The “Shy Kid” and Jiu Jitsu


I was a shy kid.

So shy in fact that in first grade I was put in the STAR program.  Twice a week, along with a handful of other “struggling” kids, I spent an hour with he nicest old lady on Earth, working on things like simple puzzles and word association games.  We talked about colors, and learned how to fold paper.  She’d challenge us with “over,” we’d reply in unison “under.”

At home I was reading the encyclopedia and creating my own comic books.

I didn’t realize I was in a class for “slower” kids.  I was there because I wasn’t speaking much, and my teacher labeled me a slow learner.  I was just shy, unchallenged, and bored, Miss Avezzano.

My mom was called in for a parent/teacher conference, and was told, “Peter’s slow to read.”  She replied, “you should try eating dinner with him.”

I did things at my own pace.  I still do.

One day, I discovered how good it felt to prove that I knew all the answers, and began answering every question in class- like all the other “smart” kids.  The following year we received a letter stating that I was chosen for the DISCOVER program for gifted students.  I was still so shy that I missed the first meeting, because I wouldn’t speak up to tell my teacher I was selected.  The first day is always boring anyway.  

The point is this: our society is designed to favor and even reward extroverts, while doing the opposite for introverts like me.  Many children- close to half actually- are far more contemplative than outwardly expressive.  Unfortunately, this can be misconstrued as a lack of intelligence or social skill (which is why “slow” and “smart” are in quotes).  And though introverted and shy are not synonymous, they are oftentimes perceived to be one in the same.

In Jiu Jitsu, the shy and introverted kids often become the best students.  Why is that?

Jiu Jitsu is such an incredibly engaging martial art, especially for kids.  In fact, it’s often referred to as human chess.  What better physical activity could there be for an introverted, cerebral kid?  What’s more, there are countless approaches to Jiu Jitsu.  Since there are no rigid, choreographed forms (or “Kata”) like in traditional martial arts, students can put their own twist on strategy and technique.  Their Jiu Jitsu game will reflect their personality.

The structure of a Jiu Jitsu class creates a level social playing field where success is gauged by individual effort, skill, and achievement, not by who’s most outgoing and assertive.  A dominant personality might make a splash at a job interview, but it won’t help you escape the mount.

Some kids are of course extremely shy, almost debilitatingly so.  The first time they’re called in front of the class to demonstrate a technique, they’ll undoubtedly be uncomfortable.  Afterward, however, they’ll not only realize the experience wasn’t so bad, but that it had actually felt great to kill it in front of their teammates and receive praise from their Instructor.

This is positive reinforcement at its finest.

The belt system is our secret weapon in the war on trepidation.  A new belt, simply put, is public recognition of a student’s achievement.  For the student though, it is tangible proof- something the kid can see and feel and show their grandpa- that they’re getting better.

Jiu Jitsu is hard, and the vast majority of kids are a little timid their first class.  It’s only natural; confidence comes from experience.  Over time, as students practice challenging but totally awesome techniques repeatedly, a skill is cultivated.  Repetition allows these young kids to get really good at something difficult, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

At our academy, we finish each class with our Student Creed.  For many students, this will be their first time speaking in front of a large group of their peers.  But they know the words, they know the cadence, and they have all of their teammates behind them.  Literally behind them, following their cue.  It’s a truly empowering experience.

In Jiu Jitsu there is no smart, or not, there is simply different.  Everyone learns at different rates, and expresses their knowledge differently.  BJJ allows kids to learn and grow at their own pace.  There is no standardized testing, and they are being measured not against their peers but against their own potential.  Any kid who steps on the mat is gifted, and the magic of Jiu Jitsu is that it allows those gifts to be revealed.

author: Peter McHugh

Professor Pete McHugh is the owner and Lead Instructor of McHugh BJJ in Mt. laurel NJ. He is a black belt under BJJ & MMA legend Ricardo Almeida.


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