reporting in from the tatami
It’s been a good time in jiu jitsu, lately. Whenever this happens, I always ask myself the one question that my therapist asks me about any positive change, “What did you do differently?”
I suppose that not much has changed since my last existential crisis. I am still the same rank that I was a few months ago, I still have roughly the same training partners, and I’m hopefully going to reach my one year anniversary at this school without much inner turmoil. Yet, a lot of my training has felt different, more positive, and more fun.
About two years ago, I stumbled upon the concept of using training as a form of data-gathering for predictable responses and reactions. The idea was that you would be able to move through training like a scientist — analyzing the effects and making educated guesses about the causes — with little to no emotion. Everything, as I understood it back then, was supposed to feel neutral. Losing or winning — it was all the same — it was all about gathering data.
The problem with this approach was that it did not work with me. I couldn’t feel neutral about anything, especially not when my guard was getting passed. I found myself fighting some very human emotions and being unable to be the data-gathering robot that I was supposed to be. Because I was fighting against my natural instincts so much, I was confused and frustrated. Here I was, supposed to be an emotion-less assassin AI, but I was anything but that — usually red-faced, short on breath or cardio, and still unable to frame correctly at the right times.
People often assume that once you are promoted to a new rank, a switch happens and suddenly your life becomes a lot better and easier. I always imagined purple belt to be a place where I would be like those other purple belt wizards that I had encountered at blue belt and white belt — Kyle, who would literally spin endlessly on top of me until he wanted to take an armbar; Beatrice, who took my back in every round that I could remember; Rose, whose takedowns felt like a 2 by 4 hitting my chest. But so far, I’ve realized that reaching a new rank — or even really, growing every day in your current one, is more of a slow process, sometimes mysterious but always uncomfortable.
So, instead of doubling down on become a robot, which was making me miserable, I started to realize that what had held me back the most was the way I was treating myself. I took a hard look at my diet, sleep, training habits, work done outside and during class, attention levels, strength and conditioning, jiu jitsu-husband quality time ratio. All of that made me realize that to improve in jiu jitsu, to really get the most out of this art, I needed to change a lot of things. I needed to become more of the person that I wanted to be, instead of pushing all that away to become a robot.
Most of all, I had to be way nicer to myself. I did not respect myself or my technique. I still have some of that doubt, but with some gentle prodding from my therapist, I’ve come a long way.
Everyone’s inner demons are different, but I share mine with the hopes of helping you confront yours. For me, the biggest demon I had was in my sense of self-worth as it was tied to accomplishment and objective results. And while not everyone needs to attribute their habits to childhood trauma, I certainly had enough reasons to do so. In unpacking why I said certain things to myself, I quickly learned that I could identify when and how it was happening more and more in daily life. I recognized that my hyper-awareness and need to overanalyze everything could be helpful when certain situations called for it, but it was holding me back in my live sparring in jiu jitsu, where I desperately wanted to get lost in the moment and not think of anything else.
My problem with authority figures and power dynamics revealed an assumption that I looked to others for permission, instead of providing that permission myself as a capable, skilled, healthy adult.
My aversion to self-care as being connected to the assumption that I wasn’t good enough, and that I didn’t deserve nice things, unless I had earned them without question — all day, every day.
Just like I had to unpack my jiu jitsu and figure out what was wrong, I unpacked a lot of my mental health as well to see the true causes of what was going on. Through the video footage I’ve taken of myself during practice, I often see the same mistake being made repeatedly, across different partners and scenarios. That opened my mind to the hard truth that part of why this was happening was because I was doing it to myself — that I was finding myself in situations where I was particularly vulnerable but didn’t have the knowledge to handle it.
I want to take a pause here and say that none of what I said is a message about victim-blaming. You should not blame yourself for acting in a specific way, in the very least because a lot of our patterns are unconscious and ingrained. You should not even blame yourself if you know a different way to act and fail to do so, because knowledge rarely equates to execution, especially when you are trying a new solution for the very first time.
What you can do is to contemplate where you have agency to take power back in situations where things seem chaotic and scary. And the simulated violence of jiu jitsu certainly has a lot of that “chaotic” and “scary” to go around. What really started to shift my perspective of training was actually realizing that what I craved the most, what I needed the most, and what I did not have when I was younger were boundaries, power, and agency. And if I wanted to change that, I needed to start finding and practicing different choices that were not my ingrained responses. And to find that degree of growing mastery, I needed to do one thing: I needed to train.
I wish I could convey to you how electrifying this epiphany has been for me, how much it has completely shifted my way of thinking about my training and taken away most (but not all) angst when it comes to failure in jiu jitsu. I can actually feel it in my bones when I train — when I am met with resistance, I cannot help but think of this as a grand opportunity to learn.
I know that this mindset is not easy to maintain. This is a sport in which you lose often, sometimes for days, weeks, or months on end. “Losing” in jiu jitsu, or experiencing someone else having the upper hand, is brutally consistent. This is because, to a great extent, your enjoyment of the sport is based on whether or not you spend most of your time getting squished under the weight of a more competent (or heavier) opponent, and the time you spend avoiding those scenarios by learning to take the dominant position. A lot of other sports do not involve much physical contact — in fact, some sports actively penalize excessive aggression against an opponent. In jiu jitsu, physical contact — violent physical contact — is unavoidable.
Despite these conditions, it’s my sincere belief that most people stay in jiu jitsu because they have an instinctive knowing that if they are able to hack it here, they can hack it anywhere. At least, this is the reason why I stay, and subject myself to situations that I could easily trade for chips and Zelda on a Thursday evening.
I often used to think that jiu jitsu was a test where I had to get the best grade. Every round was a quiz to test if I was good enough. I think differently about it now.
Now, jiu jitsu to me is a mirror that reflects who I am. Jiu jitsu forces me to understand — no, to accept — who I am right in that moment, before I do or think anything else. And when I dare to face myself, I realize that I am not looking into the face of the enemy, but rather, of a friend.