This time last year, basically all I knew about volleyball was that the goal was to get the ball over the net. Frankly, I’ve never been super interested in team sports, focusing instead on individual sports with a team component, like BJJ and striking.
So it was with some hesitancy that I finally gave in to the persistent recommendations of my Netflix account and started watching Haikyu!!: an anime (based off a manga) that focuses on the fictional Karasuno High School volleyball team’s return to greatness.
While I didn’t expect a volleyball anime to be such an easily accessible source of serotonin, I also didn’t expect to see so many parallels between fictional (and real) volleyball and BJJ. Somehow, the characters and their trials and triumphs made me feel less alone in my own jiu-jitsu journey… and, yes, turned me into an enthusiastic volleyball fan.
Please note that, while I’ve tried not to give too much away for the sake of making a point, there are minor SPOILERS ahead in these lessons that BJJ athletes (and, likely, practitioners of many sports) could take away from Haikyu!!.
1. Size is important, but there’s more than that to success.
While everyone, even the side characters, gets their own attention and character arcs in Haikyu!!, the story centers around 5’3” Hinata, who wants to be a volleyball superstar despite being far smaller than most volleyball players. Hinata, a middle blocker, is often looked down upon for his size, especially against opponents who are both tall and strong, and though he’s at a clear disadvantage, he finds ways to compensate for his size through developing his athleticism and putting more effort into improving his technique. The libero (the defense specialist) of the team is even shorter, but his specialized skill set makes him one of the superstars of the team.
You don’t have to reach terribly far to connect this with jiu-jitsu, and in fact, this is one of the reasons I fell in love with Haikyu!! in the first place. Being smaller is often a huge disadvantage in jiu-jitsu, especially when your opponent also has technique to go along with their size. But while it is difficult to overcome every size-related disadvantage, having less overall mass can actually be a weapon in its own right, and the workarounds for size disparities can indeed turn small athletes into “tiny giants.”
Image: Haikyuu/Production I.G.
2. Making progress means being willing to fail.
After a close and devastating loss early in the series, Karasuno is forced to reckon with the fact that, despite honing in on their natural talents and refining them, it still wasn’t good enough. What do you do when you’ve done everything perfectly, and you still get beaten?
For Karasuno, the answer was to get uncomfortable again. The teammates spend time and effort knocking down the walls of their comfort zones and rebuilding their skills on top of their strong foundations. There’s physical and emotional work involved, with the team failing over and over again when they put their developing skills into practice to plug the holes in their game. In the end, though, the results speak for themselves.
In jiu-jitsu, too, most of us hit a point where we realize that our go-to move isn’t a guaranteed finisher anymore, especially as we move up the ranks. Are you so determined to improve that you’d be willing to “regress” by trying new techniques and strategies that may lead to months of failure before paying off when it matters most? Those of us who’ve taken this path know just how satisfying the long-term benefits can be.
3. Cross-training is crucial to growth.
Cross-training, even and especially with their greatest rivals, is directly connected with Karasuno’s success as the series progresses. The practice games between teams that are almost certain to face each other at Spring Nationals act as opportunities for players to learn and grow, not steal competitors’ technques. Indeed, some of the series’ best friendship dynamics exist between players whose respective teams have a rivalry that spans generations. The coaches understand the importance of these interscholastic training opportunities and go out of their way to build connections with other teams and facilitate practice games.
Through cross-training in BJJ doesn’t have the same stigma attached to it that it used to, there are still athletes (and coaches) who miss out on all the benefits of the practice due to their pride. A rivalry doesn’t have to be hostile, and you’ll develop your technique and your network more if you make an effort to connect with athletes on different teams.
4. The path of the hobbyist is valid… and important.
Some of the characters in Haikyuu!! are elite prodigies whose destiny is clearly to become professional athletes. Others clearly aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be there with the rest of the players, and it definitely doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to offer.
The vice-captain of Karasuno, Sugawara, is well aware that he’s not going to be one of the players who gets scholarships or career opportunities through his skills in his sport. Still, though he doesn’t have raw talent, he has intelligence, consistency, and a love for the sport on his side, and he uses all three to help his team on and off the court. Adult players in the local rec league also play a large part in assisting the Karasuno team develop, serving as a beautiful reminder that we can continue to play sports (and be good at them) into adulthood even if we don’t become pros.
Most of us will probably see ourselves aligning more with Sugawara’s path than Hinata’s on the mats. Jiu-jitsu will always be a massive part of our lives because we love it, and we may find opportunities to increase its role in our lives through coaching or academy ownership. But we’re never going to be elite professional athletes. And that’s okay.
Image: Haikyuu/Production I.G.
If you haven’t joined the ever-growing number of BJJ practitioners who have fallen in love with Haikyu!!, even if you haven’t thought about volleyball since PE class many eons ago, just… trust me. Give the wholesome volleyball anime a shot, and see if it helps you appreciate your journey on the mats even more.
Averi is a brown belt under Nick Hughes of Trinity MMA and an ambassador for Grapple Apparel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bjjaveri.