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The Oft Neglected Backstep

The Hobbyist: A Spectrum

First, sorry things have been so quiet here as of late. I am teaching a new class this semester (bioethics), I have 120 students, and I submitted a major grant proposal just ahead of being at nearly Ground Zero for Hurricane Matthew here in the low country (I live on James Island outside of Charleston). I am still waiting on my roof repair! And on top of it all, this political cycle has simply been grueling, ugly, and tedious. So, it haven't had the time or the motivation to put up anything new in a while. Hopefully, you understand!

That said, the topic of today's post is the so-called "hobbyist" in jiu jitsu. Sometimes this is a title one openly gives to oneself, other times it is a term bestowed on others. In either case, it's not entirely clear what it is supposed to signify. Because I don't see myself as *purely* a hobbyist--more on that in a minute--I want to get my mind around what it means to be a hobbyist. After all, many of my training partners and students would likely view themselves as hobbyists. But I don't think the term is fixed or precise. Rather, "hobbyist," like many concepts, is a family resemblance term--that is, it is held together by a cluster of overlapping but distinct properties or traits.

So, what are some of the hallmarks of the pure hobbyist in jiu jitsu? Here are some candidate characteristics:

  • The hobbyist often doesn't compete in tournaments. If she does, then it is likely just small regional ones.
  • The hobbyist often only trains a few times a week (or even a few times a month).
  • The hobbyist often balances jiu jitsu with other professional, personal, and familial obligations.
  • Hobbies tend to be things we pursue in the name of leisurely fun or fitness (or both)--so, for the pure hobbyist, jiu jitsu is primarily a leisurely pursuit.
  • Consequently, at least in my experience,  pure hobbyists are more laid back about jiu jitsu--e.g., they don't care as much about promotions, they often don't go to seminars, they are simply there for the ride. 
  • Hobbyists may not know much about the history of jiu jitsu, they may not read many books about the sport or buy technical manuals, they may not watch much video, etc. Rather, they show up to practice, get their reps in, and get back to life. Obviously, there is nothing, at all, wrong with that! Each of us is on our own journey.

But not all grapplers are pure hobbyists. While hobbyism is likely best viewed as a spectrum (with pure hobbyist on one end and die hard, highly competitive, or even professional grappler on the other hand, and everything in between). For my part, I have never viewed myself as a pure hobbyist. As someone who wrestled throughout childhood and who has grappled in some form or another for much of my adulthood, I view myself as a grappler. It's partly constitutive of who I am. That's usually not an identity claim that holds between a pure hobbyist and her preferred hobby. Grappling is more deeply ingrained in who I am and how I view myself than might usually be the case with a hobby. When they say jiu jitsu can be a mindset and a lifestyle--there is something to both claims (at least in my own case). As such, it's perhaps unsurprising that I probably take the history, culture, practices, traditions, etc. of jiu jitsu more seriously than someone further down the hobbyist spectrum. 

Another difference between pure hobbyists and their mixed counter-parts is often that the former are less likely to treat jiu jitsu as therapeutic. For the hobbyist, after all, the primary motivation is fun (and perhaps physical wellness). However, for those further up the line on the hobbyist spectrum, jiu jitsu can be embued with psychological and therapeutic meaning--e.g., it can be a way of battling addiction or personal demons. It can help empower children and women and enable others to cope with traumas and life more generally. Here, the practice of jiu jitsu is not merely a leisurely pursuit. Rather, it is a partly therpeutic process that has broader implications for the practitioner's life than may be the case when it comes to the pure hobbyist.

While I take myself to be a scholar of jiu jitsu, a longtime student of the art, a former competitor, a teacher of the science and sport of jiu jitsu and self-defense who really cares about pedagogy and improving how jiu jitsu is portrayed and conveyed, and a martial arts blogger, I think it's great that there are hordes of pure hobbyists out there in gyms around the country and around the world. I am a pluralist, so I say let a thousand flowers bloom. There are a lot of ways jiu jitsu can play a meaningful role in one's life and I am the last person to judge another person's journey.

However, I think that the hobbyist spectrum can create some tension, problems, miscommunication, and even hostility in gyms. When two people are far enough apart on the hobbyist spectrum, they may cease to have a lot of shared interests and values when it comes to jiu jitsu. Their respective motivational architectures are different. So, what might suffice for one may fall short for the other (and vice versa). It is easy for pure hobbyists to offend or accidentally disrespect their non-hobbyist counterparts. Just because the hobbyist is laid back when it comes to her own journey, it doesn't follow that everyone has the same laid back attitude. Indeed, for some intense types, jiu jitsu is helping hold them together. For these latter people, heightened attention may be paid to hierarchies, promotions, perceived value by the community, etc. The stakes are higher for the non-hobbyists. They can sometimes behave accordingly and, I would argue, they should be treated accordingly.

But that is a longer story for another day having to do with jiu jitsu and mental illness. For now, I simply wanted to highlight and discuss the hobbyist spectrum that permeates the grappling community. Overall, this is a very good thing--since variety of perspectives and goals is the spice of life. But like all good things, it, too, can go awry!



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Hey Thomas, glad to see you back at it. I sent an email to you (to an academic address) a few weeks ago. I just googled your name in order to find it so I have no idea if you've read it or not. If not, what's a good way to email you? Thanks!

Thomas Nadelhoffer


Try me at

I am usually good about responding to emails. But the past few weeks/months have been uncommonly hectic. I apologize for the delay!

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