognition. Thus it becomes imperative to maintain not only a consciousness to the presence of ego, but also an active resistance.

For starters, let’s be frank. The conduct of an overzealous ego are easy to pinpoint from an outside perspective. Anyone who’s done extensive jiu jitsu training has seen the niche-specific behaviors. These actions come in distinct categories with divisive boundaries and though the separations often favor particular people or certain situations, how such egotistical mantra is expressed is often the product of a complicated, hard to define web; a compromising force resulting from varying environmental and subjective pressures. I want to assure you I’m not pointing fingers hypocritically. I’m going to use several real-life examples involving yours truly, highlight other iterations witnessed, and discuss why these behaviors are not only inexcusable, but also aversive to our sincerest aspirations, whether more noble in principle or motivated by the very cognitive mechanism sparking the behavior in discussion. If your mind is open, honest, constructively critical, and partial to the idea of laughter, let us carry on.

No matter how the ego is presented through comparable behavior, there is a prevalent and underlying misconception solely responsible for a significant amount of the conflict at hand. That of course is our immutable (this word will be making several appearances!) perception of where we stand on the food chain of our respective academy. Obviously the concept hasn’t yet developed in beginning students, but given a year or so of training, everyone gains a painfully limited assessment of their abilities along with expectations of how those abilities compare with others, and from this we expect no deviation.

Unfortunately a lack deviation is unrealistic. People excel inconsistently, at varying rates accelerating or stagnating inexplicably over whatever period of time. We might go 6 months where we crush a given opponent literally every time we roll. Then seemingly out of nowhere, something clicks. That opponent’s assent aligns with our deceleration, stagnation, or decline, and we find ourselves struggling to execute the moves we once pulled off with relative ease. A couple more months, and we may struggle to survive with this opponent we once fervently dominated. As cognitive beings we are capable of realizing the inevitable and incorporating this into a new paradigm, but unfortunately it’s common for things to just not go down that way. Often the ego, trying to protect that sacred image of self-importance, avoids acceptance or opportunity for improvement, and spins perception in favorable light despite gross social and practical consequence.

There are several ways the ego works and before I delve into types, I must make a notable distinction. There are manifestations in real-time; I.e. The ego dictating our in-the-moment reactions to adversity. Then there are long-term manifestation; the excuses, loss of interest, the dreading and avoiding of particular roles, just any behavior which accommodates our desire to maintain whatever perception of dominance falsely deemed immutable, and implies some harsh truths we just aren’t ready to face. Maybe we are ignoring particular aspects of training or neglecting obvious holes in our game. Maybe we’ve stopped training all together. Perhaps we are executing every preparatory step but our performances just don’t match the effort and intent. Most painfully to consider: maybe we just aren’t naturally inclined to understand and apply jiu jitsu concepts as well as the next guy who started 6 months after us. With reasons and reality in mind, let’s take a look at the ugly ways we often act.

The Striker

In hindsight, the first time I can look back and honestly acknowledge ego shitting all over my attitude towards training was an experience at my now defunct gym operated out of home for the better part of 2010 and 11. It started small enough. I, along with a training partner and friend Carlos Hernandez, would get together and roll outside of our normal bjj class schedule, at times even weight training and doing cardio together. Over the course of a few months we accumulated several sparring partners, none of whom trained at professional academies, but were rather just intrigued by the nature of jiu jitsu, an intelligent, relatively safe combat sport with undeniable practical application. One fateful day during a particular roll with a supremely inexperienced but well-meaning colleague, I got cocky and tried something stupid; diving on a makeshift kneebar from mount when I wasn’t even remotely familiar with the submission or even position in which I’d placed myself.
With limbs recklessly left vulnerable, my colleague reacted on instinct, grabbing onto my foot with both hands and twisting violently. Now keep in mind he had no prior jiu jitsu knowledge, so there was no “t-grip,” or any functional means of applying leverage. But the threat still remained. Here was a grown man grabbing and twisting some of the weakest bones of the body, in a position where I’d no appropriate counter. (I know…I know…don’t get there.) As my foot torqued beyond any reasonable angle, my bones crackling, popping, I remember more than anything the look in Carlos’s eyes; a shame and disgust with intentions to leave me there dead and move on with life, blatantly apparent. And oh how disgraceful! I had ended up in a position I was “better” than, against an “unworthy” opponent but rather than tap, I kicked him in the throat, insincerely apologized as I transitioned to mount and went on to win by triangle.

