David Believes Jiu-Jitsu Can Help Submit Mental Illness
Both in his home country of Australia and abroad, BJJ athlete David Willis is making a serious name for himself. Having trained since 2009 (and earning his coveted black belt in December of 2018), Willis is among the top competitors Down Under, and that’s exactly what he set out to be when he first started training.
“My reason to do jiu-jitsu was actually for competition reasons. I've always been very competitive in my life and saw this as something I'd love to do. Turned out I was right!” he said.
Now a silver medalist in the black belt Master division at the UAEJJF Abu Dhabi World Pro and bronze medalist at the Tokyo Grand Slam, Willis wasn’t always the accomplished grappler he is today. He’s open about the fact that he struggled to find success early on in his jiu-jitsu career. “At first I was very bad with competitions and never even won a medal. Now I have won just about everything you can win in Australia multiple times at all belt levels, and international competition is where my heart is,” he says. “Once we are able to compete again, I plan to improve those results again.”
Competition isn’t the only area in which Willis hopes to achieve great things. He recently opened up his own academy, FT Jiu-Jitsu, which he hopes to use to improve not only his career, but the overall culture in jiu-jitsu. “I always felt a lack of support while coming up through the ranks and way too much negativity towards other teams,” he said. “At our school, there will be no politics and no negativity – otherwise, those people will have to leave.
I want to help my students grow and surpass everything I have done (and will continue to do).”
Part of Willis’ drive to make his own academy set a good example for the community comes from the impact he’s seen jiu-jitsu have on both kids and adults alike.
“Jiu-jitsu for kids is an amazing tool to help them grow,” he said. “Self-defense is always a big one for people, but it's not all about that in my eyes. In the digital world we live in, I see many young people growing up not being able to hold a conversation with one another. I see a lack of confidence and a huge number of mental health problems. I truly believe that jiu-jitsu can help beat mental [illness].”
As a prominent practitioner of the art, Willis stays up to date with the current biggest names and up-and-comers on the mats, and he has a few suggestions for who the rest of us should be watching as they climb the ladder of BJJ success. Though he says it’s a “tough one” to list the top three male and female jiu-jitsu athletes to watch out for, he says that Roberto Jimenez, Keenan Cornelius, and Thalison Soares are among his top picks in the male division. “They all have a lot to prove, and I think Keenan has not hit his peak yet,” he said.
Willis also had great things to say about the women’s grappling divisions, naming Mayssa Bastos, Ffion Davies, and Anna Rodrigues as three of the female athletes we should be paying attention to. “To be honest, I often prefer to watch the females more. They don’t stall, always going for the submission, and the three I mentioned have some of the best technique in the world,” he said.
Like many athletes and coaches on the mats, Willis hopes that the changes he’s making – and the changes that other like-minded grapplers are making – will help jiu-jitsu reach a wider audience and ultimately grow. He has a few ideas on how to accomplish this as well. “The jiu-jitsu scene in Australia is growing a lot. We will have to rebuild after the COVID situation, but I'm sure it will resume soon. I believe we all have equal opportunity, and something I'd love to see is more females signing up to compete. Unfortunately, I see empty brackets often and I know there is competition out there to fill those spots,” he said. “I think that the general public still don't really understand what jiu-jitsu is, but we are getting there. MMA is obviously a huge reason why. I think to make our sport grow in these areas, sport jiu-jitsu rules must change.”
Jiu-jitsu may have a ways to go before it can reach the height of popularity that MMA and other “mainstream” sports have achieved, but with people like David Willis leading the movement to improve the art and community, there’s hope that our little sport can grow in the right direction.