Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a martial art and combat sport that teaches a smaller person how to defend himself against a larger adversary by using leverage and proper technique. The Gracie family, the founders of BJJ, modified judo and traditional Japanese jujutsu to create the art. It contains stand-up maneuvers, but it is most famous for its devastating ground-fighting techniques. Gaining superior positioning, so one can apply the style’s numerous chokes, holds, locks and joint manipulations on an opponent, is the key in BJJ. Once the opponent is on the ground, a number of maneuvers (and counter-maneuvers) are available to manipulate the opponent into a suitable position for the application of a submission technique.
BJJ training can be used for sport grappling tournaments and mixed martial arts (MMA) competition or self-defense. Since its inception in 1914, its parent art of Judo was separated from older systems of Japanese ju-jitsu by an important difference that was passed on to Brazilian jiu-jitsu: it is not solely a martial art: it is also a sport; a method for promoting physical fitness and building character in young people; and, ultimately, a way of life. We were lucky to have witnessed a training session of this disciplined sport.
It was a rainy afternoon, and as we entered the Dojo Room of the Blue Eagle Gym, we were expecting the common smells of a gym: sweat and wet clothes. But it wasn’t at all like that. There was practically almost no smell and the area was very clean. Our informant was already there together with his teammate. They were getting ready with their white jiu-jitsu uniforms and the belt that comes along with it. We quietly sat on the dojo foams, which were very soft and comfortable to sit on, and observed their training.
We went into the dojo room not knowing anything about jiu-jitsu. As such, we had absolutely no idea what they were doing. During the course of their training, we heard them mention the word “reps” a lot of times, but we did not know what that meant. In our perspective, everything they did was the same: they were always sparring. A ringer would go off, they’d stop, and then they’d resume playing again. Obviously, we were clueless about most of it, so we decided to ask our key informant about this after their training. According to him, what we observed was an open mat training, meaning the training was less formal because the coach was not around. However, what they did on that Friday afternoon was essentially the same as a formal training session. First, they did their warm-ups. Next, they “rep”-ed a move. Rep is short for repetitions, and it is a crucial part of their training because it is a means for them to familiarize themselves with a move until it becomes second-nature. After repping a move, they usually drill a situation, but because the coach was not around, they skipped that part and proceeded to roll – which is what is equivalent to a spar.
During our observation, we felt a bit awkward, because the scene was very “intimate.” Their bodies were intertwined and were too close to each other. It kind of felt wrong to be watching them, like it was something private between them. There were points during their training when we just wanted to laugh out loud because of the intimacy, but we couldn’t because it would disturb their focus and concentration. But despite the fact that we felt awkward watching them, it was quite amazing. Their movements were so fluid and they were so flexible. One minute they were both standing up and the next they were both on their sides, with their legs and bodies intertwined. It was as if they belonged to one body and moved in a single motion. During their training, there were no sounds except for their grunts while fighting. They would also talk to each other occasionally while fighting and during breaks. They would make normal conversation, like friends would, and they would also talk about jiu-jitsu tactics and strategies. There was a sense of camaraderie between them. They were trading strategies, and they were also trying to help each other on how to improve. One of the players was teaching another player on how to improve taking down his opponent. They did this by demonstration, one of them pretended to be the opponent and the other practiced on him. They did this several times, giving a few pointers and comments as they went along, until he got it right. They also watched videos of past tournaments to know the opponent’s strengths and they tried to develop tactics from that.
The people didn’t mind us that much. They did their training normally, and they didn’t show any signs of awkwardness of us being there to witness their training, although they would occasionally glance our way. One of the players talked to us for a bit and asked how we were doing, but other than that they acted like we weren’t there.
When we were only watching, it seemed so easy to do. As mentioned above, their movements were so fluid and smooth — they moved as if it was the most natural thing in the world. For this reason, exactly how demanding the energy, training, and hard-work required for jiu-jitsu did not sink in until we tried the basic moves ourselves. We ended up doing it wrong no matter how hard we tried. Thankfully, they were very patient with us and gave us as much pointers as they could. Also, we felt their immense passion for the sport while they were teaching us because of how seriously they taught us. At times we would giggle because of our mistakes, but they always brushed it off and went back to business immediately. Jiu-jitsu was no laughing matter for them.
We are really glad that we did participant observation at this event because we gathered a lot of things that an interview or a questionnaire might miss. For example, we would not have experienced first-hand the challenge of doing a basic move. Moreover, an interview would not provide us the feelings and experiences of actually observing the training. We would not have witnessed the “awkwardness” and “intimacy” of jiu-jitsu because it will only be described by the interviewee, who won’t feel the same way as we did because he is already immersed with the sport. He wouldn’t be able to explain the feelings that would be felt by a first-timer. It is an entirely different matter to hear someone describe it in a few words than to actually be there and experience it. The fluidity and the discipline of the sport couldn’t be described enough by words. Having a key informant was also very helpful since he was able to answer the technical questions we had about the sport. It increased our knowledge about the sport, which in turn helped us understand it even more.
A questionnaire or interview might be better, though, if the event requires some reconstruction of past events. Interviewing, unlike participant observation, allows the researcher to uncover past events. Moreover, there are some issues resistant to observation. For example, a researcher cannot find an answer to the question “why do people choose to become a vegetarian and what makes them stay like one” just by observing; he needs to interview some vegetarians to know the answer. Also, an interview might be better if the researcher is in a hurry. Participant observation takes a longer time because they have to wait for the particular moment that they are curious about, while on the other hand, the interviewer can already focus on a specific topic.