I've been training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for 12 years now. It doesn't make me an expert by a long shot, but I have enjoyed it. I'm a brown belt, but no grappling gun, an assistant coach, but more of a crash test dummy. But I'm also an educator, and have spent some time thinking about gamification, the use of game elements in other contexts. In that setting, I've thought a little bit about play.
I think it was Rigan Machado who said that you don't fight jiu jitsu, you play it. When we think of play, it involves operating within limitations - we don't strike, use some submissions, follow guidelines of etiquette etc. These things do not limit what we do, but enable it.
I'm going to take four ways of playing and apply them to jiu jitsu training.
1. Easy funEasy fun is fun precisely because it is easy (in a relative sense). Warm up rounds are for that reason, not for tapping your opponent, or to win. It is about working together to get ready for more serious rolling. To perform at your best you need to be warm - going straight from cold to full bore is a good way to get injured.
Saying you are going light, and then going hard is not easy fun. Going light and playing jiu jitsu gives you and your partner more time to think about what is happening, maybe to back track and ask questions. Know the difference between light and hard and keep to it. Easy fun means it isn't about winning or losing but learning.
Flow rolling is fun because it can be fast or slow, and develops timing and a sense of "flowing with the go" (Rickson Gracie) rather than "going with the flow". Rolling without finishing submissions, but focusing on the form of jiu jitsu, the perfection of technique and timing is a lot of fun. You are working against, but also with your partner. To hold them down to death is to break the rules, miss the point, and stop playing.
Drilling, or doing situational drills doesn't always have to be 100%, you need time to think about technique, develop reactions and not rely on strength.
2. Hard funThe name might suggest "going hard" and grappling ferociously, and while this might be the case for competition rounds and comps, you have to remember that that there is a difference between hard training and "fighting for the farm" as an old instructor of mine used to say. We aren't in the Octagon getting paid tens of thousands of dollars. Wanting to win and wanting to hurt someone are not the same in BJJ.
Part of the "going hard" thing is that using strength can be detrimental to your development - technique is primary. Strength is what you use in competition to accompany technique, but strength itself is not enough. Strength and conditioning should be essential cross training, but to roll better, roll more.
Hard rolling is fun given the satisfaction of having given your all. Winning is not everything, but it is the aim when competing. Being competitive is good in training, but at the right times.
There is an idea known as fiero, which game designer Jane McGonigal defines in her book, Reality is Broken as:
Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it – and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.
This is what we feel when we tap an opponent, and what makes hard fun, well fun. But it is play. We work within rules, time limits, a concern for the other person's safety.
I remember once watching some MMA on DVD with a fellow who had been on the front of the Iran-Iraq war for seven years. When the commentators described the fighters as warriors, he scoffed. And with good reason.
3. Social funA lot of people I know like to hang out after class and shoot the breeze, chat about BJJ and life in general. Many people socialise after class. BJJ is social fun because of two reasons. Firstly, it is very hard to do much BJJ on your own apart from a few drills. BJJ might not be a team sport like soccer or rugby or cricket, but you are only as good as the training partners around you, and no one likes the person who always sulks after losing (some of us get frustrated at ourselves, but should always acknowledge the skill of others), always goes hard (see above), doesn't talk to people, or hurts people often.
The second is, as I saw somewhere on the internet "I'm at the stage of life where I've been choked by most of my best friends". Hard training, sweating together, urging each other on. All these things lead to the building of friendships. We learn to respect (hespect ;) ) each other for their dedication, hard work, ability, helpful nature and so on.
Where I train, we work hard on mat culture - always be willing to roll, show hespect, look after each other, and so on. The best gym may not be the one with the best BJJ, but be the place where people feel comfortable enough to keep coming back, invite their friends, etc.
I think a mark of a good club culture is one where visitors feel welcome, and women feel comfortable. I mean, a room full of sweaty blokes, and grappling being up close and personal. Good culture is everything, sleaziness is no fun for women.
4. Serious funThe last type of fun is serious fun. We train because it is fun, we train to get better at BJJ. But what if in the process you get fitter, lose some weight, make friends, gain self confidence, get over addiction problems, find some purpose in life? Martial arts has been around a long time, and often has led to betterment. Of course, there is no shortage of less than honourable people in life, and in martial arts. In general though, a lot of people I've met over many years of different martial arts are decent people. I believe their training has played a role (or in the case of BJJ, played a roll ;) ).
So when next you roll, play jiu jitsu.