Exploring Character Through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a great way to explore character.  We can learn a lot from someone based on their Jiu Jitsu.  The movements and systems they choose on the mat while rolling showcases their underlying personality.

We can learn even more about OUR character by using Jiu Jitsu as a tool for self-analysis.

How Does Character Impact My Jiu Jitsu?

In life, I am a control freak.  I like to develop my systems and live comfortably within them.  When things don’t go according to plan, I get very anxious to channel everything back into an avenue of familiarity.

My Jiu Jitsu developed identically.  I pursue positions where I have significant control and slowly progress through systems of attack.  When the positions open up into scrambles I feel uneasy and attempt to regain dominion over the situation.

At times I have approached Jiu Jitsu intentionally counter to my personality.  You’ve heard me say before that this freedom is one reason I really love training no-gi.  I have opened up for scrambles and enjoyed the freedom, but even that choice seemed to be pushed from the point of view of control.  I was controlling myself into scrambles.

Some of my main training partners live to create this chaos in the moment.  They feel bogged down in bored in the same old positions and want the entire game to open up.  When I grapple them it becomes a battle to see who can “impose their will.”  In many cases someone’s personality and style are very closely related.

When it comes to personalities, there aren’t very many “wrong answers” but self awareness is key.

Dean Lister Thinking About His Jiu Jitsu style, character, and personality

Character Exploration: Personality IS Style

It took me a few years to realize this about my Jiu Jitsu.  Once the fundamental moves are learned, I feel personality is the largest part for someone discovering their Jiu Jitsu style.

When grapplers are looking for a mentor with a Jiu Jitsu game they can mimic, body type is important, but equally important is personality.  I’m not talking about overall likability, or charisma.  How does their personality manifest itself in their Jiu Jitsu?

Is this person aggressive or passive?  Tricky or direct?  Flowing or powerful?  Flexible or rigidly firm?  A problem solver in the moment or a prepared scenario type of grappler?

These tendencies inform their stylistic choices as much as anything.

BJJ Pass Work

Some imagined examples 

  • Keenan seems like a video game problem solver who adapts to find the patterns to beat the final bosses.
  • Yuri Simoes appears to prefer aggressively driving towards his goals – bulldozing through obstacles.
  • Garry Tonon approaches his matches in a roundabout method, latching on and seizing opportunities when they present themselves.
  • Kron Gracie prefers simple calculations using fundamentals to progressively march towards success.

Each of these competitors has achieved the highest levels of success with completely differing approaches.  Embracing their strengths while being aware of their weakness is part of the journey.

Trying to defeat each of these opponents based on the above judgments would call for completely different strategies and tactics.  Don’t give Keenan enough time to evaluate, and offer only unsolvable puzzles.  Get Yuri to overextend himself, or stall him out where he can’t get moving.  Play overly conservative to never give Garry Tonon the scrambling opportunities he needs.  Bog Kron down in complexities to deal with.

How Well Do You Know Yourself?

Often we don’t know much about ourselves.  It’s like we are inside the bottle, so we can’t read the labels on the outside.  We blindly avoid staring into the void, afraid of what we will find. Afraid of the mistakes we have made.Alice In Wonderland Stuck In A Bottle

Jiu Jitsu can be better than any personality test in the back of a magazine to learn more about ourselves, our tendencies, and how we chase goals.  The key to understanding is doing, to have data to evaluate and Jiu Jitsu involves plenty of “doing.”

  • Do you play defensively, even when opportunities to attack open up?
  • Make excuses?
  • Attack recklessly and open up windows to be countered?
  • Rise to the level of the competition?
  • Struggle with pressure?
  • Struggle with consistency?

Answering questions like these with minimal judgment can be the first step in starting to think about progressing to a better version of myself.  Judging ourselves too harshly will build a wall stopping opportunities to move past our current levels.  The sting of criticism shuts us down.

If I see that in Jiu Jitsu, I largely play defensive, I can start to identify patterns.  Maybe playing defensively is the right choice 99% of the time.  There are surely times where this defensiveness is the wrong choice though.  How can I identify those windows?

