In response to a piece I wrote for BJJ Eastern Europe on anger and jiu jitsu (see here)--where I suggested that anger is bad both for training and competing--I got a message from a reader who liked the article but pushed me to further explain my claim that anger is maladaptive on the mats. On his view, because jiu jitsu is a martial art and competing is a combat sport, anger and hostility seem appropriate emotional and motivational states in the context of competitions even if anger may not be appropriate in the training room. After all, my opponent is trying to harm me, so why wouldn’t anger and hostility be suitable emotional states under these circumstances? That’s a very good question. So before I write the third and final post in this series about anger—which will focus on anger management for jiu jitsukas—I thought I would further flesh out my view that anger is more likely to hinder (rather than foster) one’s development and progress in jiu jitsu.
The best place to begin this investigation is to explore some aspects of anger that I didn’t highlight in my earlier piece as much as I could (and should) have—namely, that anger is retaliatory and remedial in nature. When I am fearful or afraid, it engages my biological flight mechanism whereas when I am angry it triggers my fight mechanisms. So, when I am angry at someone (e.g., a friend who has betrayed me) or something (e.g., an unjust social arrangement or institution), one of the primary goals of this emotional state is getting payback. In this sense, anger is usually targeted at people or institutions that have unjustly or unfairly and intentionally harmed me or someone I care about. While we sometimes talk about being “angry at the world,” anger is not normally this diffuse in practice. Instead, it is narrowly directed at specific individuals and institutions that have intentionally harmed us in some way or another.
As such, it’s not hard to see why anger was biologically adaptive. Individuals who did not get angry when unfairly provoked or attacked would be viewed as spineless pushovers—which would make it less likely these individuals would do well in the struggle of the survival of the fittest. Individuals who become angry when provoked are less likely to be provoked in the first place. So, the propensity for anger has a deterrent effect on others. Conversely, individuals who do not get angry (and hence do not get even) will invite more provocation and abuse than their anger-prone counterparts.
But as I said in my first piece, just because anger has been and can be adaptive doesn’t mean it’s appropriate in the context of jiu jitsu. Indeed, on the contrary, I think that more often than not anger will tend to be either misplaced or disproportionate (or both) on the mats. Let’s start with the former claim. Imagine a student who comes to class already filled with anger and hostility about transgressions that occurred outside of the gym. Now, he comes to practice looking to take out his anger on his training partners. In this case, the anger is misplaced because it is not targeted at the right individuals or institutions. Rather than being directed at the people or institutions that caused the feelings of anger and frustration in the first place—which are the apt targets—this angry individual is unfairly taking out his anger on people who did not cause him unjust or unfair harm and who don’t deserve his ire or abuse. Hence, in these contexts, the anger is misplaced and inappropriate.
Now, let’s imagine instead someone who comes to practice looking to take out his anger on a training partner at the gym who he believes has harmed or disrespected him unjustly or unfairly. Here, the anger won’t be misplaced—assuming he’s right to feel aggrieved by his teammate’s behavior. However, anger may still be inappropriate even in these contexts. After all, another property of anger is that it tends to cloud our judgment. When we’re in the throes of anger, our emotions often get the best of us, leading us to get carried away. The angrier we are, the more likely we are to lose our cool. In these contexts, we will tend to dish out more payback and punishment than our offending training partner deserves. So, the angry student under these circumstances may end up injuring a teammate for a minor violation. In this respect, anger often leads to disproportionate punishment—which can start a cycle of retaliation that threatens to spiral out of control. If I unfairly harm someone in a minor way but his response is overblown, then I will be angry myself and seek to get my own payback. This kind of cycle of reciprocal anger is the stuff of which blood feuds are made.
So, at least when it comes to training partners, given the tendency for anger to be either misplaced or disproportionate, anger is often maladaptive in the gym. On the one hand, one shouldn’t bring one’s anger into the gym only to target completely innocent training partners. On the other hand, in the heat of a roll, it is especially difficult to keep one’s anger in check even when the anger is justified and directed at an otherwise apt target. As I will argue in the third and final piece in this installment, there are better ways of dealing with anger that is caused by one’s fellow students (or even one’s instructors).
But what about anger in the context of competition? Why isn’t anger appropriate under these circumstances? After all, jiu jitsu is a martial art and a combat sport. Isn’t the other person trying to harm you when you’re competing? That depends, of course. The goal of a jiu jitsu match in the competitive context isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) to harm one’s opponents. One should merely want to win the match (by either points or submission). And while it certainly happens from time to time that one injures one’s opponent, this shouldn’t be the goal. As such, anger isn’t the right response. Why not? Because the person who injured you wasn’t trying to unjustly and intentionally harm you—he should have only been trying to win a fair competition by following the rules and trying to win. If an opponent injures you, it should be accidental. Indeed, injuries in this context are often one’s own fault when they occur—e.g., you didn’t tap as early and as soon as you could have. By stubbornly refusing to tap, you brought about your own injury. So, if you should be angry with anyone, it should be with yourself and not your opponent!
In short, so long as both competitors in a tournament agree to and act according to the rules, no unfair or unjust harms are caused. And if there are no unjust or unfair harms caused, anger is misplaced—even in the context of combat sports like jiu jitsu. So, while one certainly can use anger as fuel for the fight, it is nevertheless misplaced. Moreover, if one relies on anger as motivation, one is also likely to overreact to perceived harms during the match, which will in turn often lead to unsportsmanlike behavior. In these respects, anger creates the same problems in competitions that it causes in the training room. Just because your opponent is trying to beat you, it doesn’t mean he is trying unjustly or unfairly harm you. And if he is, you have a right to be angry, but you should still keep your anger in check during the match lest you help create a cycle of paybacks that will quickly spiral out of control. If you have a genuine reason to be angry at a fellow competitor based on being unfairly or unjustly harmed, then this is something that should be expressed and addressed after the match when cooler heads are more likely to prevail. Getting angry during the match will only take you off of your game. This suggests that even when anger is justified, it can be counter-productive in a competitive setting.