Why Are So Many Surfers Flocking to Jiu Jitsu? The Answer Lies More in the Mind Than the Body

This piece was produced with support from our friends at Moskova.

There’s a crossover between big-wave surfing and jiu jitsu, but it’s different than what you might think.

It’s not about raw strength. It’s not about ego. It’s about being grounded. It’s about humility, and respect.

“There’s no fakers in surfing or jiu jitsu,” confirmed professional surfer Eli Olson when he spoke with Adventure Sports Network this winter.

Olson at Sunset Beach Jiu Jitsu on Oahu’s North Shore. Photo: Ryan ‘Chachi’ Craig

Olson has grown up surfing the powerful waves along Oahu’s North Shore. He first stepped on a jiu jitsu mat when he was only nine years old. Today, he’s as respected in the lineup at Pipeline as he is on the mat at the Sunset Beach Jiu Jitsu dojo.

Olson is as respected in the lineup as he is on the mat. Photo: Courtesy of Moskova

“There’s no fronting. You have to be true to yourself. It keeps you honest, which is what I like a lot about both of them,” continued Olson.

We’re all here for the same reason,” explained Jeff Doner, a black belt and founder of Sunset Beach Jiu Jitsu. “We’re all here to learn and improve. Having the right technique is vital to success in jiu jitsu, and that takes practice and discipline.”

An ancient Japanese martial art, jiu jitsu originated among samurai as a means to combat an armored opponent, by utilizing various techniques to throw, lock and pin opponents, using their energy against them.

While jiu jitsu is a sport where one faces only one opponent at a time, its appeal for many lies in the sense of community built around the sport. Photo: Ryan ‘Chachi’ Craig

In recent times Brazilian jiu jitsu has taken off, thanks largely to innovators such as Carlos and Hélio Gracie. Utilizing an arsenal of grappling techniques that require years and years of training and study to master, jiu jitsu is as much a mental endeavor as it is physical – which is what makes it so applicable to surf training.

Olson alongside world champion longboarder and longtime jiu jitsu devotee Joel Tudor. Photo: Ryan ‘Chachi’ Craig

A number of the world’s best surfers use jiu jitsu as a way to train and prepare for the harrowing conditions they may face in the ocean. And vice versa, there is a large number of jiu jitsu black belts that enjoy the solace and unique challenges that wave riding provides.

“In Brazil, a lot of people do judo and jiu jitsu. It’s a normal thing. I did a little bit of judo in high school. Then when I moved to Maui, I started going to a small jiu jitsu academy with a few Brazilian friends,” explained Women’s Big Wave Tour competitor Andrea Moller to ASN.

Moller squeezing in some training at Maui Jiu Jitsu just before flying to Mavericks to chase a XXL swell. Photo: Gabriela Aoun

Moller grew up a competitive windsurfer in Brazil before relocating to Maui when she was 18. Today, she’s one of the most elite, barrier-breaking women in the big-wave game, having recently placed 2nd at the Jaws Challenge.

Moller turns to jiu jitsu for practice in how to stay calm in critical moments. Photo: Fred Pompermayer

“I think what I like about jiu jitsu is the mind game. It’s like chess with your own body physics,” explained Moller. “I think that’s what helps me the most with surfing. You get pounded and you don’t have control over that, so you have to learn how to calm yourself down and work with the physics that you have at that moment, and that’s what jiu jitsu gives me.”

“Nothing will knock the ego out of you quite like a wave on the head at Jaws or facing a beast on the mat,” confirmed Lyle Carlson, a big-wave surfer and shaper from Huntington Beach who’s also deeply committed to the art of jiu jitsu.

Carlson, who specializes in shaping big-wave guns, equates the purity of jiu jitsu and surfing. Photo: Gabriela Aoun

Both sports require an exorbitant amount of physical conditioning to perform at an elite level. But it’s as much about mastering the body as it is mastering the mind. The psychology of surfing and jiu jitsu requires mental toughness and the ability to stay calm under extreme duress.

Carlson training with his teacher, Moku Kahawai. Photo: Gabriela Aoun

“Jiu jitsu has helped me mentally, physically and spiritually on pretty much every level,” said Olson. “The more I trained, the stronger and more confident I felt. I feel like it’s given me head strength and physical strength. I’d be training with these big, tough guys all night then go surf in the morning and it was like, ‘Oh these waves aren’t that strong, I can hang.'”

Olson on an outer reef bomb this November: Photo: Frame Grab from Nick Green

Jiu jitsu demands focus and the ability to think clearly when the pressure is on. Big-wave surfing is much the same. For example, trying to escape a choke hold in jiu jitsu is comparable to being held underwater by a set of large waves.

“Are you going to panic or are you able to calm yourself down and figure out how to get out of that situation? Under the water you can’t just tap out. But you’ve learned to mentally control yourself, calm yourself down and figure out what the next step is,” explained Moller. “What’s the next move from here? You pull the vest, grab the leash and hope for the best. Or else you go to sleep. But you can’t panic.”

There’s a purity in the pursuit of greatness in both surfing and jiu jitsu. The motivation has to come from within. The dedication it takes to succeed demands everything.

“It just really keeps you humbled and honest. No matter how good you are in either sport, the best in the entire world will always say there’s still so much room for improvement and you can always get better,” said Olson. “I think that’s what’s so addicting and keeps us locked in, wanting more, always wanting to better ourselves. I always want to be a better version of myself today than I was yesterday. Always striving to move onward and upward.”

“I always want to be a better version of myself today than I was yesterday,” says Olson. Photo: Ryan ‘Chachi’ Craig

One has to strip away the ego and allow the educational and physical metamorphosis to take place. An over-inflated ego is going to lead to injuries on the jiu jitsu mat, and in big-wave surfing, it could ultimately result in death.

“It’s not just a higher belt, it’s also how you treat each other. Same thing with the ocean. Nature is so much stronger than you. You just have to be humble. You can’t just go all out swimming against the current. You’re going to get bounced back in,” said Moller. “It’s humbling and I think that’s why I like both of them. The moment you are cocky in either of these sports you’re going to get sent back right away. You show up to a jiu jitsu gym and you’ve got an ego, you’re going to get hurt. Same thing in the lineup. No bragging. You brag today and tomorrow you’re drowning. That’s life in general.”

For as tough as big-wave surfing and rolling jiu jitsu are on the exterior, they can also be highly emotional, highly personal experiences.

“I was driving home from a jiu jitsu class a while ago and was almost in tears. I wasn’t hurt or anything. I was moved. I can’t really explain it. It just strips away everything and leaves you exposed. I think that’s how you grow as a person. I think that’s what jiu jitsu and surfing both can do,” surmised Carlson.

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