In life, when am I too conservative?  When would being more aggressive put me closer to achieving my goals?  Awareness will let me start to push myself out of a stagnant comfort zone.

Jiu Jitsu Builds Positive Character Traits

BJJ is a prime way to develop positive character traits.  After honestly assessing where we are, we can see our areas of the largest liability and make improvements.  Here are a few examples of ways Jiu Jitsu can improve someone’s character.


By reciprocating pain with our partners during drilling and rolling, we build empathy.  Recklessly injuringAllen Gibson Promoted From Purple Belt To Brown Belt them is inexcusable.  Taking care to protect them (sometimes even from themselves) also helps build the skill of empathy.  Helping others on the journey coming up as they battle the same struggles we had to deal with is empathy in action.


We notice performance increases in relation to the effort we deploy.  This loop reinforces more effort, for more results.  Suddenly there is a feeling of empowerment over our destiny.  Confidence builds, as we build trust in ourselves.  Also being able to choke out most people in the world is a freeing feeling.


There are no rewards reaped for quitting early.  Inconsistency or stops and starts do not lead to the needed skills.  Determination is positively reinforced at every turn, slowly building the habit over time and improving the ability to determinedly pursue any worthy goal.

And So Many More…

Let Jiu Jitsu be a tool to work on whatever elements of your character you would like to improve.  Build self-discipline and trust by getting in those “Character” repetitions both on and off the mat.

Historically, I have trouble assertively following through to achieve a goal, so I have been shaping my Jiu Jitsu training to fortify my resiliency.


After rolling with someone I feel like I know them much better.  There is a whole heap of data from all the decisions made in a round.  Snap judgments like how trustworthy they are are informed by how they took care of me during the roll.  Their efficiency and directness talks about their organizational abilities.  The lists go on and on.

That’s why Jiu Jitsu friends can be such close-nit societies.  We feel like we all know each other so well it is a similar bonding to what some veterans talk about.

The Negative Vibe

It isn’t always sunshine and rainbows though.  Have you ever rolled with someone who felt like their ego was on the line?   Like they NEEDED to win to fill some void in themselves?  How did you feel afterwards?  Dirty?  Used?

We all have bad days in life.  Sometimes we need the mats to vent as an outlet.  But Jiu Jitsu shouldn’t be about using your opponents as punching bags to fight your inner demons.  BJJ is most healthy when the focus is on working on ourselves instead of damaging others.

There have been a few opportunities where the “them” I know much better brings something negative to me.

Tonight I Will Roll LightCombat sport legend Erik Paulson started to feel like negativity from training partners was rubbing off on him and started to become selective about who he rolls with.  Although I don’t currently have to worry about this, I have definitely followed my gut feeling on numerous occasions and made intuitive judgments about who I roll with.

This feeling of negativity is NOT normal.  There is a difference between being tapped and dominated in a round and feeling “icky” afterwards.

Surround Yourself With Positivity

I feel like a gym with the correct culture should minimize feelings of negativity between training partners. Constantly cultivating an environment of growth and personal development keeps the garden weeded.

One of the touch elements academy owners face is having to kick out students who can’t fit within this mold.  Often these students are the ones who need the growth more than anyone else.

If you are feeling negative or hostile vibes regularly from your training partners maybe dropping in to some other gyms will help you get a feel for a better culture!

Jiu Jitsu is meant to be fun.  Enjoy the therapeutic elements of the journey, but don’t let them replace your reasons for training and sap your motivation.  There have been huge stretches of my training where my main focus was just having fun and unwinding.  Savor every day.


  1. Nice post. I’ve certainly seen reflections of people’s personalities in their BJJ, especially during rolling. Personally I’m impatient, and this shows in my rolling as I sometimes give up guard or rush in just to get things moving. I hate it when you partner up with someone who just wants to lie back and wait, or sit on knees to-ing and fro-ing for position. But now that I’m older and a bit more patient, I’ll certainly be transferring this into my BJJ now I’m back rolling. Thanks, Stephen

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience Stephen! For me I find that the rolling personalities I don’t like tend to be ones I wish I had a little more of! (Not always). Good luck in your journey.

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