Getting Over Regret in Jiu Jitsu
The Mental Ouchies
Unlike my job which involves a lot of writing and editing, there are rarely any times in which we are allowed CTRL+Zs in jiu jitsu. That match which you lost can never be re-fought again in the same way, and that class that you missed is forever in the past. There are some forms of regret which sting more than others, and some forms of regret that we forget altogether.
Over the course of my martial arts journey, I’ve been faced with many types of regret, all of which I’ve sought to overcome in one way or another. While I’m by no means the expert on your emotions, I want to offer up some ways that I’ve overcome this regret in order to move forward, enjoy my present day training, and learn the lessons for the future.
Dealing with Regret of Not Training
This is a common problem that I see for people who are in the middle of a transition in their life. For instance, since I’ve started jiu jitsu, I’ve taken long stretches of time off to take care of financial obligations, work long job hours, and moved across state lines. The lack of continuity can become frustrating when one returns to the mats and realizes that their skills weren’t as sharp as before. That may often lead to thoughts like “Well, I wish I made more of an effort to go to training” or “It’s not fair my life has to be this way.”
While others may say that you just have to “get over it,” I tend to take a more compassionate route. Human beings are imperfect and one of the things we have to do is to do the best we can given the information that we have. I have learned to give myself some grace in the moments, or months, that I miss training because it’s all part of figuring out life itself. Acknowledging that the choices that I have made, and the adversity that I have overcome through those choices, can help ease the sting a little bit when I get back to training again. We have to tell ourselves a story that honors the truth of what our lives have been, and understand that it’s OK to have a narrative that leaves nuance and multiple reasons for why we do or do not train.
Dealing with the Regret of Injury
There are two types of injuries: (1) those that you know you (mostly) brought upon yourself, and (2) those that you know wasn’t your fault but somehow you felt like you could have prevented.
The first category of injuries are things relating to personal health, assuming that you had some leeway and options to make better choices in the first place. To get really specific, I’m almost certain that overtraining and stressing out my body to the point of no return is what resulted in my particularly nasty strain of ringworm in 2019.
The second category of injuries are injuries that we get from training: that sprained ankle as a result of a scrambled takedown; that sore rib from getting crushed by someone heavier; or that strained elbow from an awkward angle.
Identifying these two types of injuries is important because this is one of the few times where it makes sense to NOT dwell on your emotions or feelings around the injury if they fall in the second category of events out of your control. In my experience, thinking “what if I had done this” leads to an endless spiral of despair because my options weren’t fully formed in the first place when the injury occurred. Better to focus on how one can get back to the mats as soon as possible through rehab and rest.
For the first category of injuries, the best way to overcome the regret, however, is to feel the pain of what you are going through. It isn’t so much as to blame or shame yourself; my belief, instead, is that it’s a good idea to really understand the consequences of one’s own actions, instead of numbing them. A lesson learned is nothing when the lesson is forgotten over time. As for my ringworm incident, I have never forgotten it over the years, and I use that as a reminder to myself of the risks that I could face if I decide to ever push my body to the brink again.
Dealing with the Regret of Not Competing
When I find myself scrolling through social media, reading the congratulatory messages of others, and wishing that I had a chance to stand on the podium so I could receive that same kind of love, I know that I’m in a place of regret.
Since taking a break from social media, it’s been a lot easier to have the days pass by without incident, because I’m not being bombarded with pictures of people competing in what appears to be nearly every single weekend. But the bigger point here about dealing with the regret of not competing is a question that I ask myself often:
When I go on social media, or hear or read about people competing, or see people “like me” who go to tournaments, I always remember that I will be triggered by the feeling of not feeling enough. This feeling eats away at me and can be extremely destructive. To stop myself from getting too far, I begin to ask myself truly the question of what I want — right now.
Getting down to the root of my desires in that present moment helps me snap out of a reality that I can’t create. Instead, I tune into myself and recognize what it is that will truly refill and nourish me. Almost all of the time, it’s not about the competition itself, but maybe about something else in which I don’t feel great: maybe I made poor decisions about time management at work, or I behaved in a way that I didn’t want to in public, or maybe even that I wished the sun was shining outside. Or maybe it is that I recognize in myself that I could and want to challenge myself more — in which case, competition might be a solution, but not the only one.
As I have come to learn, the emotional disruptions that I feel whenever I’m envious of someone is typically due to a lack of clarity in what I need for myself. Admitting that truth sooner, rather than later (or never) sends me down an intentional path of change, instead of a reflexive hard turn.
Dealing with the Regret of Not Starting Sooner
Hoohboy, this is a tricky one. When I started martial arts, I discovered that there were two worlds of martial arts — the so-called child prodigies and everyone else. I belonged in that category of “everyone else” and so I did everything possible to reach an impossible standard that I had largely outgrown. I was essentially trying to play catchup. In the times I wouldn’t be training, I would watch videos of kids half my age do better, faster, stronger kicks; go through more brutal training sessions than me; and have better physiques than I thought was even possible. For a lot of my early martial arts journey — karate, taekwondo, muay thai — I felt entirely powerless to catch up to the standard of the child prodigy.
In jiu jitsu, I realized that younger phenoms were everywhere, especially in competition where teenagers had been training for almost a decade plus when they got to the adult ranks. I watched these kids with a lot of envy and found myself falling into the same patterns of regret and trying to catch up.
Eventually, though, I came to a new transformation and way of thinking about their achievements and talent versus mine.
This is a personal story, but I believe most can relate to — the recognition, and reckoning, that I was to fulfill Great Expectations was something that I had inherited from my parents, without any conscious thought or choice of my own. (This is not your therapist “what happened in your childhood” dialogue. I’m not qualified for that.)
It’s a recognition that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have an initial choice in the matter of how I formed my beliefs around self-worth and achievement. My self-worth was chosen for me to be dictated by external sources, as opposed to internal ones.
I had been wishing for a life that was filled with praise for my achievements, and I readily fixated on a group (e.g. child prodigies) that had gotten such attention and praise. This fixation, I realized, would continue to make me miserable unless I really started to appreciate the difference and benefits that jiu jitsu was making in my life already, without the interference of the outside world.
I didn’t need to be seen as a phenom by anyone else. I had to see myself for what I was getting out of jiu jitsu. If I had started early, yes, perhaps I’d be “better,” but what does that actually mean, except for the fact that I would feel good about my jiu jitsu? And if I just wanted to feel good about my jiu jitsu, could I do so without depending on something outside of me?
When the answer became yes, I felt empowered.
Above all else, the biggest reason to be mindful of what we wish for is that we’re prone to believe we’ll be happier once we acquire what we desire. Social science research has proven that thinking this way is a setup, because the more we get, the more we want. We believe that getting what we wish for will be the answer to all of our problems, granting us lifelong joy and satisfaction. But happiness happens to be an inside job; without knowing how to cultivate it internally for ourselves, no amount of money or external rewards will allow us to experience or maintain it.
Thanks for reading and reflecting,