Being too prideful to even acknowledge reality, much less take the wisdom that should have been imparted, my ego caused the mind to focus solely on the “W,” the victory, the precious fact I did not have to submit to another person who I deemed immutably below my skill level. Here, it’s interesting to note how much our perceptions of ability cause the ego to vary in presence from person to person, roll to roll. If we look up to a particular higher rank, perhaps a purple or brown belt who’s technique we find exceptionally captivating, it’s common to have no problem tapping to this person because their superiority is ingrained as part of our original perspective. Losing to them in any means doesn’t challenge the parameters previously set in mind. In defeat, the ego is not stimulated and thus doesn’t forcefully arrive in the form of shin to throat contact, eye gouging, hair pulling, small joint manipulation, or whatever foul desperation one resorts to, to escape the clutches of defeat. (I sincerely apologize to anyone I’ve ever put in this situation…)

The Pacifist

Now we can also see passive iterations of this same concept. The Pacifist, upon near submission, may demand for a re-structuring of mat location, only to make minor, life saving adjustments just as you reconvene from the “same” position. There are several parallels, from the guy who only “gasses” and quits when defeat draws nigh, the dehydrated guy, the fake tapper, the guy who quits after he wins once, the guy with strategically placed gi malfunctions which are only corrected should a kimura become firmly locked in place, and what’s most important to remember is the fluctuating nature of the ego. As it grows, our actions can weave into elements of The Striker, or back down to Pacifism as the situations and increasing desperation deems fit.

The Adjunct Professor

A common result of the ego seen in rolls specifically between higher and lower ranks, is the transition from full spar to verbal training and feigned half-ass effort, as soon as the higher rank faces adversity from their immutable inferior. Now I’m sure there are some of us reading this who’ve absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, and more than likely it’s because we are blatant offenders of the concept. The ego is a stealthy by-product of cortexual evolution often presenting itself through survival mechanisms of which we aren’t aware; whether it be an ignorance, misunderstanding, or disbelief of concepts so obvious to those around us.

For those on the other side of the equation, I’m sure there are several who’ve either witnessed this or experienced it personally. And oh, isn’t it gloriously frustrating? The moment, the exact instant you execute the very knowledge this person allegedly hopes to impart, they suddenly change their hand. Standing in the face of sincere defeat, we see a resorting to cowardly tactics; tactics which not only deprive the lower rank an invaluable experience of finishing the submission, but also destroy such magnificent opportunity for the offending egoist to grow and learn! How did they end up in this situation? What aspects of their game did the lower rank capitalize on? What do they need to specifically improve to ensure we recognize certain movements, transitions, and are able to prevent this from happening again? And perhaps most selflessly, what about the wonderful notion of someone understanding and utilizing the very concepts we spend years of our lives perfecting? A beautiful and fruitful moment savagely raped by the all-powerful ego.

The Darwin Award

I want to clarify a distinction between my arbitrary classification of the Darwin Award and the person who maintains a consistent albeit high risk Never Die! attitude with everyone they roll, regardless of rank, size, skill, or mutual respect. The latter is not a product of ego, but rather just a different state of mind all together, perhaps faintly remaining in a small portion of the populous due to vestigial urges of our limbic system. I have no qualms with this all-encompassing bull-headedness, as long as these same people don’t mind me laughing at their unconscious body every time they end up drooling on the bosom of a superior man. We are cool.

The person I do take issue with is the selective version of this same concept; The guy who will risk serious injury, who will have his arm fucking broken before moistening the throat enough to swallow that lump of pride and tap to whatever version of immutable inferiority that whooped that ass today. Of course there are common elements exemplified through The Striker, but here we see the ego drawing a line in what the offending party resorts too; often at the expense of consciousness or limb function while simultaneously scoffing at the guy who hits people. If we limit the options, a prudent choice between the two seems obvious, but letting ego dictate the parameters is simply enabling a handicap from the start.


No actually my guard passes are fucking FINE!!!!!
Ego, like any repressed emotion, can result in some extreme mutations within the individual, and given time, misguidance, and ineffective communication, some equally repulsive and spontaneous purging as well. The point to stress here is that as bjj practitioners, we are never impervious to criticism. There is always room for improvement; never a finish line or objective standard to be achieved.

If left unchecked, the ego only increases in magnitude proportional to success or time put in, and as a result we may lose sight of value in all opponents; yes even people we are officially ranked above, or the inferiors we confidently dominate. Furthermore, this iteration can also lead to an inexcusable irreverence towards lineage.

