Submit Your Ego, Don’t Kill It: How to be a Better (Jiu Jitsu) Partner

Phrases condemning the ego abound in jiu jitsu.

“Kill the ego when you walk in the door…or someone will do it for you!”

“No room for egos here.”

It’s become commonplace to think of the ego as an enemy, and address it that way, but a good understanding of what it really is will help you keep it in its proper place…which is alive and well, and at your personality’s control panel.

Redline Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Head Coach and Gracie Black Belt Ty Gay says, “We don’t want to kill the ego…we just want to bring it under control. Submit it.”

Many people use the word “ego” without even understanding what its original intent was. Sigmund Freud coined the term to describe the part of the human psyche that mediates between the “super ego”, which is your moral compass, or your conscience, and the “id”, that primitive part of your brain that operates off of instinct.

So, see, you actually need your ego alive and healthy. It’s got a big job to do.

Letting the id rule would mean always following your impulses. (If you don’t immediately see the problem with this just take a few minutes to speculate how long it would be before you lost your job and/or were incarcerated for acting on every whim that floats across your brain). Being held captive by your super ego would make you a martyr, only thinking of others. The ego helps you be who you need to be, and take care of yourself and others, in balance.

Jiu jitsu coaches often tout the importance of being a good partner, and this is one of the best lessons of the art; how humility and strength work together to make us better people through our brothers and sisters.

But what does that mean, exactly? What constitutes a “good partner”?

Everyone has goals for their own study of a martial art. No one does it for purely altruistic reasons, to help others grow, although that is (hopefully) something that develops in a practitioner once they get into it. Although this is a big topic, there are a few bullet points that are worth mentioning.

Ask Questions, Give Feedback

At Redline, a statement you’ll hear over and over on the mat is the encouragement to “Ask questions and give feedback”. The reasoning for this is that every session, every encounter is a learning experience; you can be the student or the teacher, sometimes changing roles several times during the space of a roll or a class.

Asking questions is easy. “How did you do that?” “Do you have any suggestions on how I can improve that move?” “Can we go a little easy today?”

Giving feedback is sometimes a little more tricky, but most people are used to it, to a degree.

The more uncomfortable kind of feedback, the kind you hesitate before giving, might be the most important.

It’s not always necessary to tell someone why you don’t want to roll or partner with them. Sometimes there are simply personality conflicts, and while we all want to be adults and grow, ideally, at the end of the day being adults sometimes means realizing that not everyone is meant to be best friends. If not partnering with someone will be the best thing, overall, then it’s the wiser choice.

If your lack of desire to roll with someone has to do with something like hygiene deficiencies, it may protect feelings if you keep the reason to yourself and simply avoid them. Same with avoidance because of weight differences, or lack of control–these aren’t always things people can help, and it can certainly take a toll on your self esteem to hear that you’re still a little spastic as a blue belt, or that you crush your partner even if you’re trying not to.

So there may be occasions where it’s better not to say anything. Sometimes no amount of gentleness can overcome hearing something that embarrasses you. Also, not everyone has the verbal acuity to communicate delicate information in a way that’s considerate. But there are times when it’s probably the right thing to do to tell someone your reasons…you just have to put a little thought into it.

This is a skill that could bleed over into the rest of life; how to compassionately tell someone something that might be hard for you to say, and awkward for them to hear.

It may ultimately help someone to hear an uncomfortable truth, especially in jiu jitsu. Your frankness could be the turning point, and a whole new world of training partners could open up to them once they decide to get serious about taking off the extra weight, or finding a new method of washing their gi.

Put Yourself First…Within Reason

Sometimes it’s our super ego (concern for others) that keeps us from giving honest feedback, but sometimes it’s also our id; have you ever stopped before telling someone to go lighter because you don’t want to look like a geriatric weakling?

This is where the properly balanced ego comes in.

You should think of yourself first. Ultimately…you’re practicing jiu jitsu for yourself. This is completely different from thinking of your image, which is what you’re worried about when you don’t give feedback or ask someone to ease up when you’re worried about looking soft.

Redline Head Coach Ty Gay always says that “…we’re trying to do jiu jitsu for as long as possible”, not blow out our knees or let our partners rip off our arms so that we can be out for months while we heal, or be too beat up to practice our art as older folks. The secret to this is simple…be considerate of yourself.

You’ll be a better partner if you put yourself first. This is arguably good advice for EVERY aspect of life, but it’s true for martial arts as well, and maybe even especially important in that arena. Protecting your longevity means you have more to offer the practice as a whole, and that will benefit partners, too, in the long run. Say no if you have to. Decline rolls. Leave early. Listen to your body.

Remember That We’re All Connected

Putting yourself first is paramount, but remembering that “you” are also a “we” will keep that in its proper perspective.

Your personal belief system may not include the idea that all living things are connected, but if you want to progress in jiu jitsu, you should absolutely embrace that attitude towards your fellow practitioners. Their progress is your progress.

There are times when your needs preclude a partner’s. Then there are times when you’re stronger and can give more. You need to be in the practice of growing your awareness of those natural ups and downs so that you can take advantage of them, in their proper order. Give yourself what you need, give your partner what they need. And then vice versa. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Learning how to be a good partner will be an ongoing part of your jiu jitsu process for your entire journey. The suggestions here aren’t exhaustive by any means, but compassionate communication, putting yourself first, and remembering that we’re all in this together should be a good start.

“Cultivate virtue within yourself, and it will be true.” Tao Te Ching

For more on the id, ego, and super ego; McLeod, S. A. (2016). Id, Ego and Superego