'I love Brazilian jiu jitsu'

Fighting with your brains

The building at the Hoornsediep looks just like all the other apartments that line the street, but behind its doors, people are practising the martial art Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The sport is remarkably popular among staff and students at the RUG.
By Sofie Tuinsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

‘Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an intellectual sport’, says Orlando Prins, head instructor at Focus Jiu Jitsu. He thinks that’s why his club attracts so many RUG people. ‘Brute force isn’t enough to overpower your opponent. You have to really think and analyse the situation.’

He opened his club in 2012 and he currently has ninety members. Prins estimates that about forty of them study or teach at the RUG. Who are these people – and what do they love about this intense martial art?

Petteri Vainikka


There’s a certain anonymity to the club, says PhD candidate Petteri Vainikka. It’s not about who you are or what your job title is.  All you have to do is fight. He likes it. It’s a relief from the the pressure at the university, where people put great stock in your status.

He has no idea what his sparring partners do when they’re not fighting. People just don’t talk about it: they train together, laugh together, and simply have a good time together. Stories about their careers or any stress they feel remain outside the dojo. He enjoys being able to clear his mind and focus on something else.

He came to Groningen in February to start his PhD in chemistry and was looking for something to do after work. ‘I spend nine or ten hours a day behind the computer. After all the strenuous mental activity at work, the physical activity provides a nice balance.’ He tries to train at least three times a week, preferably four. ‘I love it.’

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the polar opposite to the aggressive Israeli martial art krav maga, which he practised in Finland. ‘Krav maga is nothing but punching and kicking. During Brazilian jiu-jitsu you don’t do anything like that; you just roll around on the floor, fighting.’ He will spar with anyone: it doesn’t matter how large, heavy, or good they are. Everyone fights everyone.

Tim Slaterus


Tim Slaterus is thoroughly hooked on Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The remedial education master student became addicted after just one training session and has been training up a storm ever since. ‘Sometimes I train eight times a week.’ He spent so much time in the dojo that he started neglecting his studies. But this summer, he became a father for the first time – of a daughter. ‘I just want to be home more often. I’ve picked up my studies again in the meantime.’

While Tim rolls around the dojo with his sparring partner, he talks about why the sport is so addictive. ‘It’s like a game of chess with a thousand pieces. There are so many moves your body can make.’

‘It’s like this sport helps you cultivate a sixth sense. There comes a point when you really feel what kind of move you need to make to put your opponent in a difficult position. You don’t even have to think about it anymore like you did at the beginning.’ For Tim, this powerful feeling and the development of that sixth sense are addictive.

He is a blue belt, which is quite an achievement for someone who’s only been training for three years. ‘They teach us discipline here. It’s almost like therapy: you learn to get rid of your thoughts. You need complete focus. It’s a physical sport, but you can’t rely on brute strength alone. You really have to use your head.’

Iris van der Zwaag


Iris van der Zwaag, who studies tax law, is one of the best fighters at the club. Last weekend, she even won a gold medal in a national martial arts tournament. Quite a feat – considering she is blind.

‘I attended a school for the blind in Haren for three years, to learn how to read braille. We often did judo during PE, and I loved it so much that I joined a club outside of school.’ By the time she returned to a regular school, she’d become a fanatical judoka.

She heard about Brazilian jiu-jitsu during a judo competition and how it was a sport that is mainly fought on the ground. It sounded right up her alley, and she joined a club in 2014. She was a blue belt within two years.

When she’s accompanied by her guide dog there’s no missing the fact that Iris is blind. ‘Before a competition people will ask me if there’s anything they need to do differently, like go easy on me or something. I always tell them to fight me just like they would fight anyone else.’

‘Being blind might even be kind of an advantage’, she says. She’s heard about people trying to intimidate their opponent with a look. ‘But I can’t see that.’ Then again, she also can’t see how someone starts a match: ‘I can’t see what position they’re taking. I have to try and feel that as quickly as possible.’

Her blindness is no impediment during training sessions. Whenever Orlando teaches a new move, he first shows it to the group, and then uses Iris to practise the move a few times so she can feel what he means.

She loves it. ‘The training sessions just make me so happy’, she enthuses. ‘I get really cranky when I haven’t trained for a few days. I have to go back into the dojo to lift my spirits.’

She trains three to four times a week, and the intensity is paying off. Orlando says she is very talented. ‘No one can beat her’, he says. ‘Not the bigger, heavier men, or the small, technically gifted guys. Iris is the real deal.’

Brian Embry


Philosopher Brian Embry is competitive by nature. As a post-doctoral candidate at the university, he has to be – but it’s not always healthy. At the club, he says he taught himself how to lose – literally. ‘You have to learn how to get a handle on your competitive behaviour. It’s not always about whether you win or lose. Losing a really good match can actually be great.’ That lesson is paying off, both in the dojo and at work.

‘There’s a lot of pressure at work. You have to perform, publish, and learn how to deal with disappointments when something doesn’t work out. The focused, zen mindset you get from BJJ is just really useful.’

He’s also introduced his children (a four-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter) to BJJ by teaching them basic defensive moves at home. ‘I mainly want to teach my daughter how to be more confident in how to use her body. To be strong, and to keep cool in chaotic situations.’

Sparring partner Tim Slaterus listens attentively. ‘I’m going to teach my daughter this when she’s older, too.’

Simon Dalley

universitair docent

Social psychology lecturer Simon Dalley says Brazilian jiu-jitsu is his passion and that it allows him to grow and find new friends. The club is like family. ‘Everyone is really nice and supportive. If you need a really good fight people are always willing to spar with you, but if you want a more technical session that’s cool too.’

Dalley agrees that it’s like a physical form of chess. ‘It’s incredibly challenging and physically demanding, and the intellectual challenge means you have no time be distracted by thoughts about your work.’

While he’s still pretty competitive, he says losing is mainly a learning experience. Getting to the club after a long stressful day at work and being able to focus on something else is a great feeling.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to feel good for a while; his back has been injured for a while. ‘It’s extremely annoying. I’m getting older so my body isn’t working as well as it used to. Suddenly there are all these things that are a lot more difficult, or even impossible. But the great thing about Brazilian jiu-jitsu is that there’s always some technique you can use that doesn’t hurt.’

Before he started BJJ, Dalley did judo. Unfortunately, his physical ailments prevented him from continuing. ‘I have one bad knee and one really bad knee. Judo puts a lot of strain on your knees. BJJ has a lot more floor work, more like wrestling.’

‘But it still gets increasingly difficult to recover from the fights as you get older. You get injured much more easily.’

He doesn’t want to quit. ‘I have mixed feelings about quitting. On the one hand I wouldn’t miss the aches and pains. One the other, I would miss the excitement and the challenge of the fight. Especially beating guys who are twenty-five years younger than I am.’


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