Now there are situations for very few who become the “alpha male,” of their respective training partners, and if this applies to you it is certainly prudent to seek out more challenging opponents; people better than you to avoid a plateau in your own technique.

Even so, we musn’t forget everyone contributes to improvement in our game. Any opponent, no matter their level of training or ability can exploit holes, expand minds, exert dominance, express new ideas, and functionally enable the achievement of our goals. So test yourself. Next time you’re in class, consciously make a mistake. Use too much muscle or exhibit sloppy technique. Then allow the opportunity for someone to point it out, and note your subsequent reactions to these implied notions of error.

Do you instinctively make scenes in public? Do you challenge senior citizens to death matches? Does your chest puff up like it’s a dick length contest where the winner receives a virgin princess? (we actually have those at my gym for such occasions.) If you answered “yes,” to one or more of these questions it may be time for some serious self-reflection.

However given the cognitive mechanism that got us here in the first place, a more likely scenario involves all effort being delegated to discovery of my identity, gym location, and subsequent vicious attempts to take life during positional flows. (Who’s the new guy fucking up Nate?) That’s okay, as I made peace with my place in this world long ago.

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shortyjj - tl;dr

Truth. It takes a fair amount of ego to think strangers are going to read that much text in your first post.

Good stuff my friend. I like to say I have less ego than most (egotistical much? :-))...but only because I fell so far and hard at the very BEGINNING. I was an undefeated amature kickboxer and golden glove runner up and thought I was untouchable. "take me down? NEVER!!! Ill just knock you out!" hah. Then a friend of mine who had wrestling and a little bjj EFFORTLESSLY did what he wanted with me. Ffffuuuuucccckkkkk...I remember spazzing, going crazy, and happening to look up to see him utterly unconcerned. That sunday we both signed up at this local bjj gym where again I got HANDLED...and armbarred from dimensions I was previously unaware existed. Well now I am unconcerned...I tend to be one of the to guys around but certainly not THE to guy. That honor belongs to my instructor who I outweigh by 70 lbs. and still handles me. and the brown belt who I outweigh by 60 lbs...and handles me...and yes occasionally I get caught by "lesser" guys... but that is always a deep learning experience in itself!!! Phone Post

let's see, what should I discuss in my first post...hhmmm I think I'll write a book.

Holy shit, that was unnecessary.

Egos bad. We get it. Next time don't use 100 dollar words when 50 cent words work better.

This ain't a college lecture. Phone Post


       Makes sense. I enjoyed it, self - reflective, humorous. After a couple years of training, I'm starting to recognize the presence of ego in my rolls and I know it isn't helping me one bit. Those of you who don't like "wasting" your time reading big words and multiple paragraphs should go watch tv or something.  It's not an essay it's a blog. If you don't want to read on the internet gtfo.    

A few weeks back, I wrote MUCH better post about this same topic.

I wouldn't be surprised if OP is a white belt.

So many haters. It was really a very well written article. why has this forum become so mean spirited and filled with the same hateful trolling douchebags as on the UG? Phone Post

Thanks for the read! Always good to self reflect, and remember why we all started! Phone Post


i think the writing is terrible but the point is a good one

To be fair it got a little better when it got into the ego types.

Jessy30 - 

So many haters. It was really a very well written article. why has this forum become so mean spirited and filled with the same hateful trolling douchebags as on the UG? Phone Post

Not me...

My article straight up NAILED the topic.

So many people wrote me and were like, "Woah Shen, your article on Ego was amazing".

So talk to them. I'm not being a hater. I just happen to be the guy who wrote the best article on ego ever written.

shen, it's wonderful that you wrote your little article and i'm sure it was adorable. However, through years of rigorous training and reflection in the most isolated ashrams in existence, under the most celestial of yogis and gurus, i've learned more about letting go and emptying my cup than could ever be explained through mere words.

i can most indubitably and humbly state that i am utterly without ego, a perfect vessel which the universe has chosen to fill with pure, harmonious understanding. i am truly one with the cosmos.


Wow, those sure sound like some really fancy teachers you have studied with!

I can't say the same... I studied the spirituality with a humble beggar. I guess I didn't feel the need of a fancy ashram or famous Guru to develop the highest levels of consciousnesses.

I mean --perfect example-- here I wrote probably THE best article ever written on the topic of Ego, and I barely even mentioned it to anyone.

--That's just who I am.