Making peace with being a jiu jitsu hobbyist
Peace Was Always an Option
I am a martial artist first, a student second, and a competitor last. On any given day, I can be training my best and my hardest, or I may be giggling my way through heel hooks. I sit at a desk and work my designated hours for the day, where I do anything from making tiny colors match on a deck to big picture strategizing on a multi-billion dollar deal. In the middle of my training sessions, throughout the week, I lift three times a week and have recently started adding in sprints to supplement strength training. I take notes on technique after classes and instructionals, and I generally take an extra round after classes, no matter how tired I feel. I have placed first, second, and third in tournaments and sometimes not at all. I do laundry at least 3-4 times a week, sometimes more.
Despite all of this, which sounds like a lot to an outsider of Jiu Jitsu, most of what I do would qualify as a serious hobbyist at best. I’m not a “competitor” in the dominant Jiu Jitsu narrative because I don’t do Jiu Jitsu as a primary (or only) source of income or means of exposure on a National and International stage. It means that my picture will never be on superfight posters that people share with hashtags on Instagram stories, or that I’ll experience cryotherapy sessions from sponsors, and my travels will not involve exotic destinations like Abu Dhabi and Lisbon where I carry with me my uniform as my primary outfit of the day. Even for those who don’t compete full time and instead take care of students at world-renowned academies, it seems like the life they lead is and will be vastly different from mine.
This divide between “hobbyist” and “competitor slash professional” is something that has plagued me for a long time. It may be something that is just in my head, though I’ve seen rhetoric around it as people try to separate themselves and make a name in this ever expanding sport. To oversimplify somewhat, and to choose an uncharitable definition, there are a group of people who see a “hobbyist” as someone, who, by definition is has a small probability of reaching the highest levels of Jiu Jitsu. Hobbyists are passionate about the sport but they are not listed as the contender or favorite for the most prestigious competitions. They are most likely not even a black belt, which itself is a rough indicator of skill.
My greatest fear is being called a hobbyist, in a derogatory way that implies that I will never be great at jiu jitsu. And while it’s true that we shouldn’t pay attention to the haters, to think of myself as “less than” relative to the elite competitors can eat away at me some days, especially when I fall into an existential crisis fueled by an highly ingrained and conditioned imposter syndrome. It is yet another means of oppressing myself and causing myself to wonder if this hard training is worth it. (Insert sarcastic Reddit r/bjj comment: “let me guess you’re a blue belt”). On the good days, I pack my bag as soon as I empty the sweaty remains of a recent class, build mini-sticker workbooks for my Jiu Jitsu goals, and practice the latest techniques in my head as I go to sleep. On the bad days, I will scroll through social media and watch others live, breathe, sleep and eat Jiu Jitsu while feeling small. A big question always looms: “What If?”
This simple, two-word question with anything but simple answers. What sometimes starts as an idle daydream could degenerate into regrets about the choices I’ve made. A downward spiral into an abyss. What causes this narrative to be so salient in my head is of increasing interest to me. It has roots in trauma, immigration, and upbringing; branches in education, mental health, and career trajectory; and leaves in self-discovery and growth. These are grand categories but at the core is the desire to feel connected and seen, to be fulfilling some version of greatness. It stems from a shadow side that fears being average and boring, and a scared child still that equates receiving attention to receiving love. It is a desire to not be anonymous, lest I be forgotten.
I once met a man who had learned martial arts and practiced kung fu for several years. In his country “where [he] came from,” a couple of men had tried to “molest” him on a public bus. In that moment, he decided that he needed a way to protect himself. He took up kung fu, then muay thai, and through rigorous training gained confidence in his abilities. He got into a lot of fights, some started by him and some ended by him. But in the end he walked away from martial arts because he found himself being afraid. “I stopped doing martial arts because I was afraid of how much I hurt people,” he said, “And that didn’t seem right to me.” Still, we agreed, that having some way of defending yourself was useful in crime-ridden places.
What struck me about this conversation was that martial arts had imbued this person with a certain amount of power that he did not have before. Instead of feeling empowered by this, he was fearful of the damage it could do. He felt as if martial arts was separate from him; incongruent with his identity and his current storyline. I’m reminded then that perhaps if martial arts in some way does harness power, perhaps this energy does not always have to be used to win medals, get sponsorships, and have thousands of followers on social media. These are external trappings that speak little to the internal experience in which we all embody every moment of our lives. Perhaps this experience and journey can be about discovering your sources of power, and then, embodying it in a way that does not strip you of your humanity.
Nietzsche has a famous quote which reads, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” I have thought about this quote for a long time, especially when traits about myself come to the surface that I’m not particularly proud of. Like the cicadas of a 17-year spring, these memories can emerge in overwhelming numbers. They may die and cycle through depending on the nature of what they are. It seems that jiu jitsu to me is being unafraid to look into that abyss and find out who I truly am as a martial artist.
To anyone who is ever plagued by thoughts that they are not enough, to anyone who is struggling with the idea that the chances of becoming a world champion are slim, to anyone who has had to make difficult choices about training versus not, there can be no simple answer to how you feel about your jiu jitsu. Yet we can, and should, make peace with the fact that we are hobbyists in only one small, though seemingly significant, slice of the jiu jitsu experience. We can make peace with the fact that we take tradeoffs just like the elite athletes do, only that it is less noticeable and salient because it does not involve the public stage of competition victories and losses. We can make peace that our battles are not always fought and won on the mats, but in our hearts, our brains, and against our demanding schedules and those that rely on us for our well-being. Perhaps we can learn to accept our journey and see jiu jitsu as more than just this binary black-and-white, with no in-between, and instead focus on the spectrum of rich experiences and traits that make life, as a whole, worthwhile.