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Grappling with Disabilities

Adapting to disabilities in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu & MMA

by Dave Hussey, used with permission
Grappler Branden Hussey with UFC Champion Holly Holm
Source: by Dave Hussey, used with permission

Brazilian jiu jitsu is an increasingly popular sport and martial art, with a growing and tremendously loyal following. Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) offers a flexible approach to self-defense, based on real world combat, and using individualized techniques and strategies. It also provides an avenue for success, confidence and achievement, which readily accommodates physical and psychological challenges. There are many sports where disabled athletes have found ways to compete, but BJJ offers unique environments and opportunities not readily available in many other venues.

The greatest strength of BJJ is the infinite adaptability of the sport, to the individual characteristics of the person. A strong person plays to their strengths, and away from their weaknesses. In BJJ, each player is working with their own strengths and weaknesses, matched up against another person, and their own characteristics.

Because BJJ is a martial art which focuses on “the ground game,” where both combatants are down on the floor or mat, BJJ is a great setting for people with mobility impairments. As opposed to other martial arts which center on striking, kicking or throwing, BJJ is developed around two opponents on the ground. Being on the ground allows people to succeed, who can’t stand, or who might need to use other parts of their body, such as their feet, instead of their hands.

One of the most successful leaders of Brazilian jiu jitsu is Jean Jaques Machado, a 7th degree red and black belt. Machado was born with a birth defect which affected his left hand, leaving him with only a thumb and little finger. Machado has won gold medals across the world, in jiu jitsu as well as other martial arts and mixed martial art competitions.Machado is a fiercely competitive and strong-willed athlete, who believes that his success comes from commitment: “Brazilian jiu jitsu is about believing in yourself,” and “I’m a white belt that never gave up.” Machado achieved success in jiu jitsu, not by overcoming obstacles, but by adapting jiu jitus to his own strengths: “I fit the jiu jitsu on myself.”

Machado’s success demonstrates a key opportunity in jiu jitsu. The inherent flexibility and adaptability in BJJ centers on what works. Athletes are encouraged to work with moves, and find ways to adapt them to their own styles, techniques and strategies. Success against an opponent is often the sole measure of that adaptation.

There are many competitors in BJJ who come to the sport with both visible, and invisible differences. Some, like my friend Sean Fong , are missing limbs. But these people take off their artificial legs and arms, and move onto the mat to compete. That transition from floor to mat sometimes looks like a killer whale leaving the beach and re-entering the ocean, as these people move into an environment where they can compete based on their strengths, rather than their weaknesses.

by Karen Naisoro, used by permission
Brazilian jiu jitsu athletes Sean Fong and Justo Williams
Source: by Karen Naisoro, used by permission

When I grappled with Sean once, I found myself incredibly frustrated by my inability to maintain control of him – his missing leg left me as the one who was handicapped. Competing with him, I was impaired, because I was used to training with people who had two legs. His missing leg let him slip effortlessly out of my controls. Sean didn’t have to overcome his disability – instead, I had to learn to match his level of adaptation.

Another young friend of mine, Branden Hussey, was born with muscular dystrophy and severe physical impairments. But Branden now wears a blue belt in BJJ, and doesn’t need physical therapy anymore because of the strength and flexibility gained through BJJ. I’ve watched Branden grow and mature into a young man, and seen his confidence and maturity soar as he was given a chance to grapple, to compete, and to prove himself.

Kyle Maynard is an athlete, motivational speaker, and the first quadruple-amputee to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, without using prosthetics. Maynard's tagline is "No Excuses" and he has many years of wrestling behind him. "In the end, wrestling was perfect, because his opponents couldn't run from him."

Some in BJJ deal with less physically apparent differences. I know a number of children with autism who started training jiu jitsu, and thrived. The body-to-body contact and pressure helps them focus. The social nature of the sport, and the formality of the training routine, is one where they can learn and practice interacting with others in a way that focuses on their abilities, rather than their differences.

People with disability are often isolated, and even encouraged away from physical competition, unable to find places where they can challenge themselves and find success. Nick Newell is a retired Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter and former collegiate wrestler, also born with a deformed left arm/hand. Like Machado, Newell found ways to adapt his competitive style to his own strengths. But Newell struggled in his career, to find opponents who would oppose him in MMA fighting. Fighting him was described as “lose-lose.” If an opponent lost to him, they’d lost to a man with a disability. If they beat him, they’d be accused of “beating up” a man with a disability. Despite his skill and strength, people often didn’t want to fight him. Kyle Maynard experienced similar responses, with wrestling opponents who were too "squeamish" to grapple with him.

Disability is sometimes seen as somehow “catching,” as though cerebral palsy can be passed on through skin to skin contact. Alternatively, physical differences are seen as fragile, and people worry that they might hurt a person with a disability by touching them. An inevitable result is that many people with disabilities go through life starved for both touch, and for the opportunity to demonstrate and prove the strength and abilities they do have. Training and competition in BJJ offers both that touch, and a chance to show what they can do.

I myself was born with a left hand very similar to Newell’s, and have found a home in BJJ. People I compete with no longer refer to my arm as a disability – instead, they call it my “weapon,” and even sometimes say (jokingly usually) that it’s not fair that I can use it the way I do. But I’ve found ways to make jiu jitsu work for me, found ways where my disability is actually a strength. Like Sean’s leg, people that compete with me are at a disadvantage, because their strategies are all designed to compete against people with two hands.

By C. Hussey. Used with permission
Branden and wrestler Kyle Maynard.
Source: By C. Hussey. Used with permission

Inspirational stories about people with disabilities are common in newspapers, online and on television. Like Branden, Maynard, Machado, and Newell, I’ve been a subject of such articles. Though I enjoyed the attention, the focus on my disability was troubling. When we read about athletes with physical disability, every article seems to use words such as “despite” and “overcome” and imply that persons with disabilities are in a battle with ourselves, and with our own limitations, or to overcome obstacles that the world puts in their way. The inspirational value in these stories is not really in saying “Look what these people have had to overcome!” We all have differences, and all have weaknesses. Some are more obvious than others. Instead, the inspiration is in how these people found ways to elevate and enhance their strengths, in an environment of adaptability.

The world of MMA and BJJ is an environment tailor-made for those of us who have had to learn to adapt, or fail. But the battle is not with our disability. Instead, we are struggling to force the world to let us compete, on whatever ground we can. Once we’re there – win or lose is up to us.

That’s the secret strength of BJJ for those of us with differences and disabilities. There, we are taught to find our own ways of doing things, find our own ways of making them work, based on our own strengths and capabilities. The “right way” of doing a move is determined only by whether or not you can make it work. That flexibility and the infinite adaptability in BJJ parallels a life with a disability. Success is through adaptability. As Machado said, success is through fitting things to you, and your own abilities, and making it work.

David was recently awarded a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu under Gracie Barra New Mexico. Follow him on Twitter.

*Note - not all BJJ or MMA schools are the right places for everyone. Some schools are more formal, and more focused on technique. These schools are often better environments for those looking for the opportunity to explore adaptation.