the times, they are a-changin'
"As the present now / will later be past"
There have been a lot of changes at my jiu jitsu school lately. From many people departing our current school and more beginners joining by the day, I’ve found myself overwhelmed by all of the new faces. With that, too, I’ve been working on sharpening my no gi skills as a new co-instructor for a Wednesday evening class.
I think as I have gotten older, I am more welcoming of routines over change. Yet I’ve also begrudgingly accepted that not only is change inevitable, but that significant changes will continue to occur in my life. This acceptance means that I’m more likely to try to find new opportunities when big shifts happen, as opposed to trying to hold fast to what I know.
Embracing change can be an important part of your jiu jitsu development. As you gain technical knowledge, for example, your style will morph over the years to adapt to a new baseline. Through practice and understanding, moves that used to require more guesswork and lucky timing may become intentional traps for the unsuspecting (or even suspecting) opponent. Being willing to discard old ways of thinking may give way to new mental skills and tactics. Additionally, you may face change in terms of training environments. Even if you stay at one school your entire career (a rarity these days), your training partners one year ago will be different from today. Learning to work with different personalities and collaborating on solving problems can help you enhance how you spend time training. And, like in my life currently, you may find yourself with greater responsibility for other student’s development. That may force you to look at details with a more critical eye and greater depth.
Change in inevitable, but I do think that not all types of change is necessarily good. It’s important to remember that embracing change does not mean you are a doormat for every single edit made to your experience in jiu jitsu. If a school environment becomes increasingly toxic, for instance, it makes sense to re-assess whether it makes more sense to go to somewhere that is closer to a healthier environment. If the school decides it wants to become more competitive and cater less to hobbyists (or vice versa), this may be a change made that isn’t really on your terms. In these situations having the courage to draw that boundary and assert your preferences may be just as crucial to your well-being as acceptance in other parts.
Even if all else is “equal” and nothing really shifts from an objective observer point of view, there is one form of internal change that I’ve seen people experience often. That is change via the “peaks and valleys” of jiu jitsu training and performance. Every person’s peak and valley is wildly different from another’s, but the common thread is that one this state is dominated by constant change. People may envision peaks and valleys as a series of evenly uniform sine waves through time, but my peaks and valleys are more akin to the end result of two tectonic plates trying to “crawl” over, under, or around each other.
I think that this type of change is the most important to embrace, because it is simultaneously both out and within our control. If we define a peak and valley through how well we are performing an opponent, a worse performance may be due to an external cause. Perhaps the person you fought against was simply better, or equal to you, but exploited a particular weakness in your understanding. Yet simply because one cause for change comes from external factors does not mean all causes are that way.
Embracing change, especially change away from an unpleasant situation, is intimately connected to self-accountability and a belief in your locus of control. It’s also connected to a healthy sense of self-esteem and willingness to give yourself credit for your effort as directly connected to your success. Some people only go one way in this logic—blaming themselves for the bad things that happen and crediting others for the good things. In reality, the answers is probably somewhere in between, so placing an over-emphasis on one over the other doesn’t reflect what’s actually happening.
Finding comfort in the different emotions that you experience during personal peaks and valleys (and the transitions between the two) mirrors a jiu jitsu match in a lot of ways. In the early stages, short of a surprise blitz attack, most of jiu jitsu is the constant push/pull tug between whether you or the opponent have the upper hand. The instability that arises — and the skill to put your finger on that instability to steady yourself — is what I think separates good fighters from great ones. Whether the situation is, they’re looking for clues and patterns that help them move quickly to where they desire to be, without the need to panic about how they might get there.
Navigating change effectively is also intimately tied to a love of trial and error. The word “trial” comes from a French word triar, which is also used in the word “try.” Trying new things and failing at them is a way of pursuing change on your own terms, because you’re deliberating creating conditions that force you to update your understanding. But even when the “change event” doesn’t happen on your terms, navigating the change by willing to experiment among different options means that you accept the risk of not choosing the right answer the first time. Being comfortable with this uncertainty but not throwing all of your autonomy out the window has brought me a lot of reassurance in terms of what I should focus on versus not in chaotic places.
To bring it back to jiu jitsu, change is inevitable in your training journey, but it doesn’t have to cause undue anxiety or stress. Instead, change helps you understand yourself better, can serve as a springboard for greater understanding, and cultivate resilience through bouncing back from errors. Change should not be something that happens to you, but rather something that happens for you.