Ego Death and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Nikolai Yakovenko
10 min readFeb 1, 2021

Something happened on the mats in Brooklyn.

I was rolling with a wiry young white belt. All knees and elbows. We were practicing a choke from side control, where you use the corner of your gi to strangulate your opponent, cutting off the blood supply to his brain.

On a cool spring afternoon nine years ago — I had to look up the year, which is good — I nearly died in a head to head collision during a rugby match. More precisely a teammate ran into me at full speed, and struck my left temple with his forehead. I woke up a few minutes later, unable to move the right side of my body.

“Don’t move,” said the athletic trainer — they were worried about a neck injury. I knew exactly where I was, and what had happened. Although I had feeling in my right arm and leg, I could not move my fingers or toes, even a little bit. After a few minutes of jovial conversation with the medic — everyone else was freaking out — I went into a seizure. I woke up the next day in the ICU, out of an induced coma. A breathing tube down my throat, unable to move my right arm, and my left arm tied to the gurney so I didn’t sub-consciously yank it out. Those few minutes of waking up choking on a piece of plastic — were perhaps the worst of the whole ordeal. Worse than being stuck in bottom side control.

It took me years to recover.

Do you think the teammate who almost killed me had remorse, or reflected on his actions? To ask the question, is to answer it.

I spoke with him a few months later, and then several years later at the Old Pro in Palo Alto — both of us had moved from New York to Silicon Valley, and were doing Silicon Valley things. His collar was popped and he was jacked. His reasons were along the lines of, “I can’t think about what I did — it would affect how I play rugby.”

And indeed, it might.

At the time of the “accident,” he was playing at the highest level of rugby in America, you see. This exhibition match (a Columbia University alumni game) was no big deal. Do you think his coaches, or the club boosters asked — “Hey bro, what happened to that guy that went into a coma?” Of course not. It’s not important to them. They are there to win — to win those USA Rugby super-league games that draw no fans, and struggle for beer sponsorship.

In the short run, they are right. You don’t want to think about it. I wouldn’t deny that. How about in the long run?

At those same Columbia rugby games, we used to have a booster (alumni supporter, one of the “old boys” as they were called) who came by pretty consistently. He didn’t coach or anything, but he liked being around the jocks. He had played rugby back in the day, of course, presumably at a high level. He was on the board of the club, or something. He gave money to the club I’m sure — possibly less than I had — and certainly a lot less than our main patron, Bill Campbell. May he rest in peace.

[Bill Campbell was a legendary Silicon Valley figure, a kind of patrician/mayor of Palo Alto, and owner of the Old Pro. After his own tech executive career, he acted as a coach and mentor to younger tech executives. His students wrote a business book/eulogy for Campbell. Here’s a good review (below). I spoke to Bill at the Columbia rugby alumni events, but did not know him well, personally.]

This booster — let’s call him Drew — loved coming to the games and bonding with the “good athletes” of the rugby team. Dismissive of the nerds and mathletes who made up much of the club, he loved the guys who quit the football team to take their talents to Ivy League rugby.

Did the jocks respect Drew? They spent their time drinking beer and joking about Drew’s rugby accomplishments “in the pre-Jackie Robinson era.” In the end, they deserved each other.

Do the guys you roll with care about your safety?

They aren’t bad guys, but they have things on their mind ahead of not hurting you. You will know, when you call them out on, perhaps, elbowing you in the temple — that same left temple — and their instinct will be to exclaim it’s not their fault. Probably your fault. And why don’t you just let it go?

People get mad. Maybe they are in jiu jitsu because they know they have a bit of aggression, and need to figure out how to deal with conflict and criticism.

Bill Campbell talked about how “…it’s good to hire football players for your company.” College football players know how to operate in a team, how to deal with conflict — and most importantly — take responsibility for their mistakes. They say, “my bad coach, I missed that block, the guy scored because of me. I let the team down and I’ll do better next time.” Can’t talk your way out of every situation, and why would you want to?

These days, parents don’t want their sons to play football, and I don’t blame them. Given what we know now, until the sport roots out unsafe play resulting in unnecessary head injuries, I’m not sure I would want my future sons playing football either.

Call them “accidents” if you must — they are certainly not intentional — white belt mentality is ruining a great institution. Bill Campbell is right: I don’t know anything in modern society that teaches toughness and team work better than football and rugby. Qualities that we could use more of these days.

I was afraid of getting into jiu jitsu. Or perhaps I was lazy, and using this “fear” as an excuse.

My first time rolling (at Columbia, when I was still a student), my friend’s girlfriend got me in a rear naked choke and pulled hard. She was a top-level athlete, an Olympic hopeful, and we all had a bit of ego back then.

A few years later, I remember a climbing friend tore her UCL (elbow ligament) in BJJ, the only time I’ve heard about that injury outside of baseball. She blew it off like it was her own fault; I wonder how her opponent felt — probably muttering something about how someone should have tapped.

“If you’re uncomfortable, just tap” — we’ve heard those words before.

When I tell people about my brain injury — always from the perspective that life is great, G-d spared my life, and I am very grateful — most will try to relate by telling a story about something painful that happened to them.

My injury was worse than on those kickoff returns you used to see before they changed the rules.

Josh Cribbs gets lit up on a kickoff return

I don’t blame people for not wanting to deal with having seen what they saw that late April afternoon. Most of the guys who were at the Columbia alumni game lowkey never spoke to me again. Too spooky to think about.

Some, I’m sure, just wrote me off. People want to be friends with a successful young guy, a notable alumni, an up and comer — not with someone recovering from paralysis, a coma, and with unknowable brain damage, someone who’ll probably never be the same. Their sympathy and patience only lasts so long — and it wasn’t long at all. In today’s rapid pace, achievement-oriented, status-focused, youth-obsessed world, there isn’t much time for any of that.

I wonder about what happened to Josh Cribbs, sometimes.

Who actually cares about you, who actually loves you? Do you know? Is it anyone at all?

This is not about avoidance of pain, or about not getting hurt. Nor do I blame my rugby coach who kept me in the game, the first time I got knocked out on the field. Also a head-to-head with a teammate. We didn’t know better back then. He’s still a friend to this day — the coach I mean.

Tech’s a crazy world. With friends, we’ve cost each other business opportunities, in the tens or hundreds of thousands. That also happens. Perhaps it’s easier to shrug off when you’ve been playing poker for silly amounts, with whales, friends, and frenemies, since your early 20s.

Life is meant to be lived at a less risk-averse pace than how most people approach it. It’s also more fun that way, and you get to know more interesting people. You will get hurt and experience setbacks. In life, and sometimes in poker, you can’t just play the same game for lower stakes.

Life is a positive sum game. Find people you can play infinite games with.

Rugby (and BJJ) as a lifelong fraternity is over-rated — but not entirely bullshit. It wasn’t bullshit for the clubs who hosted our rugby tour in Argentina. They’d been playing together since they were kids. Man did those guys have teamwork and chemistry — from the under-19 teams to the old boys.

You’re not going to have that kind of bond with a guy who just walked in the door, or with someone counting the stripes toward his blue belt.

But who cares? Misquoting Michael Malice, “90% of art is crap, and you’re there for the 10%.”

Jocko Willink is a modern-day warrior-philosopher, quite literally. His videos — and a direct response on Twitter — planted the seed that I needed to get back on the mats. It gnawed at me until I did. In one of his many great videos, answering a white belt’s question, Jocko gives the top reasons why ego gets you hurt in jiu jitsu.

  • Ego tells you not to tap — which is dumb.
  • Ego tells you to keep rolling with someone you know you shouldn’t roll with.
  • Ego tells you to roll in ways you know are unsafe — but you want to win!

As Jocko explains, it takes two to make a dangerous situation. Your partner may be a psycho, but it’s still kind of your fault for being in that situation. That’s your ego getting you in trouble again.

“Bob has no ego,” our black belt instructor said — “unlike the rest of these guys…”

My first day at the Brooklyn dojo, I rolled with a blue belt who just kept me in closed guard for six minutes. I couldn’t do anything, and he wanted to feel me out. Since then we’ve rolled many times, and have become friends of a sort. I’ve learned a lot from him, and our rolls get progressively more interesting. I popped a knee ligament rolling with him once. Totally my fault. Learned I need to point my hips away from my opponent when going for a knee slice. We were moving slowly and safely; I was back on the mats less than two weeks later.

As Jocko puts it:

You have to put your ego in check, this is a huge part of jiu jitsu. That’s one of the things that makes jiu jitsu so impactful. It’s so humbling, your ego can’t withstand it.

Despite how hard you fought against this guy, you didn’t stand a chance.

Instead, you want to learn. Relax, and put your ego aside. If not, it’s going to get you hurt.

What’s cool is when there’s a 58 year old who’s on the mat, and a 22 year hot shot old blue belt says “you wanna roll” and the old man says “no I’m good.” … their ego is fine, they’re over it.

Not saying I don’t have my bouts of ego. Look man, I’m here to learn, to be part of a club, and it’s good cardio without having to run.

Will the white belt and I roll again? Probably, maybe. He’s a good dude who’s goofy and not very athletic — at the dojo to learn and better himself. You can see that the camaraderie means a lot to him.

I’ve not been back on the mats for that long. Finally I’d had enough distance running and curling-from-home, and I was craving physical contact. I got a tip about a BJJ retreat in the redwoods of Northern California — went there for a week in the fall, and have been hooked on BJJ ever since. Alex is organizing more camps in 2021, and I will definitely be back!

In that time back on the mats, I’ve hardly met a white belt who doesn’t have an ego, who doesn’t get frustrated with other people’s technique, who doesn’t insist on teaching moves he doesn’t know — all the time, and who isn’t looking to get his “fair share” of rolls with the instructor and with the 2–3 guys who are newer than him that he thinks he can beat.

Essentially, he’s looking for a live mannequin to practice his jiu jitsu.

Opponents’ safety, or his own? Probably not at the top of his mind. At blue belt, you start seeing guys without an ego — some of them. It’s ok. As a high stakes poker player, I’ve seen it all and it’s all very familiar.

They will get better. After all, ego death is part of what we’re here for. Whether we know it or not.

Seriously though, you should all try jiu jitsu. OK maybe not all. Babushka, if you’re listening...

It will transform your life for the better. The experience of defeating bigger and stronger opponents — or in turn starting to use that size and strength (and emergent technique) to smother dudes who have been training for years, and some who were pwning you just weeks ago when you first rolling into the dojo — pretty amazing. And humbling. It will change your perspective on life.

Just try not to do anything stupid, like let your ego take over, and get yourself killed.

Techniques that John Danaher bans at his gym, and the reasons for doing so.

In this speech, BJJ legend John Danaher [another Columbia alum] describes the techniques he disallows at his gym, including:

  • Uncontrolled falling body weight.
  • Jumping guard.
  • Flying submissions.
  • Rolling into other peoples’ space. “You’re the asshole.”
  • If you pick someone up, put them down safely — never drop anyone on their head.

If you do simple things like this, you can avoid the worst injuries. And most importantly, limit yourself to unavoidable injuries. — John Danaher



Nikolai Yakovenko

AI (deep learning) researcher. Moscow → NYC → Bay Area -> Miami