Jiu-Jitsu Letter

Spirit of the Game

Metamoris with something close to a new game. There was a time limit of 20 minutes and it was submission only. The Andre Galvao vs Ryron Gracie match is most discussed and it ended in a draw. But it’s still controversial because depending on whether you were a Gracie-hater or Gracie-fan, you’d argue it wasn’t a draw but instead that one won. Some say Ryron won because he nullified all of Galvao’s attacks, and some say Galvao won because he had top position much of the match. Both sides are wrong, because it was a draw. It was a sub-only match, and there was no sub.

If you wanted to judge the match with some other rules, framework, or mental model of what jiu-jitsu is to you, then you can argue. But it’s pointless, because the rules were set before the match and the result is the result.

In Ultimate (Frisbee), there’s no referee and there’s something called the Spirit of the Game in the rulebook. Players themselves are responsible for fair play. Respect and fairness are prioritized over competition, though the game is still highly competitive.

I remember listening to a Gilbert Arenas interview where he talked about how his team stopped a fast break by fouling someone during a Wizards-Lakers game. Teammates and coaches were saying how it was a smart play. And then Kobe Bryant walked to Arenas and said that was a dumb play. Kobe was saying the player that that committed the foul was the one guarding him so he just gave up one of his six fouls. That’s the meta game, the game above the game. That’s Kobe knowing the rules, so even though he was already the best player, he was also the best in knowing the game. He knew the rules better than anyone, he knew about referees and where they stood and what they could actually see, and he knew about how to use the rules to his advantage.

One of the problems with having referees to enforce rules, is now players can take advantage of that fact and the spirit of the game goes out the window. Violating rules on purpose became a part of the strategy.1 Remember Hack-a-Shaq? Fouls were used to force Shaquille O’Neal to shoot free throws, which he was not good at. Teams would load up on three centers and look at them as 18 fouls. Not as three players or three defenders, but as fouls to sacrifice to force Shaq to shoot free throws. And so Laker opponents were called “smart,” when really, they were actually hurting the integrity and entertainment value of the game. No one likes watching free throws.

In pickup basketball, players referee themselves. They call their own fouls and it works. Games have minimal rules, like winner’s ball and win by two. The games are played to win, but the point is to play.

What if we had Spirit of the Game in jiu-jitsu? Where instead of trying to score points by passing the guard to side control and then waiting for the ref to signal that you’ve solidified position and get the points, you just play?

I don’t know the rules to make up, but I do know that we’ve already made up our own little games on the mat.

All of my friends have a “do not roll with” list. These are typically the people that are reckless, overly concerned with winning and losing, boring, smelly, or generally unpleasant. When I roll, it’s to have fun and learn. We keep it playful and we keep it moving. Safety is prioritized. Rounds are competitive, but winning and losing don’t matter as much as finishing the round with a smile.

If your goal is to become a tournament champion, you have to stick to the rules of your game. But if you’re just training for fun, make sure you’re playing the correct game, not a game someone else made up and doesn’t help you.

If we can approach our training with a mind on the spirit of the game, and if we can emphasize the joy of playing over winning, we can stay on the mat forever.

  1. In baseball, there’s the intentional walk. In football, there’s running out the clock. In soccer, there’s flopping. Strategic rule violations, intentionl penalties, and dishonest plays are everywhere, all in the name of winning. ↩︎

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