Fail, Adapt, Grow
Over the past year I would say that my experience of jiu jitsu has evolved greatly. While I still feel like there is a lot more to improve on my technical game, the mental side has gone through a journey and a half, and has mostly emerged intact heading into 2022. Here are some reflections on what I feel like has changed.
My attitude towards rank: At the beginning of the year I started out with much the same attitude as I had in years prior with regards to training. I was going to get my purple belt as fast as possible, and in the meantime, win a lot of competitions at blue. I had no concrete backing for these hopes, but these were the only hallmarks of success that I valued, so I wanted to be able to prove myself and become well-respected among my peers.
What I found out is that when it came to training, it took a lot of my mental energy to push towards an external goal. Being at a new school in 2020 for a few months gave me a source of novelty, and I was also coming fresh off my first round of a mentorship program for jiu jitsu. However, as I hit the one year mark at the new school, I quickly realized that keeping to my old ways was quite counterproductive. One, I did not win competitions, though I had a few good matches that resulted in wins. Two, I finally came to a recognition that the purple belt meant little to me in of itself—what mattered to me, and what the belt ultimately symbolized, was gaining a sense of confidence and joy in my jiu jitsu. Reluctantly, I concluded that I should try to attain these states without relying on an easy external source.
My attitude towards 30+ age divisions: I always felt like competitions legitimized my jiu jitsu in some way. For example, there is no denying that people who are good at competing perform well under pressure, have a dominant jiu jitsu game that they can execute, and are skilled in the art of anticipation. However, the trickier question for me was what it meant when someone—like me—was truly bad at competing. For a while I believed that if only I could succeed at a major competition, I would feel legitimized—confident even, in my jiu jitsu.
I now recognize that I face several disadvantages when it comes to competing in the Adult division, particularly at the blue belt level. I learned some solid fundamentals from my prior school, but it’s nowhere compared to the level of technique that some teenagers, and even some people at my own academy, have acquired. I recognized that some people receive private tutoring/mentorship; others have a seemingly limitless supply of training partners; and still others are part of a supportive structure that doesn’t involve paying their own tournament, travel, meal and lodging fees. These are the realities that I face every time I step into the Adult division brackets.
For now, I have decided on the following: Adults divisions are not for me, a person that sees jiu jitsu as a hobby meant to challenge, but not break, me. Competing with people who are 30+ might give me a better idea of what my jiu jitsu is like (alternatively, it may also still reinforce that regardless of age differential, there’s still a lot to work on!).
My beliefs about acquiring technique: At my old school, we would have a small number of techniques (about 3-4) that we would learn for THREE entire months. I got really good at those techniques (especially tani otoshi and the guillotine), but I never really learned how to learn. I thought, like probably most people do in their journey, that learning happens when you spend as much time as possible on the mat.
I was not wrong exactly. But it took me until the middle of this year to understand what mat time meant. For me, I have seen the best results come from training situationals and freeform sparring, with emphasis on the former. There are so many elements to keep track of during a free round, but for situationals, you can focus on one small aspect of something and do it over and over again.
To me, I have accepted, and am starting to welcome, that learning is about trial and error. Accepting this truth makes it a lot easier to fail repeatedly at a technique, while still maintaining faith that eventually that you will understand the intricacies of a technique. One thing that I make sure to do, always, is to record myself in these situationals. Being able to look back (and have more experienced people also review my footage) has given me the nascent skills of objectively evaluating my performance, instead of imagining what happened.
Failure, adaptation and growth are all parts of a natural cycle. By making mistakes, we eventually come across small glimmers of success. Little by little, these changes become a lot.