The Will to Win
coming to terms with winning
Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.
- Vince Lombardi, “What It Takes to be Number One”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this speech by Vince Lombardi. A lot. If you don’t know football then you don’t know that the Super Bowl trophy is named after Vince Lombardi. The Super Bowl is arguably the most important event for American football, and it is a hallowed ritual for gatherings for a large number of towns in February each year.
Jiu jitsu has no annual Super Bowl, though it does have events considered “prestigious” in the grappling world: the Pan American Championship (“Pans”); Worlds; and ADCC. Together these events are spoken about in the same tones that my high school peers spoke about the HYP schools (Harvard/Yale/Princeton) during college admission season—usually in awe of people who make it in; softly veiled jealousy; and a sense of wondering, “What if?” for themselves.
I often wonder when the hobbyist revolution will come for jiu jitsu, as still the predominant belief is that winning one of these events is considered the pinnacle of one’s jiu jitsu career. That isn’t completely wrong, but it’s not completely true either—the reason being that not everyone has jiu jitsu careers, per se. For me, I do not consider jiu jitsu to be a career—not yesterday, not today, and not tomorrow. I used to caveat with the phrase “for now” whenever I spoke about jiu jitsu being a hobby, but I’ve discovered about myself that this isn’t the life in which I want to be making a living, as disappointing as it was to come to that realization over the course of the year (a year, of course, for many was a year of reckoning).
With that attitude comes a little bit of a balancing act, and the reason why I keep thinking about the Lombardi speech so often.
What stands out to me in the speech is not that part about winning being a habit.
It’s about how losing is, too.
I’m sure that Lombardi knows as well as anyone who coaches American football that the games are unpredictable and the fans are unforgiving. Yet what intrigues me is that despite knowing this, he still believes that winning and losing are within one’s control. It’s a thought that makes me a bit frantic to think about—the fact that when it comes down to it, winning and losing is a choice.
The thing that I wish to change the most about my jiu jitsu is my habit of losing. Many of you will read this and believe that I’m being too harsh with myself, but understand that I really say this to myself with a whole lot of compassion. It is a habit that I’ve identified that needs to change—just like how I used to have the habits of looking at my phone the first thing in the morning; posting and checking excessively on social media; and leaving my shoes strewn all over the entrance at both home and at the school. Losing is tiring; winning is much more fun—a statement that I’m comfortable making because I know that at my core, I am a simple human being who has the base instinct to want to do well.
Lombardi’s speech continues into how operating football is not dissimilar from other competitive contexts (“an army, a political party or a business”), and how a football player must not only have the brains but the heart, too. Jiu jitsu is far from the battlefield, the booth or the boardroom, but I do think that he’s right in saying that you can’t just have the brains and have that be enough to win. There are plenty of smart and strong people out there, but it’s not quite clear to me who has the heart.
This is why winning, despite the trials one needs to go through to get to that point, has become important to me—because the act of doing so necessitates a whole hearted approach. And while there may be other options to develop a whole heart, to me, I want that primary vehicle to be jiu jitsu. Over time, though, I’ve observed a sense of conflict inside of me, where the hobbyist angel whispers to me, “It’s just for fun” while the competitive devil snarls, “But you still can and should win.”
At the moment, I’ve come to accept that jiu jitsu competitons are what they are—a match in which two people face off and try to end up the dominant one on top. Jiu jitsu outside of a competition is so much more, but during the competition, everyone is there “ to compete…to win fairly, squarely, by the rules - but to win.” It’s this single-minded approach to competitions that always makes me feel a little out of place when I’m in a competition, as I try to shut out the other parts of myself for this singular moment.
I will probably never like competitions. I will still continue to enter them anyways because I’m stubborn and can’t miss out on an opportunity to challenge myself. After all, it’s all that I’ve ever known—facing challenges and adversity, and persisting through them, somehow. Facing trauma and the resulting decades of post-traumatic stress—and persisting through that, somehow. Facing the harsh reality of working so hard towards a degree, incurring a mortgage’s worth of debt, and climbing out of that to make a new life for myself—and persisting through that, somehow. Facing death taking away precious life in an instant—and persisting through that, somehow.
Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. And so are perseverance, grit, resilience. So are growth and courage.
And so is life. Life is not a “sometime thing.” It’s an all the time thing. And maybe, just maybe, because I’m living, I have been showing the the will to win